Dropping Safari for Chrome

I have long been a Safari devotee. But since the introduction of Lion—or more accurately the introduction of Safari 5.1—Apple’s web browser quickly fell out of favor with me. Because of a few under-the-hood changes to how Safari does its thing, I’ve ended up abandoning the browser in favor of Google’s Chrome—an app I once said couldn’t serve as my default browser. Times have changed: Safari’s now absent from my Dock, and Chrome has claimed its spot.

The number one motivator for my switch to Chrome full-time is speed. On my system (a Core i7 MacBook Pro), Safari is measurably slower than Chrome, particularly once I’ve opened multiple tabs. What’s worse is that Safari actually slows down the rest of my system, too. Chrome suffers neither problem.

Safari Web Content woes

Why did the latest iteration of Safari get slower? Blame Safari Web Content. As Ted Landau reported, that’s a new background process that runs in tandem with Safari when you run the browser on your Mac. Safari Web Content’s job is to load any plug-ins and render the pages you surf to; the main Safari app that you see is the browser shell.

Ironically, Safari Web Content—a core element of what Apple calls WebKit2, the rendering engine that powers Safari—is actually an attempt by Apple to emulate one of Chrome’s key features: By decoupling Safari (the browser) from Safari Web Content, the browser should remain more resilient if an individual webpage goes haywire. Thus, rather than having a rogue Flash script crash your entire browser, it should only crash the current tab. That’s now true of both Chrome and Safari.

The problem is that Safari’s implementation is flawed, and Apple hasn’t fixed it yet. I don’t know why, but Safari Web Content just doesn’t behave very well. Like the iPad and iPhone, Safari for Mac now refreshes tabs’ content when you go back to them if you haven’t viewed them in a while, which can wipe out any content you’ve entered into a form. Even if there’s no form data to lose, this behavior still means that you get to wait for the page to load all over again.

When I write a Weekly Wrap for Macworld, or if I’m researching a product to buy, I can end up with two or three dozen tabs open on my screen. And that makes Safari 5.1 grind to a near standstill, as tab content is endlessly purged, making the browsing process take much longer than it should. When Safari started behaving that badly, the rest of my Mac would inevitably start choking right along with it. (The fix? Kill that Safari Web Content process in Activity Monitor—which in turn means all your tabs need to be reloaded again.)

Safari 5.1 gobbles up a lot more CPU than Chrome does.

The switcher campaign

Despite my numerous complaints about Safari, I was hesitant to abandon it. I’ve used Safari for years. It’s comfortable, I have a few extensions that I’m partial to, and change is hard. And, as I mentioned, I’d previously found seven reasons that I couldn’t turn to Chrome. But I’m just not a Firefox or Opera guy. Those browsers don’t feel Mac-like enough to me, no matter how I try. So I gave Chrome another go.

I’ve been delighted to discover that Chrome’s developers have addressed at least five of my seven complaints about the browser. There’s a preference to configure the Tab key’s behavior so that it hops only between form fields (and not links); the location bar works more consistently with my expectations; Command- and Option-based keyboard shortcuts (for opening links and submitting forms in new windows, or for downloading linked files, respectively) now work; dragging images out of the browser works better; and the browser is far more stable than it was the last time I tried it.

In short, there’s now a lot more reason for me to love Chrome. And I’m finding that I kind of do. It’s fast, it doesn’t slow down under heavy browsing pressure, and it doesn’t bog down the rest of my system, either. I’ve also been able to find Chrome extensions that approximate my must-have Safari extensions, including a Click to Flash substitute called FlashBlock.

Chrome's extension community is even more vibrant than Safari's, which means it's easy to customize the browser to your liking.

What I miss

The truth is, I don’t miss much about Safari at this point. Chrome offers a very comparable experience. I still prefer Safari’s more traditional tabs to Chrome’s, which make dragging the Chrome window a little trickier in some situations. I also still wish Chrome could autocomplete URLs in the location bar (including by page title) the way Safari does: When I type a bookmark’s title in Chrome, I must arrow down to the first option and then hit Return; Safari eliminates the arrowing step. And I miss Lion’s brand new multitouch Safari gestures, particularly the double-tap and pinch to zoom gestures.

But that’s really it—otherwise, Chrome is a fully capable, well-implemented browser that feels right at home on my Mac.

Now, if and when Apple releases an update to Safari that’s said to address the Safari Web Content woes that have plagued folks like me, I’ll definitely give the browser another go. But I’ll no longer feel like it’s my only choice.

[Lex Friedman is a staff writer for Macworld.]

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