I'm not a fan of Apple, mostly because of my first job after college. I had to lay out newspaper pages in Adobe PageMaker on a green iMac G3 with a hockey puck mouse. The computer crashed all the time, had a ton of weird idiosyncrasies, and the lack of a right mouse button drove me crazy. So I wasn't expecting much from the Safari 4.0 for PC beta, released today. I was pleasantly surprised.

Once I downloaded the beta from the Apple site, installation was fast and easy. Like most installers these days, the Safari wizard tried to give me some software I didn't want. In this case, it wanted to install the totally unnecessary Bonjour for Windows and schedule automatic updates, but I unchecked those options and no weird stuff seems to have been installed. Safari does use the Apple Software Update application, which has been criticized for pushing unwanted applications, but it isn't scheduled to run automatically. Just be careful to uncheck unwanted boxes when you run Apple Software Update.

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My first impression of Safari was that it's a lot like Google Chrome. The tabs are at the top of the window, and Safari opens new tabs with a 12-panel view of your most visited sites. Like Chrome Safari's default appearance is very spare, leaving most of your screen to display sites. I prefer Safari's appearance over Chrome's, however. Safari has a professional look that blends in well with Windows Vista.

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Browsing Performance

Safari's site boasts that the browser is fast, and I agree. I didn't run performance benchmarks, but pages like Gmail and Google Maps worked very quickly and script-heavy pages with lots of Flash ads never bogged it down. It also handled multiple tabs playing high quality YouTube videos without slowing down. Safari didn't crash or hang at all for the time I used it, and I didn't notice any bugs.

Site compatibility was good for a full, released browser, not to mention a day-one beta. Although I've only used Safari for a couple of hours, the only sites I could find that didn't display correctly were from Microsoft (which isn't all that surprising, as even Internet Explorer 8 has to use a compatibility mode to render Microsoft.com). Most sites worked fine, including Gmail, but Hotmail simply didn't work. I could log on and see a list of emails, but clicking them didn't open them.

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It's worth noting that Safari 4.0 passes the Acid3 test for web standards, meaning it renders pages according to how standards groups think it should. As web browsers move toward standards, it should make it easier for designers to make sites that look the same for everyone. Some pre-release browsers other than Safari 4.0 pass the test, but none of the current versions of major browsers pass.

Thinking Different

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I guess it just wouldn't be an Apple product if Safari didn't do a few things differently from everybody else, for better or worse. For instance, Safari has a really useful Find feature that not only highlights your search term as you type it, but also dims the rest of the screen, making it easy to find what you're looking for. But the search bar doesn't behave as I expect it to; if you hit Ctrl-F when the search bar isn't open, you get a cursor in the search box and can start typing right away. If the search bar is already open, however, nothing happens when you hit Ctrl-F. You have to move the cursor into the search box yourself.

Similarly, Safari has an interesting way of displaying your Internet history, but I had trouble finding a simple way to access this display—pressing Ctrl-H doesn't work here the way it does in every other browser I've used, you have to click the Show All Bookmarks button. Once you track it down, the history tool looks and works a lot like Vista's Flip 3D, with images of the sites you've visited.

I'd like to use it, but…

I found a lot to like about Safari. It looks good, performs well, and has a ton of little touches that just make it lovable, like how when I opened several sites that asked for login information, Safari kept the logon pop-ups inside each site's tab, not interrupting anything else. I'd like to use Safari 4.0 as a browser for a few weeks really get to know it, but I won't leave Firefox because it lacks a few things that I use.

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For starters, I use Hotmail. I assume Hotmail will work under Safari soon and it might be nothing more than a problem with my specific configuration, but until Safari and Hotmail can play together, I'm out. Aside from that, I won't use Safari because it lacks functions I can get in Firefox with add-ons. Safari has some add-ons, but they're scattered around the web and many of them aren't free. Firefox has a huge collection of free add-ons available from the Firefox site to customize your browser.

Safari also has some disadvantages compared to Internet Explorer, especially in a corporate setting. Unlike Safari, IE is integrated into Windows and can be controlled with tools such as Group Policy. Also, because of its large user base, most sites are designed for IE, so you could have compatibility problems. I've heard of several intranet sites that can only be accessed with IE, and you're limited to the light version of Outlook Web Access using Safari.

I don't know if Safari will ever get the kind of attention on Windows PCs that IE, Firefox, and even Chrome have gotten, but I think it deserves some. Unless you use Hotmail or sites that only work with IE (and assuming you aren't a browser control freak like me who needs a vast library of add-ons), I strongly recommend you give Safari a try. You might be surprised.

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