A high school kid, a doctor and a blonde met at a bar and started discussing internet browsers. “It’s like Internet Explorer and Firefox,” said the student. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing you can catch,” assured the doctor. “I know, it’s how I get to Gmail and Facebook and YouTube,” said the blonde. Our point is that everyone who’s familiar with the web has a general idea of what a browser is or what it does. Internet Explorer, Chrome, Opera, Safari and Firefox are some of the names that crop up when we hear the word browser. Apple’s new Safari 5 browser was first spotted at the company’s WWDC and an updated version followed accompanied by extensions. The company’s called it the world’s fastest web browser and claims that it performs twice as fast as the Firefox 3.6 browser we currently use. We tried out the Apple Safari 5.0.1 browser to see if it can live up to the flashy endorsements selling it hard as the browser that emphasizes on the browsing experience.
Microsoft’s Internet Explorer currently enjoys the biggest usage share with Firefox taking the second place, while Safari’s usage share relate mainly to Apple-based web browsing. Is it just us or does Apple sound a bit peevish when they say that ‘before Safari, browsers were an afterthought. Something you put up with if you wanted to surf the internet’. We downloaded the 31MB Safari 5.0.1 from the Apple website for our PC running Windows XP SP2. It took us several minutes to install the browser that we chose to open as soon as the installation process was complete. And then it closed with an error report. Safari does not come bundled with an uninstaller. You’ll have to uninstall it through the default Windows Add/Remove Programs utility on the Control Panel instead. Once we got it back on its feet, it opened up to the Apple Start up page. We decided to start off on the company’s line about browsers preceding Safari being ‘ugly, cluttered affairs, whose interfaces competed for your attention and made browsing more difficult’. The browser certainly scores a high point for design.
The tabs look curvier than those on Firefox and the entire interface has a chic gray appearance. Our PC screen looked much more spacious and less distracting after we hit the options to hide the menu bar, tab bar and bookmarks bar through the settings utility placed in line with the address bar. History, Bookmarks and Top Sites are displayed in the Cover Flow inspired manner that the iTunes album art employs. So you’re not just looking at a list of web pages and their URLs while searching for previously visited sites. The downsized page flows into view when you scroll through the graphically presented list and there’s an option to search through these by typing in a particular word or phrase. Bookmarked pages are also presented in the same colorful way as History. The status bar doesn’t appear by default, which we assume is an attempt to make the browser look minimalistic. Apple could be encouraging careless web use with this, but none among the extensive list of 20 random internet users we interrogated admitted to keeping an eye on this bar while clicking on links.
The Apple and Safari pages, Yahoo!, YouTube, Google Maps, Wikipedia, RSS news feeds and popular sites like Amazon, eBay, Flickr and Facebook arrive with the bookmarks bar by default. You can check on the installed plug-ins, get to the Safari Extensions Gallery, report bugs and more through the Help widget on the menu bar. The installed plug-ins on Firefox can be seen by typing ‘about: plugins’ in the URL bar. The default search engine may be set to Bing, Yahoo! or Google through the edit option on Safari. Additionally, there’s no location bar-based search like that which Firefox offers. We missed the default behavior of Firefox that offers the straightforward option of restoring the previous browsing session in case it crashes. We had to put up with restoring all windows from the last session on Safari through the history option on the menu bar though. Point to be noted, Safari crashed on us twice during a four hour stretch of surfing the web with it.
Safari Reader is one of the best things about the browser and it’s easily accessible via the icon that appears on the Smart Address Field. The icon manifests itself only when the browser detects that users have navigated to a web page with an article. Basically, trying to read through articles on the web without inadvertently watching ads out the corner of your eye is made possible with Safari Reader. You could get rid of ads by using a crack too, but it’s less distracting to have the background totally zoned out while browsing through articles. All the pages show up in just one continuous view and onscreen controls. What’s more, there’s also the option of e-mailing, zooming in/out or printing out web pages being perused through this feature. Though Apple does advertise enhanced HTML5 support with this browser, Windows users are yet to get that support for HTML5 videos on YouTube. Speaking of which, we loaded the same 5.6 minute video hosted on YouTube on both Firefox and Safari only to egg them along a neck and neck race to the finish line. So much for the Nitro Engine upgrade!
Safari Reader is a fresh new way to experience the web. We like the distractions it takes away from rest of the web page as articles are brought to the forefront for perusal.
The browser interface is quite a looker with its sophisticated gray overtones and the Cover Flow-inspired history, bookmarks et al.
There’s a very sparse sprinkling of customization options that come with the browser. The single toggle control for reloading or stopping a web page from loading may add to the minimalism theme. But they seem less accessible and user-friendly than the separate icons for these tasks that can be found in the earlier versions of Firefox.
We couldn’t view the YouTube HTML5 videos on our Windows PC.
The Safari 5.0.1 hardly offers any more than the Firefox browser for Windows. So how well does Safari succeed in the task of taking away distractions? On the whole, Safari 5.0.1 stands out from other browsers because of its design more than anything else. And minimalistic seems to be part of its design theme along with the cool Safari Reader feature. It also gets brownie points for using the Cover Flow idea to display history, bookmarks and top sites. We’re giving it a 9 out of 10 rating.