It’s hands down the fastest mobile browser we’ve ever tested for any smart phone OS. But that’s not what makes Skyfire a breakthrough. This Windows Mobile browser, coming soon to Symbian, supports every Web 2.0 technology under the sun, including Ajax, Flash, and Java. That means you can visit the real YouTube and Hulu to watch videos, the real Yahoo Mail and Facebook to check your messages, and the real Last.fm to stream music. There are some significant drawbacks to Skyfire in its current private beta stage, but the company told us that most of the kinks we encountered should be ironed out as the software goes from version 0.5 to 1.0. We’ve been testing the current build and wanted to share our impressions. But first, a quick scorecard. What We Like:
What We Don’t:
For a pre-beta release, Skyfire shows an enormous amount of potential. Look out Opera Mobile. Read on for our full review. Skyfire’s Speedy Server The reason Skyfire is so blazing–it took only five seconds to load nytimes.com and six seconds to load YouTube–is because it uses Skyfire’s servers to do most of the heavy lifting. The result is a somewhat surreal browsing experience in that it feels like you’re using remote access software like LogMeIn to tap into someone else’s desktop. Really fast remote access software. After the sluggish 15-second startup for the program–not everything’s fast–you’re presented with a nice tabbed interface on the Skyfire homepage, which has quick links to Featured sites in various categories like News, Sports, Social, and Video. On this page, you can also access your bookmarks and browsing history. The only thing we don’t like about this setup is that you can’t pull up your bookmarks without exiting the Web page you’re on. Zooming In and Out with Skyfire On our HTC Mogul’s screen, Web pages were just a bit too small to read in widescreen mode, so we relied heavily on the built-in zoom controls. Hit the plus button and you can move a gray box to the part of the Web page you want blown up using your finger or your smart phone’s D-pad. It took a bit longer than we liked for the screen to redraw (up to 4 seconds), especially compared to the near-instant rendering of iPhone’s Safari browser, but text was easily legible after that. We noticed a minor redraw delay when scrolling down pages. If you don’t want to scroll too much from side to side when you’re zoomed in, the SmartFit tool (Under Actions in the Menu) comes in handy. In most cases, it reformats the text on a given page into a narrow column for easier reading. Saving Your Position on the Page One killer feature is the ability to save the exact position and zoom level for a given Web page when creating a bookmark. For example, we panned over to the Most Popular box on nytimes.com, zoomed in, and created a bookmark. So anytime we wanted to see the most e-mailed stories of the day, we could do that with a simple tap. Just make sure you don’t have SmartFit turned on or this trick won’t work. Also keep in mind that you can’t rename bookmarks or organize them into folders–at least not yet. Video Performance Skyfire blew us away with its video performance. It took only four seconds to start streaming the famous guitar clip from YouTube’s Most Viewed list, and the playback was surprisngly smooth. Then we tried streaming a Family Guy clip from Hulu.com (the never-ending brawl between Peter and the chicken) and a recent episode of House. At times the video resembled a sped-up slide show, and zooming in to just the right size proved a bit of a challenge, but overall we were impressed with the quality. Social Networking on Skyfire Facebook displayed properly (including an animated Dunkin Donuts ad) but, at the moment, social networking sites are a bit of a tease. We could easily check our inbox and even add the Flixster movie application from within Skyfire. Unfortunately, you can’t respond to messages or write on other members’ walls, as the browser doesn’t yet support “multi-line editing”. Also, there doesn’t seem to be a way to upload photos from your phone directly through Skyfire. Web-based Mail and Internet Radio A couple of other caveats diminished our enthusiasm a bit for Skyfire. For one, you can’t compose messages or reply to them using services like Gmail and Yahoo Mail. (It’s the same multi-line editing bug.) We also couldn’t fire up Slacker to listen to our customized stations; strangely, the site told us that Slacker was only available in the U.S. Turns out Skyfire’s servers currently have a Canadian IP address assigned to them, an issue that should be resolved shortly. Skyfire told us that they’re also having problems with Pandora’s Flash-based login. What did work well was Last.fm. We typed in The Bravery on the homepage and within ten seconds the Unconditional track started playing. We encountered only intermittent skipping over our Mogul’s EV-DO connection. Volume Control Adjusting the volume on Last.fm and YouTube however, was more difficult than it should be. Skyfire lets you mute the volume but not raise or lower it. And while you can do this using the sliding volume control in whatever playback window you’re using online, there was a bit of a delay. Stability and Battery Life We have only a few other complaints. In its current state Skyfire sometimes hangs, forcing you to refresh the page to get where you want to go. And this browser definitely takes a toll on battery life. Our HTC Mogul lasted about four hours on a charge with intermittent use of Skyfire, and it doesn’t help that the screen stays illuminated even when you’re not browsing. For now Skyfire recommends that private beta customers exit the browser when not in use. The company says it will be optimizing battery life for future releases. Skyfire Verdict Overall, Skyfire is an awesome mobile browser that will likely get much better with age. It runs circles around Mobile Internet Explorer and outclasses Opera, both in terms of full Flash support (as opposed to Flash Lite) and sheer speed. It could also prove to be a tantalizing alternative to paying for premium music and video services offered by the major carriers. Free is better than $10 to $20 per month. We’ll bring you a full review of version 1.0 as soon as it’s ready for primetime.