Hands On: Apple Safari 4 Beta

Apple today launched the first beta of Safari 4, the new version of its web browser for both Windows and Mac OS X computers. Safari 4 brings a lot of new features, including full history search, a smart address field, and full-page zoom. Apple also claims that Safari 4 runs much faster due to its new JavaScript engine.

The Safari 4 Beta is available for download from Apple's Web site; it will set you back about 107MB of disk space. I gave Safari 4 a spin, and while I noticed quite a few elements 'borrowed' from Google's Chrome browser, I was impressed with Apple's offering.

One of the most noticeable changes is the new Top Sites feature, a page that displays your most visited or favorite sites. It can be configured as either your home page or as a page you see every time you open a new tab. Chrome offers a similar feature, but Apple's iteration offers more eye candy, with a 3D display and its iPhone-like ability to rearrange sites. Pages that have been updated since you last visited them, will be marked with a blue star in the corner.

Safari 4's title bar also gets a Chrome-like look, with new tabs displayed there, instead of in a traditional tabs bar under the address field--making better use of your screen real-estate. Tabs can be rearranged, or you can drag them out and create new browser windows. And, as in previous versions, Safari 4 can merge all of your open windows into one multi-tabbed window.

Your browsing history is now brought to life with Cover Flow, so you can flick through your recently visited Web pages like you do with your album art in iTunes. The new Full History search feature can prove to be extremely useful, as it goes through all of the pages you have previously browsed and the text they contain. If you know you saw a certain term somewhere, but you can't remember where, you can simply search for it, and all pages containing it in their body text and name will be displayed.

The Smart Search Field in Safari 4 is now integrated with Google Suggest, and one you start typing, the field suggests search strings. This means you'll no longer need Safari plugins, like Inquisitor, to get this kind of functionality. The Full Page Zoom feature lets users zoom in and out on a page (by using keyboard shortcuts or menus) without distorting a page's layout or losing quality. Mac users were able to perform a similar task before, but now it's available to both PC users, too.

As for speed, Apple claims Safari 4 is the world's fastest browser. While I can't verify that claim, I can say that the new browser, running JavaScript 4.2, surely feels faster and page-loading time is indeed shorter. Safari 4 also includes HTML 5, a technology that allows wed-based applications to store information locally without an Internet connection.

I really like the new version of Safari. It definitely feels faster--an improvement that alone should give headaches to Microsoft and Mozilla. Add in the other nifty features and eye-candy Safari 4 brings, like Cover Flow, and this browser should give them plenty to think about.

Even though some of Safari 4 new feature seem like they are borrowed from competitors' applications, it clearly sets itself apart as a top-class Web browser. Meanwhile, if you would like to browse the Internet, iTunes style, you can download the Safari 4 beta from Apple's site. After you do, come back and tell me what you think.

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