Thoughts on Safari 4: Some Bad, Mostly Good

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I’ve been running the release version of Safari 4 on Mac OS and Windows XP for a few days. There are a lot of good features with Safari 4 — and I have no desire to go back to version 3 — but I do miss the beta sometimes.

Where’d My Tabs Go?

Yes, the oft-criticized Tabs on Top (TOT) have been removed. I loved these things, and am disappointed they’re gone. It just reaffirms my belief that a window’s title bar is the most colossal waste of real estate in any GUI’s interface. Everyone treats it as sacrosanct, so they’re the same everywhere. Apple repurposed the title bar to actually have more “titles” in it, and the tech world freaks.

Now we’re back to a title bar that serves minimum purpose (I don’t need the title of the browser; the tab bar provides the site name for me anyway) other than to be the world’s biggest target for moving a window.

I can accept I’m in the minority on this, so I’ll get over it. For those who think Apple should provide the option to use this feature, I disagree. Options are great, but in this case, it’s a pretty major interface change. I don’t think Apple should have to drag both chunks of UI code from release to release. This is especially true in the browser space, where it needs to move as as quickly as possible. (I hope work on Safari 5 is already under way.)

Being the eternal optimist, however, I’ll look on the bright side and state that two things about the tab bar I lost with TOT are back: 1) I love double-clicking the tabs bar for a new tab and, 2) It’s a lot easier to grab a tab to move it. I’d rather have TOT — I think it should have been refined instead of abolished — but I’ll take the good with the bad.

No Toolbar Stop/Reload

This is just ridiculous. Safari 4 moved the stop and reload functions to the end of the address bar, just like Safari on the iPhone. I have no issue with this. However, in doing so they removed the toolbar buttons for stop and reload. What possible reason could they have had for this?

I understand that the buttons wouldn’t be part of the default toolbar — just put them in the customize dialog box and let me put them in their rightful place to the left of the address. Unlike TOT, this bit of customization would require trivial coding. It’s not like the new buttons are the only way to activate these functions; you can click in the address bar and hit enter, you can select Reload Page from the menu, or you can hit Command-R. There is no reason not have a button for this.

Honestly, Apple, this is the dumbest browser UI move since Microsoft moved the Home button in Internet Explorer to the lower right toolbar. I’d also point out that Microsoft moved the stop/reload indicators to the right of the title bar by default, but it provides the option to move them to the left.

Page Load Indicator and Progress

In Safari 4 beta, there was little indication that a page was loading. Safari 3’s useful blue status indicator behind the address was replaced with a tiny rotating indicator at the end of the address bar, which was easily missed. If you hovered the mouse over it, the indicator would change to an “X” to denote you could stop the load. Again, for space-saving on the iPhone, this is OK, but it’s dumb for the desktop.

With the release version of Safari, Apple has changed the load indicator. It’s still at the end of the address bar, but now it occupies roughly an inch of real estate and has a blue background color. It also displays the rotating load indicator and the “X” at the same time. In short, you can’t miss it, and there’s little confusion about where to click to stop a page load. This is a nice improvement over the beta.

However, the progress indicator behind the address remains absent. Apple says it’s not accurate, and don’t I know it. But that’s beside the point. I don’t think any of us were using it to measure its accuracy in depicting whether a given page was really 75 percent of the way complete. No, we used it because it still served the purpose of showing that progress was being made in loading a page, which a continually spinning indicator does not. I wish Apple would bring this back.

OK, I can already hear a lot of you now. “Geez, Tom, whine much? Is there anything about this software you like?” Well, yes, actually. Let’s get to the good stuff.

Speed

Maybe Apple should have called this release Safari 3 S. It’s all about speed. I think the majority of people moving from version 3 are going to notice the speed increase in loading pages.

I really don’t care about specs, or if Safari is really the fastest web browser, etc. It doesn’t matter. All I care about is that it loads pages noticeably faster than the previous version. I’m looking forward to this browser on the new iPhone.

Top Sites

Some people love ‘em, some hate ‘em. I have found myself nailing a few pages here, but other than that don’t use it for sites so much. However, I use the page often for history searching, which I’ll discuss later.

On the other hand, when my daughter saw Top Sites, she loved it. We tend to lose track of how much most browser users are not the geeky types we are. Most of the sites I want are bookmarked, but lots of people don’t play that game. To my daughter, Top Sites is an automatic bookmark for her most common stuff. She loves it.

Cover Flow

When the Safari 4 beta was blasted as being “pointlessly visual,” I commented that it was flexible in how you could use it. To summarize, I turn it off for my bookmarks list (just drag the handle all the way to the top), but love it for history searching.

I call up a new tab (Top Sites page), hit Command-F to move to the find box, and start typing to search my history. Hey, you may remember the name of every URL you visit, but I don’t. A visual shot of all pages matching my search criteria make it much easier to find the one I’m looking for.

It used to be I kept only a week of history. I was just as likely to find an unfamiliar page I’d visited and didn’t bookmark via Google than my browser history. Cover Flow searching has changed that drastically, and I keep 30 days of history now. Next to the speed increase, this is my favorite feature of Safari 4.

Other Goodies

There are other nice improvements:

  • Suggested searches drop down when you type in the search bar. And when you type in the address bar, suggested URLs (including those in your bookmarks folders) appear. The latter is especially convenient.
  • Full-page zooming zooms the entire page proportionally, not just the text. However, the option to just zoom text remains. (I use that option; I usually zoom only to make text bigger.)
  • There are a number of compliance improvements as well, such as support for HTML 5. Safari is standards compliant enough to score 100 percent on the Acid3 test.

The Bottom Line

While I miss Tabs on Top, overall the Safari 4 release is much improved over Safari 3. The speed increase is easily noticed. And with usage improvements of flexible Cover Flow for bookmarks and history, drop down suggestions for URLs and searches, and the customizable Top Sites feature, there’s something here for everyone. I would never go back to Safari 3.

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