How-to: Using custom launchers for Android

Many casual Android users may not realize that Android’s home screen, app drawer, app dock, and a whole assortment of settings associated with them, can be customized rather heavily and easily.  The program that controls all of these settings on your device is called the launcher.  As I’ll explain further in this post, new launchers can significantly extend your phone’s functionality, enhance its performance, and provide a refreshing visual refresh to boot.  In short, it’s a win-win combination.

 First, the basics. As the name implies, your launcher is  a “launching” platform for your phone.  When you fire up your shiny new Galaxy S4, you’ll eventually hit your home screen, where you’ll see all sorts of app icons and widgets, the dock at the bottom, and your  app drawer, where you can launch all of your apps.  All of these components, their settings, and their functions, make up your launcher.  Your launcher also provides certain visual cues for your phone, such as app icons, widgets and even the way your app drawer can look.  In fact, you can probably think of a launcher as settings for your home screen.  Since a picture is worth a thousand words, and  to help you understand the difference, here’s an image that compares Samsung’s TouchWiz user-interface (on the left) with stock Android.

Obviously there are different layouts and wallpapers here, but there are other differences: the app icons are different, the location of the app drawer icon is moved, and the scroll indicator (which tells you which home screen you’re on) is different.  These are all launcher settings and customizations.  Intrigued?  Good!

A new launcher will likely give you more far more controls over your home than the launcher that comes preinstalled on your phone.  For example, a new launcher may give you the ability to add another home screen (because, you know, 6 home screens just isn’t enough!) or it may let you determine the number of rows and columns for your home screen.  It may  give you gesture controls (i.e., you can assign an app to launch when you double tap on your home screen) or how you transition from one home screen to the next.  It may even give you more control over how apps display in your app drawer (such as renaming, reordering, or even hiding apps).  It may come with some preinstalled shortcuts for certain functions built into the launcher designed to make your life easier.  It may even contain the meaning of life.  Maybe not though.

In any event, as you can probably tell by now, custom launchers are an essential ingredient in the way you interact with your phone, and a very useful and easy way to increase functionality.  Here’s a case in point: When I first purchased my Galaxy SIII, I almost went batty trying to figure out how to group app icons on my home screen together.  Previously, all I had to do was drag one app on top of the other, and presto – new folder group.  Not so with my stock Galaxy SIII (at least, with the version of TouchWiz that was shipping at the time).  To group apps together, I had to first create a new folder, then drag apps over to that folder.  And to top it all off, sometimes doing all of that would cause a force close.  Very frustrating.  I promptly installed a new launcher and voila: new app groups by dragging them over one another.

I’ll admit, when I was an Android novice, I was a little afraid to install a launcher.  I didn’t fully understand what it would do (and what it wouldn’t do) and was afraid of making irrevocable changes to my phone.  This was around the time that I had been hearing about rooting and modding, and I knew I’d be getting in over my head if I jumped into any of that.  But  I was wrong.  Way wrong.  Launchers are simple because they’re just like any other app you download to your phone.  And, like any other app, if Android detects that one or more apps may be suitable for a particular action you’re trying to do, it will give you the option to set the new launcher as your default launcher (so that going forward, hitting the home button defaults to your new launcher) or to just launch it once, sparing you from the new commitment.  So, no matter what launcher you download from the Play store, when you first download a launcher and try to start it you’ll see something like the screen below:

Screenshot_2013-08-11-13-17-09

Now, as important as it is to understand what a launcher is, it’s important to understand what a launcher isn’t.  A launcher doesn’t change or edit any of your system files.  It’s just an alternative to your phone’s existing launcher which, as shown above, is subject to the same rules regarding default settings as any other app on your phone.  That means you can remove its setting as the default launcher and go back to the way things were.  Also, while a launcher can give you a look that’s closer to stock android, it won’t completely transform a Samsung device with TouchWiz into stock Android; certain basic user-interface (UI) elements, such as your system settings menu, will still retain their same look and feel, because those UI settings are hard-coded into your OS, and cannot be tinkered with unless you root your OS.  So, be careful not to confuse a UI, such a TouchWiz or HTC Sense, with a launcher.

So, now you’re sold – where to start?  As you might suspect, Android has a formidable lineup of custom launchers.  You can find a rather lengthy list here, courtesy of the Wikipedia.  You can also do a search for launchers on the Google Play store, which will return a hefty offering.  The best launcher for you ultimately comes down to what fits your preferences best, which means you’ll just have to download them and see what works best.  Some launchers are pay-only, so if you have a strict “I don’t believe in paying for apps!” rule, then you can eliminate those right off the bat.  Others will give you basic functionality in a free version while reserving the “premium” settings for a pay version.

NovaI tend to like the launchers that look like stock Android.  My personal favorite of late has been Nova Launcher, pictured aboved, although I’m not a huge counissour of launchers, so I can’t say I chose this one after experimenting with a half a dozen others.  I like Nova Launcher because it performs well, has some nice usability tweaks, and, of course, makes my phone look like stock Android.  So, it’s  an overall good fit for me.  For what it’s worth, I did initially experiment with Apex Launcher, but after an update caused some serious lag issues for me, I decided to make the switch.

I definitely recommend trying out a few launchers to see if something piques your interest.  Although you may be happy with the way things run on your phone now, it never hurts to experiment a bit (indeed, this is one of the things that makes Android such a great OS!) and you may be surprised to find something you like better.  It certainly does you no harm.

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