On Tuesday Apple released the public beta for Safari 4, a major revision of their web browser.

I have downloaded the beta and will be using it today, and over the next few days as my main browser, and will update this review as I go.

Before I begin I have to admit that I typically dislike Safari, I find it to be the weakest part of the iLife suite. I don’t know why, as there is no one thing I can put my finger on, other that it’s cold, barren look. I have always leaned towards using Firefox over Safari and in December made the switch to Opera. This does give me experience with all three major Mac browsers but I will admit a previous prejudice against Safari.  With this in mind, I’ll try to leave my previous experiences aside and be impartial.

Apple has added a number of key features in Safari 4.  They have introduced a tool similar to Opera’s Speed Dial, where your most visited or user selected pages are displayed as thumbnails for easy and quick navigation. Cover Flow is now intergrated as a tool to browse bookmarks or history.  There is a new feature for the indexing and searching of  browser history. Apple has also released the new Nitro Engine for Safari, which they claim makes Safari the fastest browser yet. Safari 4 now comes in a Windows native format and also ships with Developer Tools.

One change that they’ve made and may be the hardest to adjust to is that they have moved the tab bar above the address bar. I find this an interesting move because it sets Safari apart from the other web browser’s GUIs in a strange way. Usually Apple has a very good reason for this, so we will see how it goes.

If there’s anything you’d like me to take a specifically closer look at, feel free to ask away in the comments and I’ll see what I can do.

First Impressions.

After about 2 hours of use I can confirm that on some pages, Safari 4 is noticeably faster than Firefox, Opera or the previous version of Safari.  Very media rich sites, such as Gizmodo’s main page, loaded faster as did html only pages such as Reddit’s main page. Pages with an even mix such as Macworld or Cnet are about the same.

The Tab bar on top has definite advantages but as expected, it’s really disorienting. It’s only become a problem so far when a link opens in a new window rather than a new tab. The window opens so that it appears to be in the tab that you started from. However, this is a minor issue that is only a habit to break.

The Search Bar’s autofill is much more powerful. It now provides a split up list, similar to Spotlight, that has previous searches and suggestions based on what you have typed so far. Also, the Address Bar performs much more like Firefox’s Superbar than previous version, by searching the text, name, address and tags of a website as you type it in.

So far, so good. I am much happier with this version of Safari than any previous, depending on how today goes, I might make another browser switch.

Update 2: So, I’ve been using the Safari 4 Beta for about a day now doing my regular browsing and trying to get a good feel for it. The improvements are all good, solid worthwhile changes that I don’t think anyone will get too hung up on. Moving the tab bar is a bold move, but, it seems to work and uses screen real estate a little better than before. The implementation of Top Sites is great, and if you haven’t used Opera before I think you will be surprised at how much you come to rely on this feature. The Bookmarks layout change is also a good one, I think the inclusion of Cover Flow is a little extraneous, but I find it a little gimmicky no matter the implementation.

I’ve have run into a few bugs so far, the biggest of which is the inability to hyperlink in WordPress’ online client, which is why there are no useful links in this post. The other has been one of my frustrations with Safari for a while. I never want links to open in a new window, ever. I prefer having scads of tabs over even two windows, however, I can’t find how to alter a links set behaviour to ‘Open in New Tab’, rather than ‘Open in New Window’. There’s always the option of command-clicking but there’s no way to change this in the preferences, as there is in Firefox or Opera. I watch all my television online and this may actually be a deal breaker for me, but I doubt most people would even notice.

Overall, a great revision that keeps Apple bumping shoulders with all the best browsers. The new features are logical, useful steps towards an ideal product but don’t quite get it there yet.

So, that’s my review of Safari, but guess what? Omni made their browser OmniWeb free so now there is a new gun in town, I will let you know about that one next week.

Update 3 – I have found one essential feature missing from the Safari 4 Beta. When quitting with multiple tab open or if (shocker) your browser happens to crash, Safari will not resume your previous session, does not provide a dialogue to save these open tabs or anything. I found this out after I had about 20 tabs open to various news sites with a line of tabs of things to be read from reddit. Wouldn’t you know, Safari crashes(not sure why, might have been the number of tabs) and when I relaunched it only takes you to your Top Sites. When doing a quit by menu it does not save either. This is a major Fail for me, but may not be a big issue for someone more organized.