Hands on: Safari 4 beta review

We pit the latest version of Safari against Chrome and Firefox

Safari 4 Safari 4

For a firm whose fans cry plagiarism at the first opportunity, it's always funny when Apple nicks ideas - and with Safari 4, it's clearly been looking at Google Chrome.

Tabs at the top of the window? A grid of frequently visited sites with a Search History option? There's something awfully familiar about that, especially on Windows.

Now that Apple has abandoned its annoying insistence on giving a Windows program the OS X look and feel - something that looks utterly bizarre on a PC - Safari and Chrome could be twins.

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Naturally Apple has taken things a bit further. Top Sites takes some iPhone interface ideas, while Safari 4 brings Cover Flow from iTunes and the OS X Finder to your browser history and bookmarks.

There's multi-touch support for page zooming, improved support for web standards, Google Suggest in the Search box and on Windows, the choice between Apple's font rendering and Windows' own rendering.

It's very pretty. Is it any good?

Safari 4 benchmarks

Apple promises eye-watering performance, and Safari certainly feels fast. We didn't encounter any performance problems either on websites or in online apps such as Google Docs and Gmail, and if we were to describe it in a word we'd say "nippy". But are we imagining things? Time for the spiders.

There are stacks of browsers available for PC and Mac, but we decided to put Safari 4 up against its key rivals on each platform. On the Mac that's Firefox, and on the PC it's Google Chrome. We ran the SunSpider JavaScript benchmarks twice in each browser on identical machines (a MacBook Pro running Leopard and a Core 2 Duo PC running Vista) to see how they fared.

The Mac results weren't even close to Apple's claimed figures, but they still showed that Safari runs JavaScript more quickly than Firefox. Safari ran through the benchmarks in 1,556ms on the first attempt and 1,255ms on the second, while Firefox scored 3,162ms on the first attempt and 3,153ms on the second.

It's worth pointing out that Safari's memory footprint can be hefty: after a full reset, letting Safari idle with only Apple.com displayed took 98MB of RAM compared to Firefox's 60MB. At one point we found Safari using 290MB of RAM to display the Apple UK page alone.

On the PC, the performance gap is narrower - Safari achieved SunSpider scores of 827ms and 803ms, while Google Chrome scored 650ms and 977ms - but the memory footprint is apparent again, with Chrome displaying Apple.com in 23MB of RAM while Safari needed 180MB.

Apple also boasts about Safari's standards support. On both PC and Mac, Safari scored 100/100 in the Acid 3 test. Firefox (Mac) scored 71/100 and Chrome (PC) 79/100.

Safari 4 verdict

Overall, we like Safari 4 a lot. We're not convinced we'll actually use Top Sites or the visual History Search, but flashy gimmicks aside it's a fast and pleasant way to do stuff online.

On the PC it's a vast improvement over its predecessor and an interesting alternative to Google Chrome, and on the Mac it's an excellent Firefox rival.

The big problem is the memory footprint, which can be hefty. We wouldn't want to muck about with Cover Flow-style features on a netbook or an underpowered Mac.

In best Steve Jobs style, we have one more thing to mention. Safari 4's big interface changes - Top Sites, visual bookmark and history browsing - are the sort of attention-grabbing features you brag about when you introduce a new OS.

With Snow Leopard looming, Apple could have kept Safari 4 under wraps for a bit longer. If it's sneaking it out now, what on earth does Apple have up its sleeve for the next OS X?

We like: It's fast, it's simple to use and it's no longer ugly on Windows.

We don't like: Massive memory footprint; nowhere near as expandable as Firefox.