Since its debut, Safari has offered Mac users hassle-free browsing, standards-friendly HTML rendering, and a number of thoughtful and handy features to make surfing the Web just a little bit more fun. Its triumphant new version continues all these trends with style--and bolts on a jumbo jet engine's worth of pure speed.
Remember the DeLorean from Back to the Future, leaving tracks of flame in its wake as it shot into another era? That's the impression one gets when comparing Safari's performance to that of its closest rivals.
In XHTML rendering, Safari's 0.54 seconds clocked in at nearly seven times faster than Firefox 3's 3.42 seconds, and still thrashed Firefox 3.5's 2.82 seconds. Even Chrome, which uses the same WebKit rendering engine that powers Safari, could only manage a respectable 1.14 seconds.
In addition to superlative speed, Safari also tops the competition in its strict compliance with Web standards. Living up to Apple's hype, Safari 4 is indeed the only current Mac browser to pass the Acid3 Web standards test with flying colors. Chrome managed to match Safari 4's perfect 100-out-of-100 score, but got a linktest error that Safari didn't. Firefox 3 scored a 71, while Firefox 3.5 got a much closer 93.
Not surprisingly, Safari also got top marks for compatibility with selectors for the emerging CSS3 standard for online style sheets, albeit in a tie with Chrome. Both browsers were able to handle all 578 selectors thrown at them by an automated online test. Firefox 3 accepted only 371, while Firefox 3.5 scored a much more impressive 576.
Apple touts Safari's ability to handle the still-in-development HTML 5 markup standard, and in most respects, it's right. Safari 4 had no trouble rendering any pages from a gallery of sites already using HTML 5, and it could even display some--but not all--of the cutting-edge pages from a gallery built specifically for Google's Chrome. (It did seem to have trouble with HTML 5's emerging Video and Audio tags, but that technology's admittedly still in its infancy.) Safari also does a great job with animation, drop shadows for text, and other new tricks vying for inclusion in the final CSS3 style sheet standard, feats only Chrome and its shared WebKit engine can match.
Safari's zippy performance does come at a relatively small price: a fatter file size and slightly slower startup times. On first launch after my computer booted up, Safari took roughly eight bounces in the Dock to load, versus seven for Firefox 3 and none at all for Chrome. And at nearly 80MB in size, Safari's far bulkier than Firefox 3 (46MB), Firefox 3.5 (50MB), or Chrome (30MB). Still, Safari never felt slow to use, whether in loading or regular operation.
The program did the same great job as previous versions of warning me of suspicious sites, and it only crashed once during my testing, while trying to load a streaming movie from Netflix. (The same movie loaded just fine on a second attempt.)
(Image Caption: The new Top Sites window, accessible via a small grid icon up near the Bookmarks button, fills your browser with a sleek, curved array of snapshots of the pages you've most recently visited, or visit most often.)
If not for its dramatic speed increases, Safari 4 might feel like an underwhelming update. Its other main new features, while visually appealing and undeniably fun, are largely cosmetic.
The new Top Sites window, accessible via a small grid icon up near the Bookmarks button, fills your browser with a sleek, curved array of six, 12, or 20 snapshots (depending on whether you click the "small," "medium," or "large" buttons in the lower right corner) from the pages you've most recently visited, or visit most often. Star icons in the upper right corner of each snapshot let you know whether the page has been updated since your last visit, and clicking on a snapshot will take you directly to the page in question. An Edit button lets you drag snapshots around to put your favorite pages where you want them, remove pages from the lineup, or pin pages in a certain spot on the screen. It's cool and useful, but you can just as easily leave it turned off and browse as usual.
The Top Sites window's abundant eye candy may distract you from a tiny search box floating in the lower right-hand corner, which leads to Safari 4's new and impressive history search. The program seems to keep track of every word on every page of every site in your History, and can bring up a CoverFlow view of those pages in seconds, no matter how obscure your search. I looked for "Mousavi" and got previously visited pages referring to the Iranian opposition candidate from The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and even Facebook.
Though Apple deservedly promotes Full History Search as one of Safari 4's biggest new additions, it's oddly hard to find, accessible only through the Top Sites page. I would have liked to see a shortcut to it from the History menu, at least. (Needless to say, if you'd rather not have the full record of your browsing habits at anyone's fingertips, Safari's Private Browsing feature will successfully conceal your digital tracks.)
Less prominent, but equally useful, are Safari's improvements to its search and URL fields. The search field now lists both autocompleted suggestions (Smart Search) for what it thinks you might be looking for, and a list of your most recent search terms, in case you need to go back and look something up again. The URL field similarly offers guesses from your history and your bookmarks as you type, along with a "top hit" of its best prediction. Both improvements did a decent and helpful job, though neither quite read my mind.
There are a handful of new accessibility features built into Safari 4, including support for the burgeoning ARIA standard (which makes Web applications more easily accessible to the sight- or hearing-impaired) and full-screen zoom to enlarge text for easier reading. The latter, as Apple promises, yields appealingly smooth text and graphics even at extreme magnification.
Lastly and most superficially, the Bookmarks window now offers CoverFlow views of all the pages in a given folder. This is certainly nice to look at, but isn't any more helpful than the old text list (still available beneath the CoverFlow window). Pages you haven't visited recently get a blank placeholder icon instead of a recent snapshot, so you mostly end up looking at a stream of glossy black squares.
And in the one genuine defect of the new Safari, Apple has inexplicably replaced the old progress bar, which used to fill up ingeniously behind the URL field as each page loaded, with a tiny "Loading..." button to the right of the URL. It gives no indication of how close the page is to completely loading, and it's generally completely unhelpful. (Imagine if your car had a gauge that showed you whether your gas tank was full or empty, but wouldn't tell you how full or empty.)
(Image Caption: Hidden amid the browser's glossier features, Safari 4's useful Web Inspector is an HTML coder's new best friend.)
Most casual surfers may not even use one of Safari's most impressive new features. But coders will doubtlessly welcome the new Web Inspector panel, available through an optional "Develop" menu that can be revealed via Safari's Preferences. Much like the Firebug plug-in for Firefox, Web Inspector peels back the surface of a page to let you peruse the markup beneath. For any site on the Web--even those you don't control--you can drill through the code element by element, and even disable or rewrite CSS styles for each element on the fly, with a live preview of the changes you've made to the page's source. (Obviously, you won't actually make those changes to the site's source--you'll just change how Safari displays the page in your browser.) It's invaluable for tweaking and testing Web pages and stylesheets.
Macworld's buying advice
If you want the fastest browser on the Mac, Safari 4.0.1 is the hands-down winner. It lacks the endless flexibility of Firefox's plug-ins, and it's far less svelte than its rival browsers. But despite its extra bulk, Safari combines raw power and a thoughtful, well-crafted interface to give Mac users the best of both worlds.
[Nathan Alderman is a writer, copy editor, and apparently rusty former Web designer in Alexandria, Va.]