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Posted 5 April 2008
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Has it really been over a month since I last wrote on here? Crazy! It has been quite busy ’round these here parts — but I have been meaning to talk about the “browser wars” for a while now. The funny part is, as soon as I finally sit down to write this, I realize that Mr. Gruber has beat me to the punch. Fear not though, I still have my own opinions I’ll bore you with today!

As many of you know, both Apple and the good folks at Mozilla have been hard at work on their latest browser versions – Safari 3 and Firefox 3 (currently in Beta). I have long been a loyal Safari user and have been criticized frequently for my decision to stick to it. I must say it has not come without some frustrations (particularly with the way Safari handles some Javascript actions and AJAXy goodness) – not to mention the occasional site that snubs Safari altogether.

Before you go and tell me why I should be using Firefox, let me explain! I think Firefox is a fantastic browser. It’s fast, reliable, and more importantly, has excellent support for web standards. On top of that, it adds an amazing extension architecture that allows it to become as powerful as you need it to be. So why do I insist on sticking to Safari? Simple — Firefox is ugly as sin. And of course, there’s the argument that you can even theme it to look like Safari, and to that point, I make my argument: you can theme it all you want, but the ugliness is not purely cosmetic. As John Gruber explains in his post, the ugliness is also in the usability of the application.

So with Mozilla’s new version of Firefox (namely the Firefox 3 Beta), have things gotten any better? And how does this new update compare to Safari’s new v3 update? Well, for the most part, Firefox has managed to pique my interest for the first time.

Toolbar
The interface has been polished to bring it more in line with Apple’s standard look — which was always a big issue for me. With minimal customization (setting the toolbar icons to small) you have a pretty decent looking interface.

Firefox Toolbar

Even with this huge improvement, there are a number of things about the interface that still do not work for me. Safari, for example, uses the limited toolbar space very efficiently. When you’re loading a page, the refresh icon becomes a stop icon whereas Firefox uses a separate button for each. To me that’s like having a separate play and pause button on a video player. It seems like an utter waste of space.

Another way Safari utilizes space more efficiently is by having the loading progress represented in the URL field — which I have loved since day one. Firefox, on the other hand, has a small loading bar on the bottom right corner — where I hardly ever look.

Finally — and this will likely sound very nit-picky, but hey, God is in the details — the amount of space the toolbar and tabs takes on Firefox is 7 pixels taller. Yes, I know the amount is negligible, but it still bugs me.

Firefox Toolbar

Icons & Search Engine Dropdown
There are other small details about the Firefox toolbar which I don’t care for — mainly because I feel they clutter the interface. An example of this is the search engine dropdown (I don’t know about you, but I only use one search engine for 99.9% of my searches) and the favorites/rss icons. I also prefer Safari’s icons with their rounded corner look (see above) as opposed to the elongated oval look of Firefox which for some reason makes them look dated to me (much like the cars of the late 90s were all “bubbly”).

Finally, the proportions of the symbols feels much better in Safari. And I feel like a + sign communicates “add bookmark” much better than a blue star. I will say, however, that I much prefer Firefox’s home icon over Safari’s.

Developer Tools
Safari’s coolest new feature is the integrated Developer tools. This new feature can be enabled in the Preferences/Advanced tab and provides a wealth of information that makes web development much more pleasant and informative. Firefox has extensions that allow for this kind of information (Greasemonkey, Firebug, and Web Developer to name a few) but their interfaces are not as elegantly integrated to Firefox.

Safari Developer Tools

And let’s not forget Safari’s trusty Activity Window tool, which has troubleshooted countless situations for me! I simply couldn’t live without it.

Bookmarks
I have to hand it to the folks at Mozilla. Firefox’s implementation of on-the-fly bookmarking is far superior to Safari’s without taking up any more space. You are able to control many aspects of your bookmark right on the dropdown (particularly the ability to add new folders and tags) which I very much wish Safari would do.

Forms and User Input
I have had many pet-peeves in the past with Firefox, but none were more pronounced than the way forms and input items look! Quite frankly, they look horrible, and I prefer Safari’s approach hands down. I am happy to say that it seems like Firefox 3 has finally addressed this and now uses the same graphics for checkboxes, radio buttons, input fields, and submit buttons as Safari. Thank goodness!

User Options
Where Firefox continues to kick every other browser’s behind is in the amount of user customizations you are able to control. The extension API provides users with an endless set of options that are not available on other browsers. Granted, you are at the mercy of whoever develops these extensions to make sure they follow clear usability guidelines and aesthetics — which in my experience tends to not be so great on both fronts.

Speed
Oh boy, here comes the big one. I cannot deny that Firefox seems to be significantly faster than Safari. Pages seem to load much quicker and the fact that most developers will test on Firefox (but not necessarily Safari) is a major reason for moving to Firefox. The question is — can I put my interface complaints aside to get the benefits of speed? The honest answer? Fat chance. I would much rather wait half-a-second more and have a pleasurable and usable interface — call me crazy.

Few things are as polarizing as the debates between OSX vs. Windows or Firefox vs. Safari. With that in mind, I am curious to know what your thoughts are on Firefox’s newest implementation.

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