Apple has released the fourth version of its Safari web browser as a public beta for both Macs and PCs. This impressive new version of Safari builds on its previous core features (speed, clean interface, integration with Apple’s other OS X-native services and programs). It also adds a bunch of new features, many of which are both fun and useful. I’ve been using Safari 4 for a few days, and so far I absolutely love it. It actually makes the act of browsing the web fun again.

First of all, Safari 4 is extremely fast. In fact, Cnet independently benchmarked Safari 4 and found it was the fastest mainstream browser on Mac or PC (running XP; it does not appear they tested it on Vista). Read about the benchmark test by clicking here. Safari 4 achieves these speed improvements via a new “Nitro JavaScript Engine,” along with speculative asset loading.

I definitely notice Safari 4’s speediness. Pages load faster and scrolling is buttery smooth. Safari’s speed improvement is a feature I’m sure I’ll appreciate every day.

Safari 4 has a cool (and useful) new feature called Top Sites. Top Sites automatically identifies your favorite sites and displays them as “a wall of stunning graphical previews”. Simply click the preview to visit a top site. Your Top Sites evolve and change as you browse, based on how often and how recently you visit a site. This is a fun feature that also provides a surprisingly efficient way to browse the web. It was also interesting to see what my most-visited sites are. You can edit your Top Sites as needed. No need to let people know that Tmz.com is really your most visited web site.

Top Sites is similar to a feature seen in Google’s slower Chrome web browser, which is only available on Windows. Some have said that Apple is ripping off Chrome. Actually, Chrome is based on WebKit, which Apple developed. I have no idea how Chrome might has implemented Top Sites, as it’s not available for the Mac.

Safari 4 offers new ways for managing and navigating bookmarks. The biggest change is the addition of Cover Flow to the bookmarks window. Cover Flow displays your bookmarks and history as large graphical previews, so you can pick out a website instantly. While this may sound wan, it actually works great and (again) makes web browsing more interactive and fun.

You can also use Cover Flow to flip through you’re browsing history. Again, this is a surprisingly effective and natural way to view browsing history.

Safari 4 is 100% compliant with the Acid tests that determine whether a web browser complies with emerging Internet standards. Safari has passed the Acid 2 tests, and is currently the first and only web browser to pass Acid 3.

Safari 4 also offers HTML 5 offline support. Web developers can now create applications that to be used even when you don’t have access to the Internet. These applications and data can be stored in a traditional SQL-like database serving as an application cache or as a “super cookie,” which stores data in the familiar cookie format. This means access to rich, interactive websites, even when you don’t have an internet connection.

The last new “feature” of Safari 4 has been controversial – the displacement of Tabs placed under the bookmarks bar to the top of the bookmarks bar. Many people hate this. It is possible to change this in your Mac’s terminal. I thought it would bother me, but I’m neutral on it. I don’t think it makes sense, but it doesn’t impede my ability to browse. The other great new features (and speed) make up for this odd change. Perhaps in time Tabs placed under the bookmark bar will seem strange to me. It’s worth noting that Google’s Chrome browser also has tabs placed at the top of the browsing window.

Obviously, I’m smitten with Safari. Between this new version of Safari and iLife 09, I feel like I have a speedy new computer.

Read more and download the Safari 4 beta by clicking here.

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