I’ve been using Firefox 3 for some time, mostly after I discovered some great plugins and themes for it. The best plugin was Firebug, and although at later stages a similar function became available in Safari, I kept using the browser I knew best. Changing browsers is not something you should take on lightly as it is nowadays your environment for a lot of your computer usage.

With Safari 4 I decided to retry Apple’s default Mac browser, because of the nice new technologies it provides (HTML 5, web font rendering, newest CSS features), and because it will then render on my Mac exactly like it does on my iPhone, even syncing bookmarks between them. So I set out to try it, and a couple of weeks later, I decided to not go back.

It works then – but what were my most missed Firefox features and most positive Safari experiences? Here’s a list of differences that mattered to me:

  • Web inspector and Firebug
    Safari’s Web inspector does roughly the same as  the Firebug plugin for Firefox: it makes it possible to view webpages’ DOM trees, browse and search through them, select them using visual feedback, and probably most used by me: change the CSS styling of elements on the fly. It’s a great way to debug CSS for multibrowser compatibility, or tweak the design of a site by starting to change some values and just playing around. This is how I started changing the layout of this site as well. Both do their job quite well and allow you also to check which element of the website loads the slowest. The only thing I miss in Web inspector which Firebug does allow you to do, is actually add new styles on the fly; in Safari you can only change values of already existing properties, as far as I could find.
  • Top sites and Fast dial
    Safari 4’s much touted feature is Top sites. I had a somewhat similar plugin for Firefox called Fast dial, but it isn’t nearly as beautiful as Top sites. Fast dial doesn’t automatically add your most visited sites, however it does let you define more precisely what you would like to put in as top sites and when to refresh their thumbnail. It also can show editable titles beneath the thumbnails when hovering over them, which can become in handy if you have several sites that look pretty much the same, like I have with a couple of internal support sites from my work.
  • You need something to view your sources
    Firefox displays HTML source code nicely rendered and styled; Safari 4 doesn’t do this by default. Of course you can use the Web inspector (see before) but it isn’t the same as just viewing the HTML separately because of the structured hierarchical display it uses. However, with a simple Safari plugin called SafariSource, this is easily fixed. It does need SIMBL, which is known to sometimes cause problems with some users. I’ve had none though.
  • View rendered XML documents
    Frankly, Safari handles XML documents appallingly.  Normal web view shows next to nothing, source code view mostly has no correct line endings. Firefox does a very nice job by default of displaying XML documents rendered on screen. In this case I had to install the XML View Plugin for Safari, which goes directly in your Internet Plug-ins and works like a charm, rendering and syntax coloring your XML documents in the main window.
  • General tab navigation and search
    Some basic features of Firefox like saving open tabs when quitting, opening new windows always in tabs, type-ahead search (just start typing) and using keywords in the address bar I also missed. When I used Safari in the past, I already discovered and used the Saft plugin for Safari, and I decided that I wanted it again (upgrade to a version compatible with this Safari) to enhance my browsing experience. The plugin allows you to define how your tabs should opened, saved (on quiting or as ‘undo close tab’ feature) and navigated, allows keyword searches from the address bar and lots more. It also includes a simple version of type-ahead search which doesn’t support spaces in your search, which is pretty annoying; all in all I’m more and more getting used to typing cmd-f first.
  • Speed
    All in all, Safari 4 felt faster than Firefox 3. This is different per site of course, and will differ with every update probably. Still, it felt very fast to start with, and does still feel that way when recomparing. Part of this is also due to the fast window-drawing of Safari in Mac OS X: bringing the browser to the front displays it immediately, where Firefox can take just that fraction of a second longer to be reactivated. Seeing that I switch away from my browser and back pretty often, that’s something that counts as well.
  • Bookmark syncing
    The more I also use my iPhone to browse the web, the more import it becomes to be able to easily share bookmarks. Of course Delicious comes to mind, but there is no handy way of using the service from the iPhone as of yet. Therefor being able to sync bookmarks over the air (using mobileMe) to your Mac is invaluable. Using third party sync services it would be possible to sync those Safari-based bookmarks to Firefox and back as well, but for me every extra step in a sync process is certainly one extra chance of making it not work transparently.

There are at the end still some things I miss in Safari though:

  • There  is no ‘Refresh frame’ option in the contextual menu, only ‘Reload page’ which reloads an entire frameset. This is really a missing feature.
  • I liked the loading progress bar behind the address bar in previous versions of Safari – so much that I actually intalled Fission in Firefox to do roughly the same there. Now it isn’t available anymore in Safari 4.
  • Firefox has the ability to remember Zoom level per site – this can be really nice if you’re having trouble reading a specific site every time you go there, or in my case, to decrease the font size of our Mantis pages, to have a better overview of all issue lists. Safari can zoom, but doesn’t remember the setting per site – it does this on a per-window basis.
  • In Firefox I used Fasterfox, a plugin that can customize your network settings (pipelining and such), and displays the actual loading time of a site in the bottom right corner of the status bar. This last simple feature is something I sometimes miss in Safari nowadays.
  • There is no way in Safari to directly select a specific open tab. You can switch through tabs using control-tab and control-shift-tab (actually the same shortcut as Windows has to switch between documents in a multi-document interface), but the way Firefox allows this is way more powerful: just press cmd-1 for the first tab, cmd-2 for the second, etc. Safari reserves those shortcuts for the first, second etc. favorite in Top sites, which is a shortcut I never actually needed.
  • Lastly something that I don’t really miss, but for Suzan is one of the biggest reasons not to use Safari, is the missing address bar drop down with recently visited sites. As soon as you’re used to have that available to navigate most of the sites you visit regularly, adding a Top sites feature is just not enough to get used to another way of browsing.

One of the powers of Firefox is its big community of plugin developers and an already existing archive of useful and less useful plugins. Fortunately, also Safari has its sources, albeit a lot smaller. For some interesting plugins you can best start at PimpMySafari.com.