I have probably tried every Android “home” app available. Touchwiz (which comes with my Samsung phone by default), the Froyo and Gingerbread AOSP launchers, LauncherPro, ADW.Launcher, Go Launcher, Zeam, the list goes on and on. These apps are generally considered the UI of Android, the desktop interface from which you launch apps and interact with various widgets.
I’ve had a serious Goldilocks problem with Android launchers. In a way, I think the choice itself is the problem. In iOS, you have Springboard. That’s it. You take what Apple gives you and you like it. Even if you jailbreak, all you can do is dress it up. But on Android, every launcher app does things a little differently. Touchwiz and Go Launcher try to mimic iOS’s Springboard. LauncherPro and ADW stick with the “stock” Android launcher paradigm, but try to add features or flexibility. Zeam just tries to be as small and fast as possible. All of them have something I like, but they all have something I don’t. And ultimately, I gave up trying to find the ideal and stuck with the Gingerbread-themed Froyo launcher that came with with Serendipity, the custom ROM I use on my Samsung Captivate. Nothing really stood out.
I knew SPB well from their work on Windows Mobile. They were almost single-handedly responsible for making Windows Mobile at least look like a modern smartphone OS (well, until HTC started doing their own thing). Now they’ve taken SPB Mobile Shell from Windows Mobile and reinvented it for Android, and in the process they’ve come up with an Android launcher that really stands out.
The first thing you’ll notice is a little slide bug in the center of the dock. Slide this back and forth, and the screen drops away to a carousel view. You can spin the screens around as fast or slow as you need, and pick the right one out of the group. You can swipe from screen to screen like every other launcher out there, but I find this use of 3D (hence the name of the app) actually helps me find the panel I’m looking for quicker. The animation is fast and fluid, and the spin slows down with the natural, organic feel you would expect from Apple.
If you tap on the little three-panel icon in the lower right of the carousel view, you get the editing screen shown above. While this is completely intuitive in use, the screenshot looks little confusing. The carousel pulls back, so you’re now looking slightly down at it rather than directly at it. Think the difference in perspective between an MMO like World of Warcraft and a first person shooter like Quake, respectively. In front of you between you and the carousel, you see several available but unused panels lying “flat” relative to the carousel. You can pull panels down from the carousel and put them in the stack, or pick up panels from the stack and insert them into the carousel. Like I said, it’s quick and intuitive in use, and the screenshot really doesn’t do the UI justice.
The panels available range from ad hoc things you build yourself to dedicated purpose panels that you might think of as full screen widgets. The included panels include time, calendar, SMS, weather, travel, images and more. These all show SPB’s usual polish and attention to detail. I particularly liked the weather panel, complete with animated current conditions, although in the beta I used for this review, I couldn’t get the weather to update reliably. I hope they get that ironed out for the release, because it’s really neat.
You also have individual widgets supplied by SPB if you don’t want to take up a whole panel for your calendar, say. What I really like about these is that they are all multi-state, and you can change them in size to fit the layout you have in mind. The time widget can be a 2×1 condensed clock, showing your next alarm, the time and small date, or a 4×1 clock showing the same but with longer, more descriptive date and time formats, or a 2×2 analog clock. When the screen is in edit mode (which you enter by tapping and holding an icon, just like every other launcher out there) SPB widgets have a white arrow in a green circle in their upper right corner, as seen above. Touch that arrow to switch modes.
Also note the black bar at the bottom of the above screenshot. This is the tray, where you can hold items, apps, shortcuts and widgets, if they overflow while you’re moving stuff around. SPB Shell 3D automatically reflows each panel’s contents for you, and this means you never have a “no more space on this home screen” error. It also means you don’t have to tediously try to drag something from screen to screen to screen if you need to move it somewhere else. You can drop it in the tray, swipe over to where you’re going, and drop it where it belongs from the tray.
In the lower right of the above shot, you see the standard grid icon for the app drawer. This is pretty standard stuff, smooth scrolling against a black background, but they managed to put in a nifty feature even here. When you’re in edit mode, you’ll see a little house icon over each app in the drawer that is also on the home screen. This is a great way to see at a glance what apps you have out on your panels and which apps you won’t see unless you look in the drawer. Personally, I prefer to have just about everything on the home screen, so the only apps in my drawer that don’t have little house icons are those that I launch by widget instead (BeyondPod, Rdio, etc.).
This is SPB Shell 3D’s best feature, IMO. The stock launcher has had folders for some time, and even iOS finally gave up and admitted they were necessary. But there’s a problem with home screen folders. Once you put something in them, even if the folder icon shows you tiny thumbnails of the icons, you rarely go back to that app. Folders are where apps go to be forgotten.
But SPB Shell 3D has a different approach. Yes, you can have folders that are just 1×1 thumbnails of the apps inside, but like Shell 3D’s widgets, folders can also be multiple sizes. As you can see in the screenshots above, in addition to the thumbnail grid, home screen folders can contain 3-7 full size icons that are just as tappable as anything else on the home screen. This gives you the best of both worlds. A labeled container to hold related apps, but you can still get to those apps without the extra step of opening the folder. Of course, you can open the folder and see all the apps contained therein at their full sizes, if you need to. But I find that even with big groups of apps like Utilities, there are rarely more than 7 I need quick access to. Maybe I’m OCD — okay, definitely — but I really like having my home screen apps “penned in” with like apps in neat little groupings.
The last really cool feature I don’t have any screenshots for. You’ll just have to see it for yourself. Given all this eye candy, you’d think SPB Shell 3D would be slower than the competition. But the folks over at SPB have optimized this down to every line of code, and it runs not only faster than “full service” launchers like LauncherPro and ADW, but it runs faster than the stock launcher in my testing. Everything is quick, taps are responsive, and animations are smooth. It doesn’t feel like it weighs down my phone at all. And as far as launcher replacements go, that’s really saying something.
While it’s fast and pretty, that all comes at a price. Battery life. I noticed my battery draining noticeably faster with SPB Shell 3D than with the stock launcher. The drain isn’t dramatic or crippling, but it could be a factor if you’re just barely getting by with battery life as it is. I still get through a full day with my Captivate, but the battery is almost completely dead by the end of the day rather than around 30%.
With the caveat that my test copy is a beta, I also found a few issues with crashing. Sometimes things would just stop responding, and I’d need to reboot, or I’d get weird feature lockups like the weather panel refusing to update. I’m sure these are normal development bugs and will be fixed in the release version.
It’s also a little pricey compared to the competition, selling for $14.95. This is really expensive by Android app standards, three times the price of LauncherPro. Is it worth it? I think so, but your mileage may vary.
SPB Shell 3D is my new default launcher. It makes my Android phone more capable, and more fun to use. It’s a little pricey, but well worth it if you use your Android device heavily. SPB Shell 3D is available now on the Android Market.