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Spb Software House’s Pocket Plus 3.1

Review posted September 5, 2006 by Tanker Bob

Like an iceberg, sometimes software packages have far more below the visible surface than you can readily see.  What if a user wanted to keep the Windows Mobile interface intact, but wanted a host of power under the hood that didn’t come in the original box?  Just about every utility package changes that visual interface in significant ways, forcing you to learn their interface system, with one exception.  Spb Software House put together a collection of powerful and wide-ranging capabilities in a package that, like an iceberg, hides the bulk of its presence beneath the visual surface—Pocket Plus 3.  It’s a bit like the Star Wars’ Force—the power is all around you, yet not usually visible until you call it up.

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Tanker Bob tested Spb’s Pocket Plus on a Dell Axim X50v running Windows Mobile 2003SE with a 624MHz CPU and VGA screen.  Pocket Plus was installed into Built-in Storage, although it installs many of its DLLs, its themes, and some graphic files into RAM.

The Package

Pocket Plus’ design centers around “individual capability” (my term) modules that can be activated or deactivated independent of the other capabilities.  These features do not overlap, so you aren’t stuck with something that you don’t want to get something that you need.

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I can best illustrate this by showing the Uninstall function in Pocket Plus that allows the user to delete unneeded or undesired modules.  The largest module by far is the Today plug-in, which weighs in at 2.01 MB.  However, Pocket Plus even provides the option of deleting individual parts of this module.  This well-considered scheme provides the user with maximum control over the program’s memory impact without limiting user flexibility with modules that depend on other unrelated parts to function.

The Setup

The basic setup screen allows the user to choose which modules to enable, using checkboxes next to their icons.  Highlighting an item by tapping on it enables the Feature Options button, allowing you to change the options for the chosen feature.  Modules not shown in the screen shot include the Today Plug-In, Close Button, and Taskbar Battery Indicator.

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The Tools menu illustrated accesses a number of additional settings and options.  Pocket Plus will save its settings to a file so that it can be restored should you choose to uninstall and reinstall later, or if something happens to your Windows Mobile device.  The Uninstall Components option has already been explained above.  The Advanced Settings… option has only one sub option.  This is where the Repeated Alarms function, one of my favorites, must be enabled for it to appear on the options screen.

Spb Pocket Plus comes with a number of attractive VGA-compliant themes.  The entire interface, including the indicators, may be skinned.  The default blue theme installs initially and I used it for most of the Today screen and plug-in screen shots.  The gray theme in the other screen shots. is Expea2 VGA by mikesjo, which includes full Pocket Plus support.  Additional skins may be downloaded for free from Spb’s web site, and other talented individuals sell attractive skins at reasonable prices on the Internet.

Today Plug-In

The Today Plug-In furnishes one of the best application launchers available for the Windows Mobile platform.  It supports tabs and multiple rows of application shortcuts.  The tabs may either be text, icons, or both.  Shortcuts can be dragged and dropped inside a tab or across tabs.  Tabs can also be dragged to new positions.  Pocket Plus includes a number of attractive, enhanced application icons for common programs, as well as sample icons for the tabs.

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Tapping and holding on a shortcut brings up a context menu.  From here, icons may be changed, shortcuts may be added or removed and icon positions locked or auto arranged.  Tapping and holding on a blank area of a tab brings up another context menu for adding shortcuts or rearranging them.

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In addition to application shortcuts, you can also place indicators and special functions on tabs.  The screen shot shows the battery, memory, Built-in Storage, CF card, SD card indicators, as well as the screen brightness control.  The controls on the right include the Pocket Plus options, soft reset, suspend, and rotate screen left and right.  Tapping the indicators can change their display from amounts to percentages.  The battery indicator can display voltage or estimated time remaining based on usage statistics.  Very nice!

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The settings for the plug-in provide a straight-forward interface to modify the launcher. All these functions may be accomplished from the context menu on the Today screen, except for the Plug-In Options.  This button applies to special plug-ins like Folders.  The Appearance tab controls how themes apply to the indicators.  The Margins tab allows the user to set the distance horizontally and vertically between icons on the tabs.  Tab Icons settings include horizontal alignment and sizing for the tabs.

Pocket Plus also supports other Spb Software House applications as tabs, including Time and Weather.  As indicated above, the special plug-in Spb Folders add the ability to access file folders from tabs.  ToPlay controls Windows Media Player 10 and your music library from a special tab.  All this adds up to a very flexible and powerful launcher that could be successful as a stand-alone outside of Pocket Plus.

Battery Indicator Bar

Every good utility program these days includes a battery display for the Windows Mobile Task Bar.  Spb Software House had one of the original offerings that still ranks amongst the best.  They implemented it as a system service so that it stays at the top of the screen in all applications, even when full screen.  It takes on the colors of the active theme, so always matches the décor.

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The only options for the battery indicator are a large or small display.  This only governs the vertical extent of the bar.  The small bar provided perfect visibility for my tastes on a VGA screen.

Task Manager

The Task Manager does much more than fix Microsoft’s laughable “minimize X” control.  Pocket Plus allows the user to set the “X” to close apps or minimize them, but also adds tap-and-hold and dragging actions to the “X” for maximum flexibility.  You can set the various actions to close or minimize apps, and even show the task manager menu.

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The task menu is completely configurable by the user through its setup screens.  You can choose what appears on the menu, including controls.  These controls may include changing the screen orientation, soft resetting, changing the backlight, volume, and suspending the device.  The Button tab sets the functions executed by the “X” taps, holds, and drags.  You can use the Exception tab to set selected programs to always minimize no matter what the “X” button is set to do. 

Pocket Plus accomplishes all this without changing the general appearance of Windows Mobile.  Very slick.

Buttons

You can use Pocket Plus to add functionality to your PDA’s hard buttons well beyond that allowed by the operating system.  In addition to assigning applications, the user may set control functions to any button on the device.  The controls are generally the same ones available for the menu and as shortcuts in the application launcher.

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One unique and valuable control function is the Alt-Tab function.  This works like Alt-Tab on the Windows desktop systems.  Executing the Alt-Tab function brings up a small window with icons of all the programs active in the background and foreground.  The selected program name appears at the bottom of the window.  This provides a great capability to access background programs with one-hand operation.

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The user may even limit the functions that appear in the Button setup screen from another setup screen.  This simplifies the button assignment screen by furnishing only those functions that the user finds of use—you are in control.

Repeated Alarms

One of the handiest features in Pocket Plus has to be the repeat alarm function.  This fills a silly gap left by Microsoft in Windows Mobile.  Not only does Pocket Plus enable repeat alarms, but you can specify any .WAV file to play and set the volume of the alarm independent of the system volume.  That’s great for morning wake-up alarms while traveling when the sound may have been muted for meetings.  Alarms may even ascend in volume, which is my favorite setting.  If I’m in a loud location, the alarm will be heard when the volume reaches near maximum, but if I’m in a quiet area I can catch it early and avoid annoying everyone in earshot.  Sweet.

Using the Settings tab, repeating alarms may be enabled for the built-in clock and/or for task alarms.  You can set a minimum battery level below which the repeated alarm function will be disabled.

Pocket Internet Explorer

Before Pocket Plus, I rarely used Pocket Internet Explorer (PIE).  It doesn’t take advantage of the VGA display at all, and doesn’t support multiple windows or full screen display.  Pocket Plus furnishes the option to enhance PIE with exactly these capabilities plus the ability to save web pages.  It places a new icon on the taskbar from which to access the enhanced functions, but that’s the only change to the standard PIE screen.

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The behavior of the PIE enhancements may be set in the Feature Options discussed above.  There aren’t many options, but few are really needed anyway.  The multiple window behavior may be changed.  Probably the most valuable part of this setting screen lies in the non-obvious list of additions to the program.  As you can see from the screenshot, Pocket Plus actually makes PIE useful.  The ability to save pages and pictures can be particularly handy on the road, when airline or other travel arrangements made online need to be kept for reference.  Major kudos to Spb Software House for this important road warrior enhancement.

File Explorer

In Tanker Bob’s humble opinion, here’s another useless Windows Mobile program.  However, Pocket Plus again rides to the rescue with key enhancements that improve File Explorer’s functionality.  Pocket Plus adds an “Up directory” button to the screen, but that’s the only visual change.  Under the hood you’ll find full ZIP file support, encryption/decryption, and a robust Properties function.  You can even set a graphics file as the Today background, create Today Plug-in shortcuts for files, and (careful now) format storage cards.

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The settings for Pocket Plus’ File Explorer enhancements once again give the user full control over what functionality the wish to enable.  You can also choose where to place the Folder Up button.  Although the File Explorer interface remains lame, the Pocket Plus enhancements bring it up to the power level of a real file manager.

Safe Mode

If things go totally downhill on your desktop PC to the point where you’re staring at the Blue Screen of Death, you can always resort to rebooting into safe mode to recover.  Up until now, a hard reset provided the only remedy under unrecoverable lockup conditions under Windows Mobile.  Pocket Plus breaks this paradigm by providing a safe mode for your Windows Mobile device, one that even works under WM 5.  The simple settings govern the intrusiveness of the safe mode during soft resets, the only time you’ll ever be aware of safe mode until you really need it.  I’ve found that the “less than one minute” option works perfectly, although I’d hardly call the “every reset” mode intrusive.  The latter simply displays a message prompting the user to tap the activation key for safe mode if desired.

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In the wild

Spb Pocket Plus has to be the least intrusive and easiest to use power program I’ve ever seen.  Without altering the visual appearance of Windows Mobile, it covers for a host of the operating system’s shortcomings as well as the shortcomings of WM’s most-used utilities.  The user simply accesses most of the added power through the WM menu system—no extra learning required.

I noticed no slowdown whatsoever when running all of Pocket Plus’ features simultaneously.  Some users had reported slowdowns with older 2.x versions, but Spb has optimized the code to provide transparent power. 

You might think that stability would suffer with so much going on behind the scenes, but again, not the case here.  I ran Pocket Plus 3.x for months without any issues whatsoever.  I had issues under older 2.x versions, but those have been eradicated.  I have come to the point where it’s hard to imagine life without Pocket Plus working quietly in the background on my Axim.

Pocket Plus also works great in true VGA mode.  Everything displays and functions as expected.  The themes look great in every screen mode.  On caution on the themes, though.  If screen real estate drives your Today plug-in choices, then avoid the Pocket Plus themes other than the blue default one if you use the indicators.  The others all have large meters/indicators, which chew up space on your Today screen.

Version 3.x of Pocket Plus changed the way its options screen works.  It used to be mechanized through the Windows Today setup screen.  This redrew the entire Today screen, reloading ALL Today plug-ins with every change and really ate up some time.  Under 3.x, the Pocket Plus options screen operates independent of the system Today setup screen and responds almost instantly on the Axim.  The only exception occurs when enabling or disabling the Today plug-in, which does require the Today screen to reload.  More major kudos to Spb for this welcome change.

The perfect modularity of Pocket Plus’ features puts the user in the driver’s seat.  YOU can pick and choose which capabilities to activate without impacting any other module, plus what parts of each module to use.  Some other programs tie modules together, limiting your control over what to enable or disable to get just the functionality that you desire.  Spb went so far as to make the modules and some of their parts individually uninstallable.  Even more major kudos for this!

I did find a few minor annoyances.  Whenever you update Pocket Plus, it preserves all your settings but one.  Even if you had the Today plug-in disabled, it will be enabled on reinstall.  That messes up my Today screen spacing and I found it very annoying. 

Also, switching apps in Alt-Tab depends heavily on the timing with which you cycle its activation button.  The timing has to be almost perfect to get your desired result.  After several months of use, I still can’t get it to pass up apps in the sequence reliably enough to get to an app later in the lineup.  The button timing should be user-adjustable to avoid this issue.

Here’s an important safety tip:  The Repeat Alarm options will not appear on the Pocket Plus settings screen until you activate it from the Tools/Advanced Options… submenu on that screen.  That approach doesn’t make much sense to me.  It unnecessarily makes finding and enabling the repeat alarm function very difficult for the average user.

The last annoyance involves the Today plug-in layout.  Pocket Plus always reserves space at the far right of the tab for a scroll bar, even if one isn’t needed.  This reduces the number of shortcut icons that can be displayed in a row.  That doesn’t seem like a lot, but the space is just wasted.  Fixing this should be simple, especially since no other program that I use has the same issue.  It’s just one of those things that makes you say hmmm…

All that said, these are trivial complaints when compared with the power and ease-of-use packed into Pocket Plus.

Confession

Tanker Bob used to be Pocket Plus 2.x’s biggest critic.  I diligently sought out a host of single-function substitutes for Pocket Plus’ functions which I valued.  I even sent Spb some scathing emails about the problems that I encountered.  Well, they listened and the 3.1 updates fixed every single problem that helped form my formerly-jaundiced opinion.  I’ve now pitched all but one of the single-function programs and returned to Pocket Plus.  In fact, I now can’t imagine life without Pocket Plus 3.1.1 running quietly and unobtrusively in the background.  Trust me, for Tanker Bob that represented a major paradigm shift.  If you’ve had problems with Pocket Plus 2.x or even 3.0, you owe it to yourself to give 3.1.1 a try.

Conclusion

Spb Pocket Plus 3.1.1 provides a host of important enhancements to Windows Mobile and its key utilities.  It does so without altering the functional appearance of Windows Mobile and without impacting system performance.  That sounds impossible, but the folks at Spb have done it and done so magnificently.  If you want a program that does darn near everything you’d ever want in a utility, including a great task manager and a Windows desktop-like safe mode, then look no further than Spb Pocket Plus 3.1.1.  At just $24.95 retail, you won’t have to sell your iPod to obtain all that power for yourself.

Pros:
One-stop shopping—does it all!
Makes no significant changes to Windows Mobile’s appearance or basic operation
System enhancements appear exactly where you’d expect in the basic system/app menus
Excellent application launcher
Excellent repeat alarm capability
Adds critically-needed safe mode to recover your device if necessary
Rock-solid stability
No negative performance impact

Cons:
Alt-Tab function button rate needs user adjustability
Wasted space on the right side of the Today plug-in
Repeat alarm activation hidden under an obscure submenu

Web site: www.spbsoftwarehouse.com

Price: $24.95

 Spb Pocket Plus

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