Safari 4 Beta releasedEarly on Tuesday, Apple slapped an unannounced release of Safari 4 Beta on the table, and the entire Internet subsequently went bananas.

We’ve taken it for a test drive and right off the cuff it feels natural to compare Safari’s upgrades to the features in Google Chrome. In fact, even after sleeping on it, it still feels that way.

Staying true to their reputation for paying extra attention to miniscule details however, Apple has somehow managed to take almost all of Chrome’s popular perks and make them more intuitive. Of course, that’s in addition to Apple’s own innovations, including the integration of an iTunes-like interface. As a mix of both fresher, more popular elements and good ol’ Apple standbys, the new release has got hard core Safari fans shedding tears of joy—and sorrow.

Safari 4 = Eye Candy

To the surprise of, well, nobody in particular, Apple's new Safari 4 Beta is a lot of glitz and glam, a lot of razzle dazzle. Basically, it could survive in this dog-eat-dog world on its looks alone. But, to save you from any more of the hyperbole hell you’ve no doubt been experiencing, we’ll get right to business and give you a rundown of what’s new:

“Top Sites”

You’ll probably notice this nifty tool immediately after launching the browser. Strikingly similar to Chrome’s “Most visited” page, this feature provides visual shortcuts to the sites on which you spend the most time. Much like the virtual hallway of photos featured in Cooliris, the thumbnails of screenshots are presented in a visually stimulating grid and update themselves every time you re-visit the Web site.

 safari top sites.jpg
Safari 4 Top Sites Page

A user has a bit of control over these panels, unlike Chrome which bases its “Most visited” page entirely on browsing habits. Safari 4 lets you choose how many thumbnails you want on your Top Sites page (6, 24 or 12 like shown above), and you can hover over each panel in edit mode for a couple of additional options. Click the pushpin icon that appears and the site will stay no matter how few times you actually visit it, or click the “X” to toss it completely.

We can think of a few sites you might not want everyone to know you frequent, but we won’t get into that. Needless to say, these options are nice to have.

Tabs on Top

The runner up feature for causing the most commotion is no doubt Safari’s change in tab placement. Again in a very Chrome-like fashion, the new browsing tabs are located at the very top of the browser window as opposed to just below the address bar. The 'close tab' icon is on the far left, and a 'handle' icon is on the far right of each tab.

By zeroing in on the handle you can perform basic functions like rearrangement or separation. Conversely, you can take the single tab of a freestanding window and drag it into the tabs of another window to merge the two. Having to grab a specific part of the tab has gotten under the skin of several Safari users already, but perhaps people will learn to accept the tweak in time. After all, one of our personal peeves with Chrome is the frequency with which we accidentally grab tabs and pull them out of their set because the entire tab is sensitive to this function.

A downside? The page title appears only in the tab. If you have a lot of tabs open you won't be able to read the entire title unless you hover over it with your mouse for a few seconds.

Dialed History Search

No more scrolling through all those links. Safari 4 comes equipped with an option to use keywords to search through titles, web addresses and the complete text of recently viewed pages. And it’s all displayed using the ever popular…

Cover Flow

That’s right, browse through your history and bookmarks just as you would page through album art in iTunes. Each page is shown with a preview photo, and the view can be expanded or hidden. This is really just a lot of fluff, but it’s stunning fluff nonetheless.

Nitro engine

The new Nitro JavaScript engine on which Safari 4 is built executes JavaScript up to a reported 3 times faster than IE 7 and more than three times faster than Firefox 3.

Additionally, the browswer includes a bunch of other improvements that have nothing to do with aesthetics like a Smart Address Field for automatically comleting Web addresses, a Smart Search Field with automatic recommendations from Google, and built-in Web developer tools to debug, tweak and optimize a Web site for peak performance and compatibility.

It's Not All Rainbows and Butterflies

OK, here on day two the new tab thing isn't going over very well and a ton of others are hating on the iTunes-ish view. To be honest, though we have no problem with hovering for titles, we've found the majority of the new aesthetic features to be worth less than the time it takes to execute them.

For example, while keyword search is phenomenal when it comes to History, flipping through actual photos of the pages you've visited can be too much work--especially when the image previews take quite a bit of time to load. 

In this instance, we can't help but be reminded of a recent quote from Ben Goodger, Google Chrome UI master: "Options are never an excuse for bad design." And while we don't necessarily think Safari 4 is anywhere close to bad design, we do think this release is a reflection of Apple's struggle to maintain a balance between their two infamous extremes of being deliciously simple and chock-full of beautiful functionality.

It's important to realize that when browsers as old as Safari (going on 15 years now?) attempt to keep up in the fight for first, innovation isn't going to happen at a level that the average user would recognize. Apple's compensation for that obviously falls on their attempt to make Safari as beautiful as the brand's norm. But do a different set of rules apply when it comes to browsers? Will the average user stay enamored, or eventually become fed up?

Apple's managed to pull off some pretty fancy work in the last five years, and it's notable that this is only a beta release (one that hasn't even crashed on us yet!). We'll see if the "jank" prevails in this case.