About two days ago Apple released the beta for the upcoming release of their Safari browser, aptly deemed Safari 4. Nice of them to steer away from the marketing bullshit they like to make with OSX releases, by giving names to what are in fact more like service packs. But I digress.
Safari has always felt a bit outdated to me as far as features go because despite being at the forefront of web standards it seemed like it was lagging behind a little bit in terms of special gadgets Opera has been offering for years and Firefox can do via add-ons. Apple decided to change that and took a big leap forward with Safari's new UI as it utilises fancy 3D rendering techniques previously seen only in Finder and offers a very intuitive way to browse history and bookmarks. However, in certain aspects, I feel as though the leap has been too great and most of all, many of the UI features users of graphical interfaces have been relying on for at least the past 25 years are completely gone in Safari 4.
I'll first go through the stuff I believe Safari 4 does wrong, because I like opening and finishing reviews on a good foot.
Take a look at that screenshot, study it for a little bit. Do you notice anything odd or even strange? Perhaps downright what the fuck?
Well I've been a computer user pretty much all my life and believe myself to have a certain knack for the things. But that interface confused the fuck out of me for quite a long time and if I didn't know all my keyboard shortcuts the browser would probably feel rather useless.
- Where are all my tabs? Oh right, there they are, the place I usually expect to be where I click to drag my browser around. My only guess as to why Apple might decide to do that is mimicking Google Chrome, but an avid user will probably notice that Chrome doesn't take that <application name/window title> away but leaves it intact. Sure it might look a bit funky, but users have been getting used to that thing ever since the dawn of the first GUI interfaces in 1984. Just go check out the history of Mac OS and you'll notice it's there, smack in the first version already.
So how do I drag the window around? Well it turns out I just drag a tab and the window moves. Huh? Alright Apple, but how do I rearrange tabs then? Oooh ... I click the funky triangle thing that in the rest of the Aqua interface means window resize? Well alright.
See, lot's of confusing things going on here. What bothers me most is the inconsistency not only with the rest of the whole operating system, but the gross inconsistency with pretty much any graphical interface out there today.
What about closing tabs? There's that red button thingy in the first tab. Do I click that? No, that's for the whole window ... why exactly the main window controls are nested in the first tab is quite simply beyond me. That will probably never make sense, but hey, at least if I mouseover a tab a new control shows up that allows me to close it. Yay.
But we like opening new tabs as well right? How do we do that? Well, there's the famous keyboard shortcut that's luckily very consistent between all browsers and Apple didn't decide they don't need it. But what of many people who don't use keyboard shortcuts? For them Apple made something special, so special indeed it's hideous.
In the top-right corner where windows users expect the control to close the window to be and Mac users expect either the hide toolbars control or simply nothing ... Apple put a big shaded plus sign. To be honest it took me a while to notice that thing, or even to look up there in the first place.
But wait, there's another huge button there. It looks like an ant of some sort, so what does it do? When I click it there's a modal dialog with something that, I guess, looks a bit like it could be a form for bookmarking, but I'm not sure. There's a field for URL and a field for description. Honestly, I don't expect an average computer user to figure out what the hell that thing is supposed to do.
Some users like refreshing their pages, I couldn't say how often users do this, but being a web developer I do it a lot and, again, without a trusty keyboard shortcut I would be completely at a loss on this new interface. Who had the bright idea of hiding the refresh button in the URL field, right of the RSS icon ... and make it look like an innocous icon? Seriously, that decision just makes very little sense.
The RSS icon. Alright apple, I get it, you love that ugly icon you've been using for a while, but guess what everyone else has agreed upon using the official RSS icon to denote that function. So why not follow suit huh? Give us what we're used to because it's trouble enough explaining to lay people what RSS is in the first place.
Lastly a gripe that doesn't have so much to do with Safari 4 itself, but more with the whole beta thing. It's a simple install, sure, but why on earth does it replace the stable Safari? I mean, what sort of sense does it make that installing a beta version of some software would quite simply wipe the stable version clean off your system so you can't even use it anymore? Will uninstalling Safari 4 even bring Safari 3 back? I don't know, they don't specify and neither do they warn me anywhere my stable browser is about to be replace by the beta.
The annoying "Welcome to Safari 4" animation with sound I can almost excuse, fine, you're Apple, flashy shiny stuff is what you do.
But Safari 4 isn't all bad, there are in fact very many things that it does right and for these alone I could even be persuaded to suffer the bad user interface and relearn all the subconscious mouse and eye movements.
- Speed. Safari 4 is blazingly fast, Apple says it's up to 30 times faster than certain browsers currently out there (yes, IE7) and that it's almost three times faster than Firefox 3, which to me personally has never felt really fast. I must admit that I love how fast the new Safari is because, as strange as this might sound, I've often felt it's actually a lot snappier than the rest of my system.
Lately I've been having issues on my macbook pro because I seem to be running out of RAM or something, but Safari 4 doens't seem to experience any of the symptoms other apps are. There's no lag in bringing it back to life after being idle for a while, no lag in graphical processing when I'm switching spaces like a madman and making my GPU pray for its mummy, none of that. It just ... works, fast.
- There are two fancy GUI items that I've noticed Safari 4 to have, there could be more, but they're too well hidden for me to find under normal use. One is Top Sites (screenshot above and yes, those are porn sites, sue me I am male), which from what I understand looks at your browsing history and figures out which sites you have been visiting most often lately. Aside from this being wonderfully executed as far as graphics go and the whole cylindrical bending being a marvelous way to squeeze more items into a tight space there isn't really much to see here. Opera has had this for at least a year now and I believe there's an add-on for Firefox that does similar. So, yeah, thank you Apple for catching up.
Browsing bookmarks, RSS feeds or history is the next big fancy graphic thingamagic. This emulates one of the browsing modes introduced with Finder in OS X Leopard and I must admit that when I got this MBP and the initial excitement over the fancy browsing died away I've never had much use for this browsing mode. Sure it's alright for browsing photos, but I find Photoshop or iPhoto better suited for that task. Perhaps Safari has finally found a proper use for this feature, but only time will tell because, honestly, I rarely browse my bookmarks or history, but if I did I would probably agree this to be the best way to do it.
Safari 4 is great at standards, seemingly being the first browser in the wild to pass the acid3 test and thus offering full CSS3 support. This is great news for me as a developer because there are many things we'll be able to do once CSS3 becomes adopted in all the major browsers. Of course IE8 probably won't have full support but hey, at least if all the other browsers support it we have a case with our bosses and can convince them to let us play with these new things and stay ahead of the curve.
These aren't necessarily things Safari gets wrong, but they are nonetheless something I'd like to see added in the final version.
Keyboard shortcut to undo tab closing. I miss this in FF3 as well, but I've gotten very used to it in Opera and whenever it doesn't work it's like an electric jolt that pulls me out of whatever I was doing and forces me to think.
URL bar search. FF3.1, I believe, will be adding this, Opera has had it since version 8 or perhaps 7, I can't quite remember. Anyhow, I've gotten used to just going into the URL field and entering a search engine shortcut (like g for google, I have we set for wikipedia so on) and search phrase. Safari not only doesn't have this, but it unlike FireFox doesn't automatically try to at least search google instead showing me an ugly message saying that hey, I got it wrong, use google. Gee thanks, why not use google in my stead hmm?
3.Safari has a wonderful error console for debugging, but why do I have to hunt it down and, if I remember correctly, manually edit some configurations? Please, just make it a checkbox in the settings and I'll be a happy camper.
That's it for my rundown on what Safari 4 gets right and what it gets wrong. It's a wonderful browser, just shame about the UI. What do you guys think? Am I being too picky since this is just a beta? Am I being an arse in going against my fanboy tendencies and saying Apple has made an UI mistake?
Continue reading about Safari 4 sucks. But how badly?
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