Late yesterday SkyFire released version 1.1 of their namesake browser for Windows Mobile 5 and 6 and Symbian S60 3rd edition. You can download SkyFire 1.1 to your phone or PC from get.skyfire.com.
I’ve been using SkyFire since the first Symbian release over a year ago. From the beginning it has done an amazing job with videos. It’s the only mobile browser that lets you watch the Flash videos on almost any web site including, YouTube, Daily Motion, Vimeo, Veoh, uStream, fastcompany.tv and Blip.tv. It used to work with Hulu too, although lately Hulu has been evil and is arbitrarily blocking SkyFire. On a good WiFi or 3G connection SkyFire videos play smoothly with no pauses for buffering. In addition to Flash, SkyFire supports the current desktop versions of Silverlight, Quicktime and Java Applets.
While I’ve always liked SkyFire for rich media, I’ve never been satisfied with it as a general-purpose web-browser. In previous releases scrolling was slow and it took too many clicks and keypresses to perform simple tasks. A bigger issue was that the text on many sites, including this one, was too small to read easily when columns were fit to the screen width. Zooming in to get a readable text size did not re-flow text necessitating scrolling horizontally across each line to read, which I consider unacceptable.
First impressions of 1.1 were favorable. Download and installation of 1.1 over 1.0 when smoothly with my bookmarks and cookies preserved. Startup seems much faster. Scrolling and zooming are also supposed to be faster but I didn’t notice much change and they still seem slow compared with other browsers. The real problem with scrolling and zooming is that SkyFire loads pages incrementally, when you scroll into a new part of the page the screen is blank except for a checkerboard pattern for about a second before the content loads.
I immediately noticed a nice usability enhancement, dedicated page up  and down  keys. Thank you SkyFire, scrolling one line at a time is the pits, something I wish that the Nokia Webkit team understood.
SkyFire now has a pretty decent set of handy one key shortcuts
- * Enter URL or search query
- 1 zoom out
- 2 page up
- 3 zoom in
- 4 add bookmark
- 5 refresh
- 7 back
- 8 page down
- 9 forward
- 0 audio on/off
I’d like t0o see a few more shortcuts. It looks like 6 and # are still available. May I suggest # – bookmarks, 4 – page left and 6 – page right.
I was disappointed that there don’t seem to be any fixes to the text size and horizontal scrolling issues in 1.1. Many sites including WapReview are unreadable when zoomed so that the main content column fits the screen (image above, left). If you can read the text in the screenshot, try to visualize doing so if the image were reduced to approximately 1 .75 inches wide by 2.5 inches tall, which are the dimensions on the N95’s screen. After zooming in enough to make the text readable horizontal scrolling is needed (image above, right). There’s also a problem with some simple one column mobile sites like Bloglines Mobile which require horizontal scrolling even when zoomed out as far as possible (image below left).
1.1 cements Skyfire’s position as the best S60 browser for video. As a general purpose browser SkyFire is getting closer but it still needs a few things before I’d consider it for everyday use. Here’s my wish list:
- Text needs reflow so that the current column fits the viewport without horizontal scrolling at every zoom level. This is a basic functionality that we take for granted in full-web mobile browsers. Bolt, Opera Mini and Mobile, the Android browser, S60 Webkit, they all do it.
- When scrolling horizontally the browser needs to “jump” to the next column so the left margin of the text block lines up with the left edge of the window. This is another basic browsing feature that is critical to usability. Currently it’s very tricky to get text lined up with the window.
- There needs to be an option to keep the backlight on while videos are playing. On my N95, after two minutes the backlight goes off and I have to hit a key to wake to up. This doesn’t happen with other video players which keep the backlight on as long as the clip lasts. I use LightCtrl, a free application that keeps the screen lit as long as ithe app is running as a crude workaround. But this is something that should be built into SkyFire.
- SkyFire doesn’t support S60 5th edition. Whether you like it or not the future of S60 is 5th edition. SkyFire needs to support it to remain relevant to Symbian users.
To sum it up, I’d call 1.1 a minor upgrade that offers some solid performance and usability enhancements. SkyFire has come a long way in its first year as a Symbian browser and I’m sure that the coming year will bring much more in the way of improvements. For a different take on SkyFire, check out Rafe Blandford’s analysis at All About Symbian. For a full list of enhancements and bug fixes see the Release Notes.