It's been almost two years since I've looked at Apple's Safari browser in any official capacity (see my overview of Safari 3), and for good reason: Safari simply isn't a good option for Windows users. It never has been. And, I suspect, it never will be.

Well, kudos to Apple for keeping up the good fight. They're back this week with a beta version of their upcoming Safari 4 browser, which appears to be Google Chrome with a few UI changes. As an Apple product, it's immediately interesting of course. But as an Apple product, it's also uniquely unsuitable for Windows users. And that's too bad, because the underlying Web rendering technology utilized by Safari--WebKit--has a better than average chance of becoming the technology layer through which most of us access the Web and cloud-based services of the future. I just wish Apple could get the basics right on Windows. Safari 4, like its predecessors, is just a horrible Windows application.

Of course, Apple being Apple, they are promoting Safari 4 as if it were the second coming. It's "the world's fastest, most efficient, and most innovative" browser, according to the humble folks in Cupertino, and they're even touting its "new Windows-native look," which, as anyone who's used the browser will tell you, is long overdue. (Previous versions looked like an OS X app.)

Apple Safari 4 for Windows
Apple Safari 4 for Windows.

Apple Safari 4 for Windows
Safari 4 shares some DNA, and some user interface elements, with Google Chrome.

Here's what's new for Windows users.

Native Windows look and feel

Apple says that Safari 4 looks more like a Windows application than its predecessors, and while that's certainly true enough, the bar was pretty low. This time around, Safari utilizes native Windows-style window borders and semi-native window control buttons (Minimize, Maximize/Restore, and Close) on both Windows XP and Vista (and 7). Apple oddly claims that the Safari 4 title bar and toolbar are native as well, but that's clearly not the case. And I will discuss the browser's most horrible user experience miscarriage, its "tabs on top" functionality, in just a bit.

Apple is hiding the Safari menu bar by default, a curiously IE-like move that hides some needed functionality. Just tap Alt to see the menu, or you can enable it for good if you'd like.

While I appreciate any move towards native Windows controls--you know, God forbid, the thing does run in Windows after all--Apple's use of standard Windows font rendering, is perhaps, the browser's most appealing concession to the dominant computing platform. In previous versions of Safari, the browser render text in a bizarre, overly saturated, high contrast fashion that was almost unbearable to look at. Now, in Safari 4, text is very readable and more akin to what we see in Mozilla Firefox or Internet Explorer.

Tabs on Top

Apple's worst decision in this browser is the way it handles tabs. Most browsers dedicate a row somewhere between the top of the browser window and the page rendering area for tabs. But in Safari, tabs are integrated into the title bar area. This functionality has several consequences, most of which are bad, especially in Windows Vista and 7 where the title bar is transparent glass.

Apple Safari 4 for Windows
Safari's new tabs look ugly no matter how many there are.

Apple claims that moving the tabs to the title bar saves space. But it only saves space because Safari now uses a native-like title bar: In previous versions of the browser on Windows, there was no true (i.e. native) title bar, so the tab row didn't really add to the height of the UI.

Apple also claims that the new Tabs on Top reduces clutter, but the truth is, on Vista and 7, it looks horrible and cluttered. The problem is that that glass title bars allow stuff behind Safari to peak through. And because the title bar in Safari can be split up into multiple tabs, each with their own little UI controls and text, the title bar area gets very messy, very quickly. It looks horrible regardless of what's behind it: A solid color, a desktop background photo, or other windows. It's cluttered and ugly. (It looks a bit better in Windows XP.)

Overall, I appreciate what Apple is trying to do here. The problem is that the solution it arrived at offers too little value and too much cluttering. I'd rather have a dedicate tab row. On today's high-res displays, it just doesn't take up that much space anyway. This is a solution in search of a problem.

Top Sites

Apple fanatics--you know, those idiots who would buy anything with an Apple logo on it--will get all giddy and clap like little girls at a Hannah Montana concert when they see Top Sites, the new default Safari 4 home page. But these people are missing the point (what else is new?): Top Sites' curved, TV-like display would look wonderful on, well, a TV. But it's pointlessly visual in a tool that, by nature, is used to find information online. It's unclear why a simple grid of Web site previews wouldn't be just as useful, and more in keeping with the Web browser aesthetic. Oh, right: Microsoft did it first, in IE 7, over two years ago (Figure). (Actually, Microsoft did the Top Sites UI first as well, in its Windows Live for TV project. At least they had the common sense to know that UI only makes sense on TV.) The way Google handles this in Chrome is much cleaner (Figure).

Apple Safari 4 for Windows
Top Sites brings a TV-like display to the browser. For some reason.

The nicest thing about Top Sites is that you can turn it off: You can change your Home Page as needed, and configure new tabs and windows not to use Top Sites if you'd prefer. At the very least, I wish they'd offer a few Top Sites "themes," including a flatter, less flamboyant grid of site previews. You know, like IE.

If you are a fan of Top Sites--i.e. are most likely a Mac user--than you will be happy to hear that you can customize a few features. You can choose between small, medium, and large grids, pin top sites where you want them, and remove sites you'd rather not see in the grid. I'm sure some people will think that customizing this thing is a good use of their time.

Cover Flow

And speaking of pointless visual effects, allow me to point out the most recent and most egregious use of Apple's Cover Flow display. This display, which Apple purchased from a third party company, makes some sense in highly graphical UIs, like when browsing album art in iTunes. It makes less sense in, say, a PC operating system shell, where Apple uses it as an optional view style in its OS X Finder. And it makes absolutely no sense at all in a browser. Naturally, Apple added it to Safari.

Cover Flow is used in Safari to browse Bookmarks and browser history in a manner similar to which you can flick through album art in iTunes. Well, not so much similar as identical. It's the same thing. There are so many problems with this UI paradigm, it's hard to even know where to start, and of course we'll have to discuss it over the giddy clapping of those easily-impressed Apple geeks in the corner.

Apple Safari 4 for Windows
Cover Flow rears its head, unnecessarily, in Safari 4.

My favorite part about Safari's Cover Flow is that it's hard to find. You have to click the "Show All Bookmarks" button in the Bookmarks toolbar to access the new Bookmarks library, which also includes History and other browser-related lists. Because I turn off the Bookmarks toolbar right-off, I'm less likely to run into this horrible UI.

From a usability standpoint, it's unclear that most people will make a quick connection between many Web sites and a thumbnail representing them. So we have to actually scan each thumbnail, trying to recollect what it is, wasting time. Or we can simply read its name in text, below the thumbnail, which sort of usurps the point of Cover Flow's graphical display when you think about it.

Look, I'm no Luddite. But I think some of the UIs in Safari get in the way of using the thing, and this is a great example. Since Apple stole so much of Safari from Google's Chrome, they should consider going all the way and adopting that browser's less-is-more philosophy. This stuff is pointless.

But wait, there's more

While the three previous features represent the lion's share of important new Safari 4 features, there is of course a lot more going on. The browser now supports IE-like zoom which scales graphics with the text and looks quite nice. Its Search Box has been enhanced with search recommendations, which pop-down in a list under the box as you type but lack the graphical niceties of IE's search box. And it includes a ton of potentially useful developer features, including excellent support for Web standards and a new developer toolbar. Apple says that the browser's new JavaScript engine helps Safari 4 load Web pages three times faster than IE 7 or Firefox, but I've seen nothing like that in my own usage.

Safari still lacks a true full-screen mode, I feature I enjoy using in both IE and Firefox. But it is generally much more compatible with Web sites than were early versions of the browser, a trait it shares (not coincidentally) with Google Chrome. It runs most popular Web content, including Flash, natively and without issue.

So here's the deal

I like the underpinnings of Safari but I'm no fan of Apple's half-hearted concessions to Windows users and its over-the-top user interfaces. If you're looking for a good WebKit-based browser, just stick with Google Chrome, which will be updated constantly and frequently in the coming months to address functional shortcomings in the initial release. But I still feel that Internet Explorer (7 or 8) and Firefox 3 are better Windows Web browsers than their WebKit-based competitors, and that has nothing to do with the underlying Web rendering technologies involved and everything to do with functionality. Both browsers are simply better in day to day usage.

It's hard to know what to think about Safari on Windows, and it's unclear if Apple is even serious about treating Windows users fairly. If you look over Safari's capabilities on Mac OS X, you'll see some unique Mac-only features that are interesting, and certainly the browser is less jarring looking on that platform. On Windows ... I don't know. I suspect most people who excitedly try Safari 4 will very quickly move back to the more comfortable confines of IE or Firefox. I already have.