Launchers

I figure that launchers are as good a place as any to start. Launchers–or home apps–are the everyday face of Android. It’s important to have a good one, since it’s the primary way you’ll interact with your phone. Manufacturer skins, such as Sense, TouchWiz, and Blur all have custom launchers, with varying features and degrees of user friendliness. Note that the status bar, notification drawer, and associated interface elements are not part of the launcher, but part of the framework/ROM. Launchers can be interchanged, but those elements will remain as part of your ROM.

Now, many people get used to the launcher that comes with the skin that manufacturers put on the phone. If you like it, great–if it ain’t broke, you don’t need to fix it. There are, however, other options out there, and trying them is (generally) free. Moreover, if you root/unlock and start installing other ROMs on your phone, you may opt to go with an AOSP ROM, instead of a Sense/TouchWiz/Blur ROM. If you do, you may end up with something like Trebuchet, the CM9/10 launcher, which is based on Google’s AOSP launcher, with some additional features. This is all well and good, but the options on the AOSP/Trebuchet launchers are a bit lacking, in my book. One nice thing about Android is that it’s modular, so you can change out many of the components. Launcher, keyboard, browser, mapping, SMS/MMS, the list goes on and on. This also means that if you start using a 3rd party launcher, you can often change ROMs and still use the same launcher, and get the same experience. Most of them even allow you to back up and restore your settings, so you don’t have to go through the hassle of individually changing each of the settings to get things just so. On to the

It used to be that there were many launchers worth mentioning. ADW.Launcher (and ADW.Launcher EX, its paid counterpart), Launcher Pro, GO Launcher EX, etc. All of these are very decent, but based on older versions of Android. If you’re running Gingerbread (2.3) or earlier, then they’re still worth mentioning. They’re all viable options (I favored ADW EX, personally). Now, however, it seems to me that there are currently only two worth mentioning for most phones: Nova Launcher and Apex Launcher. They’re very similar–Both of them only support ICS (4.0) and newer versions of Android, and both have paid versions (Nova Launcher Prime and Apex Launcher Pro), costing about $4, to add premium features. They’re very customizable and offer many features, even in the free versions. A few of the features, such as adding widgets from the app drawer, requires that the phone be rooted, but by and large, it’s not necessary. Some of the key features are listed below.

Free:

  • Homescreen: number, grid size, interface elements
  • App drawer: grid size, groups, drawer style, hidden apps
  • Dock customization: size, number, appearance
  • Gestures, such as swiping up/down or pinching in/out
  • Icons, folders, transition effects, infinite scroll
  • Backup/restore of configurations and desktop setup
  • Theme support

Paid:

  • 1×1 widgets in the dock
  • Unread count notifications
  • Overlapping widgets
  • Additional gestures, transitions, and drawer configurations
  • Batch operations

Nova Launcher is slightly more fully featured, such as customization of animation speeds (which, when increased, makes the phone feel faster–at least to me) and a few more customizable gestures. Apex Launcher, however, has slightly nicer interface. It’s a little cleaner, and the homescreen management system is more reminiscent of HTC’s Sense interface. It supports fling-to-delete and locking the desktop to prevent accidental changes. I haven’t experienced any noticeable difference in performance, but this may vary depending on the phone, ROM, kernel, settings, and other factors. Either way, you’re getting an excellent launcher based on Google’s AOSP, with excellent performance and wonderful features and customization. I’ve purchased and used both enthusiastically. Currently, due to the aforementioned perceived speed increase, I use Nova, but it’s a close call, and I have both of them installed and up-to-date. Redundant? Mostly. Occasionally, however, having more than one launcher installed can be useful, and there’s no harm–they coexist peacefully. Recently, a broken update to Apex Launcher caused it continuously force-close. I should note that this was solved within hours, and things like that are bound to happen occasionally, so it should not be viewed as a reflection of the quality of Apex,  but it nevertheless demonstrates that there are occasions where multiple home apps could prove be useful.
Nova Launcher [link] Prime [link]
Apex Launcher [link] Pro [link]