It’s Customization Month on Android.Appstorm! Throughout March, we plan to share with you all our tips, tricks, apps and resources to help you improve your phone or tablet experience and make them suit your style.
Android as a mobile operating system has grown tremendously over the last few years and with the last couple of increments has arguably taken over the mantle of the most mature mobile platform over from iOS. One of the things that has made Android as popular as it is today is the extreme customizability. And what better demonstrates this capability than the huge array of launchers and home screen replacements that are available for the platform?
We have already covered launchers on a number of occasions in the past, but the playing field has changed incredibly fast in the last year or so, and so it is time we take another in-depth look at the currently available options for customizing the most intrinsic aspect of your Android experience. This time, we are splitting the list of apps into two sections – the traditional home screen replacements and a newer breed of apps that work on top of your launcher as helpers to give you quick access to your apps from wherever you are.
Let’s kick things off with one of the most popular launcher on Android 4.0 and above at the moment, Nova Launcher. With a heavy focus on customizability and performance, it provides pretty much everything you could ask from a launcher. Key features include support for color and icon themes, a scrollable dock, tons of transitions for the home screens and app drawer, a customizable grid for the icons, the ability to overlap widgets and more. If you like what you see, you can upgrade to Nova Launcher Prime to get even more features like drawer groups, one and two finger swipe gestures to launch apps and shortcuts, the ability to hide apps from the drawer and more scroll effects.
Apex is another launcher and home screen replacement that has garnered a huge following in recent years with folks using Android 4.0 or above. Like most other popular launchers, Apex comes with a big list of features including customizable icon grids, scrollable dock, fancy transition effects, folder preview styles, multiple drawer styles, customizable icons for apps and folders, homescreen gestures and more. For a little bit of dough, you could also go in for the paid version called Apex Launcher Pro which brings in even more features like dock swipe gestures, multiple drawer tabs, support for themes made for other launchers, and more.
As most Android veterans will tell you, ADW remains a relic on the platform. One of the first big hit launchers, ADW was at one time the most popular launcher on Android along with one or two others. Its shine has since receded and so has the fan following, but it still remains one of the best options to go to, especially if you are stuck with an older version of Android. Features include the usuals, like configurable home screens and dock, gestures, a configurable Actionbar and more. Perhaps the biggest selling point of the launcher till date is the humongous library of themes and skins that are available in the Play Store as well as elsewhere on the web. Again, there is a paid version available called ADWLauncher Ex that comes with even more features if you need them.
And rounding up the list of top four free launchers on Android is an old timer and my personal favorite till very recently, Go Launcher EX. Unlike the other three, Go Launcher Pro does not have a paid version so you get all the features completely free with the choice of paying for premium themes and a constant barrage of promotions for other apps from the developers. If you don’t mind that, Go Launcher is in fact an extremely powerful choice with almost every feature you can think of. It has by far the simplest and most intuitive way to organize, hide/unhide and otherwise work with apps and the collection of themes on the Play Store is as close to that of ADW, if not better. There’s a little something for everyone here, and for the sweet price of free.
Action Launcher is a fairly new entrant in the launchers category. Developed by Chris Lacy who made the popular Twitter client Tweet Lanes, Action Launcher takes a different approach. Rather than focusing heavily on customization, the app emphasizes on making it easy for the users to access their apps – either through a left panel you open by swiping from the left or by simply tapping the search bar at the top and typing in a few letters to get a filtered list of apps matching the query. It also includes an innovative little feature called covers which are like folders, but in reverse. Tapping an icon launches the default app associated with it, while swiping up on them opens up a panel with more app icons.
In the vein of apps that try a different take on things, there’s SF Launcher. If you are a fan of Google Now and the clean, cards based interface Google seems to be moving towards, SF Launcher takes that look and brings it to your homescreen. With about a third of the top part of the home screen going to the clock and date widget styled after the Google Now header, the rest of the screen space can be filled up with cards that can contain either individual widgets or a bunch of app icons. You have a choice of a dark theme as well if you are like me and the all-white look is a bit too much for you.
If you have been craving to try out the new launcher design that comes with Android 4.0 and above, but are stuck with an older version thanks to the device manufacturers or carriers, you might want to give Holo Launcher a try. It may not be as heavy on features and customization as some of the other launchers, but it does a neat job of recreating the Holo look & feel on older devices. Features include a scrollable dock, customizable grid, icons and colors, as well as support for ADW and LauncherPro themes. There’s also the paid Holo Launcher Plus that comes with app drawer tabs, notification badges on select app icons, more gestures and some other perks.
Okay, things are going to start getting repetitive from here on, so please bear with me for a bit. 91 Launcher is a fairly new entrant into the arena which boasts of ultimate customizability with thousands of theme already available for it. There are a few interesting transition effects for sliding between homescreens as well as some custom widgets that work only with the launcher. If you are in the market for a new launcher replacement, give this one a try and see if it works for your needs.
Bored already? Let’s try adding a third dimension and see if things get interesting. SPB Shell 3D was one of the first launcher replacements on Android to boast a host of 3D transitions and effects. With a 3D home screen, 3D widgets and some never before eye-candy, the app attracted a whole lot of eyeballs, but the heavy price of nearly $15 was a bit of a deterrant and still continues to be so. Still, if you don’t mind shelling the amount and are one to show off your android device’s capabilities, you might want to give it a go.
If you thought $14.95 was too high for a mobile app, how about $16.81 then? Introducing TSF Shell, another contender for the 3D homescreen replacement category. Apart from the usual effects and transitions, there’s a whole lot more on offer here – intuitive gesture controls for organizing and managing app icons, supercharged folders, pre-configured icon layouts, a configurable side column for quick access and then some.
And rounding off the trio of overpriced 3D launchers is Next Launcher 3D, from the very talented folks who made Go Launcher and the other Go apps. With a supposedly stereoscopic 3D screen preview, rotatable dock, gestures for selecting and organizing icons, custom 3D widgets and themes, this is probably the most powerful of the 3D launchers in this list. And going by the Go Dev Team’s track record, probably the one that will be most actively developed.
Want the 3D effects and transitions, but not too sure about the steep price of the last three contenders? You might want to give Vire Launcher a try. One of the newest apps on this list, Vire Launcher is public beta and boasts 3D effects and transitions with automatic themeing of all UI elements, including icons and widgets. I’m not exactly a big fan of the rough outline style it applies to everything, but it’s worth a try if you are looking for something very different from the usual fare.
From the largest search website in Russia comes Yandex.Shell, another launcher that takes a stab at 3D transitions in a much more subtle way. Taking heavily from the MIUI custom ROM, Yandex.shell sports a clean, fresh look with a generous dose of white thrown into the custom widgets and settings menus. The app is not available in all countries though, so you will need to check availability before you can give it a go.
For a long time after Android took off, launchers that made your Android phone look like iOS were all the craze. That trend seems to have died down with the iOS UI languishing as it has been, and has been taken over by the Metro fever. Launcher 7 is one of a number of launchers available that make your Android phone look & behave like a Windows Phone 7. You get a 2×1 column scrollable grid with tiles that you can customize as you want. If you are a fan of the tiled interface from Microsoft, this might be a good starting point.
Windows 7 is old news, and although most Windows Phone 7 users are probably never going to be able to upgrade their devices to the latest version, you can have your Android look more like Windows Phone 8 with Launcher 8. You get a more customizable set of tiles that can be different sizes, translucent so the wallpaper can be visible behind and there is a slightly bigger list of widgets that play the role of live tiles.
Another app that takes a stab at bringing the tiled interface to Android without necessarily copying Microsoft’s entire approach is Tile Launcher Beta. As the name suggests, the app is still under development and features are being added on a regular basis. For now you get a customizable, scrollable tiled interface with each tile containing either an app icon or a widget, a sliding app drawer for quick access to your apps and support for icon packs from most of the popular launchers.
Finally, we have Smart Launcher, a very recent entrant into the arena that focuses on extreme simplicity and speed. All you get is a home screen with five icons for the most used apps. A quick access panel opens up with all your apps, categorized into vertical tabs. That’s about it. The free app doesn’t even support widgets. You will need to go for the paid version Smart Launcher Pro if you want those. Not my cup of tea, but it may work for those looking for something really really simple.
Ever get the feeling that the list of apps installed on your Android device is getting out of hand and no level smooth scrolling seems to make it easy to find the app you need from the app drawer? How about dialing up your app with a couple quick taps? AppDialer takes a unique approach to finding the apps you need by bringing up a T9 dialer that you can use to quickly access apps the same way you would a contact from the usual phone dialer. It even brings up frequently ‘dialed’ apps, just like a good phone dialer app would.
Impressed with the quick apps panel from the recently launched Ubuntu Touch for phones? There has been a spate of apps vying to provide the same functionality for Android devices in the last couple of months. Glovebox is one of them and probably the one that has garnered most press. The concept is simple – swipe from the side of the screen, no matter which app is open on the device, and a list of your favorite apps slides in, letting you quickly switch to one of them. You can customize which apps appear as well as choose from a bunch of themes to alter the way the panel looks.
Another one in the series of Ubuntu style app launcher side panels, Sidebar Lite feels much more fleshed out and feature-rich than Glovebox. For starters, you can choose to slide the menu from not just the sides but also the top or bottom edge. You can also dock the sidebar and access apps and widgets using tabs in the docked list. The animations can be enabled or disabled and you can change the swipe sensitivity. The paid version, Sidebar Pro lets you add unlimited apps and widgets, change the opacity of the panel and more.
One more in the swipe from the side app launchers, Swapps! takes a slightly different approach from the icon-focused Ubuntu style of the last two apps. Swiping from the side – and you can decide which side it should be active on – opens up a panel that contains a configurable list of favorite or starred apps, recently launched apps and all apps installed on your device. You can scroll through the list to select what you need. Configuration options are plenty and you can choose the height and width of the active area to swipe from as well as the side it should be on.
HomeFlip is somewhere in between a home screen replacement and an app switcher. Once it is activated, tapping the Home button on your phone opens up a list of apps that were recently launched. It doesn’t stop at that, of course. You can set certain apps as favorites by swiping them to the left and those will always appear in the list from then on. Swipe an app to the right to remove it from the list. Tapping the home button again takes you to the default launcher. It takes some getting used to, but once set up, it can prove to be a very handy way to switch between running apps as well as to launch your favorite apps quickly.
SwipePad is probably one of the oldest app of its kind in this list. You can choose to have a pre-defined part of any edge or corner of the screen as the hotspot to swipe from. Once you do the swipe, it opens up a grid of 12 icons that you can customize the way you want – launch apps, toggle settings, call contact and trigger various actions. I personally prefer the corners since they are far less prone to accidental launches and the app lets you customize the size of the active area, sensitivity and much more to get things to work exactly as they suit your style.
Continuing with the swipe-from-the-side-to-do-stuff train, Fliplauncher goes a step further and tries to utilize all the screen available to give you as many app launching options as possible. Instead of a single vertical panel, FlipLauncher lets you configure up to six horizontal panels of 4 shortcuts each that are mapped to parts of the left and right edge. Depending on where you swipe from, the appropriate panel opens up and you can customize what goes into each of the four slots. The panels are persistent, so if you press the home button while a panel is open, the background will switch to the default launcher, but the panels will remain open.
The app switcher in Android 4.0 and above is pretty sleek, letting you have a quick preview of recently launched apps and quickly switch between them. Perfect Task Switcher brings this functionality to devices running older versions of Android. Taking inspiration from the legendary cards based interface of WebOS, the app brings all your recent apps front and center where you can swipe through the thumbnails and easily switch to an app with a single tap.
If you have been following the custom ROM scene, you’re probably aware of the Pie controls in the later version of the Paranoid Android ROM. The idea is to provide a pie shaped set of controls that you can customize to trigger different actions – go to the home screen, go back, open the app switcher, launch an app and so on. Pie Control brings that functionality to any Android device, complete with multiple levels or shortcuts and more customization than you probably want to bother with. Note that the app is for Android version 4.0 and above, though.
If you are not a fan of swiping from the sides to launch apps – I know I’m not thanks to the accidental swipes I run into often – how about using the notification shade? Quickly is a fairly new app that puts up to 12 of your favorite apps right inside the expandable notification panel. Once the app is running, opening the notification shade and swiping down on the Quickly notification will bring up the list of shortcuts and you can launch them with just a tap. Since there is no app running in the background – just the notification – Quickly is extremely light on resources. Note that this will only work on Android 4.1 and above, though.
So we’ve tried dialing an app, swiping from the sides and notifications. How about drawing gestures to start your apps directly, technically without a visual interface at all? With Trigger, you can define a set of gestures to trigger different actions – launch apps, toggle settings, call contacts, etc. Once installed, tap in the notification of the app and a persistent trigger icon will appear on-screen. You can move it anywhere you like. Tap it and the screen will darken a little letting you draw one of the pre-determined gestures to trigger that action. There is a free version called Trigger Limited, but it limits you to a maximum of 8 gestures.
My Gesture Shortcut Launcher is pretty much what the name suggests, and is quite similar to Trigger. The only difference is probably that the icons are different and the settings work a little differently. This one also has a free version which is even more crippled than Trigger and lets you add just two custom gestures to your list.
Coming directly from the very guys behind Android, Google Gesture Search is a handy little app that you can use to quickly find and launch apps, music, contacts and more from your device. There are no gestures to define here – simply launch the app, start drawing letters one by one. As you draw each letter, a filtered list matching your query starts populating. You can draw more characters on top of the list to narrow the results further. Once you’ve found what you need, simply tap it to launch the app, play the song or call the contact.
Lets take things a step further. How about launching apps just with your voice? Unlike the many voice command apps out there, SayIt does just one thing – launch apps with your voice – and does it well. You simply tap the app icon or widget and say the name of the app you want to launch. The home screen widget also keeps track of the apps that you launch most often and lets you access them all with a couple of taps.
Now even launching apps using your voice takes one tap on the screen of your device, right? What if you weren’t even in the mood for that? How about moving your phone in the air to launch apps? LaunchSimply lets you do just that. Take this one with a pinch of salt, though. You can do exactly three things – open the camera, music or messaging apps using pre-defined gestures. You’re probably going to look a little stupid doing those gestures and it’s probably not any faster than having an icon on your home screen, but it is a unique approach and maybe something worth showing off.
A lot of Android users prefer the iOS style of keeping all app icons directly on the home screen. Unfortunately, the screen real estate is fairly limited here and you end up swiping through screen after screen to find the app you need. The Launch-X Pro widget tries to address this problem by letting you fit more icons in the same space available. Each widget can contain multiple pages of icons or a single set that is scrollable within the widget area. You can also change the grid size to cram in more icons per row than your default launcher supports.
And last, but not least, an app that you won’t find on the Play Store. LMT Launcher has been available through its post on XDA-Developers for the last four years and supports a limited set of devices to enable gesture-based actions and more recently the pie launcher. In fact, the one in the Paranoid Android ROM has been taken from this very app and has been integrated into the ROM. You will need a rooted device to be able to install LMT Launcher and it takes some setting up and getting used to, but once that phase is through, regular users swear by its utility and customizability. The app was stagnant for some time but has recently been updated and it looks like there will more active development in the future.
Requires: Android 2.1 or above
Developer: noname81 on XDA Developers
So there we go. This was our annual roundup of some of the best launchers and home screen replacements for Android. It was much different this year than in previous installments and the credit has to go to how much the core Android experience has improved over time. The stock Android experience is not what it used to be and doesn’t need as much “fixing” as it used to. As a result, the app developers have had to really up their game and bring fresh ideas to the platform to really make it worth the users’ time and money to opt for their apps.
So what do you use as your launcher of choice? Think we missed something that should have made the cut? Let’s hear it in the comments below.