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SPB Shell 3D for Android

The future of SPB Shell 3D is hazy. On the one hand, it is a really interesting UI with a bunch of nice features, advantages and drawbacks. On the other hand, SPB Shell 3D is very late to the Android UI market. And while on Windows Mobile and Symbian the SPB UI practically did not have any competition on Android today it is a completely different story Ц there are at least three popular UI shells. So, in this review of SPB Shell 3D we will go over the functionality of the software and whether it can compete with similar products.

The Interface Logic and the Menu

The developers of SPB Shell 3D kept the standard Android workspace arrangement Ц the UI consists of a number of desktops and screens. You can jump between them in three different ways: you can simply scroll between them as in the standard Android UI or by pressing the central icon at the bottom you can launch the revolving desktop menu and choose the one you need. The third way Ц you press and hold the central bottom and release it when you see the needed desktop.

The number of desktops is limited to 16. Though, "limited" is not a proper word Ц you cannot have more than 16 desktops but you are very unlikely to need this many.

The desktops bar is located between the desktop space and the soft buttons at the bottom. The current desktop is marked as a solid white bullet point while the others are displayed as circles. The home screen is shown as a home icon; you can go to the home screen by pressing the Home button (standard for all Androids). After unlocking (or rebooting) you get to the last used desktop and not to the home screen. Any screen can be set as the home screen in the settings.

Let us now look at the settings of the screens or panels as they are called in SPB Shell 3D. You can choose the name and the color of each panel. You can change the order of your panels e.g. you might want to drag the weather panel to the place most convenient for you. If you hide a panel it is not deleted but stored. I find this feature very handy. Sometimes you don't need a certain panel but it is well arranged and might be useful sometime later Ц you can simply hide it for a while and restore it when you need it.

Elements Arrangement

There are, however, certain peculiarities. For example, on any SPB Shell 3D panel all elements stick to each other. For example, if you place the clock widget on a desktop that takes about 10% of the area of the desktop and then add let's say 5 application icons Ц the most of the screen will remain empty but all the icons will be grouped around the widget. You can rearrange the icons but you cannot bring them apart from each other or from the widget Ц you cannot put the clock widget at the top and have the icons grouped at the bottom. I think this is not always convenient but SPB just call it one of the distinctive features of their UI.

There is another unpleasant issue connected to this peculiarity. Besides sticking to each other icons and widgets are added from top to bottom: so if you have a number of widgets and icons that fill only a half of the screen it will always be the upper half. If you want the clock widget to be displayed at the bottom you will have to add more icons to move it there.

Widgets, Special Panels

SPB Shell 3D is bundled with custom widgets (there are now about a dozen of them): weather, world time, messages etc. Let us have a look at some of them.

There are several variants of the weather widget available: all of them are rather compact, some display only the current weather, other display a forecast for a few days. When you click on the widget detailed information is displayed. One of the widget variants displays a 3D weather chart when you click on the left part of it.

The UI also has a separate panel with a full screen weather widget (or a weather panel, to be precise, you cannot delete this widget or choose it from the weather widgets) which looks very nice.

There is a message viewing widget. To the left you see the contact's icon and his name and the message to the right. You can scroll through your messages by means of the revolving menu by pressing the contact's avatar. I believe that this widget is for esthetic purposes only Ц it is not really handy.

The pictures widget allows you to view your images by means of the 3D revolving gallery. If you are an HTC owner you will have the HTC Sense standard gallery and TouchFLO 3D in mind.

Besides the special weather panel there is also a panel that displays new popular Flickr images. Again, there is little practical use for this panel but it looks great. You can immediately download or set as the wallpaper any image you like.

There is a panel with a full screen clock and a moon phase viewing app. From this panel you can also set an alarm clock or jump to the Android Clock application. There is an impressive stock of skins in the panel's settings.

You can add folders to the UI. From the start SPB Shell 3D has one folder where you can store your contacts. When this folder is closed it displays three contacts and the maximize icon.

You can create new folders and store any app icons there. You just need to drag and drop an app icon from the application menu. You can also customize the appearance of your folders: it can be an icon, a quick launch panel for four icons or a two-level panel. You can also name your folders. Thanks to the folders you can easily arrange everything you use systematically.

I think simple screenshots will do better than words as for the rest of the widgets Ц they speak for themselves.

Application Menu

If you press the icon in the right bottom corner you will see the application menu. The applications are displayed in an icon matrix as well as in a standard Android. You cannot change the view type to have, let's say, a grid. You can drag and drop app shortcuts to desktops and uninstall applications from here. To do so you just need to press the Uninstall button after which you will see crosses on the apps you can remove Ц you press the cross and the application is removed.

The application menu has an inessential but handy feature. Applications that already have shortcuts on one of the desktops are marked with the Home icon. So when you open the application menu you can see to which applications you already have shortcuts. If you click on the Home icon above the app icon (if you manage to hit it) you will jump to the panel that hosts a shortcut to this application.

The panel at the bottom besides the menu button also features three more app icons. If you press and hold an icon there you will see a matrix of all the application you can reassign this icon to.

3D

You may inquire "So, where is 3D?" It is in the representation of the panels Ц in the way they gracefully swim by (if you set the UI to the open revolving panels). You can also view images from your gallery in 3D, weather, latest messages (with the SMS widget).

Performance

So far I have mixed feelings about the performance of SPB Shell 3D. On the one hand, everything works just fine: there is no lagging when you scroll through panels or open the revolving 3D menu Ц the UI also works smart when you open a widget. There are, however, a few problems. Firstly, I had to restart my Google Nexus One about once a day and the system start takes half a minute more with the UI. Restarting SPB Shell 3D itself takes about 20-30 seconds. And the evening the UI works noticeably slower, more laggy and glitch even with the standard applications Ц for some reasons my address book was crashing with SPB Shell 3D on.

Bottom Line

SPB have created a really good product. The company is still holds the bar raised by their UIs for Windows Mobile and Symbian. SPB Shell 3D features a handy panel system, which you can have plenty of, rearrange them and tweak. It also has a nice folder system and it is realized much better than in the standard Android Ц where I never use folders because of the very limited functionality. The UI looks great and offers a bunch of really handy widgets.

Let us now look at SPB Shell 3D from another angle. This UI costs over И10. And there is some serious competition on the market: ADW Launcher, GO Launcher, Launcher Pro. Some of these overlays are completely free, some offer free demos and full versions for about И2.5. Every UI I have mentioned has dozens of great themes on the Market and a functionality often exceeding that of SPB Shell 3D. So, the SPB UI is only good if you do not consider the already existing alternatives. Offer a free demo and reduce the price for the full version Ц this is what I think SPB should start with to make Shell 3D look more attractive on the Android Market.

Artem Lutfullin (artem@mobile-review.com)
Twitter
Translated by Robert Mugattarov (mugattarov@gmail.com)

Published - 07 April 2011

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