Browser features

Based on the open source WebKit browser engine, Apple's Safari has for years included features such as a built-in Google search field, private browsing, iTunes-esque bookmark management, auto fill for Web forms, a consistent popup blocker, a built-in RSS feed reader and Snapback (the ability to return to the starting point while browsing nested Web pages or search results).

New to Safari 4 is the start page called Top Sites. Top Sites features a Search history field on the lower right and a collection of live website previews arranged in a customizable grid array. These previews become populated by sites that are most visited, and can be easily edited to display thumbnail previews of your favorite websites, which are updated dynamically.

Top Sites also displays an indicator, in the form of a star peering from behind a site's preview, for sites that have been updated since the last visit; it's handy for tracking multiple sites at a glance. Clicking on any of the site previews zooms the website to fill the window.

Safari Top SitesClicking in the search field within Top Sites unveils the Cover Flow interface made popular by Apple's iLineup (iTunes, iPhone and Finder also use this view). Large previews of previously visited sites are displayed in succession and then filtered out with each keystroke in the Search field, allowing you to flick through previews of the remaining search results.

As any good Mac app should, Safari supports the multitouch feature used in Apple's current laptops: If you own the right equipment, the Cover Flow search results page can be flipped through using two fingers, as can scrolling through Web pages. You can also pinch to enlarge or shrink web pages using the trackpad, and you can quickly move back and forward between sites using three finger swipes. Once you grow accustomed to using gestures to navigate web pages, it's groan inducing to use a laptop that lacks these features.

Not all of Safari's new features are as obvious as the Top Sites and search via Cover Flow examples, but Safari packs in a lot, including location aware browsing, additional tools for developers, offline web app support, privacy and security additions, to name a few.

One of Safari's strengths is its ability to render sites properly and quickly. Safari was one of the first browsers to score 100% on the Acid3 browser test, which measures how compliant a browser is to web standards. While Apple's browser parses HTML quickly, JavaScript rendering has also speeded up significantly via Apple's new Nitro engine.

Like Firefox 3.5, Safari 4 expands support for open technologies by embracing HTML 5, which allows developers to add more dazzle to their sites without using proprietary plugins. This is still an issue that is being sorted out, but browsers' ability to stream media natively is ultimately a good thing for consumers.

It's worth noting that Safari runs in 64-bit mode under Mac OS 10.6 (Snow Leopard), on Intel chipsets that support 64-bit mode, of course.

Another neat trick: Under Snow Leopard, plugins such as Flash run in sandboxed mode, which means that Safari doesn't crash when Flash does.

Interface and extras

Safari 4The first time Safari 4 is launched, it offers up a quick animation showing off the capabilities of HTML 5 and JavaScript. Apple's decision to skip an initial wizard setup screen means you can jump right into browsing. Rest assured: Common functions such as importing bookmarks can all be completed after the fact.

The default toolbar currently consists of back and forward buttons, the address bar, and a Google search bar with built-in snapback feature. Below that, the bookmarks bar stores shortcuts to sites, as well as icons allowing access to the Top Sites start page and bookmark management. Beneath that is the area for tabs.

While this may sound typical of other browsers, very little space is wasted in Safari's arrangement; for instance, bookmark addition and reload buttons are integrated into the address bar itself. The lack of superfluous toolbars and buttons increases viewable screen real estate for actual Web content.

OUR VERDICT

Safari's integration with the technologies inherent to Mac OS X and Apple hardware, like the gesture support for multitouch trackpads, means that Safari users can expect to enjoy a very Maclike experience. On a PC running Windows, Safari feels like just another polished browser. On the other hand, on a Mac, the combined package makes it my top pick.