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Apple Safari 5

Review Reader and extensions good, memory hog bad
Thu Jul 01 2010, 16:49

MICROSOFT'S ABANDONMENT of Internet Explorer (IE) on the Mac forced Apple to develop and maintain a web browser. Now that culminates in Safari 5, a browser that can stand alongside its contemporaries not merely as an alternative to Microsoft IE but on its own merits.

Thankfully when Apple decided to go ahead with browser development years ago, the firm decided to take the same route it did with OS X, use and build on top of something that was already out there. Steve Jobs and his software team chose to build upon a fork of the KHTML project which turned into Webkit, a decision which as time passes gets further vindication.

As a testament to the quality of Webkit, Google's Chrome browser uses the same rendering engine and with its browser Google has managed to pull off a rather amazing coup. Usually Apple products are the fashionistas' choice but Safari, the original Webkit browser, is currently being challenged by Google's upstart. Therefore it's not surprising that the latest version of Apple's browser has got some new bells and whistles attached in a bid to regain popularity.

With Safari 5 it's clear that Apple is aiming to improve its browser with largely unseen features. The most obvious feature, Reader, isn't particularly new but where Apple is really pushing the boat out is with its HTML5 support, Safari developer programme, domain name service (DNS) tweaks and support for hardware acceleration.

Safari's Reader garnered the most attention but similar software has been available, albeit as add-ons in other browsers, for some time. A number of media outlets lamented that the feature, which tries to identify text and strip away frivolities such as adverts and fancy layouts, would be the end of publishing. "How could Steve Jobs do this to us? Wasn't he the media messiah?", they cried. Sure, and Santa Claus does overnight deliveries on Christmas Eve.

For webmasters, Reader is a nice alternative to users running some form of advert blocker. Given that visitors are still forced to see the full blown webpage before Reader strips it down to the bare text, it does what any real editor would want, concentrate on the content and not on gimmicks to sell the story. The whole experience is certainly worthwhile if you have to consume vast swathes of text, providing a blinkered view on just the content.

However it would be wrong to simply describe Reader as a synopsis of Safari 5. Of far greater importance are Safari's extensions. The fruits of the Safari developer programme, extensions  should have appeared in Safari many years ago. Similar add-on schemes have resulted in Firefox users clinging to their memory munching, cumbersome browser even when alternatives offered a leaner browser experience.

Apple is claiming that all extensions will be built using web standards such as HTML5, CSS3 and Javascript. Similar to its App Store for the Iphone OS, the Safari Extensions Gallery will showcase these browser trinkets and carry an "Apple provided" digital certificate as some sort of gold seal of quality. Given that Apple has a patchy record of stunting innovation on the Iphone's App Store, we wonder how permissive its censors will be with Safari extensions.

Questions remain as to how far extensions will bog Safari down, especially given Apple's repeated claims of high performance when compared to rival browsers. In the meantime, we hope that the developer programme will enable Safari to catch up to Firefox, Chrome and Opera, all of which have had similar extensions for years.

Safari's swelling HTML5 push is welcome but not surprising. Given Steve Jobs' seemingly personal vendetta against Adobe's Flash software, it would be more shocking to see Jobs change his attire than take this opportunity to shove Flash out the back door. Neither the fact that the HTML5 standard hasn't been ratified yet nor a distinct lack of websites that are coded to the so called standard will stop Apple from supporting it, just as long as Adobe's widely used software doesn't get a mention.

Hidden underneath what Apple perceives to be sexier features is the news that Safari now supports hardware acceleration, at least when used on Windows. Those who have shelled out for the privilege to run Mac OS X will simply have to wait. Similar hardware acceleration was demonstrated by Microsoft's Brandon LeBlanc on a beta of IE9, which showed Microsoft's browser attain higher frames per second (FPS) that Safari in a Javascript demo.

The problem with any such demo is that different rendering engines handle content differently, so while IE9 might have smoked Safari in one demo, it's likely that similar cases can be found to reverse that result and, unlike IE9, Safari 5 is available to the public now. Testing browser speed is similar to finding the difference between expensive speaker cable and snake oil. Those who have shelled out a significant percentage of Greece's national debt will always find ways to justify the brand on the label.

The reality is, many other factors could come into play before any inefficiencies found in the browser's rendering or Javascript engine would cause perceptible degradation in experience. There's little doubt that browser quality has improved vastly from the bad old days of IE and its Trident engine, and thanks to intense competition even Microsoft is being forced to do something constructive with IE.

Of far greater significance is the issue that OS X users, surely the primary audience for Safari, are yet to receive a browser that supports hardware acceleration of content. There's no word from Apple when that will arrive, so those users will just have to sit tight.

While browser speed may be difficult to measure in isolation, memory usage certainly isn't. In our tests Safari 5 used considerably more memory than the Webkit alternative, Chrome. Even pitted against the benchmark of bloat, Firefox, Safari performed badly in viewing 'rich' sites that included BBC's Iplayer, Gmail and Youtube.

When it comes to the two Webkit browsers, Safari and Chrome, the difference in memory usage is night and day. Watching a clip on Iplayer resulted in Safari using 300 per cent more memory than Chrome. That sort of inefficiency is simply not acceptable regardless of how cheap and accessible RAM is.

Browser choice often boils down to individual taste. If you are happy with your current browser, Safari 5 doesn't provide a compelling reason to jump ship. Extensions will bring functional parity with other browsers, however that will take time. With its rivals getting ready to release updates in the meantime, Apple might find that once again its Safari browser has been left behind. Nevertheless, aside from the greedy memory usage, Apple should be commended for bringing to market a browser that can still be described as capable and competent.

In Short
Safari 5 finally brings some level of feature parity with other web browsers and when a sizeable library of extensions emerges, Safari will become a far more serious challenger to the established browsers. Those already running Safari should update and those wanting to try something new shouldn't be too disappointed with Apple's effort.

The Good
Extensions, HTML5 support, mature rendering engine.

The Bad
High memory usage.

The Ugly
No hardware acceleration on the Mac OS X version.

Bartender's Score



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