Quick Take: Apple Safari 5

While Apple's hyperbolic iPhone 4 announcement got all the press this week, the Cupertino company did actually release a product during its Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), albeit in quiet form: A new version of the Safari web browser, version 5, is now available for both Mac and Windows.

Safari 5 follows its predecessor, Safari 4, by almost exactly a year, and on the surface at least, very little has changed. It looks and works almost exactly like Safari, providing the same bland user interface. And as always, Safari is based on the same WebKit rendering engine utilized by Google's more popular and, to date, more capable browser.

Apple Safari 5

So why even bother with Safari when there are superior options available? In this version, Apple has upped the ante in a number of ways, adding one unique and desirable major new feature, following other browser makers with support, finally, for extensions, and bumping up the browser's performance and support for HTML 5. It's unclear whether these changes will be enough to woo users away from more popular browsers like IE 8, Firefox, or Chrome. But credit Apple, at least, for trying.

Here's what's new in Safari 5.


Safari Reader

Safari 5's major new feature is a boon to anyone that spends a lot of time on the web reading news articles and other stories but is tired of navigating through the numerous advertisements and other clutter that appear on mainstream web sites. When Safari detects that you're on a web page with an article of some kind, it offers a Reader icon in the Address Bar, similar in placement and look to the RSS icon. You can click this icon to switch into Reader mode.

Apple Safari 5

In Reader mode, Safari displays just the article in a pleasant, simple layout, dimming the web page behind it.

Apple Safari 5

Mouse around, and you'll see some onscreen controls appear, providing zoom, email, and print options. (These controls are similar to the onscreen controls you see in the iTunes video playback window and in various applications in Mac OS X.) And Reader can even detect multiple-page articles. When it does so, it displays the article in a single view, further simplifying navigation.

Apple Safari 5

While it's not clear how Reader detects an article, it does seem to work well. However, on my own sites, multi-page articles are not displayed in a single view. This is likely a coding issue on my part, and I'm curious to see if this will be fixed when we move to a more modern infrastructure.

Extensions

While other browsers have had extensions for years, Safari limps into this extensibility model years late, and even though the support is there in Safari 5, it's almost impossible to find and use at this time. To enable extensions, you need to first display the Developer menu, enable the extensions option, and then launch the Preferences dialog, where you'll find a new--and empty--Extensions tab. Then, you need to find an extension or two for testing. And the joke's on you, because you can't do that from this interface.

Apple Safari 5

Apple promises that it will open a web gallery devoted to Safari extensions "later this summer." For now, it's inviting developers to join the free Safari developer program and create and submit extensions. My expectation is that major, tier-one extensions will become available pretty quickly, though I doubt Safari will ever see the same support that Firefox and Chrome now enjoy. Still, just providing this functionality answers a major complaint and removes a major failing of previous versions of this browser.

Bing

Over the past month or so, rumors suggested that Apple was getting ready to drop Google as its default search engine in the iPhone version of the Safari web browser. These rumors were only partially true. Apple is not dropping Google, but it is adding Bing as a search engine option. And it is doing so in the desktop version of Safari 5 as well as on the iPhone.

Apple Safari 5

There's not much to write here: Bing searching works exactly as does Google or Yahoo searching, and it appears in the Safari search box if you choose it as the default.

Performance and HTML 5 improvements

Thanks to the underlying Nitro JavaScript engine and the WebKit rendering engine, Safari has always offered excellent performance and support for leading-edge web standards (and standards-to-be) like HTML 5. These trends continue in Safari 5. Apple claims that Safari is "the world's fastest browser," and while third party tests have effectively debunked this claim, the performance differences between the top five browsers can generally be measured within the time span it takes to blink an eye. Safari 5 is fast, really fast, from what I can see.

Browser makers are talking a lot about HTML 5 compliance these days, but it seems to be that the browsers based on WebKit (i.e. Safari and Chrome) are leading the pack, and by a wide margin. And while this support is largely interesting only from a feature checklist perspective, Safari 5 does add support for a number of potentially useful HTML 5 technologies, including full screen video playback, closed captioning in video, geolocation, and more.

In many ways, Safari's biggest claim to fame is its familial relations with its iPhone-based brother. And where Safari for the Mac and PC represents less than 5 percent of web usage right now, the iPhone browser is dominant in the mobile space. Improvements that happen on the PC side will generally make their way to the iPhone browser, and vice versa. So Apple's continued improvements have implications beyond just the Mac and PC.

But wait, there's more

Apple notes a few other improvements to Safari 5. The Address Bar picks up my favorite Chrome feature and autocompletes web site addresses based on the sites you visit most. So when I select the Address Bar and type win, it immediately auto-completes to winsupersite.com as it should. It supports another bit of functionality I also prefer where new window requests actually open in new tabs instead, reducing clutter. And Apple claims that Safari 5 supports hardware acceleration in Windows, a feature Microsoft promises for IE 9. I haven't been able to verify that this works, or in which situations it works, however.

Final thoughts

In a market crowded with capable competition, Safari 5 finally bridges the functionality gap that has long prevented it from achieving any sizeable usage share, and the new Reader feature could prove interesting to people who get their news on the web. I'm not sure it's enough to drive people away from their browser of choice, but with this version, for the first time, Safari users finally get a first-class experience. It's certainly worth checking out.