Due to both personal interest and professional requirements, I run several Windows PCs alongside my Macs, and I use Windows just about every day. These days, the version of Windows I spend the most time with is Windows 10, and a recent update to a beta "Insider" build of the operating system brought Google Chrome crashing down.
I don't blame Google or Microsoft for this -- this is pre-release software, after all, and I understand and accept the risk of things like this happening -- but, as I searched for a temporary Chrome replacement, it got me thinking about just how much I dislike Google's browser. Chrome for OS X has of course been notoriously bad in recent versions, but the Windows version doesn't fare much better. From huge memory issues, to frequent rendering crashes, to bugs with basic features like full screen mode, Chrome is often quite a mess in Windows.
But what other choices do I have? Internet Explorer is a dying browser, included by Microsoft in Windows 10 only for compatibility with the online business apps that require it. Firefox is relatively slow in some tasks and I personally don't like its design. And I've found that Opera, while interesting in some respects, doesn't play nice from a cross-platform perspective, with trouble syncing bookmarks and settings.
One solution that might be the eventual answer is Microsoft Edge. I really like the idea of Edge, and I can see where Microsoft is taking this new browser, but it's nowhere near ready for prime time, with an appalling lack of features and some frustrating rendering and performance bugs.
So all of this got me thinking, which is usually a pretty dangerous activity, about Safari. I use Safari as my primary browser on all of my Macs, and despite its occasionally controversial history, I generally find it to be fast, secure, and able to handle all of my Web browsing needs. If only, I pondered, had Apple not abandoned Safari for Windows...
Those relatively new to Apple may be a bit confused: "Safari for Windows? Say what now?" But, yes, it's true. Apple for several years developed and distributed a version of its Safari Web Browser for the Windows platform. Steve Jobs unveiled the new browser version at WWDC 2007, telling the somewhat shocked crowd that since Apple already made one of the most popular Windows apps of all time (iTunes), they might as well try to make browsing the Web a better experience for Windows users, too.
Safari for Windows launched as a public beta of version 3.0 alongside the OS X version. It was then updated quite frequently over the next few years, mostly in line with its OS X-based counterpart.
But things slowed down in early 2012, and when Apple released Safari 6.0 for Mac alongside the launch of OS X Mountain Lion in July 2012, the Safari for Windows download page remained suspiciously quiet. Initial speculation was that Apple obviously wanted to focus on the launch of OS X and needed to have Safari 6 ready for their own platform first, while the Windows version faced no such deadline and could wait. But as the days, weeks, and months rolled by, it became clear that Safari for Windows was likely dead.
So why kill the product? Apple hasn't officially explained its reasoning, nor is it likely to, but as we've seen from the evolution of Safari since that split in 2012, it's likely that Apple's broader ambitions for unique features like iCloud Tabs and Keychain Password Syncing probably weren't worth the effort to implement in an operating system the company didn't control. That is if, considering how deep some of these features burrow into the OS, they could be implemented at all.
It's also important to note that the Windows browser landscape changed significantly between 2007 and 2012, thanks in large part to the late-2008 launch and subsequent rapid development of Chrome. In justifying Safari's port to Windows, Steve Jobs and Apple made a big deal of just how slow and clunky Windows browsers at the time were. That was, for the most part, no longer true by 2012, with vast improvements in speed, security, and extensibility introduced in virtually all of Safari for Windows' competitors.
Therefore, rather than maintain two browsers with different feature sets (something that would only confuse consumers), and in the face of increasingly competent rivals, Apple chose to abandon Windows. It wasn't a terrible decision from a numbers perspective; Safari, across all desktop platforms, enjoyed only about 5 percent usage share in July 2012 -- not much higher than Safari's market share percentage in 2007 -- and once again making Safari exclusive to Apple devices could only serve to entice additional customers to join the fold.
A Refreshing View
Even at its best, and despite Apple's insistence to the contrary, Safari for Windows wasn't clearly better than other Windows browsers available at the time, and it also fell short of its OS X counterpart in terms of performance. I'll also admit that, while all of my PCs at the time had a copy of Safari for Windows installed, it was never configured as my default browser.
So why do I now pine for Safari for Windows? One major reason is text rendering. Steve Jobs was famously obsessed with font design and typography, and that obsession carried over into Mac OS, OS X, and Apple's related software, including Safari. While things can vary based on fonts and layouts, in general, websites rendered in Safari just plain looked better than those rendered in other browsers like Chrome and Firefox.
Another reason is cross-platform compatibility, which sounds ridiculous from a neutral point of view but is exactly what I'm longing for as both a heavy OS X and Windows user. As I mentioned earlier, I use Safari on the Mac (and iOS, too), and I've found the process of keeping things like bookmarks and passwords synced with my Windows systems to be incredibly frustrating. Apple does indeed offer Bookmark syncing with Chrome, Firefox, and IE via the iCloud for Windows utility, but anyone who's actually used that feature will tell you that it's a bug-filled experience that will eventually lead to the mass duplication of all of your bookmarks across all platforms, no matter how carefully you set it up.
I could solve my problems by, for example, switching to Chrome for all of my bookmark and password syncing, or by using third party services like Xmarks and LastPass to sync that data. But all of those solutions have limitations that don't give me the type of access I've come to enjoy and expect on my iDevices, and they each need to be individually controlled and secured, as opposed to letting Apple encrypt everything via my Apple ID.
Perhaps a version of me in an alternate universe where Safari for Windows saw continued development is happy, or perhaps that version of me is experiencing all sorts of new problems that we can't even think of yet, but the reality is that Safari for Windows is dead, likely forever. The question now is, it worth it to do a little grave robbing?
Back from the Dead
The last version of Safari for Windows was 5.1.7, released May 9, 2012. Apple no longer distributes it officially, but the installer can be easily found online at various sites that catalog software.
Although it was released two versions of Windows ago, and sports a design that would be unfamiliar to those who use Safari on the Mac today, I set out to test whether Safari for Windows is even usable and, if it is, what kind of performance sacrifices would need to be made vis-à-vis the primary browsers available for Windows today.
The first thing I needed to test was if Safari for Windows would even work at all on my Windows 10 PC. With advertised compatibility for Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7, I wasn't so sure. Thankfully, Safari installed just fine, and I had no problems getting it running in Windows 10.
The next step, of course, is to see how it performs. The following benchmarks were conducted on the standard high-end testbed I use at TekRevue:
CPU: Intel Core i7-5960X @ 4.0GHz
Motherboard: Asus ROG Rampage V Extreme
Memory: 32GB Corsair Dominator Platinum DDR4 2400MHz
Video: EVGA Nvidia Titan X 12GB
Storage: 512GB Samsung SM951 M.2 PCIe SSD
OS: Windows 10 64-bit
The SunSpider test has now been replaced by the more advanced JetStream test, but Safari for Windows was too old to run JetStream, so we stuck with Sunspider. The results, reported in milliseconds, show that this is one area where the aging Safari for Windows actually holds its own. Edge notably takes a big lead, but Safari isn't too far behind Chrome and Firefox, and even beats Opera.
Here's where things start to quickly fall apart. Again measured in milliseconds, the modern browsers all finish in under a second, with Chrome leading the pack, while Safari breaks the chart with a time that is over eight times longer than the competition.
With Octane a higher score is better, and we see that Edge takes another victory while Safari lags tremendously behind.
The WebXPRT benchmark attempts to take a more "real world" approach to browser testing, and looks at things like in-browser photo editing, manipulating stock charts, and advanced graphics displays. Of note, a bug in the Edge browser prevented it from completing this test, and so it is omitted from the chart below.
Noting again that higher is better in this test, the trend continues with Safari for Windows scoring significantly lower than the competition.
Finally, let's look at memory usage, which is a growing concern for users, especially those with lower-end devices that lack the ability to upgrade RAM. We tested both "idle" (a just-launched browser with only Google's search page loaded) and "load" (16 content-heavy pages loaded simultaneously) scenarios and noted memory usage as reported by Windows Task Manager for all processes related to the browser.
The results from this chart require some explanation, because it initially looks like Safari wins this one by a huge margin. But the numbers don't tell the whole story, and there's a reason that the other browsers use so much more memory.
You see, Safari is an old 32-bit application, without support for multi-threaded page loading. That means that, even though it uses so little RAM and indeed has all 16 tabs "open," those tabs aren't truly all loaded at the same time, and switching to a new one results in a relatively lengthy wait while the page reloads in the active tab.
Newer browsers address this problem by keeping the pages on open tabs active in the background. This lets a user quickly switch between tabs without having to reload the page each time, but it results in much greater memory demands, as the chart illustrates. Therefore, if you plan on viewing just one or two pages/tabs at a time, Safari for Windows will probably do a good job for you, at least from a memory usage standpoint. But if you're like most users and your day doesn't start until 20 tabs are opened, then there's no way Safari can compete with the newer browsers.
Real World Implications
Obviously the benchmarks in the previous section were primarily for fun; there was no reasonable expectation that a 3-plus-year-old browser could stand up to modern counterparts. But the benchmarks serve as an interesting point of reference for how far browser technology and performance has come in a relatively short time.
Turning back to the true question, however: how do these benchmarks translate into a real world experience? The short answer is that users can expect performance that is indeed slower than modern browsers, but not by as much as the charts reveal.
Initial page loading in Safari for Windows seems to take ages, but once the page is loaded, browsing around is relatively quick. Switching tabs, saving files, and opening links in the background all work as expected, and with the exception of Flash and some HTML 5 video, all websites we visited looked and functioned as expected.
One design issue that was hard to adjust to is the separate search and address bars. Once a standard browser design choice, most modern browsers now use a unified bar that intelligently handles both search queries and URLs. Safari 5.1.7, however, maintains the separate fields for both, meaning that our "Control-L" keyboard shortcut took us only to the Safari for Windows address bar, where we incorrectly typed many search queries only to be lead to a "page not found" error.
But other than that, most of the modern features that you'd expect in a browser are present: including a bookmark bar, searchable history, password manager, and even private browsing mode. From that perspective, Safari for Windows doesn't feel too far out of time and place.
Waiting on the Edge
But the truth is that while Safari for Windows is arguably passable when it comes to features, its technical limitations mean that it could never realistically survive today as a vialable alternative for a modern user on the latest operating systems. And that's without even mentioning security concerns, with Safari 5.1.7 going without the myriad of security patches that have been applied to browsers in the past three years.
Still, there's something about seeing that Safari icon in my Windows 10 taskbar that takes me back to a more interesting age. I think most agree that the Apple of today wouldn't dream of bringing additional software to Windows. The few solutions it does offer -- namely iTunes and the iCloud for Windows utility -- exist only out of necessity, allowing Apple to provide the minimum level of functionality and services to its hundreds of millions of customers who run Windows PCs instead of Macs. All of Apple's energies are, logically, focused on a future in which it hopes Windows, as we know it, doesn't even exist.
As for Windows in the here and now, I've managed to patch Chrome to work with the latest Windows 10 build, but I'm still not thrilled with the browser or its future. Edge may indeed be the answer, but it will take Microsoft quite some time to get the browser to the feature and performance level it needs to reach to be a serious longterm choice.
Until then, I'll continue to ponder a Safari for Windows world, even if today's experiment didn't provide the results I hoped for.