Customizing Your Android Launcher

Customizing Your Android Launcher

The iPhone’s simplicity is one of the key reasons it has been such a success. Pick it up and use it, no muss, no fuss. Sadly, that simplicity comes at the expense of customizability. Aside from changing your wallpaper and creating folders, the iPhone doesn’t really offer much in the way of “pimpin’ it out.” Android to the rescue! If there’s one way that Android shines over iPhone, it’s that you can make it look pretty much however you’d like, thanks to its open platform nature. The easiest way to accomplish this is by using different launchers. A launcher is the “desktop” user interface of your Android phone. Changing and customizing launchers can help you be more productive and provide an aesthetic better suited to your tastes. The following are my favorite launchers.  

Here’s something you may not know about Android's operating system: it’s free. Like, free-free. Anybody, even you and I, can download its source code and do whatever we want with it. That’s why it is the dominant mobile operating system on the market today. Google’s stock Android-user interface is powerful but very minimalistic. In this regard, stock Android is not terribly different from iPhone. This “plain” UI is available through Google’s own Nexus flagship devices. Android OEMs looking to differentiate their devices from one another do so by designing their own unique user interfaces. The basics of Android remain more or less the same from device to device so this is a necessary step for them. After all, the lion’s share of smartphone buyers probably aren’t going to pay much attention to how many cores the phone’s CPU has or how much RAM it has. They will be focused on the user experience, as well they should be. Samsung is the most prominent example of an OEM adding their own spit shine to the OS. Their “TouchWiz” UI makes their devices so uniquely their own that a lot of people don’t realize they’ve even got an Android-powered phone. If you’re interested in learning about all the different user interfaces OEMs create for their Android devices, check out this article, The Great Ars Android Interface Shootout, by Ars Technica Reviews Editor Florence Ion. It is an in-depth piece that may help you decide which Android OEM to buy from.  

The question is, do you really like the interface your phone came with? Referring again to Samsung, a lot of users are satisfied with their hardware, from the internal specs to the design of the phone itself. On the other hand, they cannot stand the amount of “bloatware” and gimmicky features OEMs such as Samsung slather on the device; it might look good on paper, but in practice it may be too much. The good news is we don’t have to tolerate all that if we don’t want to. I’m in the market for a Galaxy S4, but no way am I going to go through the headache of learning a brand-new user interface. The first thing I’ll do after setting up the device with my primary Google account is to install a new launcher!

A few notes about launchers.  First, don’t be afraid to experiment; a launcher installs just like a regular app. If you find it is not to your taste, you can uninstall it just as easily, and the regular launcher that came with your phone will reassert itself just as before. Second, launchers will not affect your apps performance, only the style in which they are displayed on your homescreen. Third, most launchers are customizable with free and paid “themes” which include icons, wallpapers, text styles, and layouts all packaged and applied in one batch. Some themes only provide the ability to customize icons and wallpapers, so you’ll have to experiment and find what works best for you.  Fourth, almost all of these have free versions that will probably suffice for most of your needs but paid versions can be purchased which offer great functionality, customizability, and financial support towards continued improvements. Fifth, changing the launcher will not change other aspects of the UI like the keyboard or the dialer. I’ll recommend a few of those at the end of the article.  

Let me reiterate: you cannot harm your Android phone by experimenting with launchers, so have some fun!  What I’ve written below are not exactly reviews so much as they are general impressions.  This is mostly because I’m lazy, but the excuse I’ll throw your way is that since there is no harm in trying them all, you can form your own opinions. Some factors you'll want to consider when making your evaluation are:

  • Can you download custom themes? What about icon replacements?

  • Are widgets supported and how does the launcher handle them?

  • How many home screens does the launcher support?

  • Can you customize the dock (the bottom area of the screen where your most frequently used apps, like the dialer or text messages, are displayed)?

  • Are there any kind of gesture commands?

  • Can the lock screen be customized?

  • How can the app drawer (where all installed apps are listed) be customized?

These launchers were tested on my HTC Evo 4G from Virgin Mobile which runs Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.  They all worked fine on this device, but your experiences may vary, particularly if you are running on Android 2.2 or 2.3.

Nova (Free | Paid)

Nova reproduces the stock Android user interface. Using Nova will give you an idea of what Google means for Android to look like which is, as I stated earlier, minimalistic but still powerful. If you find yourself overwhelmed by all the features your phone’s OEM saddled you with, switch to Nova.  

Listed Features on Google Play:

  • Color Themes: change the accent color of the launcher, full color picker support

  • Icon Themes: apply ADW or Go launcher icon themes to all app icons

  • Scrollable Dock: keep all your favorite apps on the dock, with up to 7 icons per page and up to 3 pages.

  • Customizable App Drawer: transparency, scrolling style (choose between horizontal paginated or vertical continuous)

  • Scroll Effects: enjoy eye candy when scrolling your desktop and drawer. Effects include Cube and Cardstack and more for Prime users.

  • Infinite Scroll: never be far from your favorite page, loop through your desktop continuously.

  • Folder Icons: you can chose a background, preview style or even replace the whole icon.

  • Backup/Restore: export your settings and layout before a wipe to quickly get back up and running.

  • Widgets in dock: add any 1x1 widget to the dock

  • Widget Overlapping: overlap on resize or placement, long-press to send to back or bring to front

  • Bulk Add: add multiple apps to the desktop or a folder at once

  • Activities shortcut: select hidden activities from your favorite apps

  • Import Layout: import your desktop layout from the default launcher or another replacement launcher.

Nova only supports devices running Android version 4.0 and up.

ADW (Free | Paid)

ADW takes the stock Android 4.x interface and adds just a ridiculous number of customizable features.  One defining aspect that makes it so great is that after installing it, ADW actually walks you through most of the available options, demonstrates what they do, and lets you choose how to customize them.  

Listed Features on Google Play:

  • Compatible with Android versions from 1.6 to 4.1

  • Thousands of skins and themes with support for most popular launcher themes

  • Mix and match skins, icons, docks, folders, etc.

  • Configure applications in unlimited groups and hide unwanted apps

  • Fast setup screen with fast access to add items or configure everything

  • Gestures for fast operation (swipe up/down, 2-fingers swipe up/down, pinch in/out, etc.)

  • Configurable Actionbar, similar to android 3.x+ tablet interface

  • Screens editor to add, remove, swap and resize desktop screens

  • Configurable visual desktop indicators

  • Easy folder tweaking and management, content previews, arrangement, colors, etc.

  • New AppWidget picker for devices running Android 4.1 and newer.

  • Icons editor to create your own customized shortcuts or edit existing ones

  • AppWidget resizing

  • AppWidget backup/restore (only for Android 4.1 and newer)

  • Customizable applications dock with support for unlimited shortcuts with paginated scroll

Smart Launcher (Free | Paid)

Smart Launcher takes the opposite tack from most other launchers by simplifying the interface even more than the stock Android UI. Home screen icons are very basic in their design and are automatically arranged in preset patterns, though you can place icons in whatever position you like within that pattern. The app drawer automatically arranges apps into six categories: communication, Internet, games, media, utilities, and settings. I had my doubts about this setup when I first started playing with it, but the apps are very intelligently organized, though you can rearrange and even hide them if you like. The transparent app drawer is less jarring to my eyes than the pure black of app drawers in most other launchers. I typically use the Nova launcher, but I’m giving Smart Launcher a try for a while.  

Listed Features on Google Play:

  • Main screen with Quick Start

  • Drawer organized by categories

  • Ready to use without special configurations

  • Live Wallpaper Support

  • It supports every screen and device (Google TV as well)

  • Widget support (PRO version only)

  • Support of set of icons for ADW Launcher, Apex Launcher, Nova Launcher and Launcher Pro

  • Possible to change a single icon in the drawer

  • You can hide every app you want by long pressing an app, then select menu → Hide

  • Quick search

  • Dozens and dozens of global themes, which will allow you to change all elements of the interface

  • Easy access to apps info

  • Designed to be used comfortably also in landscape mode

  • Option to hide the statusbar

Dodol Launcher (Free Version Only)

I like Dodol because it not only offers a clean, easy-to-use and customizable interface, but it also provides easy access to many different themes. Most of the themes designed specifically for Dodol have a somewhat cartoonish styling that makes them unique among launchers.  Other launchers I’ve played with that I’ve not shared in this article also have a number of nice themes to choose from but are not well-constructed in any other sense.  Dodol is not my cup of tea, but if you want something fun, colorful, and well-designed, I think you will be pleased.  

Listed Features on Google Play:

  • Smartphones can be "customized" to best represent the owner by selecting from a wide selection of themes that range from cute and cuddlesimple themes to more vibrant and sophisticated themes. Go to Google Play Store, Naver App Store and Theme store, and select a theme of your choice

  • Don't miss the new fun themes that are updated continuously

  • GO launcher themes can also be applied (Paid themes are excluded)

  • Offers a convenient default widget and widget theme modification function

  • The memory cleaner/shortcut setting widget, which is already used by many users, can be used instantly without having to install all widgets separately

  • Change the launcher theme and the widget design will be modified as well

  • Change the font, ringtone and keyboard settings as you see fit

  • Users can select from a wide variety of fonts, ringtones and keyboard themes

  • Offers detailed functions for screen rotation/individual icons/folders etc.

  • Supports functions in a convenient and stable manner by copying the home screen and creating backups of settings


Aside from choosing a custom launcher, two other areas you might want to customize are the phone’s dialer and the keyboard. I’m not going to go into too much detail here. I’ll just throw out my two recommendations. They are by no means necessary but fun to try.

  • For a keyboard, go with SwiftKey. You get a month free to try it out, and then you’ll have to cough up $4 if you want to keep using it. It’s worth it. You can type manually, use swipe gestures to more quickly input words, or use predictive typing. The predictive typing is powered by your own word usage and sentence structure learned from your emails, text messages, Facebook and Twitter posts, and RSS feeds.

  • For a dialer, give ExDialer & Contacts a whirl. I enjoy its simple, flat interface and lag-free responsiveness. It is free for seven days, after which you’ll have to pay $4 to keep using it.