Skyfire, a Mountain View, Calif., start-up that competes directly with Opera Mobile browser, announced Wednesday the opening of its public beta for Windows Mobile phones. This is good news if you've been waiting months to join Skyfire's private beta program.

In addition to going public, Skyfire has upgraded from version 0.6 to version 0.8, a move that brings significant performance improvements and a more fleshed-out start screen design.

Skyfire mobile browser's new start screen
Skyfire's new start screen adds icons for a richer look. (Credit: Skyfire Labs)

On the start screen, Skyfire has shifted from a spindly design of bare text links to a fleshed-out look that includes shaded boxes and icons. The headline content--world, business, sports, elections, and a weather widget--is all fed by Yahoo, though it's not an exclusive partnership.

Skyfire has introduced SuperBar in version 0.8, a field that combines the address bar and search into one. SuperBar helpfully offers suggestions to complete your query as you type, but unlike Opera Mobile 9.5 beta (which has separate search and URL fields), Skyfire doesn't remember your URL history. Nevertheless, it's one new feature that helps elevate Skyfire from a scrawny mobile browser with potential to one that is a viable browser alternative.

Vastly improved streaming video quality is another feature that gives Skyfire an extra dose of credibility. Video streaming in previous versions was watery, more a proof of concept than anything you'd want to use to watch videos. Version 0.8, on the other hand, delivers decent full-screen quality with streaming that matches sounds and images with fewer hiccups than before. There's still work to do to smooth over the humps and improve image clarity, but these latest improvements are notable.

Skyfire video streams
Video streaming is much improved in Skyfire 0.8 beta. (Credit: Skyfire Labs)

You can now also download images and PDF content, send stories via SMS, and type text directly into Skyfire, instead of typing into a separate entry field like in previous versions--something that hasn't yet been implemented in Google Android.

Improved zooming controls, quicker launching and page loading, and the ability to set Skyfire as the default device browser are smaller, but still significant changes that bring the browser closer in line with the much brawnier, more mature Opera Mobile 9.5. Skyfire has also made the browser much more stable.

Skyfire has continued to differentiate its browser from Opera Mobile, mostly in its tiered design for bookmarks and search results that lays out a handful of browsing categories without taking up much space.

Skyfire search results page
Skyfire's unique layout crams a lot of links into a little space. (Credit: Skyfire Labs)

Skyfire could still use a few additions, like a stop button to abort page loading. It also wouldn't hurt for Skyfire to gain a few of Opera Mobile's tricks, like searching within text and highlighting a text selection. Copy and paste would naturally follow. Still, with the ability to save images, stream videos, and quickly surf and browse, Skyfire is on its way to threatening Opera's dominance as the go-to mobile browser.

Skyfire beta is available for those of you in the private beta program through a program update; new users can get it for Windows Mobile phones by pointing the mobile browser to

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.