Safari 5: Fast like a cheetah, tame like a house cat

By a hair, Safari 5 is probably the fastest stable browser out, but with the exception of the unique Reader feature, Apple's browser is now more in line with other browsers than ahead of them. Check out what it's got and what it lacks in this hands-on.

After a bit of hesitation, Apple released a major update to its WebKit-based Safari browser on Monday. Safari 5 for Windows and Mac comes with several big feature announcements. There's the new Reader option for streamlining articles reading, broader support for HTML5, default support for searches on Bing, and performance improvements. However, the biggest new feature of them all--Extensions--won't be available until later this summer, and depending on what you're looking for in a browser, Safari can be seen as lacking many helpful options.

The official late summer street date for Extensions leaves many questions up for debate. Apple has said the new framework restricts which extensions can be installed to those that have been approved by Apple. It's not clear at this time if or how that system will be different from the add-on networks supported by Google's Chrome and Mozilla's Firefox, but given Apple's heavy hand in content control on the newly renamed iOS, it's not unreasonable to expect the company to take that approach as well with Safari Extensions.

Apple has created a Safari Developer Program to guide, and perhaps curate, extension development, and to that end has allowed users to toggle on the Extensions menu. If you go to the Advanced tab under Preferences, at the bottom of the menu there's a check box to force the Develop menu to appear on the menu bar. If you don't see the men ubar on Windows, you can activate it by hitting the Alt key or force it to appear via the Show Menu Bar option at the top of the general settings window.

In the Develop menu, click on Enable Extensions. The next time you return to the Preferences window, you should see an Extensions tab. To install an extension, go to one of the unofficial Safari Extensions collections, download an extension, extract the .safariextz file, and double-click on it. The extension will then load in the Extensions manager. Most extensions currently available are ported from Google Chrome, since both browsers share the same rendering engine.

The most interesting new feature in Safari is the Reader button. This button appears at the right side of the location bar when you load a site with pagination, such as a multipage article or gallery. Hitting it will open an overlay window that combines all pages into a single, scrollable format and tints out the site beneath, including ads and other distractions. Any embedded pictures or videos remain viewable, although like the text of the story they lose their site-specific formatting in favor of the Reader. Reader also comes with five buttons at the bottom of the frame that appear only when you mouse over them. You can zoom in, zoom out, e-mail the page, or print the page in its Reader format.

The new Reader feature in Safari streamlines both single and multipage stories into a more legible format. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Reader is a more limited version of the code used in the Readability bookmarklet. What's innovative about the Safari version is that Apple decided to include it at all, but because it's such an obvious feature to include in a Web browser, it wouldn't be surprising to see others follow suit. Hopefully, Apple will expand the sharing feature beyond e-mail so you can immediately share an article on Twitter or Facebook.

HTML5 gets a lot of love in Safari 5, pushing the browser to the top of the list of HTML5 browser versions that aren't in beta or development. Safari now supports HTML5-based full-screen video playback, video closed captioning, geolocation, drag and drop, forms validation, HTML5 Ruby, EventSource, and WebSocket. But in an odd turn from Apple, the HTML5 demo Web site is restricted to Safari browsers only.

Safari now comes with local searches enabled from the location bar, so as you type your query you can see how it relates to your history and bookmarks. However, there's still no location-bar-based Web search, something that Firefox, Chrome, and Opera have had for varying but lengthy amounts of time. Safari has also added Bing search to its default search engine options, but again, its competitors have allowed full search engine customization for a long time.

Apple hasn't activated extensions in Safari officially, but it has provided you with a workaround. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Although its search abilities may not be up to par with the competition, Safari has begun to introduce a modicum of tab customization. The Tab window in Preferences gives you far more customizations than before, including opening into a new tab, some control over the tab focus on new tabs, and confirmation before closing multiple tabs. Safari 5 does not offer a session manager. It also doesn't natively respect your default browser for opening links. To change this, you'll need to go to the General tab under Preferences and change the default Web browser setting.

These deficiencies certainly won't kill Safari, but they're odd ones to leave out.

Safari's performance has definitely been improved, and it remains the browser's strongest selling point, partly because of the hardware acceleration (only in the Windows version, read more about hardware acceleration here) and DNS prefetching. Part of that is because of the improvements made to the Nitro JavaScript engine.

On Windows, users get the visual indicators for multiple tabs, but there's still no support for jump lists or recently viewed sites. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

On a Windows 7 x86, running on an Intel Core 2 Duo T9400 at 2.53GHz, with 3GB of RAM, Safari notched an average of 465.5 milliseconds over three cold-boot runs on the SunSpider JavaScript test. The current stable version of Chrome released today, version 5.0.375.70, scored 525.19 ms. The disparity between the Mac versions was far greater. On a Mac OS X 10.6.3, running on the same Intel chip as the Windows 7 computer but with 4GB of RAM, Safari 5 completed the SunSpider tests in 351.7 ms. Google Chrome took 498.67 ms. Though the developer's version of Chrome comes in at 356.9 ms on the Windows 7 computer, indicating that Safari's benchmarks can be not only achieved but surpassed, Safari's the only stable public version with these numbers.

Speed is important, but it's not the only judge of a good browser. With the exception of the unique Reader feature, Safari 5 does more to bring Apple's browser into line with other browsers than actually forging any new ground, and even with the improvements made to this version, Safari still lacks many of the small but useful features competitors offer. For raw JavaScript speed, Safari is at the head of the pack for now, but Apple's focus on other user needs remains less than exemplary.

Also see: How to use Safari's new Reader; Safari 5 crashing at launch; Netflix streaming videos not working with Safari 5