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Safari 4: Real-world test

We've put Apple's new Safari 4 browser through its paces, testing it in real-world conditions to see how it fares. Is it an improvement? Should you switch to it? We'll tell you

Although our benchmarks proved Apple's birthing pool-fresh Safari 4 is the zippiest browser on the planet, figures only count for a single slice of the overall pie of user experience. Safari 4 efficiently sneezed pages on to our unibody MacBook's display with enviable speed, but is it actually a good browser?

In short: uh huh, it is. It's got some neat new features, although many are recognisable as key features from other PC browsers. It claims to have expanded on its underlying technological framework to support new features of HTML 5 and CSS effects, and it passed the Acid3 standards-compliancy test with perfect results -- something neither Internet Explorer 7 or Firefox 3 can claim to do.

We tested on a 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo unibody MacBook, running OS X 10.5.6 with all updates applied.

 

Top Sites

You can have six, 12 or 24 'top sites' in the slick Top Sites start page, and it can be used as a home page or as the default view for empty tabs -- something not just reminiscent of Chrome's nine-panel home page, but also Opera's speed dial, Opera being the first browser to natively implement such a feature.

Additionally, Apple has given Safari its Cover Flow technology. It lets you flick through your bookmarks just like you can flick through album art in iTunes. Oh praise the saints. Wait, don't just yet -- it might not be at all useful.

Safari takes a screenshot of each Web page and updates it each time you visit that page. But it's like Cerie in 30 Rock: great to look at, but fundamentally useless. You'll never use it. Apple obviously wants Cover Flow to be a part of its mission statement, but outside the quickly-look, quickly-discard world of Finder and iTunes, its visual appeal outranks its benefits to productivity.

A more useful implementation would allow each bookmark window to update in the background to reflect current page content. Or perhaps you could hit the space bar and bring up the Web page in a Quick Look-esque window for quickly checking new stuff. Ah well, maybe in Safari 5.

That said, it makes a separate feature a little more attractive: Full History Search... 

Full History Search is a feature Opera has had for a while. Safari saves the title, URL and the entire text of every single Web page you visit, into a database on your computer. You can then hit up a search for any word or phrase and Safari immediately displays all the instances of that search term from your browsing history.

We searched for 'headphones'. Straight away we were given several pages on CNET UK that contained 'headphones' somewhere on the page, along with a social network we were a part of in which headphones were mentioned in our profile. This also works from Spotlight in OS X, but strangely not from within the main search box inside Safari. Still, 10 points for being more useful than Cover Flow. 

No wait! Zooming is fun and, more importantly, interesting!

Yeah, you've been able to zoom your OS X desktop for like, what, a million years? But Safari now lets you zoom in solely on Web pages, leaving the menu bar and dock at their normal size.

It utilises multi-touch as well, so you can enlarge and shrink a complete page -- text, images and even video -- by pinching and stretching two fingers on the MacBook's multi-touch trackpad, then use two fingers to fling the page in whatever direction you need to look.

Firefox has had full-page zoom for a while, and it's been possible to hack previous versions of Safari to enable similar functionality by using a Terminal command. This is another case of Apple playing catch-up in the browser world, but it's done it well, even if Mozilla fans will be sniggering that their browser has done this simple task for ages.

The majority of Mac users don't use Safari, and instead opt for Firefox for its more advanced feature set and huge array of plug-ins and extensions. We don't predict this is about to change. Safari has remained a solid, fast browser, but one built around the ethos that it's better to have simple functions work quickly and efficiently, than to have clunky advanced features that make you want to kill yourself out of frustration.

It's retained all the original simplicity and stability of the previous version, while evolving to become a much more capable browser. But without plug-ins, its extended feature set won't pull Firefox devotees away from their blazing-orange love child, despite the considerable leaps it has made by its own standards.

In essence, Safari 4 actually feels like an amalgam of Google's Chrome browser and Opera 9.6. Nippy page-load times, incredible handling of Ajax-based Web apps and tabs that sit above the address bar as opposed to below it, all suggest an enormous Chome influence (although Chrome treats individual tabs essentially as separate browsers, and is not yet available on the Mac). 

In closing, this reporter admits to not using a single Firefox extension, hence his switch from Firefox to Chrome on the PC. And now, on the MacBook, Safari has finally pushed out Firefox as the default browser. Take from that what you will.

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