Shiira 2.0 - A Visual Preview

I have recently had the chance to explore a ‘technology preview’ 1 of the next version of Shiira and can happily attest that this will be a very exciting release!It still has a way to go before matching the stability and functionality of its predecessor, but for what appears to be a complete rewrite, it is certainly advancing very quickly.What follows is a somewhat in-depth review highlighting new features, revised features and missing features of the new build in its current form—it is important to remember that this build is not even at an alpha stage, nor has it been released to the general public at this point, bugs and rough edges are not only present but very much expected. Features and functionality could/will change at any point in the future.

The Shape of Things to Come

‘Explore’ is certainly the keyword with this pre-release build, as it still requires a great deal of localisation—much of the interface is still in its native Japanese. But with the help of Google’s Japanese to English Language tool, a rough translation is only a selection in Interface Builder away. Weighting in at only 4.8MB, Version 2.0 is a little lighter than previous builds and could be a direct result of a new, cleaner code base, but I suspect it is more likely due to the reduced selection of features currently operational in this latest build.So how does it stack up?Tab Exposé - F8One feature that debuted exclusively in Shiira; Tab Exposé, which was inspired by Apple’s Exposé, has gained some much needed speed optimisation as well as such niceties as bezel-based user feedback, displaying the page title and URL details on mouse over. Along with the traditional ‘F8′ key command, Tab Exposé can now be activated via a small icon in the status bar. It might be worth mentioning that this novel approach to working with tabs has made its way to Firefox via a plugin called FoXpose which provides similar functionality to Shiira’s Tab Exposé [ for version 1.4 and later ], should that be your browser of choice.Unfortunately, due to a strange bug switching between tabs via Tab Exposé in the new 2.0 preview only works consistently with between 2 and 5 tabs. When making a selection with 6 [ or more ] tabs open, Tab Exposé often returns the user to the original tab displayed when it was invoked, rather than the new tab.

Tabbed Browsing

Tabs in general also get a solid reworking in the new version, where Shiira 1.2.2 offers two visually different tab styles—the ‘Safari’ style and the ‘tub’ [ or ImageFrame ] style, from a contextual menu 2, the latest version only provides one. Instead of the traditional Safari style tab users are used to, Shiira 2.0 opts for one visually similar to Firefox, originating from the top of the page rather than ‘dropping’ down from the chrome above. These new tabs remain drag-able and can be re-ordered within the tab bar, but unfortunately, it is still impossible to drag tabs between windows.A redesigned progress indicator is also present in the newer build and helps provides a much cleaner view of the status of the page. Each tab still has a small circular spinner representing communication with the server as well as the ‘pie chart’ for measuring the percentage of the page currently rendered, but the spinner is now a thin band rather than the standard circular series of bars [ NSProgressIndicator ] seen in previous versions [ or used throughout 10.4.x ] providing more room to unclutter the pie chart indicator. The pie chart itself is now monochromatic grey, matching the rest of the smaller interface widgets.Missing from the new Tab Bar is the ‘New Tab’ button, found to the right of the tabs in previous versions, there is however, a .tiff resource bundled in the Application package suggesting this functionality may be added in a future build. New tabs can still be created through the contextual menu’s ‘New Tab’ menu item, with the ‘New Tab’ toolbar icon or via the same keyboard shortcut—⌘T.Currently unavailable in the new build is the ability to switch tabs with a key command, in previous versions ⌘{ and ⌘} switched between open tabs, the menu items are in place [ Window > Previous Tab/Next Tab ] but seem disabled and are greyed out.PageDock - Tab ThumbnailsA heavily requested feature [ it seems for most browsers ] is something that OmniGroup implemented in version 5 their excellent browser ‘OmniWeb‘—Tab Thumbnails.Using a popup split view [ cf. iTunes Music Store ] called the PageDock, Shiira can now also display these visual thumbnails in a side scrolling section at the bottom of the current window. This section can be manually resized like most split views but only to a point [ both the maximum and minimum amounts are restricted ]. Each tab displays a small ’spinner’ indicating communication with a server [ just like the traditional tab bar ] but ‘fills’ the tab showing the percentage of the page retrieved and rendered rather than using the pie chart.Storing these thumbnails in the PageDock rather than a Drawer [ as OmniWeb does ] nicely addresses the usability issue commonly associated with this Aqua interface convention. As described by John Gruber in a review of a public beta of OmniWeb 5, it is sometimes difficult to determine ownership of drawers in a multi window environments;

Because of the way drawers are drawn in Aqua, if you have a window with no tabs directly in front of a window with tabs, it looks like the second window’s tab drawer is sliding out of the front window. This isn’t the Omni Group’s fault; it’s Apple’s.

Having the PageDock within the window bounds eliminates any confusion immediately.Shiira’s implementation isn’t perfect however—thumbnails can’t be dragged between windows [ exhibiting the same behaviour as normal tabs ], you cannot select or drag multiple thumbnails and there is no user feedback when mousing over the ‘close tab’ button like in previous versions, but my biggest concern, like with the Sidebar, is orientation. In this case having the PageDock to one side would be more appropriate with today’s wider screens.FullScreen ModeShiira now also offers a fullscreen mode where, as the name eludes, will render a full screen version of the current page, removing all interface chrome [ excluding the scroll bar if it is required ]. Safari and Firefox users have already had this functionality available in the form of plugins for some time [ Saft for Safari and Full Fullscreen for Firefox ], but Shiira is the first major OS X browser, to my knowledge, that has this build-in.With fullscreen mode invoked, the Menu bar is still available to provide access to the File and Bookmark menus et cetera and drops down over the WebKit view [ rather than forcing the page to drop down with it ] when the mouse enters the first row of pixels—similar to how a hidden Dock is shown when moused over 3. While convenient, access to the Menu bar ensures this is just a fullscreen mode rather than a secure Kiosk mode [ cf. Saft ].Navigation is handled with a Quicktime/iPhoto style OSD bezel which offers a basic, but essential set of functionality [ back, forward, reload, stop, return to window mode, increase/decrease text size ]. This bezel is drag-able and can be repositioned anywhere on screen where it will fade out when the mouse is not in use. A Tab Bar is present for switching between tabs when in traditional tab bar mode, but nothing is offered when using the new Page Dock method—switching via a keyboard shortcut will be essential!The ShelfThe new version of Shiira no longer uses a Drawer to display Bookmark, History and Download information, these items, and the search engine can now be found in a full window/tab view called the ‘Shelf’. This approach follows traditional methods of management adopted by most other major browsers [ cf. Safari, Firefox, Camino et cetera ] and provides a great deal more room to work with and display this information. Having recently commented on how Shiira deals with bookmark management, I was particularly interested in how the Developers addressed this in the newer build.Some of the ideas discussed in my previous post seem on target, users will have the option of both a list and a column view for managing Bookmarks and History [ Update: A newer build [ 060710 ] 4 has been released, column view has unfortunately, been removed from the Bookmark section of the shelf ] and for the most part works exactly as described.The History and Search Engine sections are unfinished and offer no information in regard to either the layout or features planned. Further inspection of the application bundle indicates each section of the shelf is separated into smaller bundles of code—a plugin within a plugin approach, which could allow individual modules to be easily updated independently from the main application.While there doesn’t seem to be any added functionality, at this point, to the sections that do work, there does seem to be some room set aside for expansion, in fact the newer 060710 build adds a split view between the bookmark listing and the selected bookmarks details.Sidebar DisassembledThe demise of the Sidebar will no doubt draw some criticism—For some it was the reason they moved from other browsers to Shiira, for others it was merely convenient. Then there is the group that intensely dislikes it.Regardless of which group you belong to, it is now gone.In its place is a series of semi-transparent, Aperture style HUD palettes which can be called to display information about your Bookmarks, History and Downloads. A fourth palette, entitled ‘Page Info‘, is also available and offers information about the current rendered page including encoding and load time. The Page Info palette is split into three tabs, ‘General’, ‘Links’ [ a listing of all the links on the page, including mailto: ] and ‘Images’ [ currently non functional ], to help consolidate and manage this information.And for those users who can’t live without their bookmarks visible, a combination of a resized main window and a long, thin bookmark panel to one side will offer a similar solution to the current Sidebar.Something I do hope is addressed shortly, is the inability to search this information [ Bookmarks, History, Downloads ] either from within these palettes or with the Shelf. This is really the only chunk of functionality not carried over [ other than the ‘Page Holder’ and ‘RSS feed’ Tabs ] from the current Sidebar.A Plugin APIA listing of plugins, currently only two—’preferences’ and ’shelf’, can be found in the Plugins section of the ‘Get Info’ panel 5. Each plugin can be toggled on/off here with changes taking place on the fly, without the need to restart Shiira. This signals a move to a more flexible, approachable code base and will provide the hooks required for other developers to add small chunks of functionality.The Preferences PaneThe new build is also sporting a re-designed Preferences pane and following the HIG style set by the System Preferences in Mac OS X 10.4.x, Shiira has a ‘icon in window’ based approach to displaying this information rather than the ‘icon in toolbar’ method of 1.2.2 and earlier. Much like the structure of the Shelf, the Preferences pane is made up of a collection of smaller functions [ *.pref ] bundled within the main Preferences Plugin folder which in turn is bundled within the main application package.Some preferences are not currently active [ ‘Theme’, ‘Plugins’ and ‘Advanced’ ], others have just been re-shuffled into different categories, [ most of the ‘Advanced’ pane is now found in the ‘Universal Access’ pane ] and then there are some that warrant completely new categories [ ie. Plugins and Key Bindings ]. Most of the preferences are still displayed in Japanese making a full assessment difficult, but it seems most of the previous releases’ configuration is retained, including the bizarre ‘Page Transition Effect’—which now offers a choice of which side the transition should start from. While the options are present, not everything works or is implemented fully at this stage. Expect more and more functionally as these sections are completed.Missing in ActionA few of Shiira’s main features are still missing from the newer build, one of which, is support for the notification system Growl. Version 1.2.2’s support was limited to notification of an updated RSS feed and a completed download, the latter I grew to depend on quite heavily. Other users like me will be happy to know that the growl.framework is included in the application package suggesting that support may come in a future release. Also missing is the management and creation of custom search engines. Although present as a section in the shelf, there is absolutely no interface, making it impossible to define new engines. Existing engines are available from the popup menu in the search field however, but unfortunately, searching via keyword in the location field is not currently supported. RSS support is also noticeably missing. Where earlier versions has support for rendering RSS feeds in both html [ cf. Safari ] and with Quartz 6 [ cf. Apple’s RSS Visualiser Screen Saver ] the newer build only identifies pages that offer RSS feed links with a small Firefox style RSS icon in the status bar—clicking this icon renders the icon in a Mac OS X ‘Tiger’ blue.Other features missing include, the ability to display Safari / Firefox bookmarks using Shiira’s built-in bookmark parser [ the interface is there just not complete ] and the export bookmarks as html function [ again, a menu item is there, just greyed out ].ConclusionSome key functionality is still missing from the new prototype build making it unsuitable for daily use, but it does provide a great insight into where Shiira is heading. The projects original goal of creating a better, more useful browser than Safari now seems a little short sighted—Shiira has, and continues to evolve into a simple yet powerful alternative to all other major browsers. Version 2 looks to be an extremely well considered application that just requires a good polish and a little more attention to detail before it’s ready to be released to the general public. New features such as Tab thumbnails will certainly be a welcome addition to the feature set as will the inclusion of the new plugin API, while those that came for the Sidebar will no doubt be disappointed that it is no longer available in the newer builds.With the new release—by my estimation, still a good few months away, It might be nice to see some of these improvements find their way to the 1.x branch—or at least, a solid bug fix to address the outstanding issues reported in the forum.Now, if only the forum could benefit from some of that attention.

  1. Shiira 2.0 - 060626 is not feature complete.

  2. The contextual menu is available when right-clicking or control-clicking an unused section of the tab bar.

  3. Fullscreen mode does disable the Dock temporary when in use, however ⌘-Tab continues to switch between applications.

  4. Other changes to the Bookmark section include a cosmetic change to the header [ now in a wooden texture ] and a Spilt View has been added between the bookmark listing and the selected bookmark’s details.

  5. Select the application icon in the Finder and choose ‘Get Info’ from the File menu - ‘File > Get Info’ or use the key command: ⌘I.

  6. Support for rendering RSS feeds with Quartz appeared in the 070521 nightly build of Shiira, but is no longer included in current releases.

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