Safari Should Display Favicons in Its Tabs

Back in May I wrote a piece titled “Safari vs. Chrome on the Mac”. From my conclusion:

In short, Safari closely reflects Apple’s institutional priorities (privacy, energy efficiency, the niceness of the native UI, support for MacOS and iCloud technologies) and Chrome closely reflects Google’s priorities (speed, convenience, a web-centric rather than native-app-centric concept of desktop computing, integration with Google web properties). Safari is Apple’s browser for Apple devices. Chrome is Google’s browser for all devices.

I personally prefer Safari, but I can totally see why others — especially those who work on desktop machines or MacBooks that are usually plugged into power — prefer Chrome. DF readers agree. Looking at my web stats, over the last 30 days, 69 percent of Mac users visiting DF used Safari, but a sizable 28 percent used Chrome. (Firefox came in at 3 percent, and everything else was under 1 percent.)

As someone who’s been a Mac user long enough to remember when there were no good web browsers for the Mac, having both Safari and Chrome feels downright bountiful, and the competition is making both of them better.

I got a ton of feedback on this piece — way more than typical for an article. One bit I heard from a few readers is that I gave Safari/WebKit short shrift on performance — the WebKit team cares deeply about performance and with regard to JavaScript in particular, WebKit is kicking ass.

But really, taken as a whole, the response to my piece was about one thing and one thing only: the fact that Safari does not show favicons on tabs and Chrome does. There are a huge number of Daring Fireball readers who use Chrome because it shows favicons on tabs and would switch to Safari if it did.

The reaction was so overwhelming I almost couldn’t believe it.

The gist of it is two-fold: (1) there are some people who strongly prefer to see favicons in tabs even when they don’t have a ton of tabs open, simply because they prefer identifying tabs graphically rather than by the text of the page title; and (2) for people who do have a ton of tabs open, favicons are the only way to identify tabs.

With many tabs open, there’s really nothing subjective about it: Chrome’s tabs are more usable because they show favicons. Here are two screenshot comparisons between Safari and Chrome from my 13-inch MacBook Pro. The first set shows 11 tabs: the TechMeme home page plus the first 10 stories linked today. The second set shows 17 tabs: the Daring Fireball homepage and the 16 items I’ve linked to so far this week.

This is not even close. Once Safari gets to a dozen or so tabs in a window, the left-most tabs are literally unidentifiable because they don’t even show a single character of the tab title. They’re just blank. I, as a decade-plus-long dedicated Safari user, am jealous of the usability and visual clarity of Chrome with a dozen or more tabs open. And I can see why dedicated Chrome users would consider Safari’s tab design a non-starter to switching.

I don’t know what the argument is against showing favicons in Safari’s tabs, but I can only presume that it’s because some contingent within Apple thinks it would spoil the monochromatic aesthetic of Safari’s toolbar area. I really can’t imagine what else it could be. I’m personally sympathetic to placing a high value on aesthetics even when it might come at a small cost to usability. But in this case, I think Safari’s tab design — even if you do think it’s aesthetically more appealing — comes at a large cost in usability and clarity. The balance between what looks best and what works best is way out of whack with Safari’s tabs.

And it’s highly debatable whether Safari’s existing no-favicon tabs actually do look better. The feedback I’ve heard from Chrome users who won’t even try Safari because it doesn’t show favicons isn’t just from developers — it’s from designers too. To me, the argument that Safari’s tab bar should remain text-only is like arguing that MacOS should change its Command-Tab switcher and Dock from showing icons to showing only the names of applications. The Mac has been famous ever since 1984 for placing more visual significance on icons than on names. The Mac attracts visual thinkers and its design encourages visual thinking. So I think Safari’s text-only tab bar isn’t just wrong in general, it’s particularly wrong on the Mac.1

I really can’t say this strongly enough: I think Safari’s lack of favicons in tabs, combined with its corresponding crumminess when displaying a dozen or more tabs in a window, is the single biggest reason why so many Mac users use Chrome.

You can even make an argument that adding favicons to Safari wouldn’t just make Safari better, but would make the entire MacOS system better, because Safari gets dramatically better battery life than Chrome. For MacBook users who spend much or most of their days in a web browser, it can mean the difference of 1-2 hours of battery life. This is actually a common refrain I heard from numerous readers back in May: that they wished they could switch from Chrome to Safari because they know Safari gets better battery life, but won’t because Safari — seemingly inexplicably — doesn’t show favicons in tabs.

Favicons wouldn’t even have to be displayed by default to solve the problem — Apple could just make it a preference setting, and power users would find it. The fact that it’s not even a preference, even though it may well be the single most-common feature request for Safari, seems downright spiteful. And not just mean-to-others spiteful, but cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face spiteful. It might sound silly if you’re not a heavy user of browser tabs, but I am convinced that the lack of favicons is holding back Safari’s market share.

  1. And iPad, for that matter, which arguably places even more emphasis on icons over names than the Mac. ↩︎