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The mobile Internet Explorer Web browser you get on Windows Mobile smart phones is less than desirable. It usually directs you to a mobile Web site instead of the full-blown interactive ones that we access on our computers. Sure, Microsoft has announced support for Silverlight and Flash in a new version of mobile IE by the end of the year, but we’re in the heat of the summer and December still seems light years away. Fret not, there are other options.

If you grabbed the new iPhone, you may be impressed with its 3G data speeds. But is Safari better than other free smart phone Web browsers out on the market? We put the Apple Safari browser running on the 3G iPhone head to head with Opera 9.5.1 Beta and Skyfire Beta (free for Windows Mobile phone users), to see which browser is fastest, and which offers the richest browsing experience.

We used an AT&T Tilt for both Windows Mobile browsers, and put it head to head against the iPhone while both had full 3G signals. Read on to see a video of the race head to head, results from our Web site tests, and our thoughts on each browser.

Browser NYT.com ESPN.com HULU.com Netvibes.com Flash AJAX
Skyfire Beta 6 (sec) 8 (sec) 9 (sec) 4 (sec) Yes Yes
Opera 9.5.1 Beta 60 (sec) 59 (sec) 28 (sec) 44 (sec) No Yes
Safari 29 (sec) 28 (sec) 33 (sec) 54 (sec) No Yes

Skyfire is, by far, the speediest of the bunch, and we love that it also supports Flash Web pages without a hitch. In fact, on ESPN.com it even loaded a Flash advertisement video on the side of the screen. We don’t like ads, but the fact that the page looked identical to the one on our computer display is quite impressive. When we loaded Hulu.com, we were able to start up an episode of The Colbert Report, but playback was far too slow for our tastes.

The browser supports Flash 9, Java, and QuickTime playback, too, but unfortunately it’s limited to a private Beta at this time. You can sign up by visiting Skyfire’s Web site and Skyfire will let you know when there is more room for beta testers.

Update: Skyfire loads an image of the Web site first, and then you must zoom in to access data on the page. However, we found that the zooming was efficient and that we were still able to access live data faster than on Opera 9.5.1 Beta and mobile Safari. We have not had any issue regarding the text entry troubles that some users have reported.

Check out our video below.

Opera 9.5.1
Opera Mobile 9.5.1 may not be the fastest browser of the bunch. In fact, it is the slowest, but it offers features that Skyfire doesn’t. One such feature is tabbed browsing, which the iPhone offers as well. Opera Mobile 9.5.1 lets you have a total of 3 tabs open while you’re surfing (the iPhone allows eight) and you can choose to open links in another tab directly from Web sites.

You can also easily pan and zoom around Web pages, and it supports AJAX Web sites, but unfortunately, not Flash 9 content. It also allows you to save pages and images so that you can load up the New York Times, save it, and view it later riding the subway underground without a signal.

Check out our video of Opera below.

Safari is ideal for loading pages in landscape or horizontal view, and the iPhone’s accelerometer allows you to quickly switch between the two by simply switching the phone. But it’s perhaps best known for its pinch-zoom in and out feature, which makes zooming in on specific areas easy and fun.

The iPhone’s Safari browser supports AJAX, but not Flash 9, so you can’t play Flash games or view Hulu movies (and we don’t think Apple would like it if you could, either). The Safari browser performed well during our tests, but it wasn’t nearly as quick as Skyfire, which loaded most pages in under half the time it took the Safari browser to load them in.

Final Thoughts

If I had to choose a winning combination, it would be the Skyfire browser on an iPhone. Skyfire loads pages faster than anything we’ve ever come across, and it’s support for robust Web pages makes us feel like we took our computer’s browser and put it on a 3-inch screen. The biggest sacrifice is that the page is small, and you have to zoom a lot. We love Safari because the iPhone’s touch screen makes the zooming task efficient and easy, but it doesn’t support Flash 9 embedded media or Web sites and it loads every other site slower.

If you’re using a Windows Mobile phone, we highly recommend you get in on the Beta. Skyfire says a Symbian S60 v.3 version will be available later this year.

Here’s the showdown on video.

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