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Safari 5 in depth: Has it sped past Chrome?

The latest Apple Safari browser is not only fast, but includes extensions and a highly useful reader.

June 12, 2010 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - The just-released Safari 5 ups the ante in the browser wars, with two major improvements: a performance boost to rival speed king Chrome, the highly useful Safari Reader, which makes it much easier to read multi-page Web articles.

Safari 5
The Safari Reader is the browser's most important new feature.

Safari 5 has a host of other useful new features as well, including extensions and better HTML 5 support. Is all this enough to put it at the top of browser pack? In this review, I take an in-depth look at Safari and let you know how it stacks up against the competition.

Reader takes central stage

By far the most important addition to Safari 5 is the Safari Reader. This nifty new feature is not only the best part of the new Safari, but it's also the best new feature that's come along in any browser for quite some time. It's so useful that it would be no surprise if all other browser makers eventually copied it.

When you come to a Web page that Safari identifies as an article, a gray Reader button appears on the right side of the Address Bar. Click the button, and a window appears over the top of your Web page, which displays the article, stripping out ads and extraneous layout. It shows you the text, graphics, videos and links in a very easy to read, scrollable display.

If the article has more than one page, the entire article is included, not just the current page. The original Web page is darkened so that it doesn't distract you as you read the article.

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Buttons at the bottom of the Reader window let you zoom in and out, e-mail the page or print it. When you e-mail the page, it launches your default mail client and embeds the page link in the body of the message.

Printing, though, needs some help, because images inside articles don't print. Instead of the image, there is a large white space, with no option to instruct the Reader to print the image.

Still, that is a minor point. Anyone who frequently reads multi-page articles on the Web will welcome this new feature, which makes it far easier, more productive and more enjoyable to read long articles.

This has both pros and cons for Web publishers, who typically find there's a drop-off in article readership from page to page because people simply don't want to click to the next one. So people using the Reader are likely to read deeper into articles. On the other hand, it may also take revenue away from publishers, because no ads are displayed in the reader. (For more details, see my blog post "Is Apple's Safari 5 a publisher killer?")

Safari Reader, by the way, wasn't built by Apple from scratch. Rather, it's an adaption of the bookmarklet Readability, which is distributed under the Apache 2 Open Source license. Readability can be used with a variety of browsers. It lets you choose from multiple font styles and sizes, which Safari Reader doesn't do. But Safari Reader displays all pages of a multipage Web article in a single, scrollable window, while Readability only displays the current page you're on, not the entire article.

Who's the real speed king?

On its Web site, Apple calls Safari "The world's fastest Web browser." That has generated quite a bit of controversy on the Web, with some saying that Chrome is faster than Safari on both the PC and Mac.

Safari 5
On the SunSpider tests on the PC, Safari ran a close second to Chrome.
Safari 5
On the SunSpider tests on the Mac, Safari beat out Chrome.

The problem is that there are no widely accepted tests that can accurately gauge real-world Web browsing, which includes page loading, running JavaScript, performance on Web-based services such as Gmail, and so on. In my experience, Safari felt slightly faster than Chrome on the Mac, but on the PC, I was unable to discern any difference between the two.

I put Safari, Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer through the most widely accepted browser speed test, the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark suite. I ran the tests three times on each browser on a Dell Dimension 9200 with a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Quad CPU running at 2.4 GHz and 2GB of RAM, running Windows Vista; and a MacBook Air running OS X 10.6.3.

On the Dell, Chrome completed the tests in an average 357ms, versus Safari's slightly slower 380ms. Firefox was well behind at 929ms, about 2.5 times slower than either browser. And Internet Explorer, at 5069ms, was more than 14 times slower than Chrome.

On the Mac, it was a different story, with Safari completing the tests in an average of 425ms compared to Chrome's 491ms. Firefox was again way behind at 1239ms.

So who is the speed king? In real-world use, you'll likely find Safari and Chrome indistinguishable.



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