[Note: This review was originally posted at Just Another Mobile Monday, and is reprinted here with permission.]
Since its inception in February, 2007, Spb Mobile Shell has consistently been named among the top, if not the number one, overall programs for Windows Mobile devices, even earning a spot on the coveted JAMM Essential Applications List (in our Best of the Best list). So, what is it about Spb Mobile Shell that rang such a strong chord across the entire industry? Much of it, I think relates to two factors. First is the general dissatisfaction with the standard Windows Mobile interface. As such, from the very beginning, but even more so in the new version 2, Mobile Shell does not attempt to enhance the standard user interface. Instead, it quite obviously intends to replace the standard interface entirely. Second, Spb seems to always have a strong sense the current market trends. Tools like their annual user survey keeps the Spb team well in tune with the Pocket PC community. As such, both the original Mobile Shell, and the new upgrade seem to be a direct response to the trends of the community. With the original Mobile Shell, Spb heard the calls for a better user experience, and focused the program on usability and a consistently aesthetic design. With Mobile Shell 2, they have taken this philosophy to a whole new level with the new three-paneled Expanded Now Screen, finger friendly controls, gestures and animations at every turn, and…well…let’s just go ahead and dive right in and take a closer look.
Expanded Now Screen
The Expanded Now Screen consists of three tabbed panels, including the original Now Screen Panel, the Launcher Panel (officially called the Spb Menu Panel), and the Speed Dial Panel. Almost anything you can do with your device (with the surprising exception of fully accessing your PIM data) can now be done directly from this Expanded Now Screen. The expansion of the Now Screen is one of the biggest changes in the new version of Mobile Shell.
Now Screen Panel: The Now Screen which you have all become familiar with from the original Mobile Shell is still here, and as powerful as ever. Just like previous versions, the Now Screen can utilize two different views:
The main difference between the two views is that Professional provides more of a focus on the calendar and appointments (and also includes your phone profile information which is oddly missing from the classic view). Otherwise, the information displayed is the same, even if it is arranged a bit differently, in both views. Each will provide you with:
- Battery Meter
- Email indicator
- SMS Text Message Indicator
- Missed Call Indicator
- Phone Signal Bars
Both views can also display your next four upcoming appointments. In addition, there are two expanded views which you can reach from here.
Tapping the clock will bring up the expanded Time Screen, which displays the current time, any pending alarms, and the current time in up to three additional cities around the world. This can be very useful if, like me, you have relatives in other countries, or even just other time zones around the United States. I am terrible at time zone math, so this handy reminder has proven to be extremely useful.
Similarly, tapping the weather forecast will bring up an expanded weather view. This view shows today’s weather, along with a breakdown of the day’s forecast at various times. It also shows you the extended four day forecast which can be very useful. This screen can also be tied to Spb Weather or Traveler for a few additional benefits (that integration is currently not functioning, but that is due to Spb Weather, not Mobile Shell). Of course, viewing the weather and extended forecast is only as good as your information, and Spb is notorious for its terribly inaccurate weather service. Rather than relying on weather.com, NOAA, or one of the other services which are known for accuracy (at least here in the United States), Spb relies, in all of its programs, on the Gismeteo service. Gismeteo has proven itself time and again to be among the most inaccurate weather services available, regardless of your location around the world. So, it is unfortunate that Spb has hung their hat on this one. Furthermore, since only other Spb products (which also rely on Gismeteo) can be integrated with Mobile Shell, the weather function of the Now Screen is suspect at best.
Additionally, as I mentioned, both views can be set to display your upcoming appointments. Spb has wisely entered into agreements with WebIS and DeveloperOne to integrate information from Pocket Informant, Agenda Fusion, and Agenda One (But not Birdsoft’s Extreme Agenda, unfortunately). When this setting (which requires an additional download from their forums) has been activated, then tapping the appointment or calendar will automatically load the selected program, rather rather than the default calendar view from Windows Mobile.
It is a shame, however, that Spb did not similarly integrate third party email programs with the Now Screen. I use WebIS FlexMail. However, both the email and SMS text indicator point to Pocket Outlook. As such, they really serve no useful purpose for me since I never use Outlook mail.
Overall, I felt the Now Screen (which really has not changed much) did exactly what its name would imply. It tells you your status NOW. What emails do I have to read? What is the time and date? What do I have to do today? I was a little bit surprised that there was a battery indicator on the top of the Now Screen, but not a memory meter, which would have seemed to fit with the Status of me and my device NOW. But that was neither here nor there.
I also felt that the calendar and appointments made the Now Screen feel a bit cluttered. As such, although I would have liked this information, I typically turned them off. I think it would have made a lot of sense to move this information to its own fourth panel in the Expanded Now Screen; a panel based on the PIM information from Spb Diary. This also would have allowed Spb the space to provide you with more accessible calendar and appointment data, as well as a list of upcoming tasks, which clearly will not fit on the already crowded Now Screen.
Launcher Panel: The Launcher Panel may just be the most controversial part of the Expanded Now Screen. Not because of what it does, but because everyone seems to want a slightly different layout or access. Well, let’s take a look at what we have. The screen is laid out in a 6+12 configuration. The lower two-thirds of the screen contain six icons which link back to the Spb Menu (you probably remember that from previous versions of Mobile Shell). The problem here is that there are eight items in the Spb Menu. This means you will not be able to display all of the Spb Menu items. It made little sense to me to link the Launcher Panel to the Spb Menu and not allow it to display everything in the menu.
The upper third of the screen contains 12 small icons representing your most recently used (MRU) programs. This can be useful if you tend to use the same programs a lot of the time. You can also pin any program in this area (just tap and hold the icon for the context menu) if you know you will need constant access to it.
While I love the concept of a Launcher Screen like this, I thought the current layout was extremely confusing. A better layout would have started with a 3×3, nine item layout in order to show all of the Spb Menu items. Since there are only eight items in the Spb Menu, the ninth square could have linked to a most recently used itens menu). This reliance on Spb Menu, however, should have been a starting point only. Advanced users will want more control over how their programs are organized than Spb Menu offers. As such, I would love to see this panel integrate with Spb Pocket Plus to give you complete control over the programs included on this screen, and their organization.
Regardless of whether the Launcher Panel relies upon the Spb Menu or integration with Pocket Plus 4, one thing is clear, it needs to be easier to customize the layout. Currently, customization in Spb Menu relies on the archaic tree view, which does not allow you to create new top level items, and only allows you to add new items to a menu one at a time. This means customizing the menu could take hours. Other programs, such as Pocket Plus 4, make this customization extremely easy by employing drag and drop capabilities, and a checklist which enables you to simply check off which items you want to add and load them in bulk. Similar customization options should be included for the Launcher Panel.
I did notice, however, a bit of a minor problem with the graphics when scrolling through the menus. As you move from one screen to the next, the icons will, at times, lag a little behind your scrolling. This can be a bit of a nuisance. While it may look a bit unseemly while the icons are redrawn, however, it in no way affects the functionality of your device. This is mainly a cosmetic complaint.
Despite my frustration with the layout and customization (or lack thereof) of the Launcher Panel, I was extremely impressed by how well it worked. In fact, this is exactly the type of functionality I said was missing from the TouchFlo Cube when I reviewed the HTC Sprint Touch.
Speed Dial Panel: The final panel is the Speed Dial Panel, and it is one of the most well designed features of the new Mobile Shell. The main screen is a simple 4×4 grid. In each grid box, you can add any contact. As you can see from the screen shot, if there is a photo assigned to the contact, that photo will be displayed. If not, then the person’s name will appear. Just tap and hold any box and a context menu will appear which allows you to assign a contact to that box.
Of course, photo dialing is nothing new. Mobile Shell has always included the dial tabs and Phone Suite can accommodate numerous speed dial photo contacts. So, what makes this different? In most programs, there is little control over which number is called. Typically, if a contact has multiple numbers, then you must choose one to assign to the speed dial, or set it to call whichever was the most recently used. This is where the Speed Dial Screen really shines. Tap the contact, and you will be brought to the Contact Dialogue. This popup will display the last number called for that contact next to the picture, as well as up to two alternate numbers, and the option to send an SMS (it is not clear why they did not also include the option of sending an email). If the number you need is still not displayed, then simply tap open to view the full contact card. This is simply the best speed dial dialogue I have ever used on my device.
Additionally, as I will discuss later on in this review, Mobile Shell includes the Spb Contacts module. You can assign Spb Contacts to any of the 16 squares, giving you full access to all of your contacts, even if they are not displayed on the Speed Dial Screen.
Of course, some people may also want to be able to view their call history at a glance. You can assign “recent call” to any box. Once assigned, that box will show the last call between your phone and anyone in your contacts (it will not display calls with numbers which are not listed in your contacts). If you wish, you can assign recent call to multiple boxes, giving you a more thorough call history report. To be honest, I simply did not understand the purpose of this feature at all. In the end, when I activated it for testing, it really just led to confusion as the box assigned to call history was constantly changing, and displaying the numbers of people I really did not need to contact. Additionally, the filtering to display only calls in your contacts list made this feature almost useless. If I use call history at all, it is to recall numbers which are not in my contacts list. Instead of this confusing and ill-conceived call history feature, Spb would have been better advised to simply include a button which could link back to the Windows Mobile call history. Allowing you to assign this button to any box, like you can with Spb Contacts, would have been infinitely more useful.
Overall, I was extremely impressed by the Expanded Now Screen, and the three panels incorporated in it. These three panels give you access to and control over virtually every aspect of your device. The Now Screen gives you the current conditions, both of your device (email, phone calls, battery) and your world (time, weather, appointments). The Launcher Panel gives you complete control over the settings and programs included in your device. Sure, I felt the customization and layout of this panel could have been better, but the access provided by the Spb Menu really is second to none. Finally, the Speed Dial Panel provides simply the best contact dialogue I have ever used. Never before have I used a photo dialer which gives you such easy access to alternate phone numbers for your contacts. The only thing I really felt was missing from the Expanded Now Screen was better access to my PIM information. I felt there should have been an additional side of the cube which could display a calendar, appointments, and tasks. This information felt too cluttered on the Now Screen, which also did not display tasks (which are really more important to me than appointments). The lack of a PIM Panel seems like an obvious omission, which I hope Spb will fix in the future.
I don’t think I have to tell anyone here that one of the fastest growing trends in Pocket PC’s today is the finger. Blame it on the iPhone. Blame it on the fact that people finally realized those tiny styli are not comfortable to use. Blame it on the rain, if you want to. The fact is, the industry has finally awoken to the fact that all of us have ten built in styli (your fingers) which are infinitely more comfortable to use than any skinny little stick of a stylus. Of course, once you start getting into finger friendly layouts, that leads to gestures which leads to animation…and so on. Mobile Shell includes all of these features
Starting with the basic layout, all of the screens in Mobile Shell are designed to be finger friendly. Some might argue that the MRU in the Launcher Panel has icons which are too small for an average finger. Some also argue even that the 4×4 layout of the Speed Dial Panel leads to icons which are too small. For these people, only a 3×3 layout or larger icons will do. I fully tested all of these icons. While the MRU icons did feel a bit small, I really did not have any problems marrying my fingers to any of the icons on the three main panels.
Of course, the sub-menus and dialogues on each panel are even better. Most of the Spb Menu screens are laid out in a 3×3 grid which is extremely easy to reach with your fingers or even the D-Pad. The contact dialogue, which I referred to as the best I had ever used, features nice big buttons which are easy to target with a finger or a thumb. I was extremely impressed by how easy it was to navigate through Mobile Shell 2 without ever reaching for my stylus. In fact, if I launched another program from Mobile Shell, which was less finger friendly, I would find myself growing annoyed as I reached for the stylus.
Now that your finger is on the screen, I think you will find it is almost necessary to replace a lot of the tapping and holding with gestures. Thankfully, Spb feels the same way. Almost everything can be controlled with a finger swipe or other gesture. Of course, for you stylus lovers, these gestures are all optional and tapping away at the screen with a pokey stick will still work.
Every feature, that is, except for one. My favorite feature in Mobile Shell 2 can only be accessed with a gesture. Tap the top left corner of the screen, where that Windows Start icon is. Now, hold your finger there and slowly drag it diagonally toward the center of the screen. What will appear are three small thumbnails of the three Expanded Now Screen Panels. You can use this taskbar gesture to jump directly to any of the three panels. This gesture can even be access from virtually any screen on your device, giving you total access.
Finally, of course, all of those gestures require animation (well, some people say they don’t, but I think they do). I mean, it feels kind of silly when you are swiping across the screen with a finger and the display is just jumping from one screen to the next. There are three opportunities for animation within the Enhanced Now Screen. The first occurs when moving from one panel to the next, the second occurs when you dive down one level into a submenu, and the third occurs when scrolling through items within a submenu.
The primary animation point occurs when you are switching from one panel to the next. There are five different animation effects which can be used:
I have to say that I absolutely loved this animation. It all worked extremely well (except revolving which was a bit slow) and looked amazing. Additionally, by including multiple different animation effects, there is sure to be something for everyone. Don’t like flipping (which is my favorite), check out sliding.
Anytime you tap an item to go deeper into a submenu (or hit back to rise out of a submenu), Mobile Shell will display this action as a cube spinning open if you are opening a submenu or closed if you are closing a submenu. I felt this animation functioned, but did not really fit with the other animation options.
The third opportunity for animation is when you are scrolling through items within a submenu. Each time you move from one screen to the next, the animation effect will be applied. One nice thing, while all of the same animation effects are available, animating the main panels, and animating more/back within a submenu are controlled separately. As such, you can assign different animation effects for these, or keep it all consistent throughout. It is your device, and entirely up to you how these animation effects will be assigned. The most important thing, however, is that you have fun with it.
Of course, there are a variety of other elements which were included in Mobile Shell 1.0 or 1.5 and are still a part of the program today. These tried and true modules have helped build Mobile Shell into the complete package it is now. Some of them are integral to the new features, like Spb Menu. Others, like the Today Screen Plug-in might begin to feel like a bit vestigial after you have become accustomed to the new Expanded Now Screen.
Spb Menu: The Spb Menu, at one time, was the centerpiece of Mobile Shell. This is the original step taken by Spb to replace the clumsy Windows Mobile interaction with your device. The Spb Menu consists of eight submenus, through which you can access virtually every corner on your device. These menus include:
- My Menu
This eight item menu works great. It allows you to access all of your programs and information in a logical and easy manner. I particularly liked the My Menu folder, which is essentially a blank item, allowing you to fill it with whatever files and organizational structure you need. Once you start using it, you will never use the start menu again. The only problem I had with it was customization. In order to add folders or items to a menu, or give any portion of it a customized look and feel, you must use the Spb Menu tree view, which is clumsy and difficult to use. You can also add only one item at a time, making it horribly inefficient. This problem has only been exacerbated by the fact that the Spb Menu has now become the base for the Launcher Panel in the Expanded Now Screen.
Today Screen Plug In: This is another holdover from the bygone era of Mobile Shell 1.5. To be honest, most users of the Expanded Now Screen will probably find the Today Screen Plug-in to be superfluous, and possibly even vestigial feeling.
For those who use it, it has exactly the same functionality as it has always provided, which is to say it is among the most useful plug-ins I have ever employed. By default, you will have access to four tabs:
- Home (which includes the Most Recently Used items)
- Weather Tab
- Time/Alarm Tab
- Photo Dialer Tab
In addition, however, virtually any Today Screen Plug-in on your device can be added as a Mobile Shell tab. Additionally, any Mobile Shell tab can be added as a tab in Pocket Plus 4, making it among the most versatile Today Screen Plug-ins around.
Finally, the Mobile Shell plug-in features the absolutely amazing dynamic icons. I was simply stunned the first time I saw these. What this means is that the icon on top of the tab changes to reflect the information contained within that tab. The Home Tab icon, for example, shows the current status of your battery. The Weather Tab icon shows the current weather. Between the customization and dynamic icons, it is no wonder that upon its introduction a year ago, Mobile Shell almost instantly became the most popular Today Screen Plug-in available for Windows Mobile devices.
Spb Contacts: The Contacts Module in Mobile Shell reminds me of the old Sesame Street song, “Which One Of These Is Not Like The Other”. It is not that the Contacts is not a good module, but it never really seemed to fit with Mobile Shell. It always seemed to be heading down a different path. In fact, I used Mobile Shell for months before I even realized it was included. Spb Contacts really should have been designed as a standalone program, or as part of Spb Phone Suite, where it would seem to fit better.
That being said, we can take a look at the Contacts interface. The screen is divided basically in half. The upper portion lists your contacts, the lower portion contains an alpha-numeric keyboard. Simply tap the appropriate letters to search for appropriate entries. There is really nothing else you can do with this module and, in the end, I found it to be a bit skimpy. I much prefer a more robust contact manager which allows me to incorporate categories, filters, and more powerful searches (the best one I have found is Inesoft Address Book). If you have no other contact manager on your device, then you will likely find this to be an improvement over the built in Windows Mobile 6 contacts manager. Otherwise, I doubt you will use it much. Spb should really consider removing it from Mobile Shell and refining it enough that it can stand alone as its own product. It really just did not belong in this package.
Integration: Mobile Shell currently offers some integration with other Spb programs, such as Weather and Time, almost all of them can be included as tabs in the Today Screen Plug-in (above, you can see the Home Tab has been added to the Pocket Plus 4 Today Screen Plug-in). I felt, however, that they really missed an opportunity by not integrating more Spb programs into the Expanded Now Screen. Better integration with other Spb products would have made it a true mobile “shell” in which all of the other programs could interact with your device. For example, while the Launcher Panel currently defaults to the Spb Menu, imagine if it could incorporate your settings from Pocket Plus. Loading Mobile Shell and Pocket Plus 4 would make the Launcher Panel a highly customizable entryway to your device. Likewise, integrating Phone Suite into the Speed Dial Panel could give you complete control over all of the telephone functions and setting on your device, directly from this panel. I would also like to have seen a fourth side of the Expanded Now Screen, which could similarly incorporate Spb Diary into a panel, giving you complete access to your PIM information and data. Such an approach with optional integration of the features from other Spb programs would allow novice users to hit the ground running with a fully functional Expanded Now Screen, giving users complete access to everything they need, using some of the best (albeit not particularly customizable) options available. More advanced fans of Spb software could also choose to incorporate Pocket Plus, Phone Suite, (potentially) Diary, and more, in order to give you complete control over the look, feel, and functions of all of the panels.
Conclusion: No matter how you use your device, Mobile Shell 2 is going to make it faster and more accessible. Sure, the Launcher Panel could have been better organized, and the Spb Contacts Module does not seem to fit, but these and other complaints are primarily cosmetic. The truth is that there is simply no other program available for Windows Mobile today which gives you the same kind of access, ease of use, and control over your device. Add to that, the implementation of animations, finger friendly controls, and interaction through gesture controls, and Mobile Shell 2 will quickly stand out as the single most indispensable program on your device. Once you start using it, you will never look at Windows Mobile the same way again.
Name: Mobile Shell 2.0
Developer: Spb Software House
Tested On: Windows Mobile 6
Also Available: Windows Mobile 5
Trial: 15 Days
Price: $29.95 [50% discount for users of previous versions of Mobile Shell. Free upgrade for any users who purchased Mobile Shell within 90 days prior to the release)
Where to Buy: Spb Software House
Gear Diary Store
Support: Spb Mobile Shell Forums