If you don't like the product you're being sold, taking your business to a competitor is a good idea. But becoming a competitor may be a better idea. That's what Apple has done with its Safari Web browser: Instead of waiting for Microsoft to update the aging Internet Explorer, it wrote its own software.
Mac users can be glad it did. Safari (www.apple.com/safari) is one of Apple's finest releases, an elegant piece of work that shows a refreshing emphasis on two often-neglected qualities: simplicity and speed.
This browser -- a free, 6.2-megabyte download for Mac OS X 10.2 -- boots in a few blinks of the eye and displays pages faster than competing browsers.
Its customizable interface comes with a brushed-metal appearance that minimizes the number of controls you have to address at any one time: For example, as a page loads, its address bar doubles as a progress indicator, and its reload button temporarily turns into a stop button.
Safari includes a shortcut to Google searches in its top-right corner, which also remembers recent queries.
As you wander off into the Web, Safari's "snapback" button will appear in the address bar. Click it and you'll be whisked back to the last bookmark selected or the last address typed, whichever was more recent. This is perfect for digging your way out of complex sites, and I miss it every time I use another browser.
As any modern browser should, Safari can block unsolicited pop-up windows (if desired, you can re-enable pop-ups with a quick menu selection instead of a detour to Safari's streamlined preferences window). It also blocks cookie files that haven't been placed by the current site, which stops most Web advertisers from tracking you.
Safari's support for "tabbed browsing" is equally up to date: This popular option lets you view multiple Web pages within one frame, easily switching from one to the next.
Apple's biggest departure from browser tradition comes in Safari's bookmarks system. Instead of appending each new bookmark to an ever-longer menu -- which becomes essentially useless once it's taller than your screen -- Safari encourages you to organize your bookmarks among a set of smaller menus in a "bookmarks bar." For example, you can create one submenu that includes local weather forecasts and another for all of your financial sites. An "AutoTab" option will open such a group of bookmarks as a series of tabs.
Best of all, if you have two or more Macs, Apple's $100-a-year .Mac service will keep the same bookmarks in sync among those Macs. That's one of several ways that Safari smartly exploits Mac OS X's capabilities.