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Safari vs. Firefox: Does Safari Measure Up?

By releasing Safari on Windows, Apple is doing more than providing a rich browser experience for Mac users -- it's making a land grab for the Internet, and may pose a threat to Firefox as it attempts to displace IE. Does Safari 4 measure up to Firefox 3.5, and should the Moz folks be worried?

Nearly lost in the shuffle of iPhone mania last week was the news that Apple had released Safari 4. Since Apple is expanding its horizons and trying to elbow its way onto Windows as well as the Mac, it’s worth taking a look at Safari and see if it poses a real threat in the browser market.

I know what you’re thinking: As a Linux user, what do I care about Safari? Well, certainly Apple doesn’t care about the Linux users in the audience — except as potential converts to the Mac. But Apple’s push onto the Windows desktop could blunt Firefox’s growing market share. Especially since Apple enjoys a pretty significant share of the Web developer market.

According to Net Applications’s data, Safari has been slowly grabbing market share from 6.14% of the market in July of 2008 to 8.43% in May of this year. (May is the most recent month with data available.) Firefox has continued to grow as well — showing that both browsers are currently munching IE’s market share.

So, while Safari isn’t an option for Linux users, it is an option for the majority of desktop users and worth looking at from the competitive standpoint.

The Safari Experience

The Mac isn’t my platform of choice, but my first attempt to run Safari — installing the Windows version under Wine — didn’t go so well. Apparently you can get Safari going on Linux under Wine by using a native XP dynamic link library (dll), but I opted to go ahead and try the native version on a Mac.

Since Apple has given Safari 4 a pretty hard sell, my expectations were a bit high, but not met. The “Top Sites” page that features thumbnails of your favorite Web sites is sleek-looking, but not terribly innovative (see Opera’s “Speed Dial”), nor is it a killer feature.

The browser also includes the “cover flow” effect for browsing history and bookmarks. I guess this is cool the first few times, but I didn’t find it particularly useful. A thumbnail of a Web site is not the most effective way to navigate bookmarks, at least not for this user. There’s also the small matter that you have to have browsed the site recently to have a cached thumbnail — so after importing my bookmarks from Xmarks, all I got was a bunch of grey Safari icons. If you’re using Safari for the first time, it’s going to be a while before everything falls into place for this feature.

Safari 4 has comparable privacy tools to Firefox. Safari includes a Private Browsing mode, and you can delete cache and history pretty easily — though it doesn’t have a one-click tool like Firefox 3.5′s “Clear Recent History” option.

Safari does have some particularly nifty features when compared to other browsers. For instance, the ability to create a “clipping service” from RSS feeds is pretty cool. And Safari’s RSS view is nicely designed, if you can figure it out. Safari doesn’t break out RSS feeds as a separate feature — you have to bookmark RSS feeds and create folders to start following more than one at a time. Apple really needs to improve feed management if they want people to use Safari as a full-blown feed reader — especially since there’s no obvious way to import an OPML file of feeds.

Overall, the Safari experience is pretty good. I wouldn’t be willing to drop Firefox for it, but if I was a Mac user, Safari would do the trick for day to day browsing and usage.

Developer Features

Safari does have some pretty handy developer tools, if you turn them on. By default, Safari doesn’t enable the Developer menu — it has to be turned on under “Advanced” in the preferences dialog.

Using the developer tools you can fake your user agent, use another browser to open your current page, debug JavaScript, and even break pages down into the component resources and view how long they take to download.

You can get many of the same features through Firefox add-ons, but Safari does have some unique tricks, too. Safari includes a “database” pane for managing sites with offline features. This may be a killer feature in the future, when more sites actually have an offline databse to work with.

Overall, it’s obvious that Apple is targeting Web developers with Safari 4, but Safari still lacks a few compelling features that Firefox has. First, since Safari isn’t open source, it hinders direct involvement in its development. Second, Safari lacks a compelling story for developers who want to extend the browser.

It’s the Extensions, Stupid

Simply put, Safari has nothing on Firefox when it comes to add-ons. If you browse Apple’s 150 Features page, you’ll see a lot of spiffy stuff that Apple has crammed into Safari. But you’re largely limited to whatever innovation Apple puts into the browser — which is hardly sufficient to keep up with the Firefox community of add-on developers.

Even when you can find apps to extend the functionality of Safari, they’re not quite as easy to install and manage as add-ons with Firefox.

A good example of this is the Xmarks add-on for Safari, which requires you to not only log out of the browser to complete the install — but to log out of your session entirely.

You can also find Greasemonkey equivalents for Safari, like Greasekit. However, Safari’s ecosystem is much smaller than Firefox’s. Apple’s browser may be a bit slicker than Firefox in a few areas, but it’s still just a browser and not yet a platform. On the other hand, Firefox keeps Microsoft looking over its shoulder because Firefox is a platform that developers can target to do all sorts of wonderful things (including brand new apps like Songbird and CeltX).

Safari 4 has come a long way, but it’s still no Firefox.

Comments on "Safari vs. Firefox: Does Safari Measure Up?"

jshanab

Safari may very well partially displace FireFox. In my opinion Firefox tries to hard to be like another browser. It constantly crashes, is presumptuous in it’s choices and has to be because of it’s oversimplified dialogs. It is always a fight to get it to behave and it blocks things needed to done. The Seamonkey browser is far better.

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k405

I’m mostly a Mac user, but I also use Linux and sometimes are obliged to use Windows. I guess we all agree that almost any browser is better than IE whatever the version one uses.
On both Windows and Linux the obvious choice is Firefox. It’s fast, secure and stable, with a lot of customization possibilities.
On the Mac, although Firefox is very nice to have, the feel of the UI is not so native, so one tend to use Safari as it feels at home and you can use Apple’s services like Dictionary lookup with a combination of keys, send a link or the webpage you are viewing directly to Mail.app (which obviously you can do on Firefox). But the real strength of Safari on the Mac is to use the other services like Speech (that speaks out selected text), Summarize (a utility that automatically summarizes selected text), etc. You can pass data to other Mac applications that support the services framework, ad for a serious Mac user there may be a lot of that apps. It’s obvious that this advantage is purely Mac centric and is inexistent to a Windows user. But it explains why many (not every) Mac user sticks to Safari instead of Opera or Firefox.
I haven’t tried Camino, a browser that uses the Gecko engine but is an attempt to give a more native Mac look and feel.
Both on Windows and Mac, Safari is fast. And I can say the same of Firefox. There are a lot of benchmarks available on the web. For me, Safari is fast enough to get my work done, as well as Firefox. Both are enough “standards compliant” (think of ACID3 and stuff like that) to ensure that webpages are displayed properly (sorry, IE). It’s just that Safari fits better in my workflow. Your mileage may vary and that’s fine.

Apple really needs to improve feed management if they want people to use Safari as a full-blown feed reader

I don’t think Apple wants to use Safari as the main reader. It’s RSS support is aimed at the user who suscribes to a merely a few feeds. You can also use Apple’s Mail.app to manage your RSS subscriptions with fairly the same behavior. But if you’re serious on RSS, a dedicated reader app would fit better to your needs. On the Mac side, NetNewsWire is a must have, it’s scriptable, elegant and fast. NewsGator, the company behind NetNewsWire offers alternatives for Windows (I don’t know if they do for Linux). All of them include synchronization between a web interface, and as many copies of NetNewsWire you have in your computers or devices. For free, if you were wondering.

Safari isn’t open source, it hinders direct involvement in its development

This is not entirely true. Although you cannot involve directly into Safari’s development, you can involve in the WebKit Open Source Project. Webkit is the engine that Safari and other Mac OS X apps use to deal with webpages. As for this kind of development, isn’t this the same model that projects like OpenSolaris/Solaris, OpenSUSE/SUSE Linux, Fedora/RHEL among others use?
It would be nice that you review MobileSafari and compare it’s performance to other mobile browsers. Much of the growth in Safari’s market-share is due to it’s use in mobile devices (aka iPhone).

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donnelll

I believe the Top Sites feature is fairly nifty as well, however I think it would have been more beneficial ( for myself anyhow) if that Top sites remained static of ones that I chose and each window act like an individual tab and it stayed on the sight clicked on, then it would be a very nifty interface.

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voidmain

Just a few things I’ve noticed:

– Safari is more standards compliant than FireFox and is getting better with each release. When you really get into intricate CSS and DHTML, safari does a better job. I’ve found that FireFox and IE 7 and 8 are now rendering about equal while Safari excels

– Safari is fast. Last time I checked, Safari was beating everyone at the benchmarks for AJAX and JavaScript as well as rendering.

– Safari on a Mac has that seamless integration with everything else (Mail.app, Address Book, etc) that makes life easy. Windows is coming along with IE on the latest beta of Windows 8 (or whatever it is called), but they are still way behind the curve. I used solely Linux for the past 12 years and finally made the Mac switch last year and this was mainly due to how nicely Apple integrates everything, it’s a great development platform, no driver messes, no crashes. Linux was starting to suffer from the mess of having so many different kernels, window managers, APIs and apps, that I was finding it was crashing consistently. This was also true of FireFox on Linux. I realized in the end that time is money and wasting my time battling with Linux was not worth it.

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masinick

I have been periodically trying out Safari on a Windows Vista system. I first tried it when 3.2 was out, then I grabbed the first test release of 4.0 that I could find, and finally Version 4.0 when it came out. At first I found it to render AJAX style pages really well, but so-so on other stuff. I found it difficult to get used to, but really fast on the Google services in particular, much like Google Chrome, which shares some of the same back end rendering technology.

Yesterday though, I ran into a Yahoo news story about a woman who lost a large legal case involving the redistribution of music content. That page simply would not stay up in Safari; I tried 4 or 5 times, and each time it would open up, then want to close the browser. Every other browser I tried, including Chrome, had no problems displaying the story and navigating through it.

I had been really following Webkit based browsers because it seemed that they really had an edge on rendering pages with a lot of Javascript content. Well, it now seems like the Gecko engine is catching up. In the past few days, I have been running test versions of both Firefox (in both Shiretoko and Minefield variations) and Seamonkey 2.0B1pre, all of them using the latest nightly builds.

Earlier this week, I was impressed at how fast Safari and Chrome would page through messages in Gmail. Yesterday, however, I did the same experiment using Seamonkey, and it was at least as fast, if not faster, and it exhibited no unusual quirks, something that I cannot say about either Safari or Chrome.

This browser is certainly worth watching, as is Chrome, but for now, the Mozilla family of browsers (Firefox and Seamonkey) seem to do a better job overall, when you take into account not just Javascript pages, but all Web content. They have also stepped up their competency with Javascript, and are doing as well as anything else. I’ll stick with the Mozilla family, but I will continue to watch the others for interesting developments.

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lhartzman

Passing someone in the hall at work the other day I overheard a comment on the new version of Safari on Windows. The person said that it did appear faster than Firefox (probably the latest 3.0 release), but that it was taking up 30% of his CPU. Anyone else notice this on Windows (or even Mac)?

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