Skyfire (coverage), the plucky mobile browser that could, inches closer to a full-version release on Thursday with version 0.9 beta for Symbian and Windows Mobile phones. Despite some rocky loading issues with our preview version, Skyfire's significant additions to its feature set leave much to be admired.
Many of the changes are technical, such as support for all screen resolutions on Windows Mobile phones and a Symbian client that has lost over 50 percent of its kilobyte bulk. Many more developments pack on greater browsing power, like the capability to download some MP3s and videos.
A few features really stood out after playing with Skyfire 0.9 beta for a few hours on a T-Mobile Dash. The first is the RSS feed that's taken over the tabbed main screen. Search, the directory of top links, and History get their own tabs, but the primary screen now shows editable RSS feeds that include, by default, Hulu, Yahoo stories, Twitter, and Facebook--you'll of course need to sign into these last two. The RSS feeds are handy if you're into RSS, but if you're not, we think Skyfire should let you set any of these four tabs as your default.
The way Skyfire now handles articles, blog posts, and other big chunks of text is also different from in previous versions. The SmartFit menu option no longer exists; instead, after zooming in on an article, Skyfire will automatically reformat it to fit the screen's width. The best way to deal with text articles has been an ongoing debate in the mobile browser world for some time. Skyfire's latest solution worked seamlessly in our tests and offered hassle-free reading.
Downloading media is another new feature that piqued our attention. Certain media files that you can play in Skyfire, like an audio file or some videos, you can now also download to your phone. We were able to download a CNET TV video this way.
Video handling is one of our main interests with all mobile browsers. While some video was still choppy using Skyfire on a secure home Wi-Fi connection--like those streamed on CNET TV--an entire episode of House played with just a few jerky interruptions when we fired up Hulu. The video quality was pretty weak, but the show was, by all means, watchable.
Another feature of interest is Skyfire's refinement of the address bar, which, like other desktop and mobile browsers, doubles as a search bar. If you choose a search term that Skyfire has auto-suggested after you began typing, it will offer a second set of more refined search terms. For instance, typing in 'hot potato' gave us 'hot potato salad,' and then led to more specific recipe options.
A few more tweaks worth mentioning include a bug fix that lets you launch a long URL from an e-mail as long as Skyfire has been set as your default browser, and updated plug-ins for Flash 10, Silverlight 2.0, and the latest Quicktime.
Skyfire has come a long way since its humble beginnings, but there's always room for improvement. For instance, is a dedicated search tab really necessary when your address bar performs the same search? Speed and video quality can also always be improved, and Skyfire is still missing some of Opera Mobile's more advanced features, like searching for text in-line.
While we likely won't see any of the advanced gesturing tricks that are expected of Mozilla's Firefox Mobile (Fennec) in Skyfire anytime soon, its mobile browsing solution is fairly sturdy, which means that the company has a chance of winning you over before Mozilla drops its mobile-browsing bomb.
You can try Skyfire 0.9 beta for Windows Mobile and Symbian phones by pointing your mobile browser to get.skyfire.com.