First Look: Safari 3.1 adds speed and HTML 5 features

The latest version of Apple's browser adds some major enticements to switch

Apple released Safari 3.1 this week with an updated rendering engine that makes the fastest Internet browser even faster.

On top of that, Apple's new browser includes some features that reflect the future of the HTML 5 specification: offline storage, media support and CSS animations and Web fonts. It also adds some needed compatibility and bug fixes as well as some other new features that really make it a great everyday browser.

For the uninitiated, Apple provides a great PDF overview of Safari. You can get the upgrade/installer from apple.com/safari/download/(it's about a 16MB download for both Mac and PC) or simply update from Software Update. The installation is easy, but strangely requires a restart on Macintosh and not on Windows. By the way, Safari 3.1 is the first Windows version not to carry the Beta tag.

The interface and the user experience are largely unchanged from those in Safari 3.0. Under the hood, however, Apple has made some significant changes that it has pulled from the latest builds of the open source Webkit engine.

WebKit is the framework version of the engine that's used by Safari. It is also the basis of the Web browsing engine in iPhone's Mobile Safari, Symbian's browser, the Google Android platform, and Adobe's new AIR platform.

Testing

To check out how well Safari 3.1 handles Web sites, I ran it through some popular standards testing -- and found that it leads the pack. In the Acid3 Tests, which were created by the Web Standards Project to test dynamic browser capabilities, Safari 3.1 scored 75 out of 100, significantly higher than the previous version of Safari and other shipping browsers (Firefox 3 Beta 4 scored 68/100, while the most recent WebKit scored 92/100).

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However, the big news is how fast the new version of Safari is. How fast? I tested Safari 3.1 on my first generation 2GHz MacBook Pro with 2GB of RAM. In MooTools' SlickSpeed speed/validity test, Safari came out on top of almost every category on both Mac and PC.

It also did significantly better than any shipping browser on the SunSpider JavaScript speed tests (although since these tests are hosted at WebKit.org, they are perhaps biased). For example, on the Mac, Safari scored 4430ms against Firefox 3 Beta 4 at 5048ms.

While I spend 90 per cent of my time on a Macintosh, I also installed Safari on my Windows XP box to see how it stacked up against Internet Explorer, Opera and Firefox. In short, it worked extremely well for everyday browsing, offering speed and efficiency, especially on a four- or five-year-old machine. It also performed really well with lots of tabs open.

While Safari 3.1 does perform much better than the shipping version of Firefox, the speed improvements in Firefox 3 beta 4 are catching up with Safari 3.1 -- though Firefox 3 did consume more CPU cycles during my tests.

One of the drawbacks of Safari has been the perceived "over-smoothing" or softening of fonts on the PC. While this hasn't been completely fixed, Apple's Safari 3.1 allows Web sites to specify fonts outside the seven Web-safe font family fonts; these new fonts can be downloaded by the browser as needed.

Unfortunately, there are still prominent features that are part of rival browsers that Safari simply can't match. For example, Safari doesn't have all of the add-ons that Firefox enjoys, such as the Google toolbar.

Furthermore, if you need to use a site that employs Microsoft's proprietary DirectX technology -- like, for example, Microsoft Exchange's Outlook Web Access -- you'll find that the experience on Safari, while usable, leaves much to be desired. In this case you're better off using Internet Explorer.

Finally, Opera offers features such as direct BitTorrent downloads that aren't offered in Safari.

With the latest 3.1 release, Safari has become the fastest browser you can use. If that isn't enough reason to make a switch, its strong adherence to Web standards and rapid adoption of new technologies might make you think again.