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First hands-on: Skyfire for iPhone reviewed -- Flash video on your iPhone

Well, what do we have here? On sale for less than a day, and it was pulled because the developers couldn't cope with the high demand. But was that demand warranted? Is Skyfire the answer to a Flash-craving iPhone user's prayers, or is it all hype and no substance? I took a good look to find out how it fares in our continuing iOS browser review series.

Features


Skyfire Landscape
Being built on the iOS WebKit base, Skyfire handles almost exactly like Mobile Safari. Indeed, the developers have kept a fairly familiar layout: address bar, search box and a settings icon up top, with back, bookmarks, tabs and a share action menu at the bottom. New additions to the Mobile Safari formula include an 'explore related' function (the two tildes on the bottom toolbar) which crawls the Web page you're currently viewing for keywords and brings up other 'relevant' sites. Skyfire also comes packing a Facebook 'Quickview,' which essentially provides a pop-up overlay of the Facebook mobile site. With multi-tasking and quick app switching, I'm not sure why you wouldn't just quickly switch into the full blown Facebook iPhone app, but it's a nice value-add if you're really into Facebook.


Like other iOS browsers we've seen, Skyfire provides both an iPhone, or mobile view, and a 'desktop mode' indicated by a little icon above the settings menu showing a monitor. Essentially changing the browser's user agent to fake a desktop browser, this gets round that annoying 'I'm going to force you to the mobile site regardless of what you want' policy, which some sites still enforce.

Search in Skyfire is also enhanced a little. There's the normal Google search present and accounted for, but joining it is a tab for searching VideoSurf, and a tab for searching Wikipedia directly. My only quibble with the search function in Skyfire is that regardless of what viewing mode you've got active, it'll always show you the results in a mobile format. Last but not least there's a private browsing mode available for times when you want to go off the grid, particularly important given Skyfire's signature ability.


Flash video


Skyfire playing video

Enough with the ancillary stuff, let's get to the goods: Flash video. Arguably the only reason an iPhone user is going to pick up Skyfire is for its ability to transcode Flash-wrapped video into iPhone-friendly H.264. The developers describe it as transcoding into HMTL5 video, but what they're really doing is re-encoding the video into H.264 sans Flash, and streaming it to the iOS version of QuickTime. They use adaptive streaming, something Apple's be touting for a while now, to adjust for bandwidth changes and restrictions. This should make viewing videos smooth and without stutter even if your signal degrades. I say should, but at the time of writing the experience isn't that smooth, even over Wi-Fi. But seeing as Skyfire has been pulled from the App Store due to its servers overloading, we can forgive it for now.

So what's the video performance actually like? Well, in a like-for-like comparison over Wi-Fi using YouTube's Flash and HTML5 streaming video, I would say it's OK, but not great. Using Skyfire to transcode the YouTube Flash video to HTML5, you get a small fixed size video that you can't zoom to full screen, at least for some of the videos I tested. The video itself is passable, but it's not all that smooth and it's obviously dropping some frames, which of course is nothing to do with the iPhone, but the encoding process Skyfire is using on their servers. In comparison the YouTube HTML5 H.264 stream looks clearer, without dropped frames and will enlarge to fill the screen in landscape. It's certainly a better video experience.

In real-world scenarios you're never going to be using Skyfire to view video that's already available in HTML5 H.264 on an iPhone, but the comparison shows that Skyfire's transcoding process does reduce quality, as one might expect. Having said that, it does produce passable video that'll be fine in a pinch. You browse to a site that has an embedded Flash video, wait for the video pop-up to say it's found something it's able to transcode for you, and tap the play button. You then wait for the stream to start, which isn't long at all, and considering the speed at which Skyfire does the transcoding, it's fairly impressive.

Skyfire for iPhone



Verdict


Skyfire

So does Skyfire live up to the hype? Is it worth your $3? In a nutshell, if you love watching videos on your iPhone and have ever thought, 'damn, I wish I had Flash on my iPhone,' then Skyfire is for you. If, like me, you rarely watch video on your iPhone and when you do, there's normally a HTML5 H.264 stream available for the iPhone, then Skyfire doesn't add enough to the Mobile Safari formula to justify your three bucks. It's a decent browsing experience, and the video is well-integrated, but it's no revolution in iPhone browsing. Given that it's based on the same WebKit underpinnings of almost all the other iOS browsers, perhaps that's not a surprise.

While Skyfire for iPhone isn't currently available in the App Store, I'm anticipating its return in the near future. But in the meantime, have a look through the gallery above for a quick walkthrough of Skyfire's features.

Skyfire [Developer] - $2.99

Tags: browser, commercial, Flash, flash video, FlashVideo, HTML5, HTML5 video, Html5Video, iOS, iosbrowsers, iPhone, iPod touch, IpodTouch, review, skyfire, skyfire 2.0, Skyfire2.0, video