Walt Mossberg

New Safari Browser Succeeds at Speed, Flops on Features

Apple’s Safari browser has always been speedy and has introduced its share of innovations. While it is mostly used on Apple’s own Macintosh computers, with which it is bundled, Safari also comes in a Windows version and it is the browser on the iPhone as well.

Last week, Apple released a new version 4 of Safari, for Mac and Windows, that it claims is the world’s fastest browser, and that has a number of new graphical features Apple says will make it easier to navigate the Web. Safari 4 is labeled as a beta, and both the Windows and Mac versions are free downloads at apple.com/safari.

I’ve been testing the new Safari on both operating systems, comparing it with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome. My verdict is that Safari 4 really is significantly faster than its rivals, but that its user-interface changes are a big disappointment. They either add relatively minor eye candy, are catch-ups to features introduced by rivals, or actually make the browser harder to use.

First, let’s talk about speed. I tested Safari 4 on multiple Macs, and on multiple Windows PCs running Vista and XP. I did these tests on three different networks — a fast fiber-optic service, a typical hotel Internet connection, and a relatively slow cellphone data card.

On each type of connection, I timed the loading of a variety of common Web sites, like Facebook, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Major League Baseball, both individually and in folders that opened multiple sites simultaneously in tabs.

The results were striking. In nearly every case, Safari 4 was much faster than any of the other browsers. In many of my tests, it required only a third or a half of the time to load a given page, or a group of sites, as the other browsers did, even though all were running on the same computer and the same Internet connection.

I was especially interested to see that Safari 4 for Windows blew away Google’s Chrome in my tests, even though both browsers share some open-source technology managed by Apple but licensed to others.

In some cases, where the new Safari’s speed advantage was just a few seconds, that quickness may seem unimportant. But, when opening a large number of pages in tabs, it really makes a difference. For instance, on my fastest test network, Safari 4 for Windows fully opened a folder of 21 news sites in 43 seconds, while it took the new IE 8 over two minutes to perform the same task.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the other changes in Safari, but I can’t. Apple’s worst decision was to move the tabs that represent open pages to the very top edge of the browser screen, above all the toolbars and menus, instead of below the toolbars and menus, where they have traditionally resided.

This move was copied from Chrome, and Apple says it makes the tabs easier to discover. But I disagree strongly. Apple’s implementation, in my opinion, makes the tabs harder to see and use on a crowded computer screen and separates the tabs too much from the content in the pages they represent. This is a particular problem in Vista, whose translucent window title bars can make the tabs almost impossible to read.

In another unfortunate choice, Safari 4 has done away with the progress bar that shows how much of a page has loaded. The company says it did this because Web pages are now so complex that the bar was no longer fully accurate. But I believe users like to see where they are in the page-loading process, even if it’s only a rough approximation.

I am not alone in this sentiment. Already, Apple-oriented Web sites which normally defend the company’s every move are publishing instructions on how to hack Safari 4 to restore the old tab system and the progress bar.

The new graphical features are just OK. Now, when you open a new tab, without specifying a Web address, Safari fills the formerly empty space with a gorgeous graphical representation of your most-visited Web sites. You can simply click on any of these to go right to that page. It even indicates when a page has changed since you last viewed it.

This is nice, but it copies a feature already in Chrome, and I believe most people won’t see it much, since they usually know in advance which site they want to view in a new tab.

Apple has also adopted “cover flow,” iTunes’ visual method for navigating albums, for the bookmark organizer in Safari. It shows a preview of each page in your bookmark list. Again, this is fine, but not a big deal.

Safari 4 also catches up to its rivals by offering suggestions of what you are looking for when you type in a Web address or search term. This worked well, but not any better than it does in other browsers.

Finally, the Windows version of Safari now looks and works much more like a standard Windows program than a Mac program. It has traditional Windows-style buttons and behaviors, which Safari lacked before.

Overall, Safari 4 is a mixed bag. The speed is great, but the design changes range from mildly interesting to downright annoying.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.

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