Apple quietly launches Safari 5

You might have missed it what with all the chatter surrounding the release of the new iPhone 4, but Apple quietly slipped a new version of its HTML5-compliant web browser into the mix last night.

Safari 5 once again claims to be the fastest full-featured browser available but the numbers are a little less impressive than with previous version bumps.

This time around, Apple claims that Safari is twice as fast as FireFox, but just three per cent faster than Google's Chrome. Hardly worth all the shouting.

Safari also speeds things up in the background with 'domain name pre-fetching'. Basically, if the rendering engine is sitting around doing nothing, it will grab all of the linked URLs on a page and look up the addresses so that it has less work to do once you decide to click through to another page.

Probably the most important change, and one which is likely to cause some controversy, is the Reader function. When Safari detects that the page you are looking at contains an article (like this one) it will go off and collect all of the elements of that article - just the text and pictures in other words - and strip out all of the other stuff on the page like adverts and banners and links to a million other sites.

Hitting the reader button, which automagically appears on suitable pages, leaves you with just a nice clean e-reader-like view.

Click image to enlarge

Safari 5 also adds a whole raft of new HTML5 functions including full-screen video and closed captions, geolocation, draggable attributes and WebSockets.

Microsoft's Bing search has been added as a user option to the search bar, which means you now have a choice of Google, Yahoo or the aforementioned Bing.

For those of you interested in tinkering about with the browser's innards, Apple has added extensions to Safari. "If you know how to develop web pages, then you already know how to make extensions for Safari," says Apple. "And help with putting it all together is built right in. It’s called Extension Builder, and it makes it simple to package your extension for distribution and installation."

New extensions will have to be submitted to the Safari Extensions Gallery, which will open later this summer, for approval.

A smart address tab will now have a guess at web addresses if you type in part of it, by looking at your history and bookmarks.

Windows users get new hardware acceleration, which should speed up pages containing multimedia and interactive graphics.

We've had a quick play with Safari 5 and it appears to be quick and stable. For anyone, like us, who spends all day reading web articles, the Reader function will be a massive boon. But we're not sure how happy it will make advertisers whose money-making banners are hidden from view with a summary click.

Like Snow Leopard before it, Safari 5 has very little to show in the shape of new bells and whistles, but it's what's going on behind the scenes that makes all the difference.

As seems to be Apple's way of late, Tiger users are left out in the cold as the new browser appears to be only available for Leopard and Snow Leopard users (OS X 10.5.8 onwards).

You can grab Safari 5 for Mac and PC for free here. Let us know what you thinq in the comments below.