Apple was relatively late to the browser market, yet it has a healthy market share of 8.29%. First released as a public beta in 2003 on the company’s Mac OS X operating system, Safari became Apple’s default browser beginning with Mac OS X v10.3, commonly known as ‘Panther’. Apple also made Safari the native browser for the iPhone OS. More importantly for non-Mac users, two years ago a version of Safari was released for Microsoft’s Windows operating system, supporting both Windows XP and Windows Vista.

Now available as a 25.5MB download, Safari is still claiming to be the world’s fastest and most innovative Web browser for Mac and Windows PCs. Version 4 has an exhaustive list of 150 new features, of which, some are new while others are improvisations of old ones. Most noticeable is a gorgeous new user interface, which looks very similar to Google’s Chrome on Windows XP systems.

The Nitro engine in Safari 4 runs JavaScript 4.2 times faster than Safari 3, up to 30 times faster than IE 7 and more than three times faster than Firefox 3, claims Apple. Safari 4 apparently also loads HTML Web pages three times faster than IE 7 and almost three times faster than Firefox 3 (based on the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark and iBench tests), although in our tests we didn’t notice any speed improvements over Firefox. Speed aside, there certainly are some innovative features that make browsing more intuitive and enjoyable: Top Sites provides an impressive visual preview of frequently visited pages; Full History Search investigates titles, Web addresses and the complete text of recently viewed pages; Cover Flow lets you flip through Web history or bookmarks; and Tabs on Top makes tabbed browsing easier and more intuitive.

Top Sites is one of the best new features as it provides a frequently visited list of sites in thumbnail format. Top Sites can accommodate 20/24 thumbnails at a time. To switch between thumbnail sizes, you simply click the ‘Edit’ button. Similar to Google Chrome’s ‘Most Recent’ page and Opera’s ‘Speed Dial,’ these thumbnails can be arranged and pinned as per your preference. To do that you simply click on ‘Edit’ in the Top Site page and drag the thumbnails to the preferred positions. By default, the Top Sites appear based on your preferred Web sites, usage statistics, and other browsing behaviour.

You’ll also love Apple’s ubiquitous Cover Flow feature found on other Apple products including iTunes, iPhone, or iPod Touch. Cover Flow enables flipping between histories of visited pages. In fact, Cover Flow makes Safari look and feel just like Apple’s market-leading music software, iTunes. The Browsing History and Bookmarks are now viewable through Cover Flow with a thumbnail or entire page review, but since the browser is still in the beta stage, the thumbnail viewing in Cover Flow might lag a bit on systems with less memory and CPU power. Other goodies include the smart address field and the Smart Search suggestions. Tabs can be moved freely by holding the upper right-hand corner of each tab, and you’ll find that the blue progress bar indicator is replaced with a GIF animation at the end of the Address bar.

Safari 4 includes HTML 5 support for offline technologies so Web-based applications can store information locally without an Internet connection, and is the first browser to support advanced CSS Effects that enable highly polished Web graphics using reflections, gradients and precision masks. Safari 4 is also the first browser to pass the Web Standards Project’s Acid3 test, which examines how well a browser adheres to CSS, JavaScript, XML and SVG Web standards that are specifically designed for dynamic Web applications.

Safari 4 for Mac OS X requires Mac OS X Leopard version 10.5.6 and Security Update 2009-001 or Mac OS X Tiger version 10.4.11, a minimum 256MB of memory, and is designed to run on any Intel-based Mac or a Mac with a PowerPC G5, G4 or G3 processor and built-in FireWire. Safari 4 for Windows requires Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista, a minimum 256MB of memory and a system with at least a 500 MHz Intel Pentium processor. Full system requirements and more information on Safari 4 can be found at www.apple.com/uk/safari.

Safari is a great looking browser that does away with clutter. It’s also very quick at loading Web pages and running Javascripts, but the real gain comes from a set of features that make it easier to monitor and access the Web sites you visit habitually, both through simple keyword searches and a visual timeline. Sadly, while the new browser delivers significant gains it fails to offer a match for one of the most popular features from its competitors – the extensions loved by Firefox users.

Apple is keeping quiet about Safari’s security credentials, too, which makes us nervous. Crucial features such as phishing protection are not clear and – unlike Opera – there’s no real-time fraud protection feature to tell you if a site is a phishing site. Apart from that, official plug-in support is still missing. Safari is a worthwhile download, but Apple’s seemingly flippant attitude towards security is a big worry – especially to Windows users. There’s nothing here to challenge Firefox, Chrome or even Opera.