First impressions: Apple Safari 4 beta

Apple has released to public beta its Safari 4 web browser, and I thought I'd give it a hands-on spin to see what all the fuss is about. Here are my first impressions and review.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Apple has released to public beta its Safari 4 web browser, and I thought I'd give it a hands-on spin to see what all the fuss is about. Here are my first impressions and review.


Quick and simple. The install file -- offered with and without a QuickTime bundle, thankfully -- is 25.5 MB. On install, three boxes are auto-checked: Desktop shortcuts, "Install Bonjour" and auto-update. I'm not a fan of auto-check tactics, so if you're trying to avoid installing Bonjour, for example, don't get too click-happy too soon.

Another note: Safari did not prompt me to import bookmarks from another browser. Thought that was an interesting omission.

The Look

It's slick. Not extraordinarily pretty, but Safari 4 does attempt to break up the monotony that is Windows with an updated interface that isn't a complete Mac knockoff like Safari's previous iteration (those who skin their PCs like Macs will be disappointed). I use the classic theme on Windows XP, and you can see in the screenshots that there is an attempt to bring current styling trends to older visuals.

The Homepage

On first load, Safari populates its Apple-style visual link layout with popular sites in lieu of having browsing history to use. When you click one of the visual links, there's a zoom/transparency transition to the new window, which is a nice touch. I wonder how that will react on slower machines.

One thing about the menu elements at the top -- the bookmarks start on by default, but I don't like to give screen real estate to that, so I turned it off. Google Chrome handles this problem by inserting your "pinned" bookmarks into the home page, in a bar-style format, just below the menus. Safari handles this problem slightly differently: instead of recreating the bookmarks bar, it allows you to "pin" (via the edit button on the bottom left of the page) certain visual links.

The Interface

One thing I notice, at least using XP's classic theme: the tab boundaries are pretty hard to differentiate. There's just not enough of a strong visual boundary between them, especially considering how narrow they are horizontally. Otherwise, the tabs are nice, but they automatically expand to fill the entire title bar (no transition) which I don't like. Some people don't like the fact that Google Chrome doesn't immediately auto-fill the tab space; I do, especially when there are only one or two tabs open in the window.

Another thing about the tabs: the "close" box is on the left side of each tab, not the right -- the location that other browsers usually put the favicon. I'm not against re-doing the formula for browser layout, but if you're transitioning from another browser or use another browser on a regular basis, the switch will wreak minor havoc on your productivity.

What's also interesting is how Safari deals with too many tabs. In this case, it gives you an ellipses and drop-down menu:

Finally, about those tabs: you can't just drag a tab out of the main window, like Chrome, from any point on the tab. You must grab it by the little three-line corner (which is hard to do quickly on a high-resolution, large display, I should add) and drag it out from there. I'm a big proponent of not playing target practice with regard to layout and design, and I fear the narrow tabs and menu elements might be a little harder to use.

Full-screen mode is solid. Since the top menu and title bar are narrow as it is, you get a nice amount of screen real estate to browse with. On the other hand...

...unlike Google Chrome, the status bar isn't a "pop-in" -- that is, it doesn't show up only when you need it, and instead is the old-style approach: on, or off. Safari installs with the status bar off by default (interesting decision, especially with regard to security), but for that reason I like to keep it on. On the other hand, the bar is very narrow and uses very small type, so it does make concessions for keeping it on all the time.

As a side note, the refresh button a little small for my taste. I ended up clicking the "RSS" element instead. Furthermore, the search bar that complements the address bar is nice, addressing one of the main complaints with Chrome. On the other hand, it doesn't seem to be multi-use, which means that I can't have Wikipedia or Weather.com as options for that bar like in Firefox 3.

The good news is the address bar takes all the good cues from Chrome, and provides a very useful autocomplete menu:

Finally: the download manager remains outside the main browser window, like Firefox 3, and is not integrated into the bottom like Chrome.

Here's how Safari handles the integrated RSS button (when applicable) in the address bar, by the way:

The Performance

I didn't do any hardcore testing (I'll leave that to ZDNet hardware guru Adrian Kingsley-Hughes), but Safari 4 beta was as quick as the quickest I've used (in this case, Chrome). Back in March, it was reported that Safari 4 was the first browser to score 100%, or 100/100, on the Acid3 test. That's a good sign, and I confirmed it testing it myself with the link below. (Chrome got 78/100, and the linktest failed; Firefox 3 managed 70/100.)

[test for yourself]

The Bottom Line...for now

If there's anything to be said about Apple Safari 4, it's that (on the PC, at least) it bridges the gap between Firefox and Google Chrome. What I mean by that is that it takes some of the innovative interface cues and styles of Chrome, but doesn't push it as far as Chrome does in the "experimentation" category.

For the moment, each browser retains its unique differentiating qualities, though: Chrome is still the most barebones and experimental of the bunch, Internet Explorer is still extremely integrated with Microsoft services, Firefox still retains its mod-happy plugins, multi-use bar and "Save and Quit" tab memory.

No longer chained by the Mac look, Safari 4 beta is somewhere in between, at least on a PC.

(Safari 4 beta on top of Google Chrome; note the interface differences)

Of course, these are just first impressions -- not the final judgment, especially for a browser that adapts to your browsing habits over time.

What do you think of Apple Safari 4 beta? [download]

Editorial standards