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But, Hey, Isn’t That Like Joining the Dark Side?

Background

During the last couple of years, I have been switching (many times in frustration) my browser preferences back and forth between Safari and Chrome. The primary reason for me to switch to Chrome from time to time has always been speed, raw speed.

I can’t help but notice that, yes, Chrome is much faster in day-to-day use than Safari. This especially applies for all versions of Safari since the introduction of MacOS X 10.7.

But, eventually, speed certainly isn’t the only aspect that defines a user experience. There is more to that and I’m trying to figure out for myself what the main factors are.

Chrome, er, chrome

I used to like Safari for it’s style and, to stress a well-known cliché, attention to detail. In comparison, Safari appears a lot more polished than Chrome, although I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that all those low-contrast shades of gray are a bit over the top. This makes orientation in the toolbar a bit fuzzy because there is no visual “anchor” for the eye.

On the other hand, I’m not implying that the “chrome of Chrome” is ugly. On the contrary, the longer I use Chrome, the more I like the UI for it’s visual simplicity. The aesthetic is different from the aesthetic within Safari, but still it exists.

Interestingly, some complain about too much contrast in the Chrome UI, especially with respect to extension icons. I guess you can’t please everyone.

And still, there are certainly aspect of the user experience where Safari is undoubtedly way ahead of any competition, for example (as also described in this article) the navigation in the browsing history or the way how a new tab is presented.

Extensions

Most of the “must have” extensions are available on both platforms, however, in some cases the extensions look nicer in Chrome than in Safari. This applies especially to the Readability extension. Here, the buttons in shades of gray (that show no connection whatsoever to Readability) contrast against the deep red of readability’s logo on Chrome.

In other cases, I can’t help noticing that extension icons are equally ugly in Chrome and Safari. I’m making this case on the example of the 1Password extension. as much as I like the functionality of 1Password, the design of the browser extension is a failure in my book.

Preferences

In Chrome, preferences are set inside a browser tab that opens for specifically this purpose rather than in a separate preferences dialog. Admittedly, this approach scales better than packing a ton of settings into a constrained preferences dialog.

On the other hand, I never had the impression that Apple cramped too much stuff into Safari’s preference page. So, from that perspective, it’s a tie.

Pin tabs

But then, pinning. Oh, pinning! Unfortunately, Safari does not support the pinning of tabs, a feature of Chrome and Firefox1 that I really enjoy and the usefulness of which can’t be overstated.

I regularly have a hard time from using a browser that does not support it. In other words, the ability to pin tabs is yet another aspect that makes me like Chrome better than Safari. I certainly miss this feature when I’m using Safari.

Omnibox

At first, the Omnibox feels weird. I have seen people typing www.google.com into the search box of their browsers and from that perspective the Omnibox is obviously a huge improvement.

Joking aside, the idea behind the Omnibox is genius given that configuration caveats2 are properly observed. For example, the Omnibox is one of the aspects of Chrome that became a target for critics complaining about data security.

OpenSearch

Chrome supports OpenSearch natively. For practical search, this means that you just type in the name of the site into the Omnibox and then press tab. If the site supports OpenSearch the content of the OmniBox changes to indicate the fact that OpenSearch is used for the site. Just type in the search term and enjoy the results.

Safari, on the other hand, requires an extension to support OpenSearch. It presents itself as a toolbar button that, when pressed, opens a dialog that consists of a search box and a list of sites that have been pre-registered with the extension.

Safari OpenSearch extension

This works quite well but is relatively clumsy to operate. I have developed the tendency to just type in the search term and forget to click on the site I want to apply the search term to. The Chrome way is a bit more intuitive. Whether or not the site supports OpenSearch is indicated by the Omnibox itself while you type the site name.

OpenSearch in Chrome

Dictionary

Both Safari and Chrome support the usage of the system-wide dictionary by highlighting a word and pressing ctrl-cmd-d3. There is a dictionary extension to Chrome available off the Chrome Web Store, but that’s a joke compared to what MacOS’ built-in dictionary app delivers.

Dictionary

Reader and Reading List

Yes, Reader and the Reading List are great features worth using - provided that you didn’t prefer to enjoy a similar service from Readability. If Readability would not exist, I’d surely prefer Safari over all other browsers no matter what other shortcomings it my have.

But the thing is that if Readability were not existing Safari most likely would not offer a similar build-in feature.

OK, so that’s it?

Google has received a lot of bashing for Chrome such that data security supposedly was not good enough. Maybe, maybe not. One of the main concerns voiced that by using the Omnibox people would give away more information about them as they’d feel comfortable with.

There are some preference settings that allow for tweaking the behavior of the Omnibox and I hope that I managed to find the combination of settings that does the least harm …

On the other hand, Chrome offers a clearer communication about properties of a connection to a site than Safari. In other words, the visual indication of whether or not a connection is secure appears both more understandable and more detailed to the average user in Chrome than in Safari.

Leaving aside the technical details4, I realize that I tend to feel more comfortable with relying on Apple for the future of a product that I like than on Google, which arguably developed a track record for a bunch of crazy decisions5 with respect to technology.

What does this all mean? Have a preference, enjoy it, but don’t make yourself too comfortable with just one option. Have a backup. Just in case.

Fortunately, in this specific case there is one and it is a close contender.

  1. I still don’t even consider using Firefox on my private machine. It may sound harsh but, like Internet Explorer, its best days are over. Interestingly, the average corporate IT enforces the usage of Internet Explorer or Firefox and on the same time bans Firefox or Internet Explorer because it clearly represents an intolerable security risk.

  2. I guess the advice boils down to minimize the amount of data sent to Google as the user types stuff into the Omnibox.

  3. I can’t stress this enough. Unobtrusive, but indispensable; the dictionary is one of my favorite features of MacOS. An app is only a good app if it supports access to instant wisdom by pressing ctrl-cmd-d.

  4. That admittedly make the difference for me in terms of preference.

  5. The heydays of “Don’t be evil” are over, at least for widely accepted definitions of don’t, be, and evil. Research with respect to this aspect is left as an exercise to the reader.

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