If Apple knows how to do anything, it's take tech you've already seen and make it flashier and more fun to use. The new Safari 4 public beta is no exception.
Apple says Safari 4's 150 features are "leading the way with innovation," but in reality they're all things we've used before in other browsers—with Cupertino's magic aesthetic touch thrown in. Let's take a look at Safari's headliner features, what other browsers already have them, and how Safari's offering differentiates itself. (To follow along, download the public Safari 4 beta for Mac or Windows. Since most publications are testing the Mac version, I used the Windows version to do my review and take screenshots.)
Fans of Opera's Speed Dial and Google Chrome will say that Safari 4's "Top Sites" page looks awfully familiar. Like Chrome, Top Sites shows a thumbnail grid of web sites you've visited based on frequency, which changes as your browser history does over time.
Safari's implementation of this been-there-done-that feature brings some flash and additional customisation options to the table. First, when you click on a thumbnail, it zooms forward and fills the screen with a cool animated effect. Second, pages which have new content since the last time you visited them contain a blue star in the corner. (See the top right thumbnail in the screenshot above as an example. The concept is a neat, the implementation, for me, was a bit buggy.) Visuals aside, you can customise Top Sites in a few ways. To do so, click on the Edit button on the lower left hand side.
When you're in edit mode, use the X's to remove a site and the pins to fix a site to a permanent position. On the lower right hand side, use the Small, Medium, and Large buttons to set how many thumbnails you see at once (and their size).
You can also drag and drop thumbnails in the Top Sites view to appear where you want; watch all the others in the grid move aside to make room for the new positioning all smooth and musical-chair-like.
Cover Flow View
The one thing Safari 4 has that no other browser does (by default at least) is something Mac users are used to: Cover Flow view, which now displays web page previews instead of just album art (iTunes) or file previews (like in Finder). Go into bookmark view (hit the bookmarks button next to the Top Sites grid button on your toolbar) to flip through your history, bookmarks, or search results Cover Flow style. Still, Firefox users can get a very similar interface with the previously mentioned FoxTab extension.
Tabs on Top
Another page stolen from Chrome's playbook is Safari's new tabs style, which puts tabs at the very top of the window. If you aren't used to Chrome, you'll probably find this change pretty disconcerting at first, but the similarity between the two browsers is striking from tabs to toolbar.
With Chrome in the background and Safari up front on the left, check out how the buttons on the right side of the address bar look almost exactly the same. Safari changes things up slightly in two ways: the close tab button is on the left side of the tab, and that grippy handle on the right is a visual indicator that you can grab a tab and drag it to a new window, into another, or just into another position (also like Chrome).
Here's what dragging a tab out of a window in Safari looks like; this is the one visual effect where Chrome (which offers a larger page preview during the drag action) actually does a nicer job.
Get Mac Fonts on Windows with Safari 4 (SQUEEE!)
Windows users who miss the Mac's gorgeous typography when they're surfing on the PC will want Safari 4, which now offers Mac fonts in its Windows version. As someone who just launched a site on which the fonts look like hell on Windows XP and beautiful on the Mac, this is the Safari feature that got me positively giggly. Sadly it's not turned on by default in the Safari 4 beta. But take a look at the difference—it's subtle, but powerful.
The top version is Safari's default font rendering, which looks just like Firefox or Chrome (a bit pixelly around the edges). On the bottom I've turned on Safari's font smoothing and the results are like butter.
To turn on font-smoothing, in Safari 4's preferences dialog (Ctrl+, to get there), go to the Appearance tab and choose the appropriate option from the drop-down, as shown.
Safari 4 Is Not Ready for Everyday Usage
All the good-lookin' features aside, in my one day of testing, Safari 4 reminded me several times that it's not kidding about that "beta" label. Safari 4 is still super-crashy, so while it's certainly worth a test drive, it's got a long way to go in the stability department.
But Is It Faster?
Tweaks and Keyboard Shortcuts to Know
Finally, if you're diving into Safari 4, a couple of non-obvious things to know.
Keyboard shortcuts: In general Safari feels light on keyboard shortcuts, but there are a couple to try. First, hit the Alt key to toggle the menu bar. Second, use Firefox's Ctrl+Tab (Cmd+Tab for Mac users) to switch tabs. The Cover Flow view is pretty navigable using your keyboard, too—use Tab to move between elements and your arrow keys to move up and down your site list.
Customise your toolbar: To get rid of that "Report bug" button or add the handy Zoom or AutoFill buttons, you can customise your Safari toolbar in the same fashion you do Firefox. From the settings menu (that "Cog" button on the right), choose "Customise toolbar." From there, drag and drop the buttons you want onto and off the toolbar.
All in all, it's nice to see Safari 4 raising the bar a mite higher in the visuals department and give Chrome a little competition in the light-mean-and-lean browser market. Have you given Safari 4 a test drive? Think it's all flash and no substance? Any happy (or sad) discoveries? Let us know what you think in the comments.
Gina Trapani, Lifehacker's founding editor, likes a good-looking, promising beta. Her feature Smarterware appears every week on Lifehacker.