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Safari 4 – As New As They Say?


Safari 4 - What's New? A Rant from our in house Genius - JT

Apple’s latest version of Safari is out (in beta), with some evolutionary interface changes, and a dramatically faster javascript processing engine. The release of Safari 4 was not anticipated by any of the typical rumour sites, so it came as a surprise to just about everyone. As always, though, it was no surprise to see Apple’s bright and simple marketing pages selling the browser as the best thing since sliced bread.

The Mac maker’s marketing team appear to have had a field day promoting all 150 of the fantastic new features of their latest browser. But is everything they say completely true? Have they pushed the boundaries of honesty with their sensationalist slogans? Taking a look at the list of new features, I started to get a little suspicious. Just about none of the new features listed on Apple’s website are original – most are already out there in other browsers, having already been invented by the likes of Google, Mozilla, and the open source community. Or they’ve actually been features in Safari already, but Apple are drawing more attention to them in this release.

The main new features list promoted by Apple:

  • Top sites: suspiciously like Chrome’s “most visited” section on opening a new tab. But of course it’s all shiny and in 3D, which makes meel feel like I’m in the Matrix – so I like that bit.
  • CoverFlow: OK, this isn’t currently in any browser, but we got there first!
  • Full History Search: this has been around in Opera for a rather long time (since the betas of version 9.5 back in September 2007), and was actually available to some extent in the previous version of Safari – they promoted it as a “new” feature back then.
  • Tabs on top: Chrome – did we even need to say? But that said, Opera again had the idea of putting the tabs above the addressbar waaay back in the day. They could at least put the little favicons in the top corner to help easily identify different sites on different tabs – isn’t that the point of a favicon?
  • Nitro Engine (Squirrel Fish wasn’t up to scratch for Apple’s Marketing Department): notice how in the performance graphs they’ve subtlely left off Firefox 3.2 and Chrome 2.0 betas, both of which have amazingly fast javascript engines.
  • Windows native look and feel: I could go on and on about this for ages, but I won’t. The transparent tabs are really quite ugly (Chrome definitely had the better idea there) and the whole thing with darkening the inactive areas of the title bar really doesn’t do it for me. Plus it’s all misaligned in the Windows 7 beta. But all the same, even in vista, where it does work – I still much prefer chrome for simple native interface feel.
  • Good one Apple

    Good one Apple. However, both Safari 4 and Windows 7 are still in beta, so I'll let Apple off for this one.

    Seriously, what's going on there? Which would you choose?

    Seriously, what's going on there? Which would you choose?

  • Developer Tools: Is it just me, or hasn’t this been in Safari for a while now? I use the developer tools in Safari 3 all the time (all the time I actually even use Safari that is – Firefox FTW!) I can see they’ve changed the icons from Safari 3 in the web inspector, but other than that can anyone point out to me what they’ve added?

Ok, I won’t go into a huge wealth of detail about all the other features, but here’s a couple more from the 150 features page that were tagged as new which really caught my attention:

  • Full page zoom: Unbelievably, the first time I came across this was in IE. I don’t know if it was around before then though.
  • Phishing and malware protection: IE again unbelievably.
  • Smart address field: Firefox Awesome Bar, and then the Chrome Omnibox.
  • Inline Progress Indicator: Firstly, this isn’t new, even for Safari, and more importantly, it looks to me suspiciously like this has been taken out rather than introduced.

Acid 3

And then there’s Acid3. I don’t like being too pedantic about this matter, but the Acid3 test isn’t just about getting a pixel-perfect rendering. To pass the test, the animation has to be smooth as well. I’ve tested the beta on a couple of different platforms and while it produces an absolutely infallable rendering, the animation is by no means smooth. Test 69 continually takes more than 50 attempts to succeed. So when Apple are professing to be the “first browser to pass Acid3”, they are actually wrong in that they’re not the first (Opera betas have passed before this one), and they don’t actually pass the test! What really puzzles me about this matter is that all the WebKit nightly builds for quite a long time now have passed perfectly with a perfectly smooth animation. So have Apple put a 6 month old version of WebKit into “the World’s most innovative browser”? It would appear so.

Toolbar Troubles

The toolbar is only a gripe for the Windows version – it’s slightly different in OS X because the menu bar is separated so a few buttons are differently arranged, but the issue can be summed up very well with a simple screenshot:

Spot the difference anyone?

Spot the difference anyone?

See what I mean? Just for those of you who don’t recognise it, the top one’s the toolbar from Google Chrome, and the bottom one’s the latest Safari. There’s just the tiniest bit of a similarity there methinks.

The idea of compressing the main menu bar into a couple of dropdown buttons is quite established (first seen in IE7 I believe), but the simple fact that the two toolbars are so alike is what bothers me. Back and forward buttons at the beginning: a standard UI convention that makes perfect sense. Add bookmark button attached to the left side of the address bar: getting a little bit suspicious. Then the address bar is a bit different (as an aside, I think the refresh button is in the wrong place, but maybe that’s aimed at users who have only just got used to the fact that IE decided to put it there too for no reason). The refresh button’s new location is also a result of its placement within Mobile Safari on iPhone. But then there are the two dropdown buttons. Now I know these aren’t there on the mac, but that’s because the menu bar’s already at the top of the screen so there’s no need for them. Still – they’re EXACTLY the same buttons effectively. Come on – they’ve even nicked one of the icons! OK so the actual content of the two dropdowns is slightly different, but the sheer fact that they are both essentially for the same purpose in both browsers shows unquestionable similarity to Chrome.

On the plus side, the installer for the latest beta FINALLY no longer insists on adding an icon to my quick launch, as per the latest Windows 7 guidelines. Many’s the time I’ve got inordinately annoyed by icons appearing after every time I run an Apple Software Update. I appreciate that one Apple.

And of course I love the fact that the wording of their info pages implies that Safari has only 150 features. That’s all. No more. Wouldn’t be much of a browser if that were true.

I think that’s just about enough ranting for now. The point is, these features may not all be entirely original, but I’ll admit bringing them together in one browser makes a pretty good package overall (apart from the Windows interface I don’t really like). Let us know what you think on the matter, especially those of you who, like me, aren’t complete Macheads (like James.)

Update: June 9th 2009
Following yesterday’s launch of the final version of Safari 4, some of my gripes have been fixed.

  • Apple have obviously seen the light and put tabs back where they belong. Which is good, because I personally couldn’t see the visual appeal of having them at the top. They basically just looked awful on both the mac and windows versions.
  • Along with that, the Windows Native Look and Feel, as they call it, is therefore greatly improved. No more of those silly shadow effects along the title bar.
  • The refresh button has now taken on its own special little “Loading” message in a blue box while the page is loading, much better than the pathetic little spinner they had in the beta.
  • And a few other things that I can’t quite put my finger on, but which do make the general experience better than it was in beta

However (and sorry for this), there are still a few things that really get up my nose…

  • The toolbar’s still the same, a Chrome ripoff. OK, I wasn’t expecting Apple to go and drastically change it from the beta, so I won’t go on. I did enough ranting about that earlier.
  • Acid3. Aaahh, good old Acid3. Come on Apple, you’ve been going on about 100% compliance for a while now and you’re just about getting there. But still, although the rendering’s great, the speed still falls down in test 69. Now I know the speed is somewhat hardware-dependent, but I’ve run it on a couple of machines with pretty decent specs, and it still isn’t up to scratch. I’ll just take this opportunity to reiterate that old WebKit nightly builds were coping fine, ages ago. But there you go…
  • And maybe I spoke too soon about the installer not putting icons everywhere. Apple Software Update still insists on shoving shortcuts in my desktop and quick launch. I don’t need them! They just clutter everything up! If I wanted shortcuts there, I’d have put them there in the first place on the original install!

And I know this is advertised as a bit of a rant, and well I suppose it is. But in all honesty it is a bit harsh. Safari’s a pretty damn decent browser, truth be told. But I’ll stick with Firefox for now – FireBug just has the edge over Safari’s developer tools for me, at the moment anyway.

Written by
JT is a co-founder and the lead front-end engineer at GoSquared. He's responsible for the shiniest of the shiny projects we work on.

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