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Safari 4 beta heats up the already fiery browser wars

What a wonderful world it would be if every industry were like Web browser software. Companies entangle themselves in a fiery arms race to deliver us the absolute best products, free! Can we get the automakers in on this?

Apple's new Safari 4 Web browser
The new Top Sites feature in Apple's Safari 4 beta.

Apple released a beta version of Safari 4 on Tuesday, and it gets a lot of things right. The company bills Safari 4 as the "fastest browser ever," and while my feeble brain has trouble deciphering differences in fractions of a second, it certainly feels snappy.

ZDNet put the claim to the test on the PC and Mac using speed-benchmark software, producing some nifty graphs. Safari did indeed rank in as the fastest -- producing far better results than Firefox, Opera and Internet Explorer (and even the new IE8 that hasn't officially come out yet).

Its only main competition in terms of speed are Minefield (the code name for the next major release of Firefox, presumably version 4) and Chrome. Chrome, Google's Web browser, quickly snapped up about 1% of market share in January, according to Net Applications, an Internet statistics firm. (And in the browser world, 1% is no small potatoes.)

Safari 4 takes one of its most notable new features from Chrome -- the relocation of the tab bar, which lists the window's open Web pages. Apple has moved it to the top of the browser -- probably to preserve space. (Some have expressed outrage over the change, so we've provided a tip at the end of this post to switch back to the old tab format.)

This version of Safari also boasts the addition of Cover Flow -- the visual browsing feature in iTunes, on the iPhone and in just about every new Mac application -- and a similar feature called Top Sites. These ...

...  new features certainly are handy, but the huge time savers are the changes to the location and search bars.

The search bar now provides suggestions as you type, coming from Google's database. And the location bar does something similar based on bookmarks and history. The improved location bar doesn't seem to learn individual browsing habits as well as the Smart Bar in Firefox 3, but it's faster. That seems to be the theme for this new Safari.

In what seems like a never-ending tug of war, Safari 4 has pulled me away from Firefox yet again. And since Mozilla announced Monday that the next version, with its JavaScript speed improvements, won't ship this quarter, it looks like I'll be surfin' Safari for a while.

But I'll still have to keep Firefox around. Some websites, including this very blog and others that use the TypePad service, still aren't fully compatible with the WebKit platform that powers Safari and Chrome.

As if the browser wars weren't hot enough, Google is still expected to ship Chrome for Mac and Linux before the end of this summer -- along with extensions, a feature that's right now only on Firefox. And, hey, even Opera is still around.

With Internet Explorer's market share sinking like a stone (sorry, Google, not even your new toolbar can save Microsoft's dated browser), it looks as if just about every company is throwing its hat into the browser ring. Who comes out on top is anyone's guess, but as of last month, Firefox has a solid 10% lead over Safari. Maybe Safari 4 will narrow that lead a bit.

How to get the old Safari tab bar back: So you're not happy with the new tab bar in Safari 4? You can switch it back to its home below the address bar with a bit of tech hackery. Open up the Terminal application (easiest way is to type "terminal" into Spotlight search), and enter the following line of code:

defaults write com.apple.Safari DebugSafari4TabBarIsOnTop -bool NO

Now, restart Safari. No more title-tab bar hybrid.

-- Mark Milian

 
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