Steve Jobs infamously quipped in ’97 that “Internet Explorer is a really good browser”, then followed up 6 years later by unveiling Safari and predicting that “many will feel it’s the best browser ever created. A decade later, and Safari commands around 14% of the browser market — and additionally, derivatives of its Webkit core power Safari and Opera as well, which have a combined marketshare of around 32%.
iOS is largely responsible for Safari’s large browser share today, but on the Mac, Safari still gives you the smoothest browsing experience. Apple’s maintained that with Safari 7 in OS X Mavericks, and thrown in some extra features that make browsing nicer, even if Safari’s not competing in the web app’s world the way Google’s Chrome is. It’s the browser still focused on making browsing nice.
It’s the Little Things
Safari 7 looks and feels almost the same as Safari 6, but you’ll notice something new right from the first time you open it: the redesigned Top Sites screen. No longer a 3D wall of sites, Safari 7’s made the Top Sites page one you’ll likely want to visit a bit more often. It’s got your top sites as before, albeit in a much more subdued interface that’s reminiscent of a darker version of Chrome, but it also has a new sidebar on the left that shows your bookmarks, Reading List, and shared links from Twitter. The latter, combined with the built-in push notifications from Twitter and tweeting tools built into most apps, makes the Mac almost have a built-in Twitter client, albeit one that’s split across the system.
Here’s how it works. You can browse through your Safari Reading List and any of the recent tweets in your stream that include a link right inside the Top Sites page, and can even search the stream to find links about topics you want. Then, select a link, and you’ll see the tweet at the top of your window and the webpage underneath. Scroll to the end, and there will be the next tweet — or article in your reading list — ready for you to read directly by simply scrolling down a bit further. There’s also options to retweet the original tweet right from Safari, as you’d expect. It’s a nice extra in Safari that puts browsing back into the browser.
If you love reading online, Safari 7 also brings a redesign to the the Safari Reader view. It now turns the entire browser off-white for an even nicer long-form reading experience, with font size options at the top and nothing else to distract you. Combine that with the Reading List improvements, and Safari’s finally a solid contender to any other reading later service if you use Safari on your Mac and iOS by default.
There’s one strange downside to the changes, though: bookmarks management was moved entirely to the Top Sites page, so history was left with a basic list view and not much else. The old coverflow view of your history is long-gone now. I happen to doubt few people actually used it, but it’s one feature that’s missing.
The Need for Speed
What really matters is how the browser works for the old-fashioned task of using the internet. We need a browser that loads sites fast, stays responsive when you’ve got a ton of tabs open, and integrates great with the Mac’s best features. Safari 6, for all its great OS X integration, always felt a bit slower than Chrome, and had the irritating tendency to reload all of your webpages if one page decided to stop working.
What Apple’s really focused on this time, though, is Safari’s power consumption and memory usage. And in that, Safari decidedly comes out on top. It’s still memory hungry, but if you watch Activity Monitor you’ll see that it’s both easier on your ram and CPU than Chrome. It also keeps Flash from loading by default, showing the same preview of Flash media you’d expect from, say, a video, but then letting you know that you’ll need to click to load Flash and start the video. Seeing how bad Flash is on the battery and overall performance, that seems like a great choice for anyone who wasn’t already using ClickToFlash — and since it still loads Flash on sites you approve, it won’t be too annoying if you leave it on. Mavericks’ battery meter makes it blindingly obvious that the browser is often the biggest power consumer in a normal office workflow on the Mac, and Safari’s gains here sure are nice if you’re trying to keep your Mac feeling fast.
Then, there’s extra touches in Safari 7 that are very nice, which are actually things that Chrome has had in some way for a while. When you close a tab, the x on the next tab immediately lines up with your mouse button so you can easily clear out a number of open tabs without going back and forth. It’s a small but welcome design touch that’s surprisingly late to Safari. Then, websites can now send you push notifications through Safari, which look and work just as you’d expect. They’re the very same as normal notifications, and you’re asked by each site that wants to send notifications before they’re enabled, so it should be a helpful addition if you use web apps during your workday.
If the semi-frequent website hacks — Adobe’s being the most recent high-profile one that affected many of us — aren’t enough to have you thinking about security, Apple’s reminding you in Mavericks to think again. Safari 7 brings along the new iCloud Keychain that goes far beyond the old option in Safari to simply remember your passwords in your OS X Keychain. The new Keychain is synced over iCloud to your iOS devices and other Macs, promising seamless login to all your accounts from all your devices. And, it goes a step beyond just saving passwords by suggesting easy-to-type yet secure random passwords when you’re changing passwords on your accounts.
You’ll be prompted to setup an iCloud Keychain passcode when you’re installing OS X Mavericks, as well as a phone number (almost every country is supported, too) for 2-factor authentication when you add iCloud Keychain to another device. Then, there’s nothing else to setup. It’ll automatically work in Safari, saving login data whenever you choose to add it, and suggesting new passwords that it’ll automatically save whenever you’re changing an account’s passwords. Oddly enough, though, Safari absolutely will not create passwords for sites that haven’t already requested Safari store date — which essentially means that if you’ve never logged into an account on said site in Safari, Safari won’t suggest passwords for that site. That makes it useless for making secure passwords for new accounts, unless your idea of fun is making a new account and immediately changing your password.
It’s a nice start in trying to get people to use more secure passwords, but since it only supports Safari and has no import/export option — and is as limited as it is — we don’t really recommend relying on iCloud Keychain unless you were already relying on your browser to save your passwords. The new 1Password 4 is a far better tool, as is LastPass and other simpler password tools.
On the Mac, there’s only one browser that brings an 100% native feel to the web: Safari. Its smooth zoom and multitouch gesture integration are enough to make it the browser of choice for OS X, especially now with its tab isolation, speed improvements, and little touches that just make it feel polished. Chrome’s next down the list, as its somewhat faster in speed texts and has great offline web app support, but has only rather kludgy zoom and multitouch gesture support. Firefox, sadly, feels like it’s been totally left behind, without modern scrolling in OS X and zero multitouch gesture support.
If Safari’s already your default browser, plan to be pleasantly surprised by how it’s improved. If it’s not your default browser, go give it a solid try for a week and see what you’ve been missing. You might go back to Chrome or Firefox, but I happen to think you just might be hooked.