Apple's decision to offer a public beta of its new Safari 4 Web browser -- available for Mac OS X and Windows XP and Vista -- caught the tech world by surprise. Even more surprising are the number of innovative features it offers, including in-your-face browser interface advances, under-the-hood updates for notably speedy rendering performance, and open-standards compliance.
Among the features that users will notice right away are refined tabbed browsing, a new "Top Sites" display that shows your most-visited sites, a new way to search through browser history and bookmarks, and a modified tool bar that drops the reload button used to refresh Web pages. (Don't worry; Apple has you covered when it comes to reloading pages.)
The changes to tabs and the Top Sites feature will naturally invite comparisons to Google's Chrome, which was introduced last year and is available only for Windows. Chrome, like the new Safari, also places multiple tabs at the top of a window and offers a similar gallery view of recent sites. But simply seeing Safari's new interface as something cribbed from Chrome is a bit unfair; Apple has provided its own take on both concepts that seems inspired as much by the mobile version of Safari included on the iPhone and iPod Touch as by Google.
And for a public beta -- one that no one outside Apple knew was coming -- Safari 4 seems stable. I've yet to come across any show-stoppers in regular use.
One of the most obvious new features -- you can't miss it when you first launch of Safari 4 -- is a new "Top Sites" page, which is the default view for new windows and tabs. Top Sites offers a 3-D gallery view of what Safari thinks are your favorite Web sites. It chooses the sites, shown as thumbnails in a curved arc across the browser window, based on those you visit most often. The thumbnails are displayed in a grid, and you can choose how many Web pages are displayed: six, 12 or 24.
The thumbnails are freshly generated whenever Top Sites is displayed; they're not just static thumbnails created from previous browser sessions. If sites are dynamic and update in real time, Top Sites will show you live updates of those sites as you watch. If sites include an RSS feed, Safari can alert you that new content is available with a star icon on the appropriate thumbnail. The overall effect is stunning and makes Top Sites look like something from a sci-fi movie or a thriller-inspired virtual control room. It's graphically sharp and useful for a variety of online tasks, from watching a stock ticker to getting news headlines or blog updates.