Safari 5 in depth: Has it sped past Chrome?

The latest Apple Safari browser is not only fast, but includes extensions and a highly useful reader.

I put Safari, Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer through the most widely accepted browser speed test, the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark suite. I ran the tests three times on each browser on a Dell Dimension 9200 with a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Quad CPU running at 2.4 GHz and 2GB of RAM, running Windows Vista; and a MacBook Air running OS X 10.6.3.

On the Dell, Chrome completed the tests in an average 357ms, versus Safari's slightly slower 380ms. Firefox was well behind at 929ms, about 2.5 times slower than either browser. And Internet Explorer, at 5069ms, was more than 14 times slower than Chrome.

On the Mac, it was a different story, with Safari completing the tests in an average of 425ms compared to Chrome's 491ms. Firefox was again way behind at 1239ms.

So who is the speed king? In real-world use, you'll likely find Safari and Chrome indistinguishable.

Extensions come to Safari

Apple has announced that Safari now supports extensions. As of yet, there is no official extensions page, but Apple has begun allowing developers to join the program to create them. Some developers have jumped the gun and already built extensions, and if you're willing to do a bit of work, you can use them now.

If you're using a PC, click the gear icon at the far right of Safari and choose Preferences -->Advanced. Check the box next to "Show Develop menu in menu bar" and exit the Advanced screen. Then press the Alt key, and a menu bar will appear at the top of Safari. Select Develop --> Enable Extensions.

On the Mac, you simply click Safari on the menu bar, then select Preferences and follow the same basic instructions as on a PC. The Develop menu will then appear automatically, unlike on the PC, which requires you to hit the Alt key.

You're now ready to use extensions. Apple's official site isn't up yet, so at this point you're limited to unofficial extensions that developers have created. A good place to start is the Safari Extensions page. There's not much noteworthy there yet, but it's worth checking out.

Click the link for any extension, and you'll be sent to the developer's page. After you've downloaded an extension, double-click it to install it.

To manage your extensions or to uninstall them in Windows, you click the gear icon at the far right of Safari and choose Preferences --> Advanced. You'll see an Extensions tab which was turned on when you checked the box next to "Show Develop menu in menu bar." On the Mac, you'll now have an Extensions tab in your Safari Preferences where you can manage or uninstall your extensions.

HTML 5 support

Safari 5, like Chrome and virtually all other browsers, is jumping on the HTML 5 bandwagon and promising support for HTML 5 features such as geolocation services and playing embedded videos. I've tested out both features on Safari, and they work as promised.

When you come to a Web site that uses geolocation services, you'll get a notice from that Web site asking permission to use geolocation services. You can then make use of all its features, such as showing businesses near your current location.

You can also turn off geolocation entirely by going to the Preferences screen, clicking the Security tab and unchecking the box next to Location services.

HTML 5 video lets you play videos embedded in Web pages without add-ins or additional technologies such as Flash. The controls for playing video are right on the page itself. As of yet, there's very little HTML 5-based video on the Web, although YouTube has an experimental program that you can try out. You can also see some demonstrations at Apple's HTML 5 Showcase.

Other goodies

You'll find a number of other changes in Safari 5 as well. When you type text into the Address Bar, it now searches your history and bookmarks, as virtually all other browsers do now. But the Address Bar doesn't do double-duty as a search box, as it does in Chrome.

Speaking of search, you now have the choice of using Bing as a search engine (previously, you could only use Google and Yahoo).

Finally, with Safari 5, you get better control of how your tabs function. You can, for example, tell Safari to open all links in new tabs, rather than in new instances of the browser.

Safari versus the other browsers

How does Safari stack up against Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer? When it comes to speed, Safari's at the head of the pack -- at least, on the Mac. Its new Reader feature is unique among browsers; as a result, for reading long Web articles, Safari is clearly the best browser.

However, even though Safari now supports extensions, at the moment there are few available, so it's far behind Firefox and even Chrome in this area. Its Address Bar is the least functional of all the browsers, and its bookmarking, which is no different from the last version, is still very basic and leaves something to be desired.

As for HTML 5 support, there are so few HTML 5-enabled sites and features these days, it's not yet particularly useful.

The upshot is that anyone who already uses Safari should upgrade immediately. Those who have yet to use Safari may well want to download it as well, if only to check out the Safari Reader for reading long articles, and for experiencing speedy Web browsing.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor to Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

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