Safari is getting smarter.
Though the new version of macOS, High Sierra, mainly consists of under-the-hood upgrades, Apple’s web browser is one of the few Mac apps set to receive tangible, visible improvements. There are only a handful of new features, but all of them are focused on making it less aggravating to use the web.
They’re also likely to cause some panic in publishers and ad-tech companies.
I’ve been testing the new Safari for the past week on the beta version of macOS High Sierra. (A preview of the web browser is also available by itself; I wouldn’t recommend installing the beta versions of either Safari or macOS High Sierra on your primary computer.)
Here’s what’s new and notable:
Nobody likes it when videos start playing automatically as soon as a web site loads. The updated Safari allows you to end this annoyance.
You can now go into the web browser's 'Preferences' menu and block all auto-play videos entirely. You can lay down a blanket ban, or customise things on a site-by-site basis, only stripping auto-play privileges from the worst offenders.
You can also set the browser to show auto-play videos only if their audio is muted. Or you can just allow them to play unimpeded.
For the most part, the feature works. In most cases, videos that would play on their own are either automatically paused or never load in the first place. (There are some sites like Twitter that are set up in a way that circumvents the ban.) For the user, the feature works great. It speeds up load times, and, more importantly, helps you feel more in control of what you see on the web.
2. You can make it harder for companies to track your activity across the web and show you targeted ads that are based on your browsing habits.
Apple calls the new feature 'Intelligent Tracking Prevention' and it targets cookies, those small pieces of code that websites deploy to follow your activities online. The feature uses machine learning to reduce the number of cookies your browser installs, focusing on those used to target you for advertising purposes. It's designed to do so without blocking all cookies, which would force you to reenter your login information on various sites each time you visit them.
You can read Apple's blog for more details about the feature.
Safari's tracking prevention is fairly effective. I used Chrome and Safari in tandem for a few days. There were numerous times where I would see ads in Chrome that were clearly influenced by my browsing history, while the ads I saw in Safari appeared to be displayed randomly.
If you get creeped out by the internet's incessant need to sell you stuff, you'll appreciate having a web browser that takes these kind of steps.
Reader mode offers a cleaner, minimalist, and more aesthetically pleasing version of webpages, typically by stripping out ads and site navigation. Normally, you have to hit a little icon at the top of the URL bar to view an article in Reader mode.
With the new update, though, Safari lets you make it the default way to view webpages, where possible. You can also choose to have the Reader mode activated just for specific websites.
I'd avoid making Reader mode the default way to view websites. Safari isn't quite smart enough to tell when some pages -- like my Business Insider author page here -- aren't actually articles.
And some sites are just nicely laid out on their own, without the help of a specific mode.
But it's better to have the Reader mode option than not, particularly for slower sites.
4. Naturally, Apple is also claiming the new update will make Safari faster than its peers. The web browser has been nice and speedy during my time with macOS High Sierra, but since this is still beta software, it'd be unfair to make a definitive judgment just yet.
We'll wait until a final version launches later in the year before pitting it against Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and the like. But the early signs are good, and you'd expect Apple's web browser to have a leg up while running on the company's own operating system.
All that said, the new version of Safari doesn't fix many of the bigger complaints about the web browser.
Safari's still not as robust as Chrome or as accommodating to power users when it comes to support for extensions and add-ons. It's also still a bit harder to get around in Safari than in Chrome when you have tons of tabs open. And Safari still just looks kind of bland.
What's more, you can't even use Safari unless you've got a Mac, iPhone, or iPad.
Safari's not the first web browser to include features like those above. And there's always the chance that advertisers and publishers will find a way around some of its new capabilities.
Still, for those who do live in Apple-land, Safari's latest additions make the web a little less frustrating to surf. If you prefer a lightweight browser -- and if Safari can live up to Apple's performance claims -- it may be worth a shot when Apple releases it with the final version of macOS High Sierra later this year.