When releasing a new operating system, Apple will almost always tout a huge number of new features. With Leopard, that list exceeded 300, although some of the changes were, at best, exceedingly inconsequential in the scheme of things. But they look great as bullet points in Keynote presentations.
The exception will apparently be Snow Leopard, which is supposed to be a catch up release to fix underlying system performance. The actual list of new features will evidently be rather small, although the rumor sites are claiming that there are going to be at least some unannounced user interface refinements.
With the release of its Safari 4.0 public beta, Apple is once again playing the numbers game. This time, they’re boasting 150 features, but you have to look closely to see the true picture. You see most of those features are the ones you’ve already come to know and love — or whatever you feel about some of them.
Regardless, there are actually a handful of significant new features that further set Apple’s browser ahead of Microsoft’s entry — and perhaps Firefox for that matter this time. That’s particularly significant since Safari has previously been light on spiffy features, but heavy on display speeds.
In terms of the latter, Apple is touting its new Nitro Engine as capable of “blazingly fast performance thanks to the industry’s most advanced rendering technologies.”
After reading a report from someone who claimed Safari 4 was crashing their Mac every time it was launched, and a comment from a colleague that he didn’t want “to screw with my work machine,” I decided to take the chance anyway and download the application installer.
I did find that Apple provides an uninstaller, which evidently restores the latest release version of Safari 3, just in case you found the beta unsatisfactory for your purposes. Or that it does somehow screw with your work machine. Regardless, I always urge caution with betas. While the ones Apple provides tend to be more stable than most, that’s only an incremental difference. There are no doubt unexpected surprises in store for you, and they won’t necessarily be ones that you’d find terribly pleasing.
It did, however, seem to have difficulties bring up my bank’s account update page. I had to basically navigate back from two blank pages for it to display properly. I also had difficulties bringing up the administration or setup screens for our vBulletin forums, where the pages were blank until I clicked the back and forward buttons. Go figure. But that’s what betas are for, and I suppose Apple’s Safari developers will figure out most of this stuff by the final release — I hope!
One new capability of note bring Safari closer to the Finder and iTunes interfaces, by adding a Cover Flow feature to examine your browser history and bookmarks. The only real limitation so far with the latter is that it doesn’t seem to present an actual image of a site until it’s actually visited with the new version at least once. There doesn’t seem to be any background updating going on, but maybe I should just give it time. Even then, I couldn’t get Cover Flow to render anything more than a generic image of the front page of cPanel, our Web site’s management application. Curious.
Another high power feature is Top Sites, which delivers a virtual panorama of the sites you visit most often. If a site has changed, you’ll see a star at the upper right corner. The number of sites listed depends on your settings when you click the Edit button at the bottom left. You can choose Small, Medium or Large and Safari will adjust the number of thumbnails based on your selection.
One more cosmetic enhancement of note is placing tabs at the top rather than below the toolbar and bookmarks bar. I suppose that’s designed to make it a more significant function — or at least more noticeable for Mac novices. My gut feeling at first glance is that it’s just more window dressing. I don’t see that it it truly enhances Safari’s usability, at least not for me.
Windows users will likely be pleased to discover that the new Safari now faithfully adheres to Windows XP and Vista window and menu design conventions, such as they are, and that Microsoft’s fonts and rendering schemes are used by default. You can still select Mac fonts if you like, but this also signifies that Safari will no longer strike you as some sort of invader to your operating system. Clearly Apple expects to gain a decent share of the Window’s browser market now that Internet Explorer’s dominance is eroding more rapidly than ever.
Other than that one rendering oddity with my bank, I haven’t found any strange symptoms in my brief testing. No doubt I will over time, but, for now, Safari 4 strikes me as a significant upgrade. Certainly Safari has always been the best looking browser on the planet and, with its significant new features, it may finally eclipse the competition in almost every respect. But time will tell how it shakes out in the real world.