SkyFire: The Cure for iPhone Envy

Do you have iPhone envy? I do. In fact, just this past Sunday I walked into the AT&T store and I browsed TMCnet on the iPhone and was blown away at how easy it was to surf on this phone compared to a Windows Mobile 6 device. I then asked if there was a firm ETA on the 3G iPhone (there isn’t) and as I walked into the nearby Starbucks with my family I debated with my wife the pros and cons of switching to the Apple device from my HTC 6800 on Verizon.

I was close to deciding to switch to Apple (you already know I hate the soft keyboard) when I received my text message invite to the Skyfire Beta 0.6 release of their new browser. I had heard incredible things about the browser and any improvement over Pocket IE was welcome.

After downloading the new browser, I immediately visited TMCnet as it is a rich site with Flash, Java and all sorts of technologies which can make mobile browsers choke. To my surprise, TMCnet came up almost as fast as it does on a laptop with an EVDO card. This led me to surmise that the browser works with a back-end server handling compression, etc. In fact the limited Beta program reinforces this assumption.

In fact after further review it is apparent that the Skyfire browser is actually a graphics viewer meaning everything in the browser window is just a small graphical version of a browser being rendered elsewhere.

What I like about it is the fact I can immediately see an entire web page. I can then quickly double-tap to zoom into a view where I could read comfortably.

Because the resolution of Microsoft Windows Mobile devices is far inferior to an iPhone’s (why?) you cannot read as comfortably on a Windows Mobile 6 device as you can on the one from Apple. The cure for this problem is a technology called SmartFit which ensures text does not scroll so wide that reading it will require you to scroll to the left and right. Basically it limits the margin size on articles and other web text.

The Safari browser on an iPhone allows you to use two fingers to expand and contract the zoom levels of the device. Skyfire allows a rapid double-tap which will zoom in a predetermined amount and you are further able to customize the auto-zoom level.

Perhaps the biggest improvement this browser brings over the version of IE that comes with Windows Mobile 6 is the ability to drag a finger up and down on the screen to focus on different parts of the web page. You no longer need to navigate using arrow keys or anything else. This is the way browsing should work – at least on a touch-screen device.

Another major benefit of this browser is the fact that it has a start page which is actually very useful. There is a page of featured content titled "Info" where Yahoo, Wikipedia and The New York Times occupy the top three spots. Next to this tab is another for Sports, Social, Shop and Media.

The Media tab has sites which work well with the browser and surprisingly YouTube videos look very good on this phone. You certainly won’t confuse the quality of these videos with the ones you see on your PC, but they are still very good and obviously your experience will vary depending on connection speed.

You are also able to get to work meaning you can stream music. But attempts to get Pandora or Slacker to work were not successful. For those of you who are interested, links under the Media tab include, DailyMotion, Metacafe, Yahoo! Video, Flickr, Veoh, Photobucket and Blogger.

What is compelling however is the two other high level tabs which represent your bookmarks and history. You see these items are synced with the company’s servers and you have a login and password which means you can also access this information from any browser.

Another plus is the ability to search from the start page and see results from Google or Yahoo. In addition when using a program like Google Reader and others, the browser does not divulge it is running on a phone and subsequently you get a full screen experience. You do not get the often crippled mobile version of popular websites.

Google Reader becomes very useful when you can approximate desktop viewing in such a fashion.

The problem however is that if you want to forward a link via e-mail, you can’t. There is not only no way to forward a link via e-mail, there is also no way to know what URL you are viewing so you can manually cut and paste it to share with others.

Having such a powerful browser with no ability to share links is akin to having a Lamborghini in a parking lot or heavy traffic.

But the good certainly outweighs the bad. For example, another feature the browser offers is help in filling in text fields. Once you click on a dialog box you get a relatively large standard box at the bottom of the phone where you can enter text in a more legible fashion. You can also benefit from Windows Mobile 6 suggested words which come courtesy of the auto-complete function.

My areas of improvement include being able to e-mail web links as mentioned above.

There also needs to be better battery management as the browser has a persistent connection to the server. It is for this reason in fact that the program has an exit button which the company recommends using to conserve power.

In addition, the connection with the server is frequently severed. This could be done intentionally to conserve power but the program requires you to restart it before the connection is reestablished. This action can take five seconds or more.

Obviously it would be great to be able to reconnect to the server without restarting the program and moreover it would be great to have settings which auto-disconnect from the server at a predetermined time to save power. One minute increments would make sense.

I would further have a setting to disable or allow web pages to auto-refresh.

Since the browser is graphical, you aren’t able to cut and paste text. To offset this, I suggest a function which allows the zoomed text or even all text on a page to be auto-copied to the clipboard.

It is worth mentioning that the browser is stable but in about twenty or so sessions, it did lock up the phone once. This is a small price to pay and in my experience, Windows Mobile devices tend to lock up even when not running Beta code.

In conclusion, this browser is fantastic. It brings some of the best features of the iPhone Safari browser to the world of Windows Mobile. The ability to take advantage of leading-edge technologies like Flash and others means you can actually use many sites which were previously off limits to mobile browsers.

Speaking of mobile browsers, you will soon be able to use this program on other platforms but to date only Windows Mobile devices in the United States are supported.

I recommend this browser and suggest each download be accompanied by at least one spare battery purchase.

  • Anomoly
    October 31, 2008 at 7:39 pm

    two things skyfire needs to fix
    pandora and slacker not working i want my flash music!
    the zoom (not as smooth as Opera and/or iphone) one thing is when you zoom in the text does not auto adjust to fit the screen… SOOOOO annoying if your looking at a site with a lot of text.
    check my site i have a comparison youtube djanomoly

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