Skyfire mobile browser reaches 1.0

Skyfire's free third-party mobile browser for Windows Mobile and Symbian phones has two strong features that could plant it firmly in Opera Mobile's turf.

Skyfire 1.0
Read and filter RSS feeds, and update your social status. (Credit: CNET/Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt)

A little over a year after Skyfire began making a splash, the Silicon Valley startup has officially released version 1.0 of its free third-party mobile browser for Windows Mobile and Symbian phones. During its beta tenure, the newbie browser whipped up its fair share of excitement and kudos. Indeed, Skyfire has arrived at its first full release with a fairly fast and solid mobile browser offering. From a usability standpoint, its streaming video and social bent are Skyfire's strengths. Small, but significant navigation holes are drawbacks in what is an otherwise stable and serious effort.

While beta users won't find Skyfire 1.0 dramatically altered from version 0.9 beta, there are noticeable changes to the interface design from the first iterations. The lists of featured links that originally graced the Start screen have now been replaced by a customizable RSS feed. You can sort by filters and post article links to Facebook and Twitter. Separately, you can upload a new social networking status from the screen. The joint address-search bar has crept to the top, leaving more reading space. Video playback has become much smoother, too, since it was first introduced, though it still sometimes suffers from catches and varying picture quality (this isn't Skyfire's challenge alone.) Panning, zooming, and processing performance are neater as well.

In version 1.0, Skyfire has concentrated on the theme of picking up where you left off browsing. When you navigate away from a page or exit Skyfire--yet keep it running in the background--the browser will now remember your page position, returning you to your last zoom level and approximate location on the page.

Operating speed was another focus of the 1.0 release. Now when you load a page, you can click a link without having to zoom in first--a real benefit if high resolution or your own familiarity with a Web site makes zooming in before clicking a link an extraneous step. Likewise, you'll be able to enter a URL or search term into the search bar 2-3 seconds after the page begins loading, versus version 0.9 beta's 8-10 seconds of lag time before you could begin typing.

What's missing?

While Skyfire supports Flash and Silverlight plug-ins, it doesn't support those applications that require text entry. It likewise won't work for media players requiring the 'local storage mode,' as do Pandora, Rhapsody, and Netflix. Unlike Opera, it's lacking some niceties that make browsing life easier, like copy and paste, and the ability to search a block of text for a word or phrase. Copy/paste would have been useful for filling in a URL during testing when the URLs for several over-the-air downloads were not linked. There's also no way to cancel a page from loading in Skyfire 1.0 if you've changed your mind. It's not a deal-breaker by any means, but is a slight annoyance nonetheless.

Skyfire 1.0
Flash support enables streaming video. (Credit: CNET/Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt)

The Twitter and Facebook feed updates, while a nice addition, frequently cut off longer messages. Rather than reveal the whole message when you tap, Skyfire directs you to your contact's profile page. If your goal is to just read the comment and possibly respond, navigating around the profile page is overkill. Likewise, Skyfire's built-in reformatting engine needed to be taken in a few pixels on our Samsung Omnia. Version 0.9 did away with the SmartFit menu option of previous versions in favor of automatically refitting the screen width after zooming into a story. Instead of eliminating the need to pan, on the test phone, slight panning was a must.

Finally, having the virtual keyboard on a touch screen phone pop up when you tap an area of text entry would have saved countless steps while searching, commenting on Facebook profiles, and entering passwords.

For the most part, these minor drawbacks are the sort that Skyfire can fix in upcoming releases. In the meantime, what it's offered Internet-seekers is a strong contender to Opera Mobile 9.5 beta that's more engaging in terms of a superior video playback solution (Opera Mobile does not currently support Flash Lite natively, but is expected to offer Flash in the next release) and also better attuned to newsgathering and sharing on social networks. With these two features, Skyfire could wing its way into Opera Mobile's turf on Windows Mobile and Symbian phones. If it wants to maintain its position in the face of Skyfire's official mobile browser launch and Mozilla's impending one, Opera's response must at least match Skyfire's video playback and speed, plus overturn its own UI foibles.

Note: Skyfire 0.85 users and earlier will need to uninstall Skyfire before downloading version 1.0.

Related story: Leaked: Skyfire browser's BlackBerry alpha photos

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.