When I first started using a Pocket PC in 2000, I was ignorant of all the third party software that was available. It wasn’t until 2002, when I purchased an iPAQ h3970 that I started looking around for software to add to my devices... Around this time I came across Battery Pack. Rather than having to make up to three or four taps to start an application, I could launch any application in a single click. After a while I started having what I can only call anomalies. Strange things happened on my device and it was hard to know why these anomalies happened. In addition, the device seemed slower and less stable. Thus I started looking around at alternative launchers and battery meters.
Eventually I came across Pocket Plus just before Windows Mobile 2003 was released last year. Upon uninstalling Battery Pack and installing Pocket Plus, I noticed some improvement in the stability and performance of my device. I purchased a copy and never looked back. Recently I was given the chance to review the new version of Pocket Plus. While I normally don’t like trying pre release software (unless I write it), SPB has a reputation for quality and a long release cycle, so I knew that I would be safe, therefore I jumped at the chance.
I have to say though, at this stage I was wondering “what possible point can there be to putting out an upgrade?” In my mind, I started to believe that this was simply an arbitrary release by Spb Software House that is designed to extract more money from existing customers. Now don’t get me wrong, if there are valid features that are worth my money, I have no problem with paying for the update, however, where there are no additional features, I’d sometimes rather leave it. But then there’s bit of me that hates not having the latest version .
For this review, I’ve focused on what I believe to be the biggest features in Pocket Plus - the launcher and the close menu. Pocket Plus 2.0 also has the ability to handle zip files automatically inside the file explorer, have multiple windows in Pocket Internet Explorer, format storage cards, view file properties and a number of other smaller bonuses. As much as I like these other bonuses, I’m not a big Pocket Internet Explorer user and I tend to use Resco explorer as my default explorer anyway and Resco explorer is so much better than the standard file explorer even with the ability to handle zip files etc - I haven’t really used these features.
Pocket Plus is delivered in a desktop installer package which is the standard for most software on Pocket PC. I ran the installer on my desktop and followed the prompts. A key difference between most software installs and the Pocket Plus install is that it offers you the opportunity to install the software in trial mode or enter your license key. Entering the license key at this stage prevents the trial version from being installed completely, so you only ever get the full version installed. This is useful as you’ll see in a moment.
Having had Pocket Plus 1.6 installed already, I was curious to see what my existing install would look like after the upgrade. I had set up my today screen carefully after much time and was not keen on having to reset it back the way I liked it.
The installer sent the cab file to my iPAQ h4150 and the install went without a hitch, as did the required soft reset. Nice. Spb Software have made a bunch of themes available from their web site which I downloaded and installed as well. Make sure you do this. It’s worth it!
After the application was installed, the today screen was much the same as before, except that there were now a few tabs and a funny pattern at the top of the screen. All my existing settings had been left intact. The icons looked similar but not identical; however, apart from this there did not appear to be much difference.
I was not at this stage sure what the pattern at the top of the screen was, and initially I thought it was some sort of screen artifact that amounted to a bug.
I tapped on the (upgraded) Pocket Plus icon on the today screen, as I always have to change the settings and was greeted with two additional icons - the Taskbar Battery Indicator and the File explorer settings. Putting two and two together, I worked out that the funny pattern at the top of the screen was a battery indicator.
The battery indicator is confusing at first. I expected the drainage to drain from left to right (don’t ask me why), but instead it went from right to left. Once you figure it out, it is OK. Will I keep it there? Don’t know. You have the option of turning it off completely (which is what I did with Battery Pack) or making it bigger.... why you’d want to I don’t know, but the option is there if you want it. Personally I like a clean program bar - or at least all indicators conforming to the standard Microsoft format of white. In this respect the Pocket Plus indicator is less intrusive than the Battery Pack icon and it also gives a better reading.
Tabs have never been one of my home page joys. They take up valuable real estate and in my experience have cluttered things up and made things harder to get at. So I was not thrilled about seeing the tabs in Pocket Plus at first. My opinion has changed somewhat since I started using it. Tabs are useful for hiding those apps you don’t use often, however, there is an extra tap to get to them. The other nice thing is that the tabs in Pocket Plus 2.0 don’t take up much room. Pocket Plus allows you to have up to five tabs and to customize what is in each tab.
By default it installs three tabs. They are called Main, Connect and System. The main tab initially is little more than a status bar with the battery, storage, backlight and memory indicators and one or two other buttons.
Let’s face it; the most critical part of Pocket Plus is the launcher, followed closely by the close button/task manager. All the other features are nice to have, but I can live without them. Your mileage may vary.
The launcher simply gives you the ability to put shortcuts to applications on the today screen for quick and simple access. In Pocket Plus 2.0 the launcher has been considerably upgraded.
Firstly the today items now give feedback when tapped. When you tapped an icon in older versions, you simply waited for the app to launch. On come apps that took longer to start, sometimes you wondered if you’d tapped it and you tapped it again. This can cause problems with some applications (especially .Net apps it seems). In 2.0 they take on a depressed look much like the buttons in Microsoft office when you mouse over them, but a little more subtle. This is a huge improvement and I know it is one of the pet peeves of some who chose Battery Pack or another launcher over Pocket Plus in the past.
The second improvement is the third party helpers that are included now. Like the “other” launchers, you can now setup an Icon for turning the device off and resetting the device. But wait - that’s not all, you can also add icons for adjusting the volume up and down (both buttons are available) or looping the volume (meaning it gets to the loudest setting then loops to the quietest setting). There is similar buttons for the backlight (up and down and loop) and the today theme loop (again, more in a moment).
Thirdly, you can now drag and drop your icons into place! If there were no other improvements, this would be enough for me! Not only can you drag and drop them between tabs (very cool!) but you can drag them anywhere in the Pocket Plus section of the screen. When I first discovered this - I created a new tab (you can simply tap and hold and tap new tab) and threw the less used icons in there. This worked fine, but after I did a hard reset I stuck with the default tabs and simply threw the networking related apps (e.g. PocketWiNc) under the connect tab. This has worked out OK so far and is probably the way I’ll leave it.
Fourthly, you can have various sized indicator icons. There appears to be three sizes to choose, however, the icons for the indicators are sized based on the theme. So if you like them small - get a theme that has small ones in it, if you want them big, choose a theme with bigger ones - more on this in the themes section. To change the icon size for an application icon, tap and hold the icon and choose “Large Icon” to set it.
Fifthly there is now a very functional tap and hold menu that has some useful features. The top half of the menu seems to be consistent between all the icons as does the remove item option, however, the others are context sensitive. For the indicators you get the options that used to be there for the old versions of Pocket Plus, e.g. the memory indicator gives the option of free program memory, free storage or total free. On program icons, you can select large icon or change icon. The image above displays a theme with small indicator icons. I’ve also changed the icon for BOnTime to Large Icon.
Sixth, you can now put links to documents directly on your today screen. Handy if you happen to be writing a book (or review) that you want to get to frequently
Seventh, the method of selecting the items for the tabs is considerably more powerful. The old system was essentially a simple list of applications and settings icons that could be selected. The new list is actually six categories of shortcuts. They are indicators, programs, my documents, system, settings and custom. The indicators are the battery, memory, etc. Programs are all the applications installed on the device (as per the programs menu). My documents is any file in your my documents folder. System includes the soft reset, power off, screen toggle (yes - another nice to have feature) and volume etc. The settings list is the same list as that found by tapping Start -> Settings. Custom is any shortcut to any file or folder on your system. This is a great way of adding access to a project folder or some other location on your device that you access frequently.
Finally, you can change the margin and even whether the Pocket Plus icon appears on the today screen. Nice touch that means you can squeeze all you can on the front page. Just be careful as this can change some of the boundaries of where some of the icons can go.
Up, down and all around (or themes)
This up/down/loop theme button is one that puzzled me at first - until the hard reset. When I did the hard reset and installed Pocket Plus again (note that no registration key was required due to the install scheme above), I noticed an icon that represented a house with an up/down arrow on it - the theme loop button.
To figure out what it was, I tapped it and was surprised to see that the today theme was changed. “Cool!” I thought. Then I noticed that not only had the today theme changed, but the entire look of Pocket Plus had changed too! The battery, memory, backlight and storage indicators were now completely different images. I tapped again - they changed again. About this point I was getting pretty excited by the level of customization that was becoming apparent (yes I live in a sad, sad little world, where little pictures get me warm and fuzzy). So the themes that I downloaded at the beginning are not only normal themes, but they customize the look of Pocket Plus as well.
The only annoyance of the theme based indicator icons is that the theme cannot contain both large and small icons for the indicator icons - you will need to select a different theme to get smaller/larger indicator icons. However, in the Pocket Plus settings you can change the “appearance” of the indicator icons by setting them to follow the original theme or “always use current indicators from theme ”. This setting is confusing. The “follow original theme” setting actually means to change the icons to the default theme icons. Conversely the “Always use current indicators from theme ” means to keep the theme icons from the current theme as you change them. This solution works around the issue of theme icon sizes, but means that the indicators may not always match the rest of the theme.
Note the picture below has room for an extra item with the absence of the Pocket Plus icon. The trade off of course is that the settings are slightly harder to get to - however you can put the Pocket Plus icon where ever you like - which more than makes up for this. This means you can hide it somewhere more appropriate - like the system tab .
Close Button and Task switcher
Task switchers are the topic of much debate. Having been a user of Wisbar and Wisbar advance in the past, I do like to have a nice task switcher. Some of the issues I’ve heard people complain about with Pocket Plus’s task switcher include the tap and hold to get it to come up and the restriction on what options you have in the menu.
Well it seems Spb Software House heard these requests and have completely overhauled the close button / task switcher. By default the old functionality is still there, with the nice addition of the running icons now having their program application next to them.
However, when you dig into the settings, you have the ability to completely change the behavior of the close button - with some trade offs.
Rather than being forced into the tap and hold option, you can now set the task menu to appear either after a tap and hold or by using a gesture. As far as Pocket Plus is concerned a gesture is tapping and dragging the stylus from the close button toward the middle of the screen. It can be done quickly and does not need to go right to the center of the screen. Thus it is much like “stroking” the close button. This also means that you can set the tap and hold action to minimize or close the application based on your preferences. When I first saw this customization, I thought it would be useful, but when I tried it I found it tricky to get used to the change quickly and so dumped it and went back to the default. If you are a Wisbar user, you may not have the same issues, and may find it easy to get used to, but coming from the old version of Pocket Plus, I found it hard to get used to in a short time.
The other major improvement in the task switcher is the ability to add to or remove items from the menu. There are a considerable number of options here, essentially all the items in the system category can be added to the task manager menu - or removed depending on what you like.
The old options are still there - the exceptions still work as does the minimize or close option when tapping the big X that is not what it should be.
But wait that’s not all...
Other nice features that are nifty and new include the ability to backup and restore settings. These settings can then be given to a colleague or saved to an SD card for restoring later. You could also use these to test some settings then revert back to a setting you liked quickly.
SPB Pocket Plus 2.0 is easily the best launcher application I’ve tried. It’s got all the bells and whistles of the competition and then some - leaving little to be desired. In fact, I can’t think of anything that I’d like to see added to the application at all!
Pocket Plus not only catches up to the competition in terms of features, but surpasses it in every way. If you are in the market for a launcher application - you don’t need to look any further than Pocket Plus. If you’re feeling stung by the recent furor around Battery Pack - you should seriously consider this application. Would I upgrade from a previous version of Pocket Plus? In a flash!
Fixes all the “niggles” with previous versions
The most flexible launcher for the Pocket PC
Support for themes
Adds quick reset, power off, etc
Some confusing settings with regard to icons in themes
Some icons in the task list show only the top left corner of the icon if it is a 32x32 icon