Saturday, December 15, 2007

First look: Safari 3 beta on Windows vs. Firefox 2 and IE7

At the World Wide Developer Conference this week, Apple announced the availability of Safari 3 for the Windows operating system. Today, we put the Safari 3 beta to the test to see how it compares to Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox 2 on Windows. What we found didn't impress us very much. Although Safari offers slightly faster page loading, the beta is extremely unstable and suffers from interface deficiencies that make its value on the Windows platform questionable at best.

Windows quirks

The most glaring flaw of Safari 3 on Windows is its utter lack of stability. The prerelease beta status of Safari 3 obviously must be taken into account when evaluating the program's reliability, but the problems I faced during testing really exceed tolerable limits for beta software. The Firefox 3 alpha build I reviewed last week is far more stable and robust than the current beta build of Safari 3. Safari hangs and freezes frequently, and once it completely locked up my system, necessitating a hard reset. Unlike Firefox, Safari 3 can't automatically restore the previous browsing session after a crash. Instability makes testing a frustration, but I don't think that this problem should be interpreted as an intractable failing of Safari 3 in light of the program's prerelease status. Although I think it is likely that Apple will resolve these problems before issuing an official release, I strongly discourage users from testing the current Safari 3 beta on a production system.


When using Safari 3 on Windows, one can clearly see that much effort went into making the Windows Safari experience as similar as possible to the Mac OS X Safari experience. The adaptation is, perhaps, too literal. There are several aspects of Apple interface design that make Safari 3 incongruous with the Windows user experience to an extent that causes frustration. In particular, Safari 3 for Windows inherits one of the most aggravating failings of the Mac OS X window manager: windows can only be resized from the bottom right corner.

Safari 3 for Windows also uses the Mac OS X font anti-aliasing mechanism rather than ClearType, which is native to Windows. Although this is largely a matter of personal preference, I greatly prefer ClearType, and I think that the Safari 3 fonts are fuzzy and difficult to read. This complaint has been echoed all over the web. Safari 3 allows users to choose between three different levels of "font smoothing," but none of them really improve the readability of text. Users who rely on tools like Microsoft's ClearType Tuner to customize Windows font anti-aliasing specifically for their displays will probably be most frustrated by the use of a nonstandard antialiasing mechanism in the Windows port of Safari 3. For comparison purposes, I've included a screenshot that shows how Safari's font rendering compares to that of Firefox 2 and Internet Explorer 7.


1. Safari, 2. Firefox, 3. IE

Font readability issues aren't isolated to the page content. The text on the menu bar, toolbar, status bar, and tabs is rendered to look as though it is etched into metal, which is pretty but difficult to read. The problem is greatly exacerbated by the dark background of those interface elements. The worst offender is the status bar, which is completely unreadable. Safari really ought to respect Windows font selections and display fonts in a manner consistent with the rest of the operating system.

Cross-platform Safari quirks

I also ran into several frustrating keyboard issues. Most mainstream web browsers allow users to rotate through tabs by hitting Ctrl + Tab. Safari is the exception this rule and uses Ctrl + Shift + [ and Ctrl + Shift + ] instead of Ctrl + Tab and Ctrl + Shift + Tab. Unfortunately, this behavior is not configurable. Even more frustrating than that, Safari's inline search feature doesn't let you activate links with the Enter key. With Firefox, I've grown accustomed to selecting and activating links by initiating a quick find operation with the forward-slash key, typing a few letters to jump to a link, and then hitting Enter to activate the selected link. With Safari, hitting enter during an inline search just jumps to the next instance of the search query within the page rather than activating a link. This really cripples the user's ability to browse without having to constantly use the mouse.

There are a few other interface problems that further detract from the Safari user experience. When you launch the bookmark manager by clicking the book icon in the bookmarks toolbar or by selecting Show All Bookmarks from the Bookmarks menu, the bookmark manager loads in the currently active tab. When the bookmark manager is closed, the page that was previously displayed in that tab is reloaded. I can't fathom why anybody would want the bookmark management interface to replace the actively viewed web page. To compensate for this bizarre interface blunder, I frequently find myself opening a new tab or window before using the bookmark manager. The absence of a bookmark sidebar is also really frustrating. In Firefox, I frequently find myself dragging links from a page into my bookmarks hierarchy using the Bookmarks sidebar. In order to do the same thing with Safari, one needs to use two separate windows, which is really inconvenient.

Safari's built-in RSS support also leaves a lot to be desired. When a web page's header specifies multiple associated RSS feeds, Safari will automatically show the first one by default when the blue RSS icon is clicked in the URL bar. Unfortunately, Safari doesn't provide any easy way to access the other feeds. Firefox handles this better, displaying a menu of available feeds when I click the yellow RSS icon in Firefox's URL bar.

Security vulnerabilities

Although the Safari 3 web page claims that Safari was designed to be "secure from day one," a number of security vulnerabilities have already been found. Although some of these vulnerabilities were discovered by security prima donna David Maynor, who is infamous for his exaggerated Apple WiFi vulnerability claims, other researchers with more credibility (particularly Thor Larholm) have found serious security bugs as well.

In under two hours, Larholm was able to find a URL protocol handler injection vulnerability that facilitates remote command execution. Larholm points out that Safari doesn't properly handle URL validation in iframes, which can be used to manipulate programs associated with protocol handlers in unpredictable ways. Larholm demonstrates how to exploit this vulnerability by providing a page with an iframe that will crash Safari when loaded and can launch an arbitrary executable if Firefox is set as the default browser. Larholm's exploit uses the gopher protocol and Firefox XPCOM components for process instantiation, so it won't be able to launch another executable if Internet Explorer is set as the default browser, but it will still crash Safari.

It's not all bad

Is there any aspect of Safari 3 that will appeal to the average Internet Explorer 7 or Firefox user? Aside from the slight rendering performance advantage, Safari 3 also includes a few nice features. For instance, Safari allows users to resize text boxes that are embedded in web pages. I'm also moderately impressed with Safari 3's inline find feature despite the fact that it can't be used to activate links. Rather than just highlighting words that match the page search query, Safari will dim the rest of the page to make matches stand out more clearly. Safari will also put orange highlighting around the active match and display a little animation when the user hits Ctrl+ G to rotate to the next match. The animation draws the user's attention to the new active match and makes it easier to see.

Apple claims that Safari 3 is the "world's best browser," but with alternatives like Camino and Omniweb, many will argue that Safari isn't even the best browser for Mac OS X, let alone the best browser for Windows. The modest increase in rendering performance is hardly worth the deficiencies, and Safari's user interface simply doesn't provide the usability or flexibility of competing products. If the folks at Apple think that providing Windows users with a taste of Mac OS X through Safari is going to entice them to buy a Mac, it's going to take a better effort than the Safari 3 beta. Even if the final release is more polished and completely bug-free, it still won't be as powerful or feature-loaded as Opera or Firefox.

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