Struggling between Firefox and Safari

March 20, 2007

For a few weeks now, I’ve been struggling between Firefox and Safari, as “which one should I use as my main browser on Mac OS X”. I spend a vast majority of my work days in the browser environment, and so the browser is the single most important tool that I use. So the question of browser is almost critical as the choice of the platform and operating system, in that it’s the single most used tool apart from the OS itself, at least for me.

I was using Firefox on Windows for a long time and it mostly worked fine there. So I continued with FF also on OS X initially, but there were a number of things that I didn’t like about it, so I also gave Safari a run. And now I end up using both constantly for different purposes. Which kinda sucks – I’d like to have one main browser and not jump between them.

So I thought I’d do a little summary here about the main differentiators between them.

Tab bar layout and tab naming

This is the first one because it bothers me most about Safari. If this were better, I’d use less Firefox and more Safari. But it’s one of those little yet crucial features where I can save or lose a lot of my time just because a piece of software has been engineered in a particular way and some little design decisions have been made that don’t matter when viewing a program on its own – but viewing in context with other apps, they suddenly shine through.

The tab bar for Safari is worse than Firefox because of two reasons: 1) the font is smaller, and more importantly 2) it doesn’t show site favicons (even though it shows it for the current site on the address bar). So in windows with many tabs, I find that Firefox is much friendlier to navigate. Just compare these screenshots (click for full width).

Adding to the complexity and confusion in Safari – if you approach sites via bookmarks, for some weird reason the tab name (title) in Safari is not the actual page title, but the title of your bookmark. So unless you name your bookmarks really conspicuously, there may be no relation between the page title and the page actually being displayed.

So… the score on this one, clear win for Firefox. 1:0.

Web developer friendliness

Quite simply, Firefox is a browser good for web development, and Safari isn’t. You can overload your Firefox with a ton of extensions for simple things like validating your code and CSS via W3, to more advanced stuff like page performance profiling, server-side script debugging and what not. Safari doesn’t have any of that. So 2:0 to Firefox.

Safari has a setting “Open links from applications” that can be “in a new window” or “in a new tab in the current window”. Which works fine – but it doesn’t apply to links opened from the SAME APPLICATION, i.e dear Safari itself. So if you have something opening links that would typically pop up in new window (like Google Reader), Firefox successfully intercepts that and routes it to new tabs instead of new windows. Safari keeps popping these new windows open and annoying me. 3:0 to Firefox.

Google reader support

Firefox works better for me in Google Reader. Safari acts funny – things move up and down there for no reason sometimes, and some character encodings are more fucked up. Google Reader doesn’t feel a good-behaving natural app in Safari. This is one of those unnatural things where I can’t explain it further in writing without spending half a day on it, but I couldn’t be bothered at this time. Yet I could show it to you in real life what I mean, since a lot of this is about mouse scrolling and animation.

You could argue that pages with controls look nicer in Safari, and this is true (see the controls point below), but Google has done a lot of work on the Reader UI and also changed it recently (a few weeks ago). The “Mark all as read” and “Refresh” were changed from links to buttons, and rounded corners and cool OSX-style mouseover halos were added to the buttons. Check out this screenshot (from Firefox). You don’t see the mouse cursor, but the “Feed settings…” button has a blue glow because I’m currently hovering over it.

4:0 to Firefox.

Searching within page

Firefox has nice inline search-as-you-type search. You hit Ctrl-F (or Mac-F on Mac) and start searching and as you type, results are highlighted.

Mac is supposed to know everything about Spotlight searching and filter-as-you-type, yes? It’s done nicely in Spotlight and Finder and everywhere else. Yet in Safari, it pops up a separate pointless dialog where you first enter something and then need to do extra keypress/mouseclick to see if your search found anything. Very oldskool Windows Notepad-style. C’mon people. You can do better than that.

5:0 to Firefox.

… does this feel like Safari-bashing yet? No worries, I have some more bullets that let it kick FF’s ass as well :)

General stability

Firefox is as unstable for me as an evil stepsister of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. It keeps crashing at least daily for unknown and non-reproducable reasons. At some moment, especially when I have several pages open, it just dies on me for no reason. Either explicitly crashes (and OS X kills it) or just dies silently and I have to Force Quit it. This is fucking annoying and one of the main reasons why I started looking for an alternative on OS X in the first place.

I’ll give Safari two points here just because it’s so annoying and it also often destroys my work, like when I write something in a form and then FF dies and the form content goes with it. Even though it sometimes gets restored after restart, it’s still not nice at all. 5:2 to Firefox.

Controls and forms

Controls just look nicer in Safari. Pages are generally rendered pretty much the same in both, but when forms come into play, Safari is better.

So 5:3 to Firefox.

Inline RSS reading and subscribing

RSS is becoming more ubiquitous and you see this icon on more and more pages – either just somewhere in the content/sidebar or right on the address bar. (Wanna bet that Safari is also going to exchange its ugly blue “RSS” icon for this one in the next version?)


When you click on it, then Firefox renders you the RSS and lets you subscribe to it with any programs and web-based readers you have, including Google Reader. I’m not sure how Google Reader got in the list, but it works great. In Safari, you can only subscribe with an application and there don’t seem to be any ways to have web-based serv ices in that list, only through a proxy application.

On the other hand, Safari’s inline RSS reading works nicely for getting updates about feeds. Above somewhere, you see a link “Apple (34)”, indicating that this bookmark group has in total 34 items unread. And you can just open the RSS right away then and there. Firefox also has Live Bookmarks, but I never got these to work properly for me and they don’t indicate updates (or rather, indicate them only when you actually open each individual folder). So you can’t quickly scan your unread bookmark/feed counts.

I use this feature to subscribe to some secure feeds that I don’t want to put in Google Reader (and I think it doesn’t support HTTP-authenticated feeds anyway). So it’s a tie, as both suck in different ways. And both get one point. 6:4 to Firefox.

Secure sites with remembered passwords

Both browsers have an option to remember password to HTTP(S)-authenticated sites. Safari puts the passwords in your Mac keychain while Firefox has its own custom repository. And every time you go to such a site, Firefox pops up a dialog to confirm this. You just need to click OK. I guess it’s in order to alert people that they are authenticating with (stored) credentials, and it may be indeed necessary to remind people who are keen to give their password to everything that moves. I am very careful, however, about which sites I authenticate to using which passwords in the first place, and so this reminder is one extra click for me. Safari doesn’t prompt you for this if you have the password saved in Keychain, and just goes to the page. So 6:5.

Update: popups opening behind other windows

Ha – you never said anything, but my math was previously off and Firefox would have won. So here’s one more in Safari’s favour. Firefox popup handling sucks. And I’m not talking about the “buy our viagra with russian singles and mortgage refinancing” type of popups, but the ones you initiate yourself. Like say the “quickpost to blog”. These open always BEHIND the current window in Firefox for Mac. So you explicitly need to look for it. On Safari, they open on top as expected. So, that’s 6:6.

The end result

… is a tie, and I’ll have to keep using both, until either of them substantially improves. One more esoteric browser I thought of was Opera, but I’m not really using it that much. It would be great if someone went over Opera in the same categories – or perhaps I’ll do it myself one day when I use it more.