Ask (almost) any iPhone owner what their biggest complaint about the web browsing experience in mobile Safari is and the most common answer you’ll get is inability to play Flash videos. Since the first iPhone Apple has chosen to exclude Flash content in favor of the HTML5 format. I have no preference to either format. In my opinion there are pros and cons of both and this review isn’t about which is better, it is about Skyfire and how it will make your mobile browsing a whole lot better.
Why it’s so popular
When Skyfire Labs released Skyfire mobile browser for the iPhone on Wednesday November 3rd the demand was so great that the app had to be temporarily pulled because Skyfire’s servers were being overwhelmed from the influx of iPhone owners that couldn’t wait to start viewing all of the content rich Flash videos on the web. Here’s how it works; traditionally when you would visit a website from the mobile Safari web browser that contained Flash videos there would be a small box (usually blue) that would display where the video should have been, or there would be a still frame from inside of the video displayed but the video would be unable to play. When visiting the same site with Skyfire an icon at the bottom of the screen appears in the form of what appears to be a piece of film. Clicking on this icon will show you the video or videos available to view on that page. You select one of the video clips you would like to play by tapping with your finger. Skyfire then recodes the video on their servers or “cloud” if you will and transmits the video in h.264 right to your phone. Upon installing the application I went searching for a few sites that I knew had Flash video clips to give it a test run. I’m not a big sports guy, but I knew that there would be plenty of clips available over at http://www.espn.com so that was my first stop. I was pleasantly surprised. Video loaded quickly, playback was managed well and the buffer stayed full. I attribute the great playback and lack of video pause to the compression performed by Skyfire’s servers. They compress the video to allow for constant, uninterrupted playback even in lower 3g service areas. So far I haven’t found a video clip yet that didn’t play back smooth and without pause. After visiting ESPN I headed over to http://www.CNN.com to try out some of their video. Again, same result. Video playback was smooth, un-choppy and pleasant to watch.
What else I found
After working my way through the app, I found some other interesting items that make life easier when surfing the mobile web. One of the first things that you find in the settings menu is the option to view mobile or desktop versions of websites. For the most part (and because of Apple) mobile sites are devoid of Flash video. Most sites, especially the larger ones don’t want to turn away the iOS users with error messages so they choose to remove the content rich Flash. Because of this, viewing in the desktop mode is almost always advisable if you intend to view the Flash content. Another feature that I find especially handy is the “similar content” icon at the bottom of the screen. This icon will show you like sites containing similar content of the site you are currently visiting. Think Stumbleupon built in to your browser. Of course Skyfire has the options you would expect from a mobile browser; bookmarks, multiple pages, and safe search.
Some things to make it perfect
Skyfire is a really good browser. It does the Flash video really well. Playback thus far has been phenomenal and I felt right at home with the interface immediately. I did however compare the load time between Skyfire and mobile Safari on the exact same page that didn’t contain any Flash video. Skyfire takes about 10 seconds longer on pages that don’t contain any Flash video. It takes an even longer amount of time when it’s loading sites with video. There is a reasonable explanation for this, the Skyfire servers have to analyze the content and see if there is any video to be converted. This accounts for the difference in load time of regular sites that don’t contain Flash. Once it determines that there is Flash video, it then has to re-encode and compress it. This accounts for the extended time frame for sites containing video. This isn’t so bad, and is actually acceptable in my mind, but still may be a disappointment to some. What I would like to see is autofill. I was really surprised to see that there was no option for autofill with Skyfire. This is a huge selling point and feature to me, and I hope to see it in future updates. While you are able to play Flash video on Skyfire, because of the way that it encodes the video and then resends it to your browser there is a limit to what you can do. Interactive Flash, the kind that you find over at http://www.hbo.com still doesn’t work. Flash games don’t work either, and as of right now Hulu isn’t allowing playback with Skyfire.
Would I buy it?
Absolutely! I bought it, and thought so much of it that I gifted it to a few good friends. This app really does flash video well, and while I still can’t interact with some flash based websites, I’m able to view a whole lot more content than I was able to before. Do I use this app as my primary browser? No. The biggest reason for me is the lack of autofill. If Skyfire contained autofill I would use it exclusively. If autofill isn’t important to you, then you may very well switch to using the Skyfire browser exclusively and never look back. Unfortunately Skyfire IS NOT a universal binary so you’ll have to view in the 2x mode on your iPad if you want to experience flash video playback there, however Skyfire inc. is claiming to be working on an iPad app (release date not announced yet). Grab the Skyfire app and enjoy flash video on the go!