There were a lot of hype about the Skyfire browser when it was first announced at WMC ‘08 last month and many were eager to get onto the limited beta. I was one such person. But I was not in the first round (or first few rounds for that matter) of the beta and so had to be contented with the reviews made by those who were lucky enough to get into the beta. Well, earlier this week my luck finally changed and I was finally allowed in. I downloaded my Skyfire beta and set off to see if this really was the browser that would save Windows Mobile.
There could be several versions of Skyfire out there since it’s released, or there could be only one. I am not sure on that. But what I am sure is that for this review, I am running version 0.55.0.3812. For those interested, it’s free to join the beta, the only requirement is that you must register with a US mobile number here. I am not sure why it’s only limited to those in the US but the only way you can download the browser is through a text message that they will send you when you get accepted. While it says that you also need an unlimited data plan, you could also surf with a WiFi connection if you choose.
Installation was rather straightforward and after that, you would need to setup an account with a username (the email that you used for beta sign up) and a password. The reason for this is because of how Skyfire works. Rather than dealing directly with the website which is what you get on Pocket Internet Explorer, your data is routed through Skyfire’s servers where it is rendered for your device. Thus the need to log onto the system.
Many have raised concerns over their private data being handled this way but Skyfire has assured that the data is heavily encrypted and there should be no cause for concern as the company handles data in the strictest confidential. Let’s just hope no hacker breaks into their system and steals our data.
|Starting up Skyfire…||Takes quite some time|
What I have noticed during startup is that it is rather slow. This is most probably due to the authentication that happens on every run. Unlike Opera Mini where you might need to manually allow the application to run, Skyfire does this automatically. Which makes it appears to have a rather slow start up. But once it’s all done, you will be greeted with the screen below where you can start surfing.
Usage & Handling
|How it looks like zoomed out||And zoomed in|
For the uninitiated, Skyfire works very similar to Opera Mini. You visit a site and you get a zoomed out version of the site. Tap on a region of the site that you want to visit and it zooms in on that area. Not the region you want? Then zoom out and tap another region. So far so good right? Well here are some observations.
Page Rendering Speed
Skyfire claims to be the fastest browser out there for Windows Mobile. I am not too sure how true that is because I am not able to compare it side by side. However, when you consider that pages are rendered on their server and then transferred to your device, it would make sense that it is faster than Opera Mini which renders the page on your device when it first loads.
However, that is where the claim stops because each zoom in or out on the Skyfire requires data to be transferred back and forth between server and device and this is significantly slower when you compare to Opera Mini. Not only that, you can imagine the amount of bandwidth that Skyfire consumes due to the way it operates. It’s no wonder they advice you to be on an unlimited data connection!
|Without SmartFit||With SmartFit|
Pages rendered in Skyfire where a pleasure. Note that because your device is now seen as a desktop browser to the sites you are visiting, you will be getting the full version of it. Which in some cases could mean that the words may flow out of view and you would have to scroll left and right on top of up and down to read an article. But Skyfire has a useful solution for you. By activating Smart Fit which is found in Settings, the page is rendered so that it fully fits your view and the only scrolling you need to do it up and down. I found this to be really useful when reading news from sites like BBC and New York Times.
However, I would recommend that you do not scroll too fast. That’s because the page needs to render and if you do, chances are the text will become blur before they come into focus shortly or you will get a checkerboard effect which means the server has not sent you the page yet (which it will come to shortly). This seems to suggest that Skyfire is useful for reading articles but not so much so when you are just skimming through a site.
Supports Multiple Formats Including Videos
|Browsing Gmail||Reading an email|
This is one of the strengths of Skyfire. It seems to support a whole host of page formats from the basic HTML to even AJAX. The above is a screen shot of my Gmail account when viewed from Skyfire. Pretty cool eh? And the best part is, it works. That means I could click on the link or even use the checkboxes to navigate and manage my Gmail.
|Browsing YouTube||Watching a video|
That’s not all. It also supports the main YouTube site natively. That means you could be surfing the site, just like you would on your desktop. Click on a video to watch and it loads AND plays natively inside Skyfire. You can even adjust the sound if it’s too loud or soft. No longer do you need to use the YouTube hack to play it’s videos in Windows Mobile.
Was this really the browser I was looking for? Well not quite. While it could render a lot more page formats, it still fell short when it came to internet banking. This, however, is on a case by case basis and depends on how your bank sets up its banking portal. In my case, 2 of the internet banking sites that did not work properly with PIE/Opera Mini worked great with Skyfire but 1 of them did not allow me to enter any details, making Skyfire unusable in this instance.
No SIP Switching Option
On thing that bothered me about Skyfire is the fact that I cannot change SIPs from within the program. I can’t even call out the SIP when I want to. This is really bad because some SIPs that allow you to create a word before placing it in the text field (like HTC’s PhonePad and CooTek’s TouchPal) will not work properly with Skyfire. You have to enter one character and tap enter in between each character if you want to use such SIPs. Troublesome don’t you think?
Which brings me to my second rant on being able to choose SIPs. If my usual SIP does not work, shouldn’t I be ale to change it from within the program? Apparently not in Skyfire. That means I have to exit the program, switch SIPs and then launch Skyfire (slowly) again. All this could have been avoided if I were allowed to switch SIPs inside Skyfire.
What I Like About It
- Supports multiple page format including AJAX.
- SmartFit makes reading comfortable and pleasurable.
- Can watch videos natively.
- It’s Free!!
What Could Be Improved
- Startup is rather slow.
- Unable to change SIPs in program.
- No tab viewing.
- Allow server to send data in background for the rest of the page to minimize/eliminate checkerboard effect
All in all, I think Skyfire has a lot of potential. It’s slow in some areas which I hope that they can work on to speed up and fast in others. The fact that it supports a lot of formats and even plays videos is a really nice feature. The zooming in and out can be rather troublesome in the beginning but after a while, one can definitely get used to it.
It’s unclear how long this beta is going to continue or when the browser will be officially launched. At the moment, it is still a very rough diamond but if it’s cut properly, Skyfire can definitely be the browser that saves Windows Mobile and bring back surfing the internet to it.
Have you used Skyfire? What are your experiences with it?