5 Reasons to Upgrade to Apple's Safari 5

Although it wasn't mentioned during Apple CEO Steve Jobs' keynote address Monday at WWDC, Apple launched an updated version of its Safari Web browser for Mac OS X 10.5.8 and 10.6.2 or higher, as well as Windows XP SP2 or higher, Vista, and Windows 7. With the new release, Apple patched security holes, boosted performance, and introduced a handful of features that collectively have the potential to put Safari on par with Chrome and Firefox in terms of core features and performance.

But what will matter most to users are the following five new or updated features.

Browser Extensions

The most significant addition to Safari is — finally! — support for browser extensions. For a lot of users, browser extensions may seem like a non-event. It's true that other browsers — Firefox, Chrome, and IE all come to mind — have supported extensions for so long that switching to one of those browsers from Safari could easily overwhelm you with the sheer number of extensions available.

The new Extensions pane in Safari's preferences.

Extensions may not seem like a big deal, but it's important because it shows Apple is finally keeping pace with rival browser-makers. That doesn't mean it's letting developers run rampant, however. Extensions will be sandboxed to keep them from gaining unfettered access to Safari itself or to other portions of a user's computer or data.

Apple also requires that extensions be digitally signed, similar to what's required for mobile apps in the App Store. That's to ensure an extension hasn't been altered by a third party and that any updates come from the original developer.

Extensions can be written with standard Web technologies — HTML, CSS and JavaScript — just as extensions are built for Firefox and Chrome. Apple has already provided a tool called Extension Builder to make it easy to package, distribute and install extensions. And through its free Safari Developer Program, which also provides resources for developing iPhone/iPad Web apps, developers can register for a digital signature to go with their extensions.

As of yet, only a few extensions are available on the Web, which isn't surprising given that Safari 5 was just released. As developers join the Safari Developer Program and create extensions, Apple will begin adding them to a Web-based gallery. In the meantime, a Tumblr blog is already listing extensions. (It can be followed on Twitter.)

One annoyance about Apple's implementation is that extensions are disabled by default. To enable them, you must use Safari's preferences to enable the Develop menu (there's a checkbox on the Advanced tab), then click on the Develop menu and select Enable Extensions.

Reader Mode

The first thing I checked out in Safari 5 was the new Reader mode. This feature uses heuristic scanning of a Web page to determine whether the text there can be displayed as an article. If so, the address bar displays a Reader button. Clicking on that button will display the text portion of the page in an overlaid window that pops up. The overlay doesn't show images or ads, but it does include links.

The basic text-only display uses clear, easy-to-read type and makes for a much nicer, almost newspaper-like way of reading. It also recognizes articles that are broken up over multiple pages (as is the case with most news or magazine sites, including Computerworld.com, these days) and will load all the pages and compile them as a single stream of text, making reading even easier since you can scroll through a long, multipage article as if it were a single document.

When in Reader view, you can also print the overlaid page in this printer-friendly format, e-mail it, or adjust the size of the text onscreen or in print.

The new Reader view in Safari 5 (note the number of pages and the toolbar).

Personally, this goes down as my favorite new feature in Safari and one that differentiates it from other browsers. However, the scanning technique isn't always perfect and occasionally articles aren't recognized as such. When that happens, the Reader option isn't displayed. I expect this to get better as it's refined over time.

Improved Performance

I've been using Chrome as my default browser on Mac OS X since the first stable and full-featured version was released last month. One of the big advantages Chrome had over Safari 4 was in the performance while loading Web pages and rendering JavaScript.

With Safari 5, Apple caught up to Chrome's performance, partly by taking lessons from Chrome and other browsers. Like Chrome, Safari now relies on DNS pre-fetching to speed up page loading. Improvements to Safari's caching routines also speed up the loading of images and pages that have been previously viewed.

Finally, Apple has updated its Nitro JavaScript engine to deliver increased performance. According to Apple, this allows Safari to run JavaScript code 30% faster than Safari 4 — and 3% faster than Chrome, which uses Google's V8 engine. (Not surprisingly, Apple's boast is under dispute.)

All of these enhancements mean Safari now offers performance comparable to Chrome on Mac OS X. Of course, various Web pages and system configurations yield slightly different results for each browser, but in my general browsing this past week with Safari, they appeared to be largely on par. Safari's overall performance is also similar to Firefox's, though Safari is noticeably faster at handling JavaScript-heavy pages. (I'm not sure I'd say it hits the "almost twice as fast" description that Apple claims, however.)

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