Safari 4 postmortem

I started using Safari beta 4 in late February, within a day or so of its appearance. It’ll probably be a fine browser when it’s officially released, but I’ve had enough. Last week I switched back to Safari 3.

Was it top tabs?

The most obvious change to Safari in beta 4 was the change from a tab bar under the toolbar to tabs within the titlebar. I understand that top tabs are a more consistent metaphor than an internal tab bar: the titlebar is supposed to show the title of the document, so if a window contains more than one document it should have more than one title in the titlebar. But metaphor consistency isn’t everything; people have no trouble dealing with stretched and broken metaphors if the stretching and breaking make the system easier to use. After all, for a quarter of a century Mac users have been working with a “desktop” that has “windows” on it.

I had three problems with top tabs:

  1. To fit more stuff in the titlebar, Apple gave the tabs a smaller font. As a middle-aged man with failing eyesight, I object to anything that makes type smaller. The smaller font also looked funny when compared to all the normal titlebars on my screen.

  2. They broke up the big safe area at the top of a window where every click or click-and-drag did the same thing. With Safari 4, I had to aim more carefully to avoid some inadvertent activation. Because this new behavior was exclusive to Safari, I also had to think about which application I was in before clicking the titlebar to adjust the position of a window. I’ve never had to do that before, and I don’t want to start.

  3. I just looked ugly and cluttered.

I used top tabs for a few weeks--plenty of time to get used to them if I were ever going to. My dislike of them wasn’t just a knee-jerk reaction to something different. But because I was able to get the old tabs back by fiddling with Safari’s preferences, the top tabs weren’t the reason I switched back to Safari 3.

Was it the throbber?

Less discussed than top tabs was the change in the way Safari tells you that a page is still loading. In earlier versions, Safari used the address field as progress bar, running a blue background across it as the page loaded. Safari 4 changed to a more subtle spinning gear in the toolbar. I preferred the old behavior for because:

  1. It was easy to see without being obnoxious and intrusive.

  2. It gave you a sense of how close the page was to being fully loaded. The spinning gear just means “not yet.”

As with top tabs, I gave the new throbber a few weeks’ trial and then edited the preferences to get the old behavior back. So the throbber wasn’t the reason I switched back.

So what was it?

Ultimately, the reason I switched back was pretty prosaic--Safari beta 4 just didn’t seem ready for day-to-day use. I spent way too much time looking at the spinning beachball cursor, unable to scroll down a page as it loaded, unable to abort the loading and move on to another page. Whatever speed advantage Safari 4 has in its page-rendering engine was completely overwhelmed by these frustrating delays.

Almost as frustrating as the delays themselves were their inconsistency. I never felt I knew enough about what was going on to write a decent bug report. I just knew enough to want out. So last week I switched back to Safari 3.

And now?

I’m sure the SPOD problems will be fixed by the time Safari 4 is officially released, and I look forward to the improvements in JavaScript speed and CSS compliance. I hope Apple reconsiders the throbber and really really hope it reconsiders top tabs. Until then, I’m content to work a generation behind the bleeding edge with a browser that looks and behaves the way I expect.