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Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Lab: Apple Safari 4 beta

In the middle of this past week, Apple released a beta version of a new release of its Internet browser, Safari 4. The software promised plenty of flashy enhancements while improving browsing performance. However, after using it exclusively since its launch, I have to drop it and return to familiar ol' Firefox.

1. Browsing performance
Safari 4's biggest achievement is its browsing performance, particularly with JavaScript. Working in Gmail has never been more pleasant or smoother. I liked how the Gmail interface responded quickly, as if I was working on a program in my machine. I also experienced much improved performance with other JavaScript-heavy sites, like Google Reader and Plurk.

Even with regular web pages, rendering was so fast that content appeared almost as soon as I clicked a link or pressed Enter after typing in a URL. Of course, how soon a page appears also depends on your Internet connection. I certainly wouldn't expect such fast performance on dial-up!

Disclaimer: I'm writing this in Safari 4, and the Java-based image uploader is definitely faster in performance too! Uploading pictures never felt this breezy in Firefox.

2. Developer tools
Safari - developer tools
If you're a web developer, then you'll appreciate Safari 4's developer tools. This set of tools let you peek at the CSS of page elements, the amount of system resources (CPU power, memory) used by a page, and debugging of JavaScript. You can also change the browser's user agent string.

I didn't use these tools extensively, but from my brief experience, these look as useful as what you'd find with the Firefox plug-in, Firebug, or with Google Chrome.

Unfortunately, these two features were the only good things that I could say about Safari 4. Here's a rundown of why I didn't enjoy the other new features.

3. Top Sites
Safari - Top Sites
This feature allows you to see your most browsed pages in a display that resembles the Apple TV interface. It gives you quick access to these pages, which you can identify easily through "live" thumbnails of the pages.

However, for some reason, even with a broadband connection, the thumbnails took a very long time to load. It was faster for me to read the page title of a page and click on it, than to wait for the thumbnail to load.

I also found this feature to be pretty useless to me for 2 reasons:

  1. I already bookmark my most browsed pages
  2. I had configured Top Sites to appear when I opened a new tab or window is opened (you can configure it yourself). But I later found that my behaviour is such that I'm unlikely to open a most browsed page in a new tab, but rather to do something else, like do a Google search.
4. History Search
Safari - history
Within Top Sites, you can search your history of browsed pages. Safari 4 not only lets you search by page title, but also by page content . That's useful if you're the type who remembers the page's content but nothing else. As you search, Safari 4 whittles down the matched pages with its Cover Flow interface. Again, "live" thumbnails of the pages help you identify these pages.

In the end, though, as useful as this sounded, I didn't use it at all. Firstly, history search can only be initiated through Top Sites. Secondly, there's the problem with "live" thumbnails.

Thirdly, I usually remember page titles, so my normal searching behaviour is with the address bar. Like Firefox 3, Safari 4 lets you search page titles in its address bar, and you can search by URL or page title -- but not both! That's something I found to be a step back.

Let's say I had visited a page at www.example.com and the page title was "Foo bar". In Safari 4, I could search for "example" or "foo" to find the page. But if I searched for "example foo", no results would be returned. Firefox 3, on the other hand, would show me this page.

5. Cover Flow
Safari - Cover Flow
Talking about Cover Flow, this feature was more eye candy than useful. Cover Flow is used with bookmarks and history search. But due to the problem with loading of "live" thumbnails, I was more likely to see a "cover flow" of blank pages. As a result, I would have to resort to the bookmark list to find what I was looking for.

Assuming the thumbnails did load, I found that I couldn't "flow" through folders or, in the case with history, pages viewed in a day. I had to open the folder, then step through the bookmarks/pages. Again, two steps forward, one step back.

6. Tab Placements
Safari - tabs
Like Google Chrome, Safari 4 now displays its tabs in place of the title bar, instead of below the bookmarks bar. I suppose some people would like that. I could get used to it, if not for some nagging irritations.

For one thing, clicking on a tab didn't necessarily bring it to the front. I don't know if it was slow system performance or a mis-click, but I often found myself having to click a tab twice to bring it to the front. And if I clicked too fast, I would minimise the window, since Safari 4 would think that I had double-clicked its title bar.

To move a tab, I had to place my mouse at the right corner of the tab to "activate" this feature. This was unlike Firefox 3, where I could click on any part of the tab to drag it around. I suppose this limitation in Safari 4 has its benefits, but I'm not a fan of it.

Another thing that I thought was a UI puzzle: now that the tabs have moved, I thought that things like back/forward buttons and address bar would function only for that tab. They do for the most part. Now let's say I open a set of bookmarks. Each bookmark appears in its own tab. That's what I expected.

What I didn't expect was that when I pressed the back button, all of the tabs closed and I was returned to the previous page of the current tab. That didn't make sense to me. I expected the other tabs to remain open while the tab in which I had pressed the back button to return to its previous page. That's how it is in Firefox 3 and that's what makes sense to me, especially given the placement of the tabs.

Other irritations
  • Safari 4 still only lets me save one login per website. There are some sites where I have multiple logins. Firefox 3 would let me save all of them. Safari 4 asks if I want to replace the previously saved login.
  • I can't re-open a recently closed tab. This is especially important if I accidentally close a tab (e.g. due to itchy fingers). Safari 4 allows me to open closed tabs from a previous session or the most recently closed window . But there's no option for the most recently closed tab in the current session.
  • if I open a bookmark, Safari 4 displays the name that I use in the bookmark, not the actual page title. To make sure I wasn't going crazy, I bookmarked the Google homepage and called it "Ozymandias". True enough, when I opened the bookmark, the Google homepage appeared but the tab title was "Ozymandias". That's not a feature, especially since many web services use dynamic titles, e.g. Gmail, Google Reader, etc.
  • for some reason, Safari 4's performance deteriorated the longer I used it. I don't know if it's because it doesn't free up system resources or its history gets cluttered when trying to track every page that I've been to or something else. But it's darn irritating to see the spinning beach ball (in OS X) so often. Of course, since this is a beta, I'll let this slide.
  • I had to remember that the Reload button was in the address bar, not together with the back/forward buttons. And how come there's no Stop button?
  • I missed the progress bar to indicate the loading of a page. There's a hack to get it back, but I chose not to implement it in favour of a more "virgin" experience with Safari 4.
And I miss my plug-ins in Firefox. I've come to appreciate the little things, like Firebug and HTTPFox.

So after using Safari 4 for these few days, I have to give it up in favour of Firefox 3. If only Firefox 3's performance was as good (or better!) than Safari 4's, then I'd be extremely pleased. (Firefox 3.1 is supposed to promise that enhanced performance.)

Disclaimer: all pictures are from Apple's website.

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