Review: Wisbar Advance 3

Wisbar Advance 2 has been a very popular piece of software for quite some time now. Lots of people use it as Task Manager, to skin their top- and bottom bar, to “really close” applications with the Ok/X button, and/or to use the cascading Start menu instead of the regular one. Today, Chris from Lakeridge Software released Wisbar Advance 3 (WA3) after a public beta period of over 3 months. For those of you who already followed beta development, a lot will be familiar, but if you’ve been out of the game for a while and didn’t follow the beta development, there are some sweet surprises.
Myself, I’ve been using WA2 in the past, but after iLauncher was upgraded with Task Manager support, I have only been using WA2 very rarely. Now that WA3 has arrived, I gave WA3 another try and was positively surprised.

Read on after the break!

Installation

Installation is the same as with other software, with two exceptions: after selecting the install location, you will first have to agree with the license agreement. And, after installing, you have a screen prompting if you want to launch WA3 immediately. A great new addition with WA3 is that it can be installed on a Storage Card! I always missed this in WA2, but now, when you select Storage Card during installation, only some needed parts are installed on main storage, and the rest will be on Storage Card. However, this has the consequence that you can’t let WA3 automatically start up after a soft reset, because it won’t get initialized from the Storage Card properly. So it’s a choice for the user to make: save space, or have automatic start-up.

FloatTop bar

This is where the main (but not all!) power of WA3 is. The top bar is fully skinnable, which means that you can replace the default icons with your own icons, or icons from the resources forums of the Lakeridge Software forums. The skin is also applied to the bottom bar and the (radio) buttons that the system uses, so skinning WA2 will truely change the appearance of your screen. In this screenshot, the default WM 6 style skin is displayed on my WM 5 device.

Also, you can specify which buttons you want to appear on the top bar. This includes the built-in buttons such as the Phone icon, Volume icon etc., but also additional buttons such as a battery/memory meter, and a new clipboard icon to easily cut/copy/paste/select all. While sometimes it’s also possible to type Ctrl + C or similar on the SIP, having a clipboard in the Top Bar is really useful since it’s always there. New optional top bar icons are, in addition to this clipboard button, two new custom buttons (C3 and C4), and Rotate. New with WA3 is that you can choose to align buttons to the left or right, and this is a setting that can be applied for each individual button.

You can set the behavior for what happens when you tap on an icon, and when you tap-and-hold on an icon. So, for example, you can set the Phone icon to show the default Phone bubble on a normal tap, and show the Clipboard pop-up on tap-and-hold. This way, you can limit the amount of icons you need on the Today screen, since you can assign two different things to one icon. Really worth mentioning is the new option to make a window float, which means that you make an application not-full-screen so you can drag it. See the screenshot for an illustration of what I mean.

You might need to limit the amount of displayed icons, since WA3 also allows you to view icons for the tasks that are running in the background. Tapping these icons switches to this task, meaning that it will bring the screen for that application to the foreground. Optionally, you can tap-and-hold to close this task without the need to open the Task Panel.

Finally, above the top bar, you can let a small bar display the remaining battery power, as can be seen on the screenshot above as well (the bright green bar).

Start MenuStart Menu

WA3 can change your Start menu to a cascading menu. This means that when you open your Start menu, you will have sub-folders for Programs and, depending on your configuration, for Settings. You can customize which items appear in your Start Menu, meaning that you can specify if the Help and Find items should be displayed, and if WA3 should show the recently opened programs. So, instead of the screenshot you see to the right, you can also set WA3 to only display the cascading menus for Programs and Settings, making the Start Menu very compact.

Additionally, if you are prepared to spend some time creating a folder somewhere on your device with sub-folders and shortcuts to your favourite programs, you can even create an entirely new Start Menu which displays exactly your content. As said before, you can set two actions for the tap and tap-and-hold on any top bar button. The default behaviour for the Start button is that a regular tap opens the Cascading menu, and tap-and-hold opens the normal menu. If you want, you can even align the Start menu to the right of the screen, instead of the left!

Task panelTask Panel

WA3 can really close applications instead of minimizing them (which is the default Windows Mobile behaviour). This, and the Task Manager feature, has always been a core feature of Wisbar Advance. Therefore, you should expect no less than the best from the Task Managing features. As you can see on the right, there are many items that can appear on the Task Panel. I said can appear, because you can hide all of them. Also, you can re-order all items to your preference. There are several items directly related to Task management: Minimize, Close, Close All, and Close Background. Then there is Desktop which quickly brings you back to the Today screen. ActiveSync is an example of a running task, that appears on the Today screen, and which you can also close by tapping the X next to it. Settings opens the WA3 settings, and Exit closes WA3. Other possible items are Soft Reset and Rotate Screen, which speak for themselves. In the WA3 Settings, you can specify exceptions to the regular behaviour. For example, I made the Messaging application (TMAIL.EXE) an exception to the default Close behaviour, since this can cause issues with messages being sent twice. I’m not sure if this is also an issue with WA3 but it is a known problem with Task Managers, so it’s best to prevent it and not take a risk.
For future improvement, it could be nice to have one character in each item of the Task Manager underlined, so that users with a device that has a QWERTY-keyboard can press that letter. This would prevent them from needing to scroll. For example, in this screenshot, I could open the Task Panel and press “C” in order to close the current active application, “A” to close all, “S” to go into Settings, etc.

Other parts of the Today screen

In addition to the Top bar, WA3 also improves the functionality of various other parts of your Today screen. As you can see in the bottom of the screenshot next to the Start Menu section, there is the System Tray which contains several shortcuts to programs. Also, the soft-keys don’t have to point to the Calendar and Contacts any longer, but can be assigned to other items. Both can be done with WA3. For me, these features were not needed since I use iLauncher (by SBSH) for that. However, it fits very well in the current WA3 feature set, so it’s good that you can also remap the soft-keys with WA3.
A very cool feature is that you can also hide the soft-keys. This clears up 23 additional pixels on the Today Screen, but pressing the soft-key hardware buttons will still work! Also, the soft-key bar will appear inside applications etc., so they are just hidden on the Today Screen, in order to provide you with more space for Today Screen plug-ins.

Then there is a User Menu which is one of the main new additions in WA3. By default, this menu is a replacement for the New Menu that was available in WM 2003, but was removed later. However, you can totally customize this menu to contain different features, including items that are built in with WA3 such as Soft Reset, Rotate Screen, Toggle Mute, New SMS, etc. Of course, if you don’t want to use the New… items, you can also configure this User Menu to be a “QuickLaunch” menu where you put your favourite applications so they can be accessed by only two stylus taps!
The User Menu can be applied as a button in the top bar, in the system tray, at a hardware button. Or, my preferred way, as a seperate item just above the bottom bar, so that you can use the User Menu without having the System Tray enabled! This way, the User Menu simply covers what is on the screen at the moment, so you can tap the icon to access the menu.

So to summarize, you can show or hide the soft-keys, the System Tray, AND the User Menu, and fully customize all of these!

When it comes to my preferred setup of the Start Menu, Task Panel, and other Today screen item, I prefer a more compact look than the screenshots above show you. I mostly don’t use the System Tray, User Menu,  or soft-keys. They’re all hidden! The Start Menu only shows the cascading Programs and Settings sub-menu’s, but nothing else. The Task Panel contains the Desktop item, then my running tasks, the Minimize action, Settings, and Exit. I also like to keep my top bar clean, so I turned off the feature to display running programs on the top bar.

SettingsWA3 settings

Wisbar Advance 3 comes with a revamped Settings screen layout. When you enter WA3 Settings, you will see a grid with icons that each represent a Settings section. I think this is a good way to design the Settings section since you can have an icon with a caption representing each section visually, and the actual settings pages are not ‘bloated’ with a system to navigate through the settings.  
The About sections speak for itselves, except for that it also includes the Registration (which is fairly common, but the first public beta’s had the Registration section as a seperate item in the WA3 Settings. “Plugins” is about Wisbar Advance Desktop, which I don’t use at the moment, so no comments on this either!

Skin Exceptions allows you to exclude certain processes from being skinned. For example, I prefer to keep my Repllog.exe (required to sync) ‘clean’ from being skinned, so I exclude that.

SoftKeysThe SoftKeys section allows you to remap your soft-keys. You can define a caption which displays on the Today screen, and which program should be executed when the soft-key is tapped or pressed. This screen also contains a setting to hide the entire soft-key bar from the Today screen, which gives your screen a very cool look. An example can be seen here, where I show you my Today screen on a moment that I was working on this review. As said before, the soft-keys can still be used from the hardware buttons, but they are not displayed on the screen, so you will save precious pixels which you can spend on Today screen plugins!

The Start Menu section speaks for itself, if you look at the screenshot. You can make folders (such as Programs and, if you enable “Expand the settings”, Settings) appear at the bottom, and specify which items should be displayed in the Start Menu. Also you can change some image caching settings, so you can have the Start Menu appear quicker if you are prepared to give up a small amount of memory. I find this to be really worth it!
The final setting points to the default Start Menu folder but can be manually changed. If you create a custom folder with sub-folders and shortcuts to your favourite programs, you can point this setting to your folder, and have a completely custom Start Menu. This is really useful if you have a lot of installed programs, or if you want to link to documents. However, if you install new programs or uninstall programs in your custom Start Menu, you will have to manually update this folder.

Next in line is the StartUp section, where you can specify if WA3 should automatically start up after a soft reset, and if there should be a startup delay. If you have installed WA3 on a Storage Card and enable automatic startup, you’ll receive an error message after restarting your device, so this just won’t work. However, if you have any problems with automatic startup after installation on the mains storage, just specify a startup delay in this screen.
That might solve your problem.

In the System Tray section, you can add items that should appear in your System Tray (which is the bar in the bottom, directly above your softkeys). It’s very useful to store your icons here, since this allows you to have a quick “program launcher” that’s always on your Today screen.

It doesn’t have the additional launcher features of iLauncher or Wisbar Advance Desktop, but a small row of executable icons in the bottom sometimes just works and can look better than rows of larger icons.
Note that the “user menu” can also appear here, giving you a small pop-up menu in the corner as well!

Then there is the Task Panel section. It is pretty similar to the Start Menu section, since here you can also specify which items should be displayed. However, here you also have the freedom to move items on the Task Panel up or down. Maybe the possibility to add the “Float window” command to the Task Panel could be nice; personally I’d like to have this option, but I don’t want to dedicate a button on the top bar to just that feature. On a positive note, I like that you can toggle all Task Management features independently, i.e. checking “Close”, while keeping “Close All” unchecked.
Note that the “Exit” item doesn’t close a program (that’s what “Close” is for), but it allows you to close WA3 from the Task Panel.
The “Show SoftKeys” command lets you enable or disable the special softkey commands that display when your Task Panel is open. If this setting is enabled, you can quickly execute, close, or switch to a running application with the use of a soft-key when a program is selected in the Task Panel.

ButtonsIn the Taskbar section, you can regulate the top bar buttons. The section contains 5 tabs. On the first tab, you can select the button, and which actions should be executed when that button is tapped or tapped long.
Also you can set if a button should be visible or hidden from the top bar, and if the icon should be aligned to the left or right.
On the second tab you can set the order (from left to right) in which the buttons should appear. The third tab controls the displayed clock: you can change the time format and if both the clock and date should be displayed, or just the time. It might be nice to have a little explanation about the time formats since not everyone might know the difference between HH:mm and hh:mm. Then there is a tab where you can specify how running tasks should be displayed, and you can set a custom title for the Desktop, which will appear next to the Start button on the Today Screen. The last tab has some additional settings, such as: using the default Phone and Connectivity icons in order to optimize the refreshing of these icons, display the battery bar in the top of the screen, and if the screen should rotate to the left or to the right.

The Tasks section let’s you turn on the “Close button minimizes” feature, which reverts the WA3 behaviour back from really closing an application to just minimizing it. However, you can also set deviating settings for your applications below. The “Skip desktop when switching tasks” skips the “Desktop” title if it is displayed in the Task Panel, and you are switching tasks with the “[Switch Task]” command assigned to a hardware button. For each application you can set if it should be displayed on the Task Panel or if it should be hidden, which can be useful for applications that you’d like to be running in the background all the time, and that can be accessed from a hardware button. You can also set if this specific program should be minimized or closed when the Ok/X button is pressed. Then you can also set if the screen should be rotated when the application is started, and if it should be rotated back after closing the application. This could be useful for (for example) navigating software. Another setting is about the SIP (Standard Input Method). you can let WA3 automatically toggle the SIP visibility, and even the SIP itself, when you start a program. For some programs you might want the regular on-screen QWERTY keyboard, while for other application you’d prefer the Block Recognizer. This is where you can set it!
The last setting is also really cool. For each application, you can set which buttons should be visible on the Top Bar. So if you don’t need to see your Network and Phone buttons while you are playing a game, you can just hide them, in order to keep your Top Bar clean.
Finally, on the Tasks section screen you can set to skin the Wait cursor, which turns the default wait image (the two shades rotating over the red/blue/green/yellow circle) into a much better looking image.

ThemeManagerNext in line is the Theme Manager. This one is also available from Start – Settings – Personal. The “Wisbar Theme” section let’s you import skins that are stored anywhere on your device. You can import them from different folders, and they will all show up in one organized list. There is a small preview where you can see the top and bottom bar, along with a button. This is pretty small, but very sufficient to give you a good idea about the color lay-out of the skin. You can also customize a skin, by using a skin as base for your new skin, and then applying your custom image files for the different skinnable objects. You will need to put some time in developing your custom skin, but the user interface definitely makes it easier. Who likes to write a skinfile if you can also use some kind of wizard and then export your skin? You can also easily view the details of the skin (creator, e-mail, etc). If a skin no longer exists, it is automatically deleted from the list.
The second section in the Theme Manager allows you to change the system sounds for your own sounds, or sounds that you import from skins. The animation tool allows you to creat animated buttons which you can also use in the top bar. While I like to play with PaintShopPro, I’m really not that good at creating a single image, let alone creating an entire animation. Therefor I didn’t play with this feature; I’ll leave that for the skinners in the Resources section of the Lakeridge Software forums.

Finally, we have the User Menu section. Here you can set the items, programs or actions that should appear in the User Menu which covers whatever is directly above the left soft-key. As can be seen, this is by default a “New” menu, but can be fully customized. In case you remove the “New” items, you can easily restore them by tapping “Defaults”. As said before, you can assign the User Menu to a hardware button, as an action when tapping on a top bar icon, as a launchable item in the system tray, or even as a seperate item close to the softkeys (independent of wether or not you have the System Tray enabled).

Conclusion

Since WA3 had a public beta period, I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time on this review. I hope that I’ve guided you through WA3 and showed you in which ways it can enhance your device, and how many customization options there are. Before I started this review, I was thinking that I could give you some really positive comments about the very complete feature set of WA3, and add some balance by having some more negative comments about the impact it had on my device’s memory and battery life. However, I was happily surprised by the stability of WA3 compared to that of WA2! With WA3, you can have a cool and complete feature set, a skinned Today screen, and still be able to use your device the way you want to!

My main point of interest with Wisbar Advance is the impact it has/can have on the device’s speed and performance. For me it has really improved compared to WA2 and an improved memory footprint is also mentioned as one of the ‘features’ of WA3, but I really hope this will remain this way. Software that controls your Start menu, top bar and running programs should integrate into the ‘system’ without affecting the performance a lot. With a very complete feature set, the performance is a VERY important thing to keep in mind when adding additional new features. There are moments that you can feel you are running an extra program that takes over your top bar, but compared to WA2 the performance defenitely improved.

I really recommend Wisbar Advance 3 to users that never tried a product from Lakeridge Software before, and current users of WA2 (including those who uninstalled the software because of the memory impact) will also like this update. With it’s vast amount of (new) features and customization options it deserves to be called a “major upgrade”!
WA3 is available for WM 2003, WM 5 and WM 6.
It can be downloaded and purchased from the Lakeridge Software WA3 product page *here* for $ 9.99, or $ 6.99 if you are upgrading from WA2.

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14 thoughts on “Review: Wisbar Advance 3

  1. Pingback: SolSie.com / The Lighter Side of Mobile Technology » Blog Archive » Wisbar Advance 3 Released

  2. Thanks :)

    My ‘relationship’ with Wisbar Advance is like the ones with WebIS products. Sometimes I use them because the functionality is great, but after a while I remove them again because the functionality is more than I need. And that pattern keeps recurring. ;)

  3. You’re blog is looking nicer and nicer everyday! You’re pushing me towards creating my own… something similar to what you’re already doing, but of course it would still be a personal site.

    Keep up the good work!
    Ray

  4. Thanks Ray! Very nice comment! :)
    I just discovered this pretty new lay-out and it fixes some issues that I had with my previous lay-out. I’m currently working on reviews of some PDAMill reviews and I’ll probably release them with some days in between them. That’s the great part of your own blog, you can update or abandon it whenever you like. :)
    Also, I started it because I wanted to have a place where people could always come see my latest Today Screen without having to browse in topic at SBSH, and also sometimes people are interested in which software others have installed. Your own site is perfect for that! So even if I don’t update this blog for weeks, people can still see some of my preferences, even if they are outdated.

    If you start a blog, please do let me know, I’d subscribe to the RSS feed right away! :)
    Stefan

  5. Stefan –

    As soon as I get it looking halfway decent, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, keep doing what you’re doing – you’re doing a great job!

    Ray

  6. Hi,

    can you help me? I’m looking for a version of Wisbar Advance 3.0 Build 3 Released 29.9.07 in german language.

    BCop

  7. Hehe I didn’t even know 3.0.0.3 was released. :)
    I don’t think that Wisbar Advance 3 is available in any language but English though, and I don’t know how the developer feels about the translations. I’d recommend visiting the Lakeridge Software forums and asking there, or e-mailing the developer. :)

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