Safari 4 review

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Apple Safari 4 is more than just one of the fastest web browsers for Windows and Mac

Apple’s web browser has been around for six years, and with Safari 4 we find a stable, mature web browser with both excellent speed and standards compliance.

Safari debuted in Mac OS X 10.3, but many people today will be familiar with Safari as the web browser for the iPhone. For the principal two personal computer OSes in the world, we now have Safari 4 for Mac and for Windows, the fastest and most feature-packed iteration yet of this relative newcomer.

But being an Apple app, more features doesn’t immediately equal more user complexity. Open Safari 4, and the main window is automatically populated with Top Sites, a wall of thumbnail pages based on your browsing habits. Clicking on any of these brings you directly to your site, making a good visual aid to quick browsing.

You can also manually assign what sites will appear in this space, and the thumbnails you see are updated regularly, to reflect up-to-date content on your favourite sites, all in miniature.

To customise the layout, you just click the Edit button in the bottom left corner, and select either the X to delete or a pin symbol to ‘fix’ any displayed site.

Safari was one of the first web browsers to include tabs to allow easy switching between different pages within the same window. Safari 4 beta, released earlier this year, put those tabs above the address bar, increasing space available to view page content below.

This had the side effect of removing the easy reordering of tab positions just by dragging. It also made complete window reposition somewhat more challenging, as grabbing the window by its top bar could cause an inadvertate switch to the page of the tab you picked up.

Apple may have listened to the critics; the tabs are now firmly back below the navigation bar, in what must be said is a more visually elegant arrangement.

Also changed since the beta is the way that page-load progress is indicated.

Safari 3 and earlier used to colour in the space behind the address with an expanding blue bar – a sight familiar more to iPhone users, due to the slower loading process – while Safari 4 beta relied on just a spinning cogwheel (which also doubled as a Stop loading button, since the usual discrete Reload and Stop buttons had been removed).

Now in Safari 4 we have a graphical device at the end of the address field which shows ‘Loading…’ and also spins a cog as the page completes.

With a typical broadband connection, you won’t be looking at the loading icon for long, though. We found Safari 4 to be quick – very quick in fact – in its page rendering. For many sites we visited, pages would appear just as quick as clicked.

And with that speed comes good standards compliance. In the Acid3 test for web standards (including compatibility with JavaScript and Document Object Model, plus SVG, XML and CSS standards), Safari 4 scored the required 100/100. To give some context, Firefox 3 for Windows gives 71, the latest Firefox 3.5 beta 99 for Mac scores 93, while Internet Explorer 8 is languishing down at 20/100
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Another addition for Safari 4 is the Cover Flow navigation model. First seen in iTunes, this similarly allows a graphical way to look around your favourite or previously visited sites. You can use Cover Flow here to flick your way through bookmarks or history, with again small thumbnail renderings to guide your way.

We found a picture of a site painted on the screen in this manner could give faster cues to sites in our browsing history, rather than reading site URL addresses and trying to imagine what we saw on that page.

For Mac users with Multi-touch trackpads, the final release of Safari 4 addresses an issue with pinch zooming of pages, altough we found this still not quite as fluid as it was with Safari 3, as magnification jumps in a limited number of steps between different zoom factors.

For web developers and the technically curious, Apple provides a neat view of page source along with load times for the various code elements.

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Just enable Develop mode in the Safari 4’s preferences, and look under the newly instated Develop menu between Bookmarks and Window. There you’ll find Show Web Inspector. In Windows, the Develop menu appears with other window menus under the folded-corner page icon on the right of the browser pane.

System requirements
Windows Requirements: Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista; 500MHz Pentium-class processor or better; 256MB of RAM; Top Sites and Cover Flow require a compatible DirectX 9.0 video card with 64MB of video RAM. Macintosh Requirements: Mac OS X Leopard 10.5.6 and Security Update 2009-001, or Mac OS X Tiger 10.4.11; minimum 256MB of memory; any Intel-based Mac or Mac with a PowerPC G5, G4 or G3 processor and built-in FireWire

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Verdict
Safari 4 has come out of its short beta period to blossom as a remarkably attractive and well featured modern web browser. For Windows users, Safari has previously been something of an also-ran behind Firefox and IE, but with Safari 4 we can see it becoming more popular in XP, Vista and Windows 7. Safari 4 is extremely fast in its page rendering thanks to the refined WebKit engine, and offers some genuinely useful user interface elements which make finding sites quicker and browsing a more comfortable experience.

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