Ditching Safari in favour of Chrome

Lex Friedman
12 October, 2011
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I have long been a Safari devotee. But since the introduction of Lion – or more accurately the introduction of Safari 5.1 – Apple’s web browser quickly fell out of favour with me. Because of a few under-the-hood changes to how Safari does its thing, I’ve ended up abandoning the browser in favour of Google’s Chrome – an app I once said couldn’t serve as my default browser. Times have changed: Safari’s now absent from my Dock and Chrome has claimed its spot.

The number one motivator for my switch to Chrome full-time is speed. On my system (a Core i7 MacBook Pro), Safari is measurably slower than Chrome, particularly once I’ve opened multiple tabs. What’s worse is that Safari actually slows down the rest of my system, too. Chrome suffers neither problem.

Safari Web Content woes

Why did the latest iteration of Safari get slower? Blame Safari Web Content; that’s a new background process that runs in tandem with Safari when you run the browser on your Mac. Safari Web Content’s job is to load any plug-ins and render the pages you surf to; the main Safari app that you see is the browser shell.

Ironically, Safari Web Content – a core element of what Apple calls WebKit2, the rendering engine that powers Safari – is actually an attempt by Apple to emulate one of Chrome’s key features: By decoupling Safari (the browser) from Safari Web Content, the browser should remain more resilient if an individual web page goes haywire. Thus, rather than having a rogue Flash script crash your entire browser, it should only crash the current tab. That’s now true of both Chrome and Safari.

The problem is that Safari’s implementation is flawed, and Apple hasn’t fixed it yet. I don’t know why, but Safari Web Content just doesn’t behave very well. Like the iPad and iPhone, Safari for Mac now refreshes tabs’ content when you go back to them if you haven’t viewed them in a while, which can wipe out any content you’ve entered into a form. Even if there’s no form data to lose, this behaviour still means that you get to wait for the page to load all over again.

If I’m researching a product to buy, for example, I can end up with two or three dozen tabs open on my screen. And that makes Safari 5.1 grind to a near standstill, as tab content is endlessly purged, making the browsing process take much longer than it should. When Safari started behaving that badly, the rest of my Mac would inevitably start choking right along with it. (The fix? Kill that Safari Web Content process in Activity Monitor – which in turn means all your tabs need to be reloaded again.)

Safari 5.1 gobbles up a lot more CPU than Chrome does.

The switcher campaign

Despite my numerous complaints about Safari, I was hesitant to abandon it. I’ve used Safari for years. It’s comfortable, I have a few extensions that I’m partial to, and change is hard. And, as I mentioned, I’d previously found seven reasons that I couldn’t turn to Chrome. But I’m just not a Firefox or Opera guy. Those browsers don’t feel Mac-like enough to me, no matter how I try. So I gave Chrome another go.

I’ve been delighted to discover that Chrome’s developers have addressed at least five of my seven complaints about the browser. There’s a preference to configure the Tab key’s behaviour so that it hops only between form fields (and not links); the location bar works more consistently with my expectations; Command- and Option-based keyboard shortcuts (for opening links and submitting forms in new windows, or for downloading linked files, respectively) now work; dragging images out of the browser works better; and the browser is far more stable than it was the last time I tried it.

In short, there’s now a lot more reason for me to love Chrome. And I’m finding that I kind of do. It’s fast, it doesn’t slow down under heavy browsing pressure and it doesn’t bog down the rest of my system, either. I’ve also been able to find Chrome extensions that approximate my must-have Safari extensions, including a Click to Flash substitute called FlashBlock.

Chrome’s extension community is even more vibrant than Safari’s, which means it’s easy to customise the browser to your liking.

What I miss

The truth is, I don’t miss much about Safari at this point. Chrome offers a very comparable experience. I still prefer Safari’s more traditional tabs to Chrome’s, which make dragging the Chrome window a little trickier in some situations. I also still wish Chrome could autocomplete URLs in the location bar (including by page title) the way Safari does: When I type a bookmark’s title in Chrome, I must arrow down to the first option and then hit Return; Safari eliminates the arrowing step. And I miss Lion’s brand new Multi-Touch Safari gestures, particularly the double-tap and pinch to zoom gestures.

But that’s really it – otherwise, Chrome is a fully capable, well-implemented browser that feels right at home on my Mac.

Now, if and when Apple releases an update to Safari that’s said to address the Safari Web Content woes that have plagued folks like me, I’ll definitely give the browser another go. But I’ll no longer feel like it’s my only choice.


4 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Jason says:

    I thought the reloading tab problem was actually a click to flash problem. Does that still happen with no extensions installed?

  2. coelmay says:

    While I am typing this is Safari (actually it’s the webkit nightly build), I am thinking of switching back to Chrome (have been using the Canary builds for a while) myself. Speed is definitely one factor in this.

    I agree wholeheartedly about the dragging of the chrome window—a little tricky.

    With your comments about Firefox and Opera not being Mac-like enough—Opera I would certainly agree with, Firefox, partially. Firefox, with several extensions like NoScript enabled, is my browser of choice when I want to view something I’m not sure of.

    One think I do dislike about Chrome is the fact Flash is bundled with it. At least it can be disabled.

    While I still use Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Opera daily (I’m not a one-browser type of guy) Chrome, for the most part, is my preferred. Unfortunately for Safari, Firefox is second in line.

    ** Oh, and with the pinch-to-zoom in Chrome, I tried it on my Macbook Air running 10.6.8 and it worked for me.

  3. coelmay says:

    @Jason: It happens to me; no extensions.

  4. matt says:

    pinch and zoom works on chrome, but it is a little different that the safari zoom. In safari it acts more like an iPad, with chrome it acts similar to using ctrl mouse wheel on a pc

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