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Going on Safari

As I noted in "Apple Reduces Its Microsoft Dependency" in TidBITS-662, Apple’s Macworld Expo beta release of the Safari Web browser is indication that Apple is hunting big game, namely Microsoft. But is Safari a high enough caliber weapon to take down the lumbering behemoth that is Internet Explorer? Or will the svelte and sprightly Safari merely bounce off Microsoft’s tough hide? We won’t be able to decide that until Safari 1.0 finally ships, but there’s no question that Safari is good enough that, if possible, you should join the more than 1 million people who downloaded copies of Safari through last week and take a look.

To be clear, Safari is a Cocoa application that requires Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar or later, and Apple claims it’s optimized for use with Mac OS X 10.2.3. It does not and will never run in Mac OS 9, so Macs that haven’t yet upgraded to Mac OS X or that can’t run Mac OS X should stick with whatever browser they’re using now. The Safari download is only 2.9 MB; a welcome size for a modern Web browser.

Under the Hood — With Safari, Apple chose not to reinvent the wheel, but instead of buying another browser, Apple chose to continue in the Mac OS X vein by basing Safari on an open source project, the KHTML rendering engine that lies underneath Linux browser Konqueror. Although my money had been on Apple using the open source Gecko rendering engine that powers Netscape, Mozilla, and Chimera, KHTML is both faster and comprises significantly fewer lines of code to understand and maintain.

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On the downside, although KHTML displays pages relatively well, it (or at least Apple’s implementation of it, the changes to which have already gone back to the KHTML maintainers) doesn’t yet do as well with Web standards as other rendering engines. Whether or not KHTML ends up being better or worse in terms of standards support, it’s yet another target that Web designers must now test against, since it will undoubtedly display many pages slightly differently than other browsers.

From what I can tell from Web standards reports so far, Apple does have a fair amount more work to do, despite all the claims of superior standards support. Bugs should be reported, but final judgment should be reserved until Apple releases the 1.0 version of Safari (and frankly, people shouldn’t stress about changing their Web pages too much for Safari’s sake until the release version). Right now, Safari is unabashedly in beta, and one of the primary developers, Dave Hyatt (who also started the Chimera project), has a weblog where he has been posting updates about problems that he’s fixed in the source code. It’s definitely worth a read.

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Fast, Streamlined Interface — After trying Safari on the first day, Tonya became an immediate convert, purely because of Safari’s page rendering speed. She hates waiting and has commented on several occasions since switching that she’s finding a number of sites less frustrating to use, simply because pages draw faster than in Internet Explorer. Apple has benchmarks that show Safari drawing pages more than three times faster than Internet Explorer. Although all benchmarks should be taken with a grain of salt because code can be tweaked to produce good results, Safari definitely wins out perceptually. It appears that some of Safari’s blazing speed is due to using some soon-to-be documented routines that arrived in Jaguar; I hope other browsers will be able to take advantage of those routines for improving Mac OS X’s sluggish text drawing performance.

That perceptual speed is undoubtedly helped by Safari’s clean and elegant Aqua interface, without many of the controls that clutter many other browsers’ windows. Though it doesn’t bother me, the brushed metal look (which Apple calls a "textured window appearance") has drawn some criticism, in part because it violates Apple’s own human interface guidelines. Textured window appearances are intended for applications that provide an interface to, or attempt to recreate the interface of, a real-world digital device such as a camera, MP3 player, or calculator. Safari obviously violates this recommendation, and its Downloads window, which is also textured, violates the guideline that only the primary window in an application should have the textured window appearance. The use of the textured window appearance looks particularly odd with Aqua-appearance sheets (such as appear when you create bookmarks or save pages).

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Numerous programs, such as SafarIcon and Safari Enhancer, have popped up to let you switch the Safari textured window appearance to an Aqua appearance, and SafarIcon also lets you replace Safari’s icons with different themed sets. Safari Enhancer goes one step further, by enabling a Debug menu that provides some interesting options and features, such having Safari pretend to be another Web browser.


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Enhanced Bookmarks — In the keynote, Steve Jobs made a big deal about how Safari’s bookmark interface is so much better than competing browsers. These days, I seldom use bookmarks, perhaps because keeping bookmarks organized has been so much trouble, and in part because searching Google is so fast. I do store some bookmarks in Internet Explorer, but those I access primarily via the toolbar and via Internet Explorer’s superior URL auto-completion.

Safari can complete URLs if you start typing a word in the site’s domain name. However, Internet Explorer can perform similar auto-completion on words that appear anywhere in the URL or the title of pages you’ve visited recently or bookmarked. Safari should mimic this behavior; it’s unreasonable to expect users to remember domain names, whereas it’s fairly likely they’ll remember some word that is in the URL or title of the desired page.

Safari’s bookmark interface is simple and well-done and – thanks to the way it takes over the entire Safari browser window when showing – looks much like iTunes. Also like iTunes playlists and iPhoto’s albums, Safari’s bookmark collections don’t support hierarchies, but unlike those other programs, you can nest folders inside the collection itself.

Safari imports bookmarks from Internet Explorer, but if you want to bring your bookmarks from another Web browser into Safari, search on MacUpdate or VersionTracker for "Safari" to find bookmark importing utilities. (These sites also catalog a number of utilities for localizing Safari for other languages.) Version 3.0.4 of Alco Blom’s URL Manager Pro can import bookmarks from Safari and export them back, but since Safari doesn’t currently support the Shared Menus Protocol, URL Manager Pro’s full feature set isn’t available for Safari.


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Googlicious! In "Hyperspatial JavaScript Search Bypass" in TidBITS-657, I passed on a simple technique for quick searches of Google or other search engines. That JavaScript technique works fine in Safari, but with Google, there’s little need, thanks to a useful search field that appears at the top of every window. Aside from providing immediate access to search results on Google, it also remembers the last 10 searches in a pop-down menu.

This kind of feature isn’t new – there have been lots of shortcuts for searching throughout the years, and some (such as in Opera) have provided almost identical direct searching fields. However, Apple gets points for choosing Google and for their implementation. Internet Explorer’s hidden shortcut for searching from the Address Bar (type ? and then your search phrase) is rendered less useful by its reliance on MSN Search. And some other browsers make the decision to provide access to many search engines, which, though totally reasonable on the face of things, can detract from the elegance of providing a focused feature that meets the needs of many people without cluttering the interface.

The added fillip to Apple’s Google search is SnapBack, which solves a common problem with searches. You run your search, get results, and follow a link out to another site, perhaps looking at several pages before you determine you need to try more of the search results. Instead of clicking the Back button five or six times, you can click the orange SnapBack button in the Google search field to jump right back to the Google search results.

A SnapBack button also appears at the right side of the address field as soon as you delve at least one page deep into a site. Find yourself too deep in the site? Just click the SnapBack button and hop back up to the top level.

Reality Check — Apple’s Safari team has done a good job of keeping Safari focused, while at the same time addressing the often unpleasant realities of today’s Web. For anyone irritated at Web sites like Yahoo that pop-up advertising windows when you visit, Safari offers a command in the Safari application menu (as well as an option in the Security pane of its preferences) to block such pop-ups. I don’t understand why it’s in the Safari application menu rather than in either the View menu or the Window menu, but since pop-up windows were driving me batty in Internet Explorer, I appreciate the feature. You can toggle it quickly with a keyboard shortcut should you visit sites that require pop-up windows to function properly.

Perhaps my favorite feature in Safari, though, is the Bug button, which you can turn on in the View menu. Should you run into a page that Safari renders incorrectly, you can (and should!) click the Bug button to report the problem to Apple. Even better, if you delete the contents of the Page Address field, the Bug button makes a great way to send general feedback about Safari to Apple. All of Apple’s software should offer a similar feature, and many other developers could benefit from adding such a feature to their programs as well. I understand that Safari’s developers will see all those feedback reports, and I’m sure that if enough people request a feature change or even a feature, they’ll give it serious consideration.

Apple has posted a handful of sample AppleScript scripts for Safari, and though the browser’s scripting support is still preliminary and non-standard, it’s useful. A documents’ text and HTML source are available, and you can script the browser to load URLs (though you do so by setting a documents’ URL property, rather than through the long-standard GetURL and OpenURL suites). No application preferences are accessible, and you can’t control bookmarks, cookies, history, or other items using scripts.


Lastly, some people have complained about how Safari takes over as the default browser. When this came up in TidBITS Talk, others noted that it hadn’t taken over from their default browsers, and after a bit of testing by several people, the group determined that Safari takes over the default Web browser setting only if you’ve never changed it from Internet Explorer. If you switched to Chimera or another browser, Safari leaves the default browser setting alone.

Missing, but Desirable Features — Even though the Safari we’re using today is still a public beta, it’s likely that the feature set for version 1.0 is pretty much locked. That leaves Apple with plenty of room for enhancement, because as much as Safari is fast and easy to use, it lacks some features that are popular in other browsers. Don’t assume Apple will definitely implement these features in future releases, however, since the team is focused on keeping Safari simple, lightweight, and extremely fast. They’ll have to balance that goal against some of these killer features, which may prevent many users from relying entirely on Safari.

  • The feature I most miss in Safari is Internet Explorer’s Forms AutoComplete and AutoFill. Forms AutoComplete automatically completes words you type into form text fields, and clicking the AutoFill button fills in all the fields it recognizes in forms asking for contact information.

  • Internet Explorer lets you subscribe to Web pages, after which the program watches the page for changes and alerts you to changes in a variety of different ways. This feature can be invaluable for tracking pages that change frequently, but not regularly.

  • The Netscape-derived browsers and some others offer an interface choice called "tabbed browsing," in which you can create a new tab within the main window to hold a new page rather than opening it in new windows. Tabbed browsing works particularly well for people with limited screen real estate and is a good way to flip among multiple related pages.

  • Internet Explorer’s Print Preview feature, which lets you preview a Web page printout and shrink the text to use fewer pieces of paper, is extremely useful for when you must print from the Web. With Safari (or any Mac OS X application) it’s easy to preview a print job via PDF, so you can avoid printing unnecessary pages, but Safari has no way of reducing the number of pages needed.

  • Internet Explorer offers two unusual features in its left-side Explorer Bar: Scrapbook and Page Holder. Scrapbook is great for saving receipts from online orders without cluttering your filing system with another random file, and Page Holder lets you dock one page in the Explorer Bar and open links from it in the main window. Useful as these features can be, I’d be surprised to see them appear in Safari, since they wouldn’t seem to fit with Apple’s vision for the program. More likely and also helpful would be a way to save all the parts of a Web page as a single file, much as Internet Explorer can create Web archive files. And while we’re on the topic of saving files, it would be nice if Safari would let you download to any arbitrary location, not just the default location.

Gazing out on the Veldt — It will be fascinating to see where Apple takes Safari. Currently, Apple is clearly focused on speed and elegance above all else, and that’s a fine goal for a 1.0 product. But I hope that future versions of Safari incorporate additional features that simplify life on the Web, much as AutoFill, tabbed browsing, and other features have in the past. Safari shouldn’t merely settle for recreating those features, though, and I hope to be surprised by innovative new approaches to using the Web.

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