Episode #87: First Look at Safari 4 Beta for Mac

Unless you've been under a rock you've surely heard about the beta release of the new and improved Safari 4 unleashed by Apple earlier today. I've been playing with it ever since, so let me share some of my initial thoughts and observations.

Let's start with a couple of big-picture items -- system requirements and performance claims -- before we delve into its new features...

System Requirements

  • Mac computer with an Intel processor or PowerPC G5, G4, or G3 processor and built-in FireWire.
  • 256MB of RAM.
  • Mac OS X v10.5.6 Leopard or later and Security Update 2009-001, or Mac OS X v10.4.11 Tiger or later.

Note: The Top Sites and Cover Flow features (you'll hear more about both shortly) require a Quartz Extreme–compatible video card on Mac OS X Tiger.

Performance Claims

Apple claims Safari 4 is the world's fastest browser; that its new Nitro JavaScript engine executes JavaScript up to 30 times faster than Internet Explorer 7; and loads HTML Web pages up to 3 times faster than Internet Explorer 7.

Here are the test results as provided by Apple:

Safari 4 test results

And here is the fine print associated with those test results:

*Mac OS testing conducted by Apple in February 2009 on a 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo–based iMac 24-inch system using Mac OS X v10.5.6 Leopard and configured with 2GB of RAM and an ATI Radeon HD 2600 PRO with 256MB of VRAM. HTML and JavaScript benchmarks based on VeriTest’s iBench Version 5.0 using default settings and the SunSpider Performance test. Testing conducted with a beta version of Safari and Firefox 3.0.6. Performance will vary based on system configuration, network connection, and other factors.

I have no way of confirming or denying those test results. All I can tell you is that the Safari 4 beta feels quite a bit snappier than Safari 3 and loads many (if not most) Web pages noticeably faster.

Onward! Let's look at some of those new and improved features...

New Feature: Top Sites

The first new feature you'll discover appears when you launch the Safari 4 beta for the first time. It's known as Top Sites and so far it's one of my favorite new features. As you can see below, it displays an array of pages I visit frequently in a highly visual grid, making it easy to get to my favorite sites with a single click.

Safari 4 Top Sites

You can choose whether or not to load Top Sites in new windows and tabs in the General tab of the Safari 4 Preferences window. Prior to Safari 4 I loaded an empty page rather than my home page or any other page, thinking it seemed faster that way. But I really like Top Sites and it loads pretty quickly, so I'm going to keep it as my "home" page for a while.

There's a new Show Top Sites button on the left side of the Bookmarks Bar near the top of the window so you can access this Top Sites screen any time you like.

Did you notice that some of the thumbnails have little blue stars in their upper right corners in the picture above? The stars tell you that the page has changed since the last time you looked at it.

How cool is that?

Click the Edit button in the lower left corner and you can choose between small (24 items), medium (12 items) or large (6 items) thumbnail images.

Safari 4 Top Sites Edit mode

While you're in Edit mode you can click the push-pin icon to keep a page on Top Sites permanently or the X icon to remove a page.

New Feature: Search History

Did you see the little Search History field in the lower right corner of the Top Sites window. Type a word or phrase and Safari 4 searches page titles, web addresses, and (get this) the complete text of recently viewed pages. That's pretty darn cool, but the way Safari 4 displays them with Cover Flow is pretty darn cool as well.

Safari 4 Search History

New Feature: Full Page Zoom

You could always increase the size of text in Safari, but now you can also zoom in on the entire page to get a closer look at both its text and its graphics, without much (if any) degradation of the image. The easiest way to grok this is to look at the three images below. All three windows are exactly the same size. The first is shown at actual size; the second is shown with only its text zoomed (a la Safari 3); the third is shown with Safari 4's full page zoom.

Actual size:

Safari 4 Normal zoom

Text-only zoom:

Safari 4 Text-only zoom

Full-page zoom:

Safari 4 Full-page zoom

New Feature: Built-in Web Developer tools

The last brand new feature is a set of built-in developer tools. I'm not a Web developer so I didn't really play with these much, but if you enable Show Develop menu in menu bar in the Advanced tab of the Safari 4 Preferences window you get a new Develop menu with many new options:

Safari 4 Develop menu

One tool I found rather interesting was the Web Inspector. It shows you each element on the current page and how long it took to load:

Safari 4 Web Inspector

Improved Feature: Tabs on Top

I've always liked tabbed browsing and Safari 4 improves it in a couple of ways. First, the tabs are now at the top of the window where the title bar used to be. Since I use a laptop exclusively I appreciate having even a little more screen real estate to work with.

Safari 4 new tab interface

Tabs have a new handle -- you can see one at the right side of the Days of Thunder tab above -- that makes it easier to rearrange tabs using drag and drop. A new + button on the right side of the tab bar makes it easier to create new tabs. And the pop-up menu that shows all existing tabs -- both visible and not -- is more intuitive, with visible tabs appearing in white and tabs you can't currently see shaded in gray.

Safari 4 new tab interface menu

Improved Feature: Smarter Address Field

The Address Field has been made smarter. Instead of only displaying cryptic portions of URLs, the smart part is that it shows you the page's title, looks at both your history and bookmarks, and even singles out the most likely candidate as its Top Hit (Apple.com in the picture below).

Safari 4 Smarter Address field

Improved Feature: Smarter Search Field

The Google search field is smarter, too, with both suggested searches and recent searches displayed as soon as you start typing.

Safari 4 Smarter Search field

Summary and Conclusion

I've been banging on the Safari 4 beta all day and pushing it pretty hard as I investigated its features and grabbed screen shots for this column. Surprisingly, it's been pretty stable. Although it's just the first beta it only quit unexpectedly twice in 6 or 7 hours of serious use and abuse.

The download includes an uninstaller so you can go back to Safari 3 if you're not happy with the Safari 4 beta. That said, if you don't mind running beta software on your Mac and want to give it a try you can download a (free) copy here: http://www.apple.com/safari/download/

I've found a lot of things I do like and nothing that I hate so I think I'll keep it for the time being.

And that's all he wrote. . .