Safari or Firefox?

When I was a Windows user I went through several generations of browsers. Starting off with Mosaic, then on to Netscape Navigator and finally, since I was a hard core MS guy, Internet Explorer. Of course back then we called the early versions Internet Exploder because the thing would frequently crash in spectacular ways. Over time Internet Explorer improved and became fairly stable, though it had a huge number of security holes that Microsoft could never seem to get on top of.

Once Internet Explorer became the defacto standard on the Windows platform Microsoft stopped innovating on it and focused on fixing security issues. It was about this time that Mozilla put out the first versions of Firefox and suddenly I had a reason to consider something other than IE. Firefox was quick, had a tabbed interface that IE didn't, didn't have the security holes that IE had and was, for the most part, able to present most web pages just as well as IE.

I quickly adopted Firefox as my default browser and for the next couple of years watched as Microsoft slowly realized that they needed to put a lot of effort into their new browser. Firefox always seemed to be one step ahead of IE, adding great new capabilities like skinning, plugins and extensions that were really handy.

Enough Windows History - What About Mac?
When I switched to Mac I figured I would also use Firefox instead of Safari. It was actually the very first application I installed on my new Mac. After playing with both I was surprised to find myself using Safari as my default browser. My use of Firefox was limited to my development work where some of the extensions for Firefox come in handy and the XML viewer that's built in makes life much easier.

What didn't I like about Firefox? It was considerably slower than Safari when loading and rendering web pages. The UI did not feel Mac like, with a toolbar that looked like something from an older Windows application. I love the clean, crisp UIs that Apple produces and while some think that Safari is spartan, I think it's just clean and uncluttered.

Firefox also rendered form components on a web page very differently than Safari. While Safari's pulldown lists and buttons inside a web form looked just like any other Mac UI, the Firefox versions of those buttons looked like something from an old Windows 98 machine; square, gray, flat buttons.

Out Comes Firefox 3.0
The recent release of Firefox 3.0 meant that I wanted to check this out again and see if Firefox deserved a spot as my default browser. I installed it over my previous version and started playing around.

Note: If you are a 1Password fan like I am you will need to open the preferences in it and reset it in the Browsers section.

The first thing I noticed is that it is considerably faster than the previous version. I didn't do hard core testing—just some subjective stuff—but found it to be nearly as fast as Safari. The UI has also been updated, making it look much more like a traditional Mac application. I particularly like the tab and toolbar rendering:

I also found that the web forms that Firefox used to generate are now being presented with traditional OS X looking components. This was a big deal for me so I was quite happy to see that in 3.0.

The Firefox team also added a cool searching feature. Click on the down arrow just on the right side of the address box and up pops your standard list of recent addresses. If you begin to type any matches found—both from your history and your bookmarks—appear in the list. It's kind of like a browser specific Spotlight search. Very cool.

There are three key Safari features that I don't have in Firefox though:

1) Dictionary Lookup
2) Drag and drop in web file upload forms
3) Snapback

Of these only Dictionary Lookup is tough to live without for me. Given the advances that Firefox has made I am going to spend the next week playing with this browser to see if it can indeed become my default. Using it for the bulk of the day yesterday leads me to think it has a pretty good chance.


slubman said…
If you want your firefox window to look much more like safari, there is a very good skin available here.

You can also enable a more safari-like way to view PDf (directly into the browser) with this extension.

With this skin, and this extension, I've now switched back to firefox as default web browser on my Mac.
nigel said…
The reason I never used Safari much when I moved to the Mac, instead using Firefox almost exclusively, was the lack of a good AdBlock replacement.

I see there is one now, so maybe I should try migrating the other way. Unfiltered web makes my eyes bleed.
pete said…
Forms are the reason I'll continue using Safari.

Form entry on Safari is page specific & the last entry is entered in the form with the drop down list. All I have to do is type the first letter and then click the button or hit return.

Firefox gives you a drop down menu, leaving the form field blank. You then have to cursor through ALL form entries beginning with that letter, or just continue typing - then click the button or hit return.

That to me alone is enough to use Safari.
David Alison said…
@Pete: You may want to take a look at 1Password, even if you keep using Safari. It not only remembers passwords but also does a great job with form data and credit card information. Beats grabbing the wallet if you want to buy something online.
David Alison said…
@Slubman: excellent tips - thanks! I'll probably be looking into Firefox extensions soon.
ezman said…
Like slubman says, there are a ton of extensions that make Firefox a serious contender for Safari's rightful throne. I've always used Safari for the same reasons as you; however, I think I'm moving over to Firefox now that 3 is complete and running just as fast as Safari. I really like having AdBlock... and silly apps like Stumble Upon (watch out, it's strangely addictive..).
Mark Morris said…
Regarding the history/bookmark search, in Safari you can press Command-Option-B and start typing your search term.
SadFootSign said…
Of course there are many different extensions that will do a dictionary lookup on firefox. The one I use is this one very simple straight forward lookup. The only difference is that it takes you to a online dictionary instead, which isn't as convenient, but does work.
sd said…

PithHelmet is available since quite a long time, and does a great job in adfiltering.
Anonymous said…
I have been using Safari for quite some time since I switched to the Mac.

Now that Firefox 3.0 is out (and even when it was in RC), I switched to Firefox as my main browser. AdBlock Plus is the only way to go for blocking obnoxious ads and other extensions like the dictionary ones mentioned in prior comments make FF3.0 pretty much Safari like.

I have some problems with FF3.0 that will hopefully be resolved as time goes on. One is for some reason loading Gmail in the browser causes the web mail client to display half way down the page. I have had to remove quite a bit of filters to get Gmail to fit in the browser window with no scrollbars.

I find it interesting that FF3.0 is a Cocoa based app now, but it doesn't support the keyboard shortcut for the dictionary.

So far so good with FF3.0, I'll keep using it until it does something really obnoxious, but that hasn't happened yet, so good for Mozilla for fixing FF so that it's a very viable browser for us Mac users.
Anonymous said…
I'd like to hear what people think about how Safari & Firefox3 measure up in terms of browsing secure websites (SSL)

Non-techie Mac-user
DBX said…
I think Firefox 3 is substantially faster than Safari on Intel Macs if my MBP is anything to go by. On the PowerMac G4, Safari is the slightly faster browser.
FFFish said…
Or, you know, use Opera, which is better than either Firefox or Safari.

More standards-compliant than Firefox, more stable than Firefox, and more functionality than Safari.
Ast A. Moore said…
Did you know you could drag and drop links onto the Tab Bar in Safari to create new tabs? They don't have to be actually links even.

Select the text above and click and drag it onto the Tab Bar (or the Address Bar itself).
devburke said…
When I tried FIrefox out, I found that even when I changed the scrolling options, I couldn't get the trackpad scrolling to feel right. It's a small thing, but it makes a big difference.
Ast A. Moore said…
Oh, I just read about you Dictionary Lookup problem, and remembered that I once had the same problem. I'm a really stubborn guy and stubbornly believe that there are very few (if any) problems that require a reinstall of Mac OS.

This one, however, was a very tricky one. You should take note of the following method, however. When you detect a problem, create a new account (I call it Test) on my machines and see if you can reproduce the problem in it. If you can't, you can narrow it down to your Home directory.

In my case, the non-working Dictionary Lookup was due to a corrupted .plist file in ~/Library/Preferences. The problem was that it was one of the invisible files. If I remember correctly, it was .GlobalPreferences.plist. I deleted it, logged out/in, and that fixed the problem.
Anonymous said…
I started using Opera back when it was the only browser with tabs, a separate Google search box, and, especially, magnifying zoom instead of just text-size zoom. The latter, when you've got old eyes and a really high DPI monitor, is just amazingly indispensible. At this point is all that's keeping me using Opera.

Firefox, Safari, and even Explorer have the first two features. As a captive app Safari integrates really well with other Apple apps and utilities, unlike Firefox and *really* unlike Opera. I keep reading hints and references to magnifying zoom in Safari and Firefox but so far at least there's no findable interface. (With Opera you option-scroll.)

Anyway, this week Opera significantly reved itself for the Mac and I'm still finding cool new improvements, but if I could learn to work magnifying zoom I, like you, would prefer to stick with Safari.

(P.S., the built in Macintosh control+scroll zoom zooms everything including menus and other open windows instead of just the client window. That's definitely no substitute.)

qka said…
For Safari plug-ins, add-ons, etc., check out
semioticmonkey said…
Well, on Mac FFox it is for sure not as polished as it need to be. The new UI is maybe worse of the former.
Anyway, check
to see some quircks.
I can add, Preferences Pane to the list as it continues to have the old Jaguar tabs.

I continue to use Safari but i have always an use for FFox (my default on my Wintel machine). Firebug is unsurpassed and the new Javascript rendering engine is fast.

If you need some useful safari plug check
and this

Use the nightly Webkit
rafael said…
I also use one of the skins on the page that slubman recommended. It slightly increased the vertical screen real estate when compared to the default FF3 skin.

David, you mention drag and drop for upload forms. Try this add-on for Firefox. I've used it on Windows and it works fine. I've yet to try it on my 1 week old MacBook, but I will probably install it today.

I wasn't aware of the Snapback feature you mentioned in Safari, but I quickly did a search for Snapback Firefox addon and came up with

I'll have to try out this Snapback feature in both browsers. I think what I do now that is similar is keep my original web site in one tab and always open other links in new tabs. Eventually I make my way back to the original tab.

How about Camino browser? Try that? I noticed it gave me even more vertical screen real estate than both FF3 and Safari. Just ever so slightly but still, I do appreciate it. Yes, you can change font sizes and zoom out in FF3 and Safari, but I'd rather leave the browser in its default config regarding font sizes and zoom settings for some reason.

For now, I'm using FF3 with default font set at 15, we'll see how long I keep it this way. This is all relative to the screen size and resolution you are using. I'm using a 13" MacBook at the native resolution.
David Alison said…
@Semioticmonkey: Does Firefox 3 use older style UI elements in Preferences? It looks pretty current to me but then again, I started off with Leopard, skipping even Tiger, let alone Jaguar. It looks like many of the preferences windows I see in Apple applications.
Ryan said…
I think FF3 is now superior to Safari, especially if you're a web developer/designer. The plug-ins that you can find for FF are priceless and the search now seems just as intuitive as Inquisitor on Safari.

When I switched to Mac earlier this year, I also made the switch to Safari, but FF3 has now taken over. Firebug, Twitter, and Gmail plugin integration have made it a very versatile browswer.
Hendrik said…
I thought about switching to Safari at some point, but there are Firefox extensions I can't really live without. FF3 is definitely a big step up, especially on the Mac. And it sounds like they will continue to make it an even better Mac citizen in the (hopefully near) future, enabling the dictionary lookup and the services menu.
semioticmonkey said…
@David: compare this (FFox)
to this (Safari)

I was referring to the tabs inside the panel. Sorry for being inaccurate.
David Alison said…
@Semioticmonkey: Ah - got it. I didn't even notice that until you mentioned it. Yes, that is something they should fix. UI consistency is pretty big issue to me and one of the reason's I've been so disappointed with Windows applications lately. Those little details don't seem like much in isolation but when added up make for an environment that just feels... unrefined.
robotank said…
Sadly, Firefox has still not implemented full aqua interface. Take a close look at the drop-down menus: they lack the rounded edges other OS X applications have and its aqua buttons aren't quite right either. Anyway, Firefox 3 is certainly a huge improvement over 2 and I'm using it as my main backup browser. I also highly recommend that you give OmniWeb a spin if you haven't already. It's got some of the best features of Safari (including WebKit), as well as tons of advanced features like site-specific preferences, integrated ad blocking, and far more extensive security options on cookies, pop-up windows, and java script. Snapback (called page marking) and cocoa dictionary/word completion are all present. It also features a clean and minimal interface, unlike the latest version of Opera. Worth a look IMO as an alternative to Safari, though I do find it slightly slower at times.
rafael said…
One more add-on for Firefox I thought I'd recommend.

Fission combines address bar and progress bar (Safari style). This makes the progress bar more visible and allows for a nice visual effect.
Chris Howard said…
David, Cooliris Previews is great plugin that includes dictionary lookup. However, it's real value is it lets you view pages without actually going to them. Once you've used it a little you'll hate working any other way.

Also check out their sensational PicLens.
David Alison said…
@Chris: looks pretty cool - thanks! I'll check them out. They give this away free, I'm trying to figure out their business model.
Anonymous said…
I have been using Firefox 3 in beta for a while. However, I still find Safari is better integrated with Apple's other applications, handles PDFS better, and is faster.

With that said, Firefox seems to handle forms better.
Chris Howard said…
I've never understood any of the free models. A man's gotta eat! I guess I'm just a capitalist at heart.
Steve said…
I simply like Safari and it works well, loads fast and does the job for me. I use the internet all the time in relation to my work, so I am not just surfing around for the fun of it, the pages load faster with the latest update release to Safari. Im a happy bunny!
Anonymous said…
I just installed the Dictionary Tooltip extension and it works really nicely. You double click any word and mouse over the little dictionary icon that appears right under the word. It then opens a small window right there with the results from an online dictionary of your choice.
Anonymous said…
@Ast A. Moore: Sorry for the late responce, but if you ever decide to check out Firefox, selecting a URL and dragging the text to the tab bar also brings up the web page selected.

There are a few things that FF3 doesn't do compared to Safari, but compared to the flexibility of FF3's extensions, Safari just doesn't quite add up.
battery said…
Firefox, Safari, and even Explorer have the first two features. As a captive app Safari integrates really well with other Apple apps and utilities, unlike Firefox and *really* unlike Opera. I keep reading hints and references to magnifying zoom in Safari and Firefox but so far at least there's no findable interface. (With Opera you option-scroll.)
Thanks for sharing this information

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