Regardless of what you think of Flash, you couldn't natively play it on your Android phones until version 2.2 of the operating system. That is, unless you installed Skyfire, a mobile browser whose back-end technology lets Android 1.5 users even play videos from sites such as YouTube and CBS.com. Coupled with fairly fast load times and a well-designed interface, this browser lets Android owners do it all without compromise.
Skyfire's interface struck us as somewhat busy at first, but we quickly came to appreciate that it put many oft-used functions just one tap away, saving us from having to hunt them down through layers of menus. The two-row toolbar at the top contains the address field and Refresh button, with buttons for Back, Bookmark, Windows/Tabs, Mobile/Desktop mode switch, and More just underneath. In landscape mode all of the buttons move to a single bar, taking up even less space. Better yet, this toolbar disappears as you scroll down the screen. We would have preferred to see the Forward button replace Back, since Android's Back button does the same thing, but otherwise, we like the functions offered.
The SkyBar toolbar at the bottom contains the Video, Explore, and Share buttons. This is what made initial pages feel a bit busy to us, as Explore and Share don't strike us as necessary on such valuable real estate. Fortunately, a tap of the Menu button dismisses this toolbar (or calls it back), so it won't take up space on the screen if you don't need it. Users can also disable the toolbar permanently under Settings.
Like Dolphin HD and the stock Android browser, Skyfire has true multitouch functionality with multiple levels of zoom. Unfortunately, when using our fingers to zoom in, text didn't reflow to fit the screen, though it reflowed as we zoomed out. To make text fit the screen during zoom in, we had to use the magnifying glass buttons on the lower left, a trick we discovered by accident. Otherwise, scrolling was smooth and intuitive, the screen sticking to our reading column with ease.
We liked that we could easily toggle between the desktop and mobile versions of a web page right from the top toolbar. Users can also force Skyfire to display one version or the other, or let the websites you visit decide which version to load. However, users have to revisit the page in a new window or retype the URL for the full or mobile versions to kick in if the process is automatic.
One of the most interesting aspects of browsing in Skyfire is the SkyBar, and more specifically, its Video button. Visit a page with embedded Flash video and the SkyBar will toss up a bubble to alert you of its presence (if the video alerts are enabled), or you can tap the Video button to see available clips. Tapping the bubble will start the embedded Skyfire video viewer, which will play Flash clips even if your phone doesn't have Android 2.2. The browser optimizes files for smart phones via Skyfire's servers, compressing and translating the format to improve battery life.
We tested the video capabilities on CBS.com and sites with embedded YouTube clips. On an HTC Evo 4G running Android 2.2, the Video button still identified and played clips even though we had the option to play them from within the browser. Skyfire's video rendering took a minute or more before the clip began, and frame rates weren't as smooth as native Flash 10.1 in the browser. Most clips had to buffer several times in the middle of playing the file, whereas non-optimized clips in the browser played straight through. On the Samsung Vibrant (which runs Android 2.1), the experience was better. The clips didn't have to buffer as often while playing, or sometimes not at all. And we were able to play Flash video on sites such as CBS.com even though Flash is not supported natively. The only major drawback we found was that on sites with multiple videos, Skyfire identified only the first video on the page and not all available clips.
Skyfire doesn't completely open up the world of mobile video for users. Hulu continues to block Skyfire and other Flash video solutions for mobile browsers, and some sites (such as CW.com) require a proprietary player download that won't work with Android.
Settings and Features
Under the Privacy settings, users can clear stored data--passwords, history, cache, form data, location info, cookies, etc.--and choose whether to save this info in the browser at all. There's no setting for Private Browsing specifically, but by unchecking all of these options and setting the cache to clear on exit, you'll get the same result.
To test Skyfire's speed we loaded two full websites heavy with images plus Java and/or Flash elements using the Motorola Droid X and Verizon Wireless' 3G connection. The full version of NYTimes.com loaded in an average of 18.3 seconds. That was slower than the Dolphin HD (15 seconds) and the stock browser (14.7). However, Skyfire loaded Laptopmag.com in 20.7 seconds, faster than both Dolphin and the stock browser (21.7 and 21.3 seconds, respectively). Regardless, Opera Mini loaded NYTimes and Laptopmag in a blazing 6.3 and 5.7 seconds, respectively.
Unlike other Android browsers, Skyfire defaulted to the full version of ESPN.com's site; as such, its load time of 14.3 seconds is much slower than that of Dolphin and Opera Mini (5 and 4 seconds), but still quite respectable. The mobile version of the site, once we enabled it, loaded in an average of 5 seconds, the same as Dolphin HD.
Skyfire offers customers with Android phones stuck in pre-Froyo limbo a way to enjoy Flash video without the official plug-in, and it even has some features that would benefit Android 2.2 owners. Overall though, we recommend Dolphin HD, which offers a more desktop-like browsing experience and a wide array of customization options.