Safari has never been very formidable in the browser wars, always holding just a few percentage points of the browser share on the bottom of the list.

Of course, now that it’s no longer a Mac-only browser, it’s share has grown as a few (admittedly brave) folks downloaded it for their PCs. Even still, the vast majority of Safari users were Mac users who used Safari by default because they were too lazy to actually choose another (better) browser.

On Tuesday, Apple announced the beta for Safari 4 for both Windows and Mac. Apple has pulled out all the stops to make Safari an attractive browser that people will actually want to use. Heavy on new technical features as well as eye candy, this is quite possibly the first time Safari has resembled a browser that has the brilliant minds behind Apple’s design. Granted, most of the features just appearing now have been in other browsers. This time, however, Apple has put its own spin on them to make them, well… just work.

The first difference greeting users (after a brief, yet fancy, intro movie) is that Safari now offers better visual integration with the Window’s OS, featuring a standard title bar with buttons. While the chrome of Apple’s applications remains on the rest of the window, it is less distracting than before. Also, instead of a tab bar, tabs show up in the title bar like in Google Chrome (a feature Apple calls “Tabs on Top”). While I’m not a personal fan of this style because it prevents tab rearranging, it does take up less screen real estate.

The address bar and search box now have “AwesomeBar” like features, suggesting visited sites and bookmarks. When typing in addresses. The new home screen for empty windows and tabs shows the users’ most visited sites, a feature that Opera users have had for a long time, and intrepid Firefox users can add via plug-in. The screen is constantly updated over time, but can be customized by pinning or hiding links. Clicking on one of the tabs animates it as it moves to fill the window, a small piece of eye candy that is utterly cool to watch. Actually, the browser is full of these small animations that the average user doesn’t notice consciously, but make for a better visual experience, something Apple has always incorporated into its products.

Users can now look through and search their histories and bookmarks using Coverflow. Each entry has a screen shot saved for it. I find this interface for viewing bookmarks and histories actually to be more intuitive for both the average user who is likely to be a bit daunted by the system file structure as well as for native OS X users.

Something I found interesting and rather unique is the built-in RSS viewer. The in-browser RSS reader allows users to scroll through the stories, adjust them for length, sort them by any number of descriptors, and even search them, all from the same window. And while most users who know what RSS is will likely keep using a separate reader, these features are still very useful for quick browsing.

On the technical side, Apple claims that the new Nitro Engine renders Javascript faster than every other browser, and includes benchmarks to support their claims. In a completely biased and unscientific survey, I thought surfing through AJAX heavy sites like Gmail, Google Calendar, and Facebook was indeed snappy, so I’m likely to believe Apple assertions.

Safari still lacks an add-on architecture, which is perhaps Firefox’s best attribute, and the largest thing to keep Safari from gaining significant browser share. Otherwise, Apple has picked the best features of the browsers on the market and wrapped them up in a slick package that certainly deserves a look.

About The Author

Michael Kaufmann, lover of all things science and gadget, is a contributing editor at Blast. He can be reached at kaufmann.m@blastmagazine.com.

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