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Safari 3.1: Not Quite the Ultimate Browser

After reports that Apple was readying a major update to its Safari browser, it finally made its debut on Tuesday morning. Version 3.1 promises greatly improved performance and compatibility plus support for video and audio tags in HTML5, CSS animations, and CSS Web fonts.

On the surface, I suspect your eyes will glaze over when it comes to the arcane labels identifying various Internet standards. What you’re most likely concerned with is how fast and accurately it renders pages. Here, Apple claims “Safari loads web pages 1.9 times faster than IE 7 and 1.7 times faster than Firefox 2. Safari also runs JavaScript up to six times faster than other browsers.”

Notice they don’t mention Firefox 3, which promises improved JavaScript rendering speeds, but even if they’re close, you’ll probably never notice a difference of any significance.

You can get the download direct from Apple’s site, or just check your Software Update preference panel on your Mac. In fact, it should even appear in the Windows version of Software Update if you have a prior version installed on that platform.

Since Safari consists of more than just a lone application and a handful of support files, you’ll also encounter a restart so that the WebKit, which provides rendering capability for a host of Mac applications, which also include Mail, will be installed as well. The Windows Vista installation, however, doesn’t require a restart, since WebKit isn’t made available system-wide apparently.

On first launch, you’ll see nothing different if you already have Safari 3 installed — and that applies to those of you using 10.4.11 or Leopard. Safari isn’t like Firefox in that regard, displaying a fancy introductory page instead of your chosen home page on the first run.

While I realize some reviewers will be busy running canned Web benchmarks or sitting down with their stopwatches, I don’t browse the Internet that way, and I’m sure most of you don’t either, but feel free to correct me. In any case, I have always been pleased with Safari’s near-instantaneous launch times, and all 3.1 does is make “instant” seem a bit shorter.

Rendering speeds seem a tad snappier as well, compared to the previous version. I did not find any obvious incompatibilities, but I’ll continue to look.

As to support for newer standards, that’s a mixed bag. You see, being able to use your favored font is fine if all or most of the other browsers on the planet also supported CSS Web fonts. However, they don’t, so you’re left with the same font choices you have now. However, embracing newer standards is a good thing, and I’m sure Mozilla can be depended upon to continue to update its compatibility quotient. As to Microsoft, only they know for sure. They claim that Internet Explorer 8 will adhere to standard with more fidelity than previous versions, but with Microsoft, you have to be skeptical of their claims until the finished product is available.

For most of you, Safari 3.1 will be your favorite browser, near world-class and you aren’t going to see any incentive to go elsewhere, unless you need to check your own sites for compatibility with different applications.

But Apple is still missing a few important features that ought to be considered for 3.2, 3.5, or whatever the next major release will be called. Chief among them is the ability to selectively control pop-up blocking. You see, there are some sites, such as Federal Express, that provide pop-up screens that you need to access when you’re preparing a shipment online. Sure, you can go to the Safari menu and disable blocking for that session, but since other browsers support the selective capability, I can’t see where Apple’s “keep it simple” approach is useful.

Another missing feature is phishing protection. Sure you can get that with third-party malware protection utilities, but this is a significant danger in the online world, one that doesn’t support a specific computing platform or user demographic. It’s quite easy to make a mistake and click on a link in an email that takes you to a fake site, instead of your bank or other online financial resource. Firefox has it. Internet Explorer has it, and it’s time for Apple, which is pushing the Windows version of Safari, to get with the program.

Of course, if you feel you need phishing protection and want to continue to use Safari and not invest in third-party software, you can do what I do, which is to use OpenDNS to handle your site access. It’s seamless, super-quick, and provides industry-standard phishing protection.

Other than my few quibbles, I hope to continue to spend most of my time in Safari, and I highly recommend the 3.1 update.