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Apple Releases Beta of Safari 4

After more than a year without a major update to their Safari Web browser, Apple has released a public beta of Safari 4, bringing a host of new features, interface enhancements, and performance boosts.

The major changes include a new Top Sites feature that enables users to view and connect to their most-visited sites; Cover Flow integration for bookmarks and history; the relocation of tabs to the top of the window; an updated WebKit renderer featuring the new Nitro Engine that handles JavaScript with improved speed; and a full set of developer tools.

A brief post-release survey of Twitter traffic about Safari 4 indicated a mixed reception: glowing reviews and gripes about missing features or buggy behavior were equally present. But despite it being too early to tell whether the update will be a hit or not, Safari 4 provides lots to talk about.

Top Sites — Arguably Safari 4’s most dramatic new feature, Top Sites provides an at-a-glance springboard to your most heavily visited sites. The view appears when you open a new browser window, or you can click a new Top Sites icon (a grid of squares) in the Bookmarks bar. When opened, Top Sites displays an in-browser window containing a grid of screenshot thumbnails of your most visited sites (utilizing the most recent appearance of the sites).

The grid has an edit mode which enables you to move the thumbnails within the grid, pin them to a certain location, and select from three grid sizes (6, 12, and 24 viewable thumbnails). The Top Sites view also shows when changes have been made to a site, signified by a blue star appearing in the right hand corner of the thumbnail. Clicking any of these miniature windows in Top Sites brings that window forward in the browser tab and displays the site.

While I think the Top Sites feature looks fantastic, and enjoy opening sites from its interface, I question its underlying philosophy. Essentially, I want more control over determining what my Top Sites are, rather than having Safari tell me. Clicking an Edit button lets me remove sites in the view or pin sites to a specific location (for example, if I always want Google News to appear in the upper-left corner). But removing a site brings up a replacement chosen by Safari; why can’t I simply type the URL of a site I want to appear?

The issue here lies in the word “top.” I want a feature that will show me my favorite sites; Apple is giving me a feature that shows me my most visited sites and assumes it’s the same thing. This is undoubtedly true for some users. My mother, for example, visits the same handful of Web sites regularly, and rarely strays from them. But what about people who frequently get caught up in Web surfing, or do heavy Internet research? If I spent a day researching a new piece of software, it’s possible that several of the pages I trafficked in that search could supplant my truly favorite sites, those sites I want easily accessible. This is especially true were I to do any regular cleaning out of my browser history.

Perhaps over time my Top Sites would be the sites I check often, but what if I want a site easily accessible from this page even if I don’t go there often? For example, I might be interested in a site that updates infrequently, and would want it accessible from this page as a way of seeing when new information has been posted. In short: let me tell Safari what my Top Sites are, not the other way around.

It turns out there is a non-obvious method of doing this. Open a browser window and load the site you want to appear in your Top Sites. In a separate window, bring up the Top Sites screen and click the Edit button. Lastly, drag the URL from the first window and drop it onto one of the Top Sites thumbnails, and then click the pin button to hold it in place.

Hopefully, the final release version of Safari 4 will provide a better way to manage what appears on Top Sites, such as a menu item for Make Top Site. Still, as a visual way of catching up on often-visited sites, the feature has boatloads of potential.

Cover Flow — Another major addition to Safari is the integration of Cover Flow browsing to your bookmarks and history. Just like in the Finder or iTunes, Cover Flow here enables you to sift through snapshots of browser pages in your History or Bookmarks lists. Safari still has its classic drop-down menus from the top menu bar, where you can find a text listing of your recent History or Bookmarks. However, if you open these to a full view or click the Bookmarks icon on the Bookmarks bar, you will see the new Cover Flow view.

I’m skeptical about the utility of Cover Flow as applied to bookmarks, though I think applying it to history makes more sense. In either case I’m interested in determining whether Cover Flow will speed up my search, much as it undoubtedly looks cooler than your typical text-based list.

Typically, when I’m searching through my history I’m looking for sites I don’t visit often – things I found while surfing or searching whose names I don’t recall (otherwise I’d probably just Google them). So for searching my history, I imagine looking at image files might be a faster way to search, at least for me, given that I’m a highly visual person. There have been countless times when I opened a site from the History list that sounded correct, only to discover it was different from what I thought. The image-based Cover Flow could solve this sort of problem.

However, applying Cover Flow as a search method for bookmarks seems slower because a fundamental difference exists between the two situations: in my bookmarks I usually know the name of the site for which I’m searching. In this case, the application of image-privileged searching seems like a detriment. Searching through iTunes with Cover Flow is helpful because album covers look drastically different and often incorporate a recognizable name. However, most Web sites don’t look that different from each other, especially at a distance. When I speed through my bookmarks with Cover Flow, many of the pages look quite similar, especially when it comes to blogs. In this case, it’s more helpful to have a list of words to scan through, because
the site names stand out more drastically than their appearance.

Tabs — The new tab placement at the top of the window in what’s normally known as the title bar is aimed at opening up more screen real estate. To that end, the tabs work well and provide a clean and streamlined appearance. (Google’s Chrome first introduced this placement of tabs.) As a big fan of tabbed browsing, my concern isn’t so much with the elimination of a dedicated tab bar, or the location of the tabs at the top, but with the shifting sizes of the tabs themselves.

In Safari 4 the size of each individual tab is dependent on the number of tabs currently open in the browser. Thus, if two tabs are open, each takes up half of the top bar; if four tabs are open, each takes up one quarter of the top bar, and so on. This is quite different from Safari 3, or even from Firefox, wherein tabs are equally sized, with each new tab being added to the right hand side of the tab bar until the tab bar is filled. When the tab bar is filled, the tabs shrink in width, and after a certain point, a tab with three dots (a graphical ellipsis) appears that, when clicked, enables you to scroll amongst the open tabs. The consistent size of the tabs makes it easy to locate them quickly, and close them. Safari 4’s new
shifting tab sizes means that the location of your tab changes slightly as new ones are opened, as does the close tab button. Though the difference is slight, it does slow you down enough to be annoying.

Also troubling is that the loss of the title bar means that there’s no single name for the current window in a consistent location, as is true for nearly every Macintosh application. Plus, clicking on the title bar can result in unexpected clickthrough, since clicking on a tab not only switches to Safari, but displays that tab.

Nitro Engine — Apple claims its new Nitro Engine handles JavaScript 30 times faster than Internet Explorer 7, more than 3 times faster than Firefox 3, and 4.2 times faster than Safari 3 according to benchmark tests using iBench and SunSpider. Apple also reports that Safari 4 bests those other browsers in HTML performance, loading pages 3 times faster than either Internet Explorer or Firefox.

From my own testing, and reading anecdotal evidence on Twitter, I must say Safari 4 is noticeably faster than Safari 3 and Firefox 3. This is especially true on JavaScript-heavy pages. The updated WebKit also now supports HTML 5 and CSS 3, and Apple boasts, “Safari 4 is the first browser to pass the Web Standards Project’s Acid3 test, which examines how well a browser adheres to CSS, JavaScript, XML and SVG Web standards that are specifically designed for dynamic Web applications.”

Developer Tools — Safari 4 enhances its set of developer tools, enabling developers and Web designers to examine page structures, debug JavaScript, inspect offline databases, and test code. Despite the welcome inclusion of these tools, the Save as Web Application option that was widely reported to be available in the developer seed version of Safari 4 is now missing.

Other Changes — Additional updates include the replacement of the somewhat irrelevant SnapBack button in the Address Bar with the Refresh button (when a page is loading the Refresh button switches to a spinning gear, and if hovered over, switches again to the Stop button), thus further streamlining the new interface; the welcome addition of full-page zoom instead of just text zoom (accessible via Command +/-); updated versions of the Smart Address Field and Smart Search Field that offer more sophisticated search suggestions; and finally, enhanced phishing and malware protection that better protect you against these risks.

[Updated to remove mistaken information about there being a bookmark file format change. -Adam]

Download and Install Information — Keep in mind that Safari 4 is a public beta, so you’re likely to run into rough edges. If you’re currently using Firefox, the recently released Foxmarks bookmark synchronization tool does largely support Safari 4 and makes it easy to sync bookmarks between the browsers, even on multiple machines. Be sure to back up your bookmarks before installing. Also, just to note: the update requires a full restart upon installation.

Safari 4 is a 31.7 MB download. The update requires Mac OS X Leopard 10.5.6 or Mac OS X Tiger 10.4.11. If you’re running Leopard, Security Update 2009-001 must be installed first.

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