Chrome who? Safari 4 makes the browser hunt more interesting

I’ve had a bit of a dilemma in recent months. You see, my browser of choice, Google Chrome, is not available on my operating system of choice, Apple’s OS X. So I’ve been waiting patiently as Google makes slow progress on the Mac version. But after today, I may not be waiting anymore.

No, Chrome for Mac still isn’t available, but something which may be on par, if not better is — Safari 4. Apple has launched a beta version of its web browser packed with 150 features, including dozens of new ones that it thinks makes it the best browser available. I’ve only been using it for a couple hours, so while I don’t feel confident in saying it’s the best browser out there, I will say it’s going to be my new everyday browser.

And let me be clear, I did not really like Safari 3. I would use it from time to time, but my main browser of choice for OS X was Mozilla’s Camino (incidentally, the chief guy behind that project, Mike Pinkerton, is now working on Chrome for the Mac). But Safari 4 seems to take much of what I liked about Camino — its light weight, its speed and its simplicity — and packs it all in with some nice new user interface elements.

New user interface

The most notable difference in Safari 4 happens when you open the browser — you’re greeted with a new “Top Sites” area. Users of the Opera web browser as well as Microsoft Internet Explorer will recognize this as something they’ve had for a while. More recently, both Google Chrome and Camino added a similar feature as well. Basically, rather than just having one start page that loads every time you open a window (or tab), you get 6, 12 or 24 web page thumbnail images to choose the first page you wish to load.

The UI for this component is a very nice wrap-around style will a gradient at the bottom, giving it a Cover Flow (the part of iTunes where you can browser albums by their artwork) type feel. By hitting the “Edit” button, you can easily rearrange which thumbnails appear, and pin some to certain areas. There is also a “Fresh News” component that puts a blue star on a page thumbnail if that page contains new data since you last looked at it.

And speaking of Cover Flow, you can now use that view in your Bookmarks menu to view your favorite web pages and your browsing history with thumbnails.

Another notable design change is that Safari’s tabs are now along the top of the browser — yes, Chrome style. While at first this takes a bit of getting used to, it actually makes for a much nicer browsing experience, as there is less clutter in the way of the actual web page. Also of note is that Apple has finally added a “New Tab” button to Safari — though it resides in the far right hand side, making it difficult to quickly navigate to.

Technical upgrades

On the technical side, there are a lot of goodies. Safari 4 uses two new custom style sheet (CSS) features called CSS Effects and CSS Canvas. Both should make web pages look significantly nicer, and potentially run smoother if developers start taking advantage of them. The browser also features HTML 5 support, which isn’t really new, but could finally come into its own soon. Recent demonstrations at Mobile World Congress showed how HTML 5 can be used for things like Gmail’s offline support — which certainly would have helped during last night’s Gmail outage.

Safari 4 also claims to be the first browser to pass the Acid 3 Compliance test. As Apple notes:

Safari is the first — and only — web browser to pass Acid 3. Acid 3 tests a browser’s ability to fully render pages using the web standards used to build dynamic, next-generation websites, including CSS, JavaScript, XML, and SVG.

Almost a year ago, both Safari (a WebKit build) and Opera claimed to be the first browsers to get 100 out of 100 on the Acid 3 test, but that didn’t necessarily mean either fully passed it. Safari is now apparently claiming to fully pass it and says it’s the only one.

Safari 4 also features a lot of new developer tools including a “Web Inspector” to debug JavaScript and “Databases,” a tool for the offline management of databases.

I could go on, there are a ton of new and noteworthy features, but it would probably just be easier for you to check this page. The most important thing for users is speed, and Safari 4 does seem to run notably faster than Safari 3 (which was already fast). In its own tests, Apple claims Safari is faster than all other browsers in both HTML rendering and JavaScript execution. The closest rival is Chrome on the PC which it beats in these test pretty handily. On the Mac, Safari 4 destroys Firefox 3 in the tests, but Camino is not tested.

Bugs

While Safari 4 looks and for the most part, runs, great, that’s not to say there aren’t bugs — this is a beta product remember. One particularly annoying one is that while writing this post in Safari 4, I apparently can’t add links in WordPress. The link overlay simply doesn’t load all the way and makes its impossible to do anything else without reloading the page.

The popular password plug-in 1Password also doesn’t appear to work in this new version of Safari. Of course, it’s only been out a few hours; I’m sure developers will restore it soon.

The Switch

I’ve already seen enough in the new Safari to justify using it as my everyday browser for now. Of course, I’ll apparently have to use something else if I’m writing anything that needs a link, but that may just be a problem in the older version of WordPress that we are running.

No, Safari doesn’t offer the extensions that Firefox has, but I’ve never been a huge fan of extensions as many of them just tend to severely slow down my browsing experience. I am a fan of the Firebug extension for web development, so it’ll be interesting to see how Safari’s in-browser option stacks up to that. Some people will never jump to something like Safari because of the lack of extensions, but from a pure web browsing experience, it looks to be one of the best.

This should be a very interesting year for web browsers. While IE’s market share has been steadily falling, Microsoft is nearing the official launch of IE 8, which promises improvements — though in my brief experience with it, I still find it to still be severely lacking when it comes to page rendering. Mozilla is posed to release Firefox 3.1 as well, with several improvements, and that browser now controls over 20 percent of the market. And the company also has a beta version of Camino 2 currently open for public testing.

But most eyes seem to be on Google’s Chrome. It’s the web browser built by the company that has become nearly synonymous with the web. And Chrome certainly seems to run Google’s apps like Gmail and Google Reader faster than anyone else. When it come to the Mac later this year, Safari 4 and Chrome will fight to the death for my loyalty!

Safari 4 beta is publically available for both OS X and Windows. You can find the free download here.

Update: FriendFeed user Mark Trapp gives a solution to fix 1Password:

If you right-click on 1Password, show Package Contents, open the Contents/Resources folder, and edit the SupportedBrowsers.plist, there’s a line for Safari. Change MaxBundleVersion from 5528.1 to 5528.16 (Safari 4 Beta’s build number) and restart Safari, 1Password will work again

Also, it looks like WordPress link insertion isn’t working on WordPress 2.7.1 (the latest version) either.


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