When it comes to Android skins, there’s not a ton of options unless you root your phone. Sure, depending on the phone you own you’ll have a stock Android interface, HTC Sense, Samsung’s TouchWiz, or Motorola’s Motoblur crafting your interactions, but after awhile, they all can all feel a little flat.
Enter SPB Shell 3D for Android. Known in beta testing as SPB Mobile Shell 5.0 for Android, this user interface overlay takes home screens to a whole new level. Though it’s a bit steep for an Android app at $14.95 in the Android Market, it’s made to work on phones (no tablets, yet) with Android 2.1 and up and, according to the developers, is built to work with future versions of the mobile OS as well. So is it good enough to replace your current user interface on your phone? Read on to find out.
Thankfully, SPB Shell 3D isn’t 3D in the sense that your applications are jumping out of the screen. Instead, it uses a carousel effect that spins all of the home screens around. As the screens move around, SPB widgets pop-out from the carousel. For instance, on our HTC Evo 4G, the time zone widget pops-out to a 3D spinning globe that shows the time in three different locations. The calendar widget flips a page-a-day calendar and then “pulls” out your appointments for the next three days as stacked Post-it notes.
The overall effect is that you’re looking at all of your home screens at once as if they were spinning around in a box. While the screens rotate every few seconds when you’re not even touching the screen, a quick flick of the finger will send them flying around quickly. Unlike scrolling through contacts or a long web page, the SPB Shell 3D screens keep spinning for a long time. Tapping your finger on the screen stops them, but, much like the Price is Right big wheel, it’s hard to stop it exactly where you want it to stop.
Home Screens & Apps
Once you tap on the screen, it brings all the screens forward and flat into a more traditional Android screen layout. From here you can access all of your screen content as well as your list of apps. The app list scrolls vertically, but it felt much smoother and faster on our Evo than HTC Sense feels. There’s also a blue light effect at the bottom of the app window which gives the whole page a sense of depth. Apps that appear on one of the home screens have a little house icon in the upper right corner of their icon.
To move an app to one of the home screens, long press on it and drag it down to the gray bar along the bottom of the screen. This bar is actually a scrollable tray that allows for easy shuttling of multiple apps from home screen to home screen. We really liked this feature as it allowed us to customize and organize our screens much more quickly than dragging each icon one-by-one to screens. Plus, you can store apps in the scrollable tray for as long as you need them there.
When you’re done organizing your apps, click the check mark and you’re returned to the main menu bar which has five small icons on it for phone, messages, 3D mode, Internet, and application list.
In addition to organizing your apps, you can also organize and customize your home screens by adding or removing up to 16 screens. In carousel mode there’s an icon on the lower left from which you can access the panel manager. Here you can add, remove, or reorder home screen panels in a way that reminds us of organizing cards in webOS.
Another feature of SPB Shell 3D is Smart Folders, which automatically organizes some things such as your favorite contacts and some of your tools. The folder can be changed to icon size, widget size or expanded to fill most of the screen. Although creating a folder was as easy as a long press on the screen, we couldn’t figure out how to name a folder anything other than the default name of “Misc.” When we finally gave up in frustration and just started dropping Doodle Jump and Angry Birds into the folder, we were more than pleasantly surprised that the folder changed from “Misc” to “Games.” Likewise, placing Pulse news reader and Google Reader into a folder gave it the name “News.”
However, when we put apps for Chase banking, Mint.com, and Coupons.com into a folder, we were dismayed to see that SPB Shell 3D also categorized them as “News.”
As we mentioned earlier, SPB Shell 3D includes several 3D widgets that are more whiz-bang cool than actually useful, though we really enjoyed the multi-dimensional weather forecast graph and the flipping calendar widget. However, all of your Android widgets and shortcuts are still available, too.
Though SPB says that SPB Shell 3D will work best on phones with 2nd generation hardware accelerators such as the Google Nexus S or the HTC Desire HD, it worked well on our HTC Evo. We experienced a bit of lag when we went to add an Android widget and when the Shell 3D photo widget was loading, but we didn’t feel slowed down while using the interface.
SPB says that because of the way Shell 3D is engineered, it actually uses less battery power than manufacturers’ overlays and even less than stock Android in typical usage scenarios. During a day of heavy use with Shell 3D, we noted that our battery depleted at about the same rate as it normally did using HTC Sense.
While $14.95 is higher than many apps that you’ll see in the Android Market, we think the good-looking, smooth moving interface is worth it. Plus, it’s a lot more than an app you’ll use a few times and forget about. It is literally a whole new look to your Android interface. However, SPB Shell 3D is a lot more than eye candy because of the way it quickly gives you easy access to your applications and helps keep them organized, but its good looks certainly don’t hurt.