iOS 7 preview: Safari amps up search, tabs, sharing, reading, and more!

Safari is one of the most important apps on iOS, and so it's not surprising it gets one of the biggest redesigns in iOS 7. The gateway to the web on iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad, Apple finally gives it a unified search bar, along with some slick new social features, a better reading list, and an all-new, all awesome new tab interface that really shows off the objectification, gamification, and general dynamism of iOS 7.

Here's what Apple (opens in new tab) has to say about the new Safari features in iOS 7:

Browsing is bigger, better, and more beautiful with Safari in iOS 7. Buttons and bars — like the unified smart search field — stay hidden until you scroll to reveal them. So you see more content than ever on your screen. And with a swipe, you can go back or forward a page. It’s all designed so nothing gets in your way or slows you down.

And here's what Apple's shown off of it so far:

  • Safari now sports a new, full-screen design where interface elements minimize or disappear during normal browsing.

  • For example, when you're at the top of a webpage, or tap the website name at the top, the new unified smart search field presents itself. When you scroll down, it disappears. Same with the basic control buttons.

  • Tapping into the unified smart search field presents you with a page full of icons, giving you easy access to all your favorite websites.

  • When you start typing in the unified smart search field, you get shown the top hit (hits?), then results from Google (or whatever your default search engine is set to?), as well as results from Bookmarks and History. (Presumably local results to the page text as well?)

  • The Bookmark button now opens up a tabbed interface that, first, includes the traditional list of your bookmarks.

  • Next is the Shared Links, which shows you pages your friends have shared with your on Twitter.

  • Last is the Reading List, which as the name suggests, shows you pages you've saved to the reading list. You can choose to show only unread stories, and also scroll continuously through stories without going back to the list view.

  • Tabs has an all-new interface. Pages are now presented in a virtual 3D "rolodex" that you can scroll through. And the old tab limit is gone. You can have as many tabs as you want now.

  • You can reorder a tab by touching and holding it and then moving it to the place you want it. You can get rid of a tab by tapping the X icon at the top left, or by touching and holding it and then tossing it off to the left.

  • At the bottom of the tab interface are iCloud tabs. Unlike the regular tabs, they're not presented as cards but as a list overlaid on top of the cards, sorted by device.

  • Private browsing, which used to require a separate trip to the Settings app to toggle, now appears at the bottom of the bookmarks and tabs interfaces.
  • Gestures have been incorporated that let you swipe from left to right to navigate back through the browser history, and from right to left to navigate forward through it.

The new interface for Safari looks great. I'm still not a huge fan of the unified address and search fields - I never saw the need for the URLs I type in to be parsed by the company who made the browser. Even if they separate fully formed URLs from search terms at the interface level, there are all sorts of opportunities for user errors that spawn searches, and they don't need any more data from me - and on me - than they get already. However, for people who don't care about that, it's a really convenient feature and in iOS 7 Safari, it's done well.

What remains to be seen how well Safari auto-hides and reveals the unified smart search field and the controls in actual use. Barring a direct connection to my brain, it'll be hard for Safari to know exactly when I want an uncluttered, full-screen experience, and when I want that damn control button now, now, now. The new navigational gestures, while they have issues, will no doubt mitigate that slightly. Would that it were possible to figure out more of them. Quick bookmark access would be grand.

The favorites are a good idea, and look useful. Likewise the new, tabbed Bookmarks, Reading List, and Shared Links. Apple hasn't said how they're pulling the Shared Links yet, but I presume it has something to do with the existing Twitter integration. No word yet on what, if anything, happens if you have multiple Twitter accounts set up in Settings.

Privacy being available right from Bookmarks or tabs is excellent. No more having to switch apps to toggle. Hopefully we'll eventually be able to have private tabs co-existing with non-private tabs at the same time.

The new Tab browser is epic. It shows off everything that's great about iOS 7, including the new physics engine that allows for the rolodex metaphor, the parallax effect that allows for "peaking" at what's behind things, the direct manipulation that allows for intuitive re-ordering and removal, and the absolute delight of the experience in general. It's just so well done, and should make all of us eager to see what this kind of potential can lead to in the years ahead.

Layering iCloud tabs at the bottom looks great as well, though the lack of a tab limit means they could potentially take a while to scroll down to.

As to iCloud Keychain, we covered that previously:

Overall, iOS 7 Safari looks like a terrific update, as befits one of the most important, most used apps on the platform. It ships, along with the rest of iOS 7 this fall. In the meantime, let me know what you think of it - a lot of improvements, a lot of eye candy, or a bit of both?

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • Am I just missing it or is there no way to close all tabs? It's nice being able to swipe them away, makes it a little easier, but it boggles my mind there's not a way to just wipe them all out with the push of one "button" or gesture. It is an improvement but I still prefer Mercury and unfortunately there's sometimes no way around using Safari.
  • Currently there is no way to exit all tabs or at least I have not found one in the beta builds. That would be a welcomed feature though along with a close all tab or button for the fast app switcher.
  • I am in the minority but I don't like the rolodex tabs. I found them to be a little too small and this caused me to have issues closing the one I wanted.
  • When you say you don't like the Rolodex tabs are you speaking of the tabs themselves, or are you speaking about the X button to exit them. If it was the X button you can simply swipe to the left to exit or remove a specific tab. I haven't decided wether or not I like the new design but I have found it to be faster than the old iteration which is a plus for me.
  • I like my iPhone because it is reliable. But I can't get too excited when Safari FINALLY copies Chrome.... yawn. Seriously, there are so many things in iOS that need to be brought up to date, like being able to click on album and artist in a music app and bring up the relevant info, that iOS7 so far as I can see is still just playing catch-up. However, that being said, there is one area that iOS excels in that Android can't touch: IT WORKS. Practically never crashes etc. If they can maintain that and keep bringing it closer to webOS and Android features at the same time, then I will stay an iOS fan, too!
  • "Gestures have been incorporated that let you swipe from left to right to navigate back through the browser history, and from right to left to navigate forward through it." How does this work with sites that currently implement their own left and right swiping to change between stories, for example The Guardian Newspaper website?
  • You have to swipe from the very edge to go back/forward in the browser. It won't interfere.
  • "Tabs has an all-new interface... the old tab limit is gone. You can have as many tabs as you want now." As far as I can tell, this is a lie. I have found that the limit has merely increased from 8 tabs to 24 tabs, but the limit still exists unlike Chrome.