Hands-on review: Skyfire mobile browser

We got our hands on Skyfire's mobile browser, now in closed beta. Get the story on key features and performance, and how it compares to Opera Mini.

Skyfire\'s start page, plus a browsing toolbar for touchscreen phones. (Credit: Skyfire)

Skyfire (video), the latest mobile browsing upstart, has been touted as faster, cleaner, and smarter than its competitors, and that's before it was released in private beta. It's easy to praise an app when it's first being demoed, and another story when users and reviewers can get their hands on a living specimen. Frankly, the hype is overblown. While Skyfire has its perks--very nice ones--it hasn't won the competition yet.

Like Opera Mini (see video), Skyfire uses a proxy server to help render pages and control text flow. Also like Opera Mini, Skyfire utilizes a mouse and takes advantage of zooming to jump from a microscopic full-page view to a legible text size by navigating the rectangular zoom field to a starting point before activating it. After that, scrolling takes you around at the same zoom percentage until you click something else.

Zoomed in on Wikipedia.com. (Credit: Skyfire)

Skyfire's start screen is a simple, attractive triple-tiered header that makes use of a search bar, bookmarks, browsing history, and features tab, the latter whose contents include prechosen links for popular sports, news, social networks, and video sources. Think CNN, eBay, and YouTube and go from there.

You can do the usual URL entry, bookmarking, and refreshing, but one differentiator is Skyfire's quasi search egalitarianism. Not only does a search yield Google and Yahoo results in separate tabs, it also has tabs for searching images, videos, and maps.

So, how good is Skyfire's Flash video playback? This is Skyfire's triumph, but also its weak point. A YouTube video was slow to buffer and rather pixelated. Automatically tipping the video on its side would have at least made better use of screen space; instead it played in only the top portion of the screen, an inch-and-a-half diagonal on my test phone. The fact that Skyfire doesn't yet recognize your hardware and adjust video size accordingly means that users with a vertical rectangular screen see a lopped-off picture when zooming in to a horizontal video.

Pint-size videos chug along on small screens. (Credit: Skyfire)

Overall, Skyfire does achieve a relatively comparable desktop browsing experience. With the exception of two unobtrusive soft keys on a keypad phone and an additional toolbar on a touch-screen phone, all signs of the browser disappear in page view. There's a lot the browser doesn't do yet that the much more established Opera Mini does, but there's also tremendous room for sophisticated growth.

To try Skyfire on Windows Mobile phones versions 5 and up, sign up for the closed beta on Skyfire's site. Symbian users, we hear it's your turn next.

Related articles:
*Skyfire brings desktop-quality browsing
*Will Opera Mobile perform for free?

About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.