Developer TSFUI caused a bit of a stir today with the release of their TSF Shell launcher on the Android Market. You can forget everything you know about launchers if you decide to try TSF Shell – describing it as ‘different’ is something of an understatement, and not just because it comes with a price tag of £10.50/$15. There’s no free version, so the big question is can it be worth the money?
Now, everyone has their favourite replacement launchers and each offers the user a slightly different selection of features, widgets and control systems for navigating around between Homescreens and applications, although they are all generally based around a system of scrolling between a selection of Homescreens, some kind of user customisable dock, and dedicated widgets to replace stock apps such as Messages and People.
TSF Shell does things in a completely different way to how the vast majority of users will be familiar with. Gone is the dock at the bottom of the Homescreens, and with it goes the the common shortcuts to things like your phone dialler, web browser and SMS client.
The default screen when you first install TSF Shell is essentially an app drawer containing everything installed on your device, including apps downloaded from the Market, apps within the ROM, live wallpapers, shortcuts to settings, etc. This is familiar territory at first, until you realise that the Home or Back buttons don’t back you out to the Homescreen like other launchers. This list of apps, which you can scroll through using one of six stunning animated transitions, is on the first of five Homescreens. The remaining four screens are blank and are available for adding your own widgets and shortcuts.
The notification bar at the top of the screen remains the same, but at the bottom left corner of the screen is what looks like a disc from TRON. This is the button that gets you around your Homescreens in Shell Pro.
Tap the button and all five Homescreens appear as a preview, with your current screen highlighted. Tap any screen and that’s where you end up. Tap and hold the button and you can move your finger across the screen and scroll between the previews. So, jumping from your current screen to any other screen is a simple touch/swipe/release. One press. It’s fast and simple.
Populating the other blank screens is a little confusing at first until you get used to how things are done. Widgets can be added to any screen in the usual way by a long press on an empty area of any screen. Wallpaper can be changed in the same way too. Where things start to differ is with app and shortcuts management. Jumping back to the default screen with your list of apps, you can double tap any number of apps to select them. Long press any selected app and all selected apps group together in a stack that can be moved and dropped onto any other screen. But that’s not the end of it. When dropped onto a screen, the app icons are shown within a highlight box that can be changed in size and position on the screen, and the position of individual apps can be moved within the box too. There is no grid that governs icon positions here – you can move things anywhere on the screen – and mean anywhere – to the nearest pixel. After the initial positioning, each app can be moved around on it’s own and rotated using a cool two-finger swipe gesture if that’s the look you’re after.
Another interesting feature is the lasso selection. Touch anywhere on a screen, swipe your finger around a group of apps you want to select and anything within the line drawn by your finger becomes highlighted. From here, you can align them, drop them in a new folder, or mass delete. After a short period of time, the process of adding, moving, deleting and grouping shortcuts becomes very fast and intuitive.
At the left side of the screen is a tab that, when pressed, opens up some useful features. Probably the most important is the quick launch bar which comes pre-loaded with common shortcuts such as messages, email, phone dialler and settings. The list can be edited to make it relevant to each user – existing shortcuts can be dragged off and deleted and new shortcuts can be dragged and dropped onto the bar. You’ll soon have the quick launch list customised exactly how you want it, and you won’t feel so bad about the loss of the dock.
Beside the quick launch tab is another list of shortcuts, this time the list is populated by TSF Shell’s own widgets (available separately from the Market), plus a blank placeholder for shortcut to a phone book contact or folder – drag any item from the list and drop it on a Homescreen, tap the icon and select where the shortcut points to.
This is the first public release of TSF Shell 3D on the Android Market and although it is clear that a lot of thought and had work has gone into it’s design and production, there are still a few glitches present that should be corrected in future updates. These errors could be entirely due to having such a relatively complex application on such a wide selection of Android handsets, there’s bound to be teething problems. I should point out that the errors I experienced related to dragging app icons, and were sorted by clearing the app data. Also, a couple of minor features such as the ‘Gather’ option for a group of selected shortcuts is sadly “Not available in this version”. I don’t know what Gather will do, but I look forward to finding out soon!
Overall this is a lovely launcher. The animated interactions are superb in every area and the whole method of interaction is innovative and refreshing. Worth the money? I would argue that the asking price reflects the work that has clearly gone into creating TFS Shell and gives some confidence that future updates should be along fairly regularly. It may be expensive in terms of Android apps, so it boils down to value to each user. Take a look at the 8 minute video on the Android Market and see what it can do, it will make you smile.