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A Closer Look At Safari 4: How Does It Stack Up?
Date: Jul 21, 2009
Author: Shawn Oliver
Introduction to Safari 4

In early June, Apple released what is arguably its most significant upgrade to Safari yet: Safari 4. In typical Apple fashion, the company was quick to deem it the "world's fastest and most innovative browser." Today, we're setting out to find if that bold claim is indeed true, and we'll be breaking down the features and performance profile of it--along with its fiercest competitors--on both the Mac and PC side.

Safari 4 - HotHardware homepage; Click To Enlarge

One of the nicer things about Safari 4 is that Apple has made it available for both Windows (XP and Vista) as well as its own OS X operating system. It's also built around the Nitro engine, which--according to Apple runs JavaScript up to 4.5 times faster than the prior instance of Safari, nearly 8 times faster than Internet Explorer 8 and over 4 times faster than Firefox 3. It also supports HTML 5 and advanced CSS effects, and Apple claims that it can load HTML web pages over 3 times faster than IE 8 and Firefox 3. Apple also added a number of new, unique features that help to set this browser apart from the rest: Top Sites, Full History Search and Cover Flow.

Safari 4 Google Search Box; Click To Enlarge

It's hard to knock Apple for its innovation in the browser space. After all, the world's best browsing cellphone came from the labs at Cupertino (the iPhone), and the open source WebKit engine is widely regarded as the cream of the crop. In fact, Apple trumpets the fact that Safari 4 is the first browser to ever pass the Web Standards Project’s Acid3 test, which examines how well a browser adheres to CSS, JavaScript, XML and SVG standards that are specifically designed for dynamic web applications. Safari 4 also integrates a few features found on other Apple products, namely Cover Flow--which enables users to flip through web history or bookmarks--as well as Top Sites, which acts as an Expose of sorts, but for web sites you frequently visit.

Acid 3 100% Pass on Safari 4

When OS X Snow Leopard (10.6) arrives later in 2009 (an exact release date has yet to be set), Safari will be able to run even quicker at 64-bit, and if Apple's estimations are correct, Snow Leopard will enable the performance of the Nitro JavaScript engine to increase by up to 50%. After debuting on June 8th, Apple quickly announced that over 11 million downloads had taken place in just three days, and while we're sure some of those were from automatic software updates (as opposed to individuals making the effort to get it), that's still not a number to scoff at. Join us on the next page as we break down features of Safari 4 as compared to its closest competitors.

Safari 4's Unique Features

Before we delve into a full-on features breakdown, let's look at what's new in Safari 4 compared to previous versions of the browser.

Top Sites
This is a feature that's pretty resource intensive, particularly when you load Safari 4 for the first time. In essence, it's a homepage for all of your homepages. You simply toggle the "Grid" button at the top-left of the browser windows, and up to 24 thumbnails of browser windows are presented on a single page. You can customize the display by pinning a favorite site to a specific location in the grid, and you can easily tell what sites are changed/new by spotting the star in the upper-right corner (which signifies new content). From this page, a single click on your favorite window opens the page in earnest and updates the thumbnail. While you're browsing, you can always head page to Top Sites by simply toggling the aforementioned button.

Top Sites is somewhat overwhelming at first. Up to 24 panels hitting you as soon as you wake up and open your browser in the morning is a bit of a shock, but with time, we grew to appreciate having all of our favorite material front-and-center. We will say, however, that even on a 2.2GHz MacBook Pro, having Top Sites load up when starting Safari 4 forced the browser to take around four to seven seconds of additional load time compared to starting up to a single homepage. Is it worth waiting those extra seconds to have all of your favorite sites show up at first? That's a decision you'll have to make.+

Top Sites; Click To Enlarge

Cover Flow
If you've got iTunes loaded on your machine, or you own a newer iPod, iPod touch or iPhone, you know what this is. Rather than letting you flip through album art, Safari 4's Cover Flow lets you flip through web sites. We're talking history, bookmarked sites, etc. -- full-page previews of the websites that look exactly as they did when you last visited them. Honestly, we're not too keen on Cover Flow. We understand that this works best on a notebook with a trackpad that supports multi-touch (so you can just swipe from site to site), but we'd honest prefer to view all of our sites in Top Sites rather than flip through one by one. In use, this just isn't a time saver.

Cover Flow; Click To Enlarge

Full History Search
This demands quite a lot of your machine (space and resources), as it lets you flip through full-page previews of the sites you visited in the past. This is a great feature for swinging back to a site you stumbled upon, but we don't see it being something you use frequently. Still, we can totally understand how this would save the day in a few situations, and considering that it's a free feature, we'll take it. Safari 4 even lets you search for clips and phrases that you think you saw previously, and if it finds a match, it'll take you back.

Safari 4 History; Click To Enlarge

Nitro Engine
This is really just a bragging point for Apple. Due to this engine, the company claims that Safari 4 "outraces Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Chrome." We'll let the benchmarks in the next page prove whether or not all this bragging was merited.

Windows Native Look and Feel
It's funny that Apple even touts this as a new feature, but we guess you have to make the Windows faithful feel comfortable in an OS X application if you ever hope for them to one day buy a Mac. Apple's engineers made sure to give the Windows version of Safari 4 a "native Windows feel," with a title bar, borders, and toolbars. Apple goes on to say that "Safari for Windows delivers the same lightning-fast performance provided by the Mac version." We'll see, now won't we?

Safari 4 Predictive URL Entry; Click To Enlarge

Developer Tools

Apple has a thing with developers. Or, we should say, Apple has a lot of developers, and a lot of active developers at that. Thus, it's no surprise to hear that the Safari 4 browser includes loads of tools for devs. We're not so sure how this is a "new feature" per se, but we suspect there are more ways than ever now to develop new code to make the browser more your own.

Browsing Tools

Safari 4 has added a few less unique features that make the browsing process easier on the eyes and fingers.

  • Full-Page Zoom: a simple button click zooms in to fine print while the graphics and text are scaled correctly elsewhere.
  • Smart Address Field: Like most other browsers these days, Safari 4 is smart enough to attempt to complete your URL field before you do, cutting your address typing time down significantly.
  • Smart Search Field: When using the built-in Search bar, the browser offers up Google suggestions just as Google.com does. We love this feature when searching from Google's homepage, so obviously we love it here.
  • Phishing and Malware Protection: Apple's pretty proud of how secure Safari 4 is, and if the browser catches something fishy, it'll throw up a warning to let you know.
  • Synchronize Bookmarks Using MobileMe: Safari 4 has one big thing that other browsers don't, and that's integration with MobileMe. Granted, MobileMe is a $99 per year service, but if you have it, this enables Safari 4 to keep the bookmarks on your computers and devices in sync, automatically.

Safari 4 History/Bookmarks; Click To Enlarge

All told, Safari 4 has around 150 features as a web browser, though the ones outside of those listed above are more generic and generally found in every other major browser as well. If you're really interested in diving in for all 150, have at it right here.


Now that we've seen what all Safari 4 brings to the table, we're going to have a look at speed. Because really, what good is comparing features between browsers before you know which one is the fastest? In reality, an abundance of features is only useful when the browser that those features are in is snappy. In other words, speed is and always will be extremely important when it comes to selecting a browser, and honestly, the feature lists between these modern browsers are so similar that we'd say there's no "one killer app" that makes one browser significantly better than another.

 Browser Speed Test - Windows XP
Loading HotHardware.com on Lenovo S10-2 Netbook

As you can see above, Safari 4 on Windows XP eked out a narrow victory compared to IE 8, Firefox 3.5, Opera 9.6 and Google Chrome. We tested the browsers on Lenovo's S10-2 netbook, which contains a 1.6GHz Atom N270 CPU, 1GB of RAM, a 160GB (5400RPM) hard drive and Intel's GMA 950 graphics. There's no doubt that the general sluggishness of our test machine caused longer-than-expected load times, but considering that "netbooks" are apt to be used quite frequently for "net" browsing, we figured the S10-2 was a solid machine to test on.

We tested by loading each page fresh, with no cached objects, and we ran the test ten times in order to throw out the outliers and average those figures in the middle of the bell curve. A few takeaways from our experience on Windows XP:
  • Chrome was the quickest browser to actually load and become usable.
  • IE 8 was the slowest browser to actually load up, and its UI was the most clunky; there were far too many address bar icons and tool bar add-ins for use on a small netbook screen.
  • The extensions library for Firefox 3.5 is hard to beat; so many developers have created so many amazing add-ons that make browsing in Firefox a real treat.
  • Safari 4 was the slowest browser to actually load when it loaded to 'Top Sites.' It took around five to ten seconds to load on our netbook, which was definitely annoying. Top Sites is a great feature, but it's one that doesn't work quickly on slow machines.
  • IE 8 was the only browser that's search bar directed searches to Bing (understandably); the rest went to Google, which we prefer.
  • Safari 4, once loaded, did actually feel more nimble than the other browsers when loading pages, but opening new tabs seemed faster in Firefox 3.5 and Chrome.
  • Safari 4 was indeed the only browser here that passed the heralded Acid 3 test with 100/100.


 Browser Speed Test - Mac OS X 10.5 'Leopard'

Loading HotHardware.com on 2.2GHz MacBook Pro

Similar to our Windows XP test, Safari 4 just barely beat the main competition over on the Mac side. You'll also notice that these load times were quicker across the board, which is absolutely a function of testing on a much faster machine. The MacBook Pro we used had the latest version of OS X 10.5 'Leopard' along with a 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB of RAM and a 120GB (5400RPM) hard drive. In our testing, Safari 4 felt the "lightest" and most nimble of the OS X browsers, which is no surprise at all. In fact, we'd say Safari 4 should smoke the competition on the Mac, since Apple is developing the application for its own operating system and its own hardware.

In practice, we found Safari 4 to be marginally faster in page loading, though--again--the 'Top Sites' homepage and new tabs loaded slower than new tabs and homepages in the other browsers, even slower than Opera 9.6, which also contains a modified version of Top Sites. Again, Safari 4 was the only Mac browser that actually passed the
Acid 3 test , proving that Apple's claims were indeed factual.
Features Comparison

Truthfully, most of these modern browsers share many of the same features. Tabbed browsing on all? Check. The ability to restart with all of the tabs that you had open when the browser was last closed? Check. Predictive text URL entry? You bet. They also feature convenient search boxes in the top-right corner; well, except for Chrome, which lets you just type your search query in the address bar and it automatically handles the Google search.

Firefox 3.5

In fact, outside of those few unique features in Safari 4 that we touched on earlier, all of the other important features are also found in the rivaling browsers. Firefox 3.5 doesn't have too many significant bonuses outside of its Private Browsing mode, TraceMonkey engine, Location Aware Browsing (to share your location with websites), newly-supported CSS features and improved use of resources. But the massive amount of add-ons is a huge boon for Firefox. By and large, this is the go-to browser for those sick and tired of IE 8. There is a huge development community out there supporting Firefox, and the amount of plug-ins and add-ons that make the browsing experience much better makes FF a hard option to ignore.

Firefox 3.5; Click To Enlarge

Opera 9.6
As for Opera 9.6? While it's definitely a dark horse in all of this, it does boast a few features that may be appealing to a ceratin sect. Opera Link enables users to synchronize data online among different computers and devices, so that your Opera browser is the same everywhere. It's like MobileMe, but unlike Apple's implementation, this won't cost you a yearly fee. There's also a Feed Preview, though most other browsers offer some sort of sneak peek into RSS feeds, if not in a less elegant form. Opera Mail is a new take on handling email, as it organizes, indexes and sorts your messages for you, and it's built right into the browser. The Trash Can is also a neat feature, which enables you to instantly re-open recently closed tabs, but it's not terribly unique; Firefox 3.5 can do the same thing, though you'll have to wade through the History pull-down to find it.

Opera 9.6 Predictive Text Entry; Click To Enlarge

Internet Explorer 8
Internet Explorer 8 is, without qualifications, the most sluggish and least advanced browser of the bunch. One could blame it on the "monopoly" of having it included with every copy of Windows sold (but hey, Apple does the same thing with Safari these days), but IE 8 is very similar to IE 6, just with a little more polish. The address bar area is still largely cluttered, and the browser just seems to "drag" in use. That said, Microsoft has included a few features that would be awesome in a browser that performed better, including Visual Suggestions--which offer up visual aids when entering search queries rather than just text-- and a Smart Address bar that can usually recall URLs by just typing a snippet from it. Granted, Firefox 3.5 does this as well (and impressively so, might we add), but we'll take it if it's all we've got. To be frank, IE 8 lags behind the rest in terms of radical features.

Internet Explorer 8; Click To Enlarge

Google Chrome
Out of all of Safari 4's competitors, we'd say Google's Chrome has the best shot at beating it in the unique features department. Fortunately for Apple, Chrome is a Windows-only application--for now. We have an idea that Chrome will eventually be released for OS X, and we wouldn't be shocked to see a Linux variant arrive too. Understandably, Chrome is the browser to get if you're really into Google Gears and Google Applications. Chrome provides easy-to-implement app shortcuts as well as Dynamic Tabs, which can be re-sorted, made into a new window, or gathered into a new window when talking about a cluster of tabs. Chrome also runs each tab as an independent process, so if one tab runs into problems, it shouldn't bring down your whole browser. Incognito mode rivals Firefox's Private Browsing mode, and the "obtrusive" download manager has been replaced with a simple bottom-bar notification of status.

Chrome Top Sites; Click To Enlarge

As with Google's Chrome over the PC side, Camino is a Mozilla-powered (think Firefox innards) browser built specifically for the Mac platform. The newest version, 1.6, doesn't offer too much in the way of extra features, and because it's so fundamentally similar to Firefox, most folks side with FF due to its wide library of plug-ins. Indeed, with Camino touting common features such as session saving, feed detection, spell-checking, AppleScript support and Keychain support, you can tell that it doesn't have a lot of extras to brag about.

Camino 1.6; Click To Enlarge

Summary and Conclusion

So, now that we've determined that Apple's Safari 4 actually is the fastest browser in town (for now) in terms of loading pages, is it really the best browser to use? In our estimation, that answer is no. Has it come a long way since being introduced? Absolutely. In fact, it's one of favorite browsers on the Windows platofrm, and on the Mac side--where Chrome isn't a factor--it's right there alongside Firefox.

Safari 4 on Mac; Click To Enlarge

Safari 4; Click To Enlarge

In reality, page load time is only a tiny part of the entire browser experience, and when Safari 4 is beating other browsers by just tenths of a second, that lead grows even less important. In all honesty, you won't ever notice that Firefox 3.5 loads pages a few milliseconds slower than Safari unless you set two machines beside each other and do a genuine A-B comparison. However, we do feel that some aspects of Firefox 3.5 would be missed if you shifted to Safari exclusively.

Another point is this: Top Sites may be nifty, but it's way too resource intensive. It brings netbooks to a crawl, and even on a modern MacBook Pro, the Top Sites page takes way too long to load. It's only useful if it's quick, and in its current form, it's not snappy enough. The MobileMe integration is great, but it's not free. Try convincing anyone that doesn't consider themselves a part of the "Mac faithful" that it's worth it, and you'll probably get more than one menacing scneer. Scoring 100/100 on the Acid 3 test is also a nice bragging right, but if you ever come across a site that just murders your browser of choice, you can simply fire up Safari for that one task and move on.

Opera's Answer To 'Top Sites'; Click To Enlarge

Safari 4 Cover Flow; Click To Enlarge

Really, we can't recommend Safari 4 as a primary browser simply due to the elegance of Firefox 3.5. While some plug-ins are available for Safari, the amount pales in comparison to the library available for Firefox. It's funny, really. This same kind of situation is what makes Apple's iPhone so hard to ignore. The dev community is so deep and the App Store is so loaded that every other smartphone just looks lackluster in comparison. The tables have turned on Apple in this situation, as Safari's (and Opera's, and Camino's, and IE 8's) third-party extras just can't measure up to those available for Firefox...yet, at least.

All told, Apple's Safari 4 is a solid and very fast browser. It's absolutely worth a download. We have a feeling that those fond of their Firefox plug-ins will have a hard time letting go, but if you've never been one to tinker with your browser's default settings, maybe Safari 4 is a better choice for you--especially on a Mac. It's leaps and bounds better than IE 8, and it's certainly more nimble than Camino and Opera. Over on the Windows side, Google's Chrome may have a good shot at outdoing Safari, but it's not quite there yet. Chrome is still a very new, and somewhat quirky, browser. It's not the fastest thing in the world, and it takes some getting used to (as do most Google applications). But, if you devote the time, you'll probably end up falling for Chrome, particularly if you rely heavily on Google Gears and Google Applications. As we've alluded to, browser choice is largely a personal preference, but we think Safari 4 still has aways to go before it leapfrogs the highly-supported Firefox, and it best keep innovating if it hopes to keep users who are considering the switch to Chrome.

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