Friday, February 27, 2009

Firefox vs. Safari

Firefox has been my primary browser of choice for about four and half years now. Before I found Firefox I was using Internet Explorer. I have been using Opera sporadically as a backup browser for about three years. When Apple released Safari for Windows, I used it also for backup browser duty. When I bought my Mac, Opera took a back seat role to Safari as my main backup browser because Safari seems to integrate with the rest of the system a bit better. I still use them both however. Right now I am very eagerly anticipated the release of Chrome for OS X so I can throw it into the mix as well.

This week Apple released a beta of Safari 4. First impression: it's nice. After playing around with it for a few days, splitting my browser usage between it and Firefox, I have come up with some solid impressions about it. For the record, my Firefox version is 3.0.6 and I'm running the Safari 4 public beta (5528.16).

Tabbed browser has been all the rage for several years now and with mighty good reason. When I first discovered Firefox and how it had tabs, it changed the way I used the web. Now tabs are common place and each browser is searching for the most efficient way to use them. With Firefox, there is the title bar, address bar, bookmarks bar, and the tabs bar. Safari has combined the title bar with the address bar, making for a slimmer window header and allowing for the window to devote more space to the web page. This is a good thing that was first seen by Chrome and I can only hope that the upcoming Firefox 3.1 release will include this design modification. Since the title bar and tabs bar have been merged, clicking and dragging a tab will drag the entire window. Tabs are reordered by grabbing the upper right corner of the tab. Tabs can also be ripped off in their own window or to join new windows in this manner. This is less convenient than being able to click and drag anywhere on a tab to rearrange it. Since I so rarely (if ever) want to move my browser window, I would rather dragging a tab moves it and moving the entire window was more difficult to prevent it from accidentally happening.

A shortcoming I've always felt about Safari is that it will open new windows of itself when you click certain links. Firefox, instead, opens these links in new tabs. I have always felt that the principle idea of tabs is to have fewer windows and when links for the browser to open a new window rather than a new tab it defeats this idea. Safari 4 has this same shortcoming but yesterday I did find a solution to this issue for Macs. Typing "defaults write TargetedClicksCreateTabs -bool true" at the Terminal will cause these links to open in new tabs instead of new windows.

When new tabs are opening, one of the options available to users now is to show a page of "top sites". This is a grid of thumbnail representations of the most popular sites in your recent browsing history similar to Opera's "Speed Dial" feature. There is an extension to add this functionality to Firefox but it never seemed to be tremendously useful to me because it requires using the mouse and I prefer to keep my fingers locked at the keyboard as much as humanly possible.

Firefox's keyboard shortcuts are much nicer (IMHO) than Safari's. I have been fanatical about keyboard shortcuts for as long as I can remember and I love Firefox's. For example, in Firefox, jumping to the search box uses the command+k shortcut. In Safari, this is accomplished by alt+command+f, usable, but less convenient. Firefox also has the option to start searching the text on a page immediately when you start typing. I LOVE this feature. Safari lacks this. You have to type command+f to start searching the page. In Firefox to get the full functionality you have to use the same shortcut, but for just a simple quick search not having to use that shortcut is wonderful.

Firefox has the option to always ask where to save files that are to be downloaded. Safari always wants to download to a preset location that cannot be set per each individual download. I have always been more a fan of downloading a file to its final resting place and then opening it from the download menu. Safari wants to save to a preset location, by default the Downloads folder, thus forcing an extra step to move the file later on. Safari also has an option to automatically open what it calls "safe" files after downloading. This includes of list of file types including most formats that are not executable. While this is usually okay, it still represents a tremendous security risk and so is something I fundamentally have an issue with.

Open Source and Extensibility:
Firefox is free and open source software so it is available for every platform. Safari is closed source proprietary software and so is available for on those platforms Apple approves, Windows and OS X. Firefox is infinitely extensible by fans and developers to add all manner of wondrous tweaks so your Firefox installation can be uniquely yours and suit your needs as perfectly as possible. There are only a handful of plugins available for Safari.

The new Safari looks great so far and I haven't had a single stability issue with it. It makes for a very nice secondary browser but I will stick with my much loved incumbent Firefox for the foreseeable future. I like it's feature set more even if it isn't quite as fast as the new Safari. In my experience, speed differences are more a matter of connection speed than browser rendering speed anyway. Even more, Firefox is open source and I want to continue supporting their incredible efforts. I can't wait for the release of Firefox 3.1.

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