Apple’s second major foray into the Windows world, after iTunes, is a curious choice. Safari has never been especially well-regarded as a browser, even among Mac users, and the new Windows version will do little to convince people in the Microsoft camp to make a switch.
Overall, the new Safari 3 beta for Windows XP seems a competently-built browser with a few interesting usability enhancements, plus the promise of potentially increased security. However, it has no “must-have” features to win people over from other browsers, and a host of small annoyances mean that, for most people, this is a browser to avoid.
Safari is available for free at Apple’s web site. The basic Windows
version is a mere 8MB download; an alternate version that also includes
QuickTime is a 28MB download.
Its basic interface is notably simpler than the array of buttons and menu options found in the default installations of Internet Explorer 7 or Firefox 2. In addition to forward, back, reload, and bookmark buttons, there’s a new “bug” button you can use to report problems.
During setup, the installer asks if you want to install Bonjour, Apple’s networking protocol for creating easy connections among local area network devices such as printers. Up to now, the only primary way for Windows users to connect to Bonjour was by installing iTunes. [UPDATE 6/13/07: Bonjour for Windows is also available by itself. Thanks, Michael Maggard]
At the Worldwide Developers’ Conference Monday, Apple CEO Steve Jobs touted the increased speed of the new Safari – up to 2 times faster than Internet Explorer and 1.6 times faster than Firefox, he claimed. Initial tests weren’t promising. After installation, the browser took a full 20 seconds to load the Apple start page (its default homepage). A first visit to Google Mail took about 40 seconds, and Google Calendar loaded in 1 minute 9 seconds. Visiting www.microsoft.com actually caused Safari to crash.
Later visits to these sites were much improved, even when I first cleared Safari’s cache. Google Mail and Google Calendar both launched in 15-20 seconds on subsequent attempts, while the Apple start page took an average of 11 seconds to load, and the Microsoft site never again crashed Safari.
Safari’s tabbed browsing is convenient, but will be old hat for users of Firefox and IE 7. Also, it’s inconsistent. While you can direct Safari to open URLs from other applications (such as e-mail programs) in a new tab instead of a new window, it doesn’t capture all “new window” requests. URLs within web pages that call for new browser windows continue to open in separate browser windows – instead of new tabs, as they do in Firefox.
Safari 3 sports a unique RSS browsing view that might prove useful on some sites. When you’re viewing a site whose HTML includes a link to its corresponding RSS feed, a blue “RSS” icon appears in Safari’s address bar. Clicking on this icon opens up Safari’s view of the RSS page, which lets you sort feed items by title, date, and other criteria, as well as search through them. A nifty slider lets you see more or less of each item’s body text, so you can scan headlines only, full articles, or something in between, depending on your preference. It’s a nice feature, and if it were developed into a full-fledged newsreader capability, it would be very welcome. However, browsing a single RSS feed at a time is as far as Safari goes – and it doesn’t offer the live bookmarking or feed-subscription capabilities that Firefox has. [CORRECTION 6/13/07: You can view multiple RSS feeds in one window by going to Bookmarks > Bookmark Bar > View All RSS Articles.]
Other aspects of using Safari will be a mixed bag for Windows users. Safari’s URL completion auto-suggests common websites as you type, but doesn’t utilize the now nearly-universal Ctrl-Enter convention, where you can type a domain name and then hit Ctrl-Enter to have the browser add the “http://www” and “.com” parts. Its “SnapBack” feature is handy for going back to a page of search results or a site’s home page, but there’s no drop-down listing showing all of your recently visited pages when you hover over or click and hold on the back and forward buttons. [CORRECTION 6/13/07: If you click and hold on the buttons for about a second, you get a drop-down history list.]
And perhaps most puzzling, Safari 3 comes without Flash support built-in – and when you visit a Flash-enabled site, such as YouTube, there’s no automatic prompting to download the Flash player. Instead, the most you’ll see is a cryptic-looking Lego-like icon where the Flash object would be. You (or the site you’re visiting) have to recognize that you need the Flash player, after which you must visit Adobe’s website to download and install it. These are far more steps than most users will take, especially without prompting. Once installed, however, the Flash player works just fine within Safari.
Overall, it’s hard to find a compelling reason to like or to dislike the beta version of Safari 3. And without a compelling reason to switch, most Firefox and IE users won’t.
Dylan Tweney is the editor of the Wired blog Epicenter.*