Safari has come an awfully long way since its conception, and today marks the beta release of the fourth major incarnation of the acclaimed web browser. Version 4 introduces a range of new features and interface improvements, among them speed enhancements, visual history searching and Cover Flow integration.
Safari 4 can be downloaded directly from Apple (s aapl), and is available for both Mac and Windows. This brief introduction will outline what to expect in the latest version, with a particular focus on new features.
For better or worse, there are numerous changes to the interface style. Most obvious is the shift of the browser tabs to appear at the very top of the window, above the bookmarks and address bar. It doesn’t appear that there’s an option to change this setting, so it will likely require a little getting used to. The ‘New Tab’ button is located at the very top right of the window. This shift in thinking matches that of Google’s (s goog) Chrome browser, and seems to continue a new standard in browser interface design.
A second notable change is the removal of the blue progress background in the address bar that used to appear when loading a new page. This has been replaced by a spinner towards the right-hand side. The spinner changes to a ‘Stop Loading’ icon when moused over, and also functions as a ‘Refresh Page’ button once loading is complete. This switch in progress indication is likely due to the speed enhancements with Version 4.
Speed Improvements – The ‘Nitro Engine’
Apple has a speed comparison with other Mac and Windows browsers over at their new features page.
Top Sites is a new feature that shows a dynamic grid display of up to 24 of your favorite web sites. These are generated automatically based on your browsing habits, and as such may take a little time before they offer up an accurate representation of your favorites.
Top Sites can be edited and moved around easily, with a star in the top right-hand area representing a change of content since your last visit. It’s a simple way to see a visual representation of your favorite bookmarks, without needing to visit them if no recent updates have been made.
In their attempt to integrate Cover Flow into every possible niche of your Mac, bookmarks are now displayed by default in a visual Cover Flow mode. You can flip through them as you’d expect, and click to open. This is very useful if you’re a visual person as it allows you to select the required site based on its look and feel.
History and Searching
Safari takes control of your browser history and makes it more usable than ever before. You’re able to search through all the web sites you’ve previously visited, viewing them in Cover Flow mode. Not only does Safari search for the URL or title of the site, it also indexes all the page content to allow thorough searching of your previously browsed sites.
Searching for new sites is also made easier through an auto-suggestion tool within the browser search bar. Start typing, and Safari will suggest a list of possible phrases for which you may be looking. It provides a ‘recent search’ listing underneath the suggestions, and also offers to convert your web search into a local ‘Find’ command, looking for the phrase anywhere on the current web page.
Full Page Zoom
Taking a page from the iPhone book, Safari now provides better support for zooming into web sites. It scales images and graphics as you zoom in and keeps text sharp while perfectly preserving the page layout. It’s a big step forward in scaling web sites, and removes many of the previous headaches of breaking layouts as you resized text.
At first glance it would appear that Safari 4 is a great step forwards in terms of usability and function. Some of the interface changes will take a while to become natural, but seem to make more sense in the long term. For me, the most impressive improvement isn’t the flashy Cover Flow implementation or minor changes in design — it’s the speed. I may use Top Sites from time to time, but I’ll benefit from the faster rendering and page loading time on every site I visit.
Head over to the download page and give Safari 4 a try for yourself. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts!