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.

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 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.

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.

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.

Extensions come to Safari

Apple has announced that Safari now supports extensions. As of yet, there is no official extensions page, but Apple has begun allowing developers to join the program to create them. Some developers have jumped the gun and already built extensions, and if you're willing to do a bit of work, you can use them now.

If you're using a PC, click the gear icon at the far right of Safari and choose Preferences -->Advanced. Check the box next to "Show Develop menu in menu bar" and exit the Advanced screen. Then press the Alt key, and a menu bar will appear at the top of Safari. Select Develop --> Enable Extensions.

On the Mac, you simply click Safari on the menu bar, then select Preferences and follow the same basic instructions as on a PC. The Develop menu will then appear automatically, unlike on the PC, which requires you to hit the Alt key.

You're now ready to use extensions. Apple's official site isn't up yet, so at this point you're limited to unofficial extensions that developers have created. A good place to start is the Safari Extensions page. There's not much noteworthy there yet, but it's worth checking out.

Click the link for any extension, and you'll be sent to the developer's page. After you've downloaded an extension, double-click it to install it.

To manage your extensions or to uninstall them in Windows, you click the gear icon at the far right of Safari and choose Preferences --> Advanced. You'll see an Extensions tab which was turned on when you checked the box next to "Show Develop menu in menu bar." On the Mac, you'll now have an Extensions tab in your Safari Preferences where you can manage or uninstall your extensions.

HTML 5 support

Safari 5, like Chrome and virtually all other browsers, is jumping on the HTML 5 bandwagon and promising support for HTML 5 features such as geolocation services and playing embedded videos. I've tested out both features on Safari, and they work as promised.

When you come to a Web site that uses geolocation services, you'll get a notice from that Web site asking permission to use geolocation services. You can then make use of all its features, such as showing businesses near your current location.

You can also turn off geolocation entirely by going to the Preferences screen, clicking the Security tab and unchecking the box next to Location services.

HTML 5 video lets you play videos embedded in Web pages without add-ins or additional technologies such as Flash. The controls for playing video are right on the page itself. As of yet, there's very little HTML 5-based video on the Web, although YouTube has an experimental program that you can try out. You can also see some demonstrations at Apple's HTML 5 Showcase.

Other goodies

You'll find a number of other changes in Safari 5 as well. When you type text into the Address Bar, it now searches your history and bookmarks, as virtually all other browsers do now. But the Address Bar doesn't do double-duty as a search box, as it does in Chrome.

Speaking of search, you now have the choice of using Bing as a search engine (previously, you could only use Google and Yahoo).

Finally, with Safari 5, you get better control of how your tabs function. You can, for example, tell Safari to open all links in new tabs, rather than in new instances of the browser.

Safari versus the other browsers

How does Safari stack up against Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer? When it comes to speed, Safari's at the head of the pack -- at least, on the Mac. Its new Reader feature is unique among browsers; as a result, for reading long Web articles, Safari is clearly the best browser.

However, even though Safari now supports extensions, at the moment there are few available, so it's far behind Firefox and even Chrome in this area. Its Address Bar is the least functional of all the browsers, and its bookmarking, which is no different from the last version, is still very basic and leaves something to be desired.

As for HTML 5 support, there are so few HTML 5-enabled sites and features these days, it's not yet particularly useful.

The upshot is that anyone who already uses Safari should upgrade immediately. Those who have yet to use Safari may well want to download it as well, if only to check out the Safari Reader for reading long articles, and for experiencing speedy Web browsing.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor to Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

This story, "Safari 5 in depth: Has it sped past Chrome?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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