Is Safari versus Firefox a fair fight?

Should you have both Mozilla's Firefox and Apple's Safari browsers on your Windows machine? Or does the mere idea make you laugh? Take a look at how the two browsers hold up against each other.

Apple's Safari browser took a big step toward cross-platform competitiveness last year when it introduced a beta version for Windows, but there are legitimate questions as to whether it can really hold its own against Mozilla's Firefox. Safari dropped the beta from its name earlier this week, but is there anything more to it other than a developer's tool with a Mac interface?

If you're looking for features, the answer is a resounding no. Firefox's open source code and ever-growing army of extensions and themes make it the leader when it comes to customization. Also, Firefox fans are well-known for not being ashamed of borrowing a good idea: Whether it's SnapBack from Safari or SpeedDial from Opera, new features introduced elsewhere get ported to Firefox in record time.

CNET on Firefox 2 (Credit: CNET Networks)

They should, too. Firefox is an absolute powerhouse when it comes to extensibility, and it will be a long time before any other browser can compete with the community that supports it. However, all that firepower comes at a price, most notably speed. Although Firefox 3 betas have been fired up with a new engine that renders faster and supposedly has far fewer security risks, until the final version comes out it's hard to tell how much better version 3 will be compared with version 2.

Safari for Windows makes a halfhearted effort to incorporate some feature competition. SnapBack has received the most attention: it lets users impermanently mark a page and jump back to it with a hot key or a click. The more interesting feature, though, is Private Browsing. This lets users turn off or autoerase all built-in recorders in one step, from the cache to AutoFill to the browsing history. It's sort of the inverse of Firefox's Clear Private Data feature, except that you get to keep information that you don't want to lose.

Another excellent Safari tweak is that it's Find function will locate all instances of the search term on a page at once. The first will be highlighted differently, but they'll all pop out at the user. Safari for Windows lacks in other areas, though. The Permanent FreeScroll, when you click on the center wheel of your mouse and navigate the page without holding down a mouse-button, didn't work in Vista, and the Search bar's contents are specific to the tab.

CNET on Safari 3.1. (Credit: CNET Networks)

As undeniable that Firefox is the add-on king, Safari 3.1 looks like it could be the fastest nonbeta browser around for Windows. Just by eyeballing it, Safari looked as if it was loading Google's Gmail much faster than on Firefox 2. Eyeballs aren't enough, though, so I gave it a shot at the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark. Of the nine categories that both were tested in, Safari blew Firefox out of the water in each one: it was 2.11 times faster overall.

In addition to being a faster browser, Safari supports the latest HTML and CSS code better than Firefox, although if the new code is only supported by one browser out of the top four it's unlikely that users will be demanding change. Notably, Safari suffers from the same security issues that plague all browsers--version 3.1 not only updated the program out of beta, but also patched 13 security flaws.

Personally, I'm sticking with Firefox. There are too many extensions, from Adblock Plus and Tab Mix Plus to Better Gmail and MR Tech Local Install, that make my browsing life so much easier I get frustrated using the Web without them. If you're not attached to particular add-ons, Safari might be an excursion worth taking for a while.