From the earliest days of Android, alternative home screens have been one of the most interesting app categories. So much of what you do on your phone starts with the launcher, and Android let’s you completely change it. The top replacement home screens have changed a lot over the years with old classics like Launcher Pro falling into disrepair. At the same time, new home screens like Nova appear in the Play Store to fill in the gaps. Let’s take a look at the top Android home screens and see what they offer.
Nova is considered by many to be the most customizable and fully fleshed out launcher for Android. It’s a true chameleon among launchers that can be made to look almost any way you want with an intimidatingly long list of features. Once you get acclimated to Nova, you’ll probably find a lot to like here.
I think Nova probably adheres the best to Android ever-changing design guidelines. As soon as Google has a new quirk, Nova is updated with a matching option. And it usually is an option. Almost every visual element in Nova can be tweaked to your heart’s content. There are dozens of ways to display folders, a ton of home screen scrolling effects, at least 15 or 20 ways to display the Google search bar, and that’s just scratching the surface.
Some of the distinctive features in Nova include an automated night mode that makes most of the launcher less hard on your eyes, an extremely comprehensive gesture system that lets you operate almost every function with a swipe, and icon scaling that makes oddly sized icons fit in with everything else. I’m particularly impressed with how accurate the icon scaling is. Nova’s gestures are cool too, but they can make you phone almost completely unusable for someone else. If you control everything with a gesture, no one will know where anything is. Maybe you want that, though?
Because Google has not opened the search features up, you won’t get easy access to Google Now. The closest you can get is opening the search app with a gesture. Nova Launcher is free to try with a limited feature set, and you can upgrade to the full version for $4.99.
Action Launcher doesn’t have as many settings and features as Nova Launcher, but I think it’s a bit easier to get into. Just a few taps with Action Launcher and you’ll have a really attractive home screen with unique features. When I use a third-party home screen, it’s usually Action Launcher.
The way Action Launcher handles icons, folders, and widgets is unusual. When you place an icon on the home screen, you have the option of allowing it to act as a Shutter. Swipe on the icon and its widget will appear in a popup. This is really handy for saving space on a busy home screen. You can choose which widget appears, or disable the shutter altogether. Similarly, when creating folders, they can become Covers. A cover launches the first app in the folder with a tap, but opens the folder with a swipe. Again, a great space saver.
Action Launcher gets its name from the action bar-like UI at the top. It’s more like a search bar these days, but you can modify the links and icons in the “Quickbar” as you like. The search bar is also tied into the Quicktheme feature. This automatically pulls colors from your background to change theme the search bar, app drawer, and folder background. It makes for a really cool look without a lot of configuration. I’m also a big fan of the slide-out app drawer on the left and Quickdrawer on the right. The Quickdrawer is essentially a slide-out home screen panel that is available from any page. I keep important widgets on it.
It includes all the basics like custom icons and gestures, but the gestures aren’t as extensive as Nova’s. It also doesn’t have Google Now integration, of course. Acton Launcher is free to try with a full version upgrade via in-app purchase for $4.99.
Google Now Launcher
On some phones, the Google Now Launcher isn’t a third-party home screen. It’s the default on Nexus and Motorola devices, as well as a few others. For everyone else, GNL is an interesting choice if you want all of Google’s latest stuff right at your fingertips. It doesn’t have as many features as the popular alternative launchers, but it’s free.
Believe it or not, you already technically have the code for the Google Now Launcher on your phone. It’s part of the Google app — when you download the launcher, all you’re getting is a stub that registers GNL with the system. Google Now Launcher doesn’t allow changing icons, theming, or even gestures. It is, however, the only home screen that has Google Now fully integrated. Just swipe left from the main home screen panel and you’re in Google Now.
The Google Now Launcher is fast, clean, and gets frequent updates from Google. For example, the app drawer was recently revamped with vertical scrolling, search, and frequently used apps. Other launchers like Nova have since added these features. GNL should be your go-to when you don’t like the OEM launcher on a phone or tablet. You can always try one of the more advanced paid launchers later.
What we’ve gone over so far are the top options, but there are scores of other launcher apps in the Play Store, some of which might be worth your time. For example, the newly resurrected ADW Launcher (still in beta). It’s much more modern now, but the colors and animations make it feel a little less mature than other launchers. It has a ton of powerful features like a custom widget maker, but it’s consequently rather complicated.
Smart Launcher also has its fans. This home screen’s claim to fame is its built-in search feature that makes finding apps faster. The main screen is also dedicated to a circular ring of your favorite apps. It also categorizes all your apps automatically. There’s a free trial and the full version is $3.99.
GO Launcher (right) is a weird one for me. It’s incredibly popular, with over 100 million downloads, but I just don’t get it. I think it has greater appeal in Asian countries where the default Android UI often has a more iOS vibe. That’s the feeling I get from GO Launcher. It also includes some lame features like a memory manager and alternative app stores. The free version has ads and the full version is $6.
There are plenty more launchers out there, but I think these will get you started. You really can’t go wrong with Nova if you want to really dig in and make your perfect home experience, and Action Launcher looks great without a ton of work. Then there’s that old standby the Google Now Launcher. Give those a shot, then branch out if you’re not completely satisfied.