Browser wars redux: The top 5 contenders duke it out

With major new versions released this year, Firefox, Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Opera and Safari vie for the browser crown.

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Safari 4 (Mac)

Safari 4 for Macintosh offers quick and reliable browsing framed within a minimal interface, with rendering speeds that rival any modern browser on the Mac platform.

Safari's integration with the technologies inherent to Mac OS X and Apple hardware -- like the gesture support for multitouch trackpads -- means that Safari users can expect to enjoy a very Mac-like experience. On a PC running Windows, Safari feels like just another polished browser; on the other hand, on a Mac, the combined package makes it my top pick.

Browser features

Based on the open source WebKit browser engine, Apple's Safari has for years included features such as a built-in Google search field, private browsing, iTunes-esque bookmark management, auto-fill for Web forms, a consistent pop-up blocker, a built-in RSS feed reader and Snapback (the ability to return to the starting point while browsing nested Web pages or search results).

New to Safari 4 is the start page called Top Sites. Top Sites features a Search history field on the lower right and a collection of live Web site previews arranged in a customizable grid array. These previews become populated by sites that are most-visited, and can be easily edited to display thumbnail previews of your favorite Web sites, which are updated dynamically.

Top Sites also displays an indicator -- in the form of a star peering from behind a site's preview -- for sites that have been updated since the last visit; it's handy for tracking multiple sites at a glance. Clicking on any of the site previews zooms the Web site to fill the window.

Clicking in the search field within Top Sites unveils the Cover Flow interface made popular by Apple's iLineup (iTunes, iPhone and Finder also use this view). Large previews of previously visited sites are displayed in succession and then filtered out with each keystroke in the Search field, allowing you to flick through previews of the remaining search results.

Safari 4

Safari 4 is fast, with an uncluttered interface.

As any good Mac app should, Safari supports the multitouch feature used in Apple's current laptops: If you own the right equipment, the Cover Flow search results page can be flipped through using two fingers, as can scrolling through Web pages. You can also pinch to enlarge or shrink Web pages using the trackpad, and you can quickly move back and forward between sites using three-finger swipes. Once you grow accustomed to using gestures to navigate Web pages, it's groan-inducing to use a laptop that lacks these features.

Not all of Safari's new features are as obvious as the Top Sites and search via Cover Flow examples, but Safari packs in a lot, including location-aware browsing, additional tools for developers, offline Web app support, privacy and security additions, to name a few.

One of Safari's strengths is its ability to render sites properly and quickly. Safari was one of the first browsers to score 100% on the Acid3 browser test, which measures how compliant a browser is to Web standards. While Apple's browser parses HTML quickly, JavaScript rendering has also speeded up significantly via Apple's new Nitro engine.

Like Firefox 3.5, Safari 4 expands support for open technologies by embracing HTML 5, which allows developers to add more dazzle to their sites without using proprietary plug-ins. This is still an issue that is being sorted out, but browsers' ability to stream media natively is ultimately a good thing for consumers.

Safari 4

Safari's Top Sites feature includes live previews of your favorite Web sites.

It's worth noting that Safari runs in 64-bit mode under Mac OS 10.6 (Snow Leopard) -- on Intel chipsets that support 64-bit mode, of course.

Another neat trick: Under Snow Leopard, plug-ins such as Flash run in sandboxed mode, which means that Safari doesn't crash when Flash does.

Interface and extras

The first time Safari 4 is launched, it offers up a quick animation showing off the capabilities of HTML 5 and JavaScript. Apple's decision to skip an initial wizard-based setup screen means you can jump right into browsing. Rest assured: Common functions such as importing bookmarks can all be completed after the fact.

The default toolbar currently consists of back and forward buttons, the address bar, and a Google search bar with built-in snapback feature. Below that, the bookmarks bar stores shortcuts to sites, as well as icons allowing access to the Top Sites start page and bookmark management. Beneath that is the area for tabs.

While this may sound typical of other browsers, very little space is wasted in Safari's arrangement; for instance, bookmark addition and reload buttons are integrated into the address bar itself. The lack of superfluous toolbars and buttons increases viewable screen real estate for actual Web content.

The bottom line

Safari 4 may not be right for everyone, as it lacks the support for add-ons available on competing browsers such as Firefox. However, the snappy rendering coupled with an uncluttered interface makes it easy for users to surf the Web with minimal distractions, and because of that, Safari is my browser of choice when navigating the constantly shifting Internet jungle.

-- Michael DeAgonia


So which browser do we think is best for Mac and Windows?

If you're a Windows user, the best browser is Firefox. Sure, Chrome might be faster, Opera may have a fuller suite of capabilities and Internet Explorer may have one-of-a-kind features such as Web Slices. But when it comes to the best combination of speed, usability and features, Firefox is still the champ, especially given the thousands of free add-ons that give it capabilities no other browser can offer.

As for the Mac, Safari is the top choice. Even though it doesn't support add-ons as Firefox does, it has an elegant, uncluttered interface and it's as fast as greased lightning, a combination that can't be beat.

Do you agree or disagree with our picks? Let us know in the article comments.

Preston Gralla is a Computerworld contributing editor specializing in Windows. Michael DeAgonia is a frequent Computerworld contributor specializing in Macs.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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