One of the best, and most often cited, advantages of having an Android device is that you can customise the way it looks. But if you thought the most you could do with it was change your wallpapers and widgets, you’re in for a treat.
By downloading new launchers on to your phone, you can change the way the entire interface looks. And - depending on which launcher you install - you can even change things as minute as individual app icons.
How to choose an Android launcher
Before choosing a launcher, it’s worth considering what you want from your Android phone. If you have a device from a Chinese manufacturer like Oppo or Huawei - or a heavily skinned device like one of LG’s - and you just want a more stock Android-like experience, the best launcher to download is probably the Google Now launcher.
The Google Now launcher brings a visual experience which is much more like the stock/standard Android look and feel. You’ll likely still have the odd flair of the default software lurking around, like in the settings menu or the drop-down notification drawer, but your home screen and app drawer will change.
But, if like so many others you just want to be able to control every element of your phone’s software experience, you will probably want Nova Launcher. It comes as both a free and premium version, the latter gives you many more options and is definitely worth the outlay if you just want your phone to look the way you want it to.
Nova Launcher lets you do things like change the size of your home screen icons manually, as well as installing custom icon packs so you can change the way they look too. You can choose how many rows and columns of apps you want on the home screen and in your app drawer, and even fine-tune the way the Google search bar appears. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In fact, Nova Launcher is so in-depth, it could probably do with its own entire explainer and tutorial feature, so we’ll leave that there for now. Sufficed to say, if you like toying and customising, there are few that offer the granular options Nova Launcher includes.
Download an Android launcher
The first step to installing a new launcher is exactly the same as downloading an app. Simply head to the Google Play Store and search for the launcher by name (list of suggestions at the bottom of this post) or simply type "launcher". We’ll use the Google Now Launcher as an example in this guide, but the same process applies to all. Of course, if you have a Nexus or Moto device, you already have this launcher installed as default.
Once you’ve found the launcher you want to download and you’ve installed it, the next step is setting it up. Most Android launchers have a setup guide included to help you get started quickly, so simply tap on the launcher’s app icon, which should have appeared on your home screen. If it hasn’t, check the app drawer, where all your other apps live.
When you tap the app icon - depending which phone you’re using - you may see a popup message saying something like “X launcher is currently set as your default, go to settings to try [new launcher name]”. Once you’ve confirmed you want to try it, your home screen look should completely change.
Often when this happens, you haven’t actually set the new launcher as a default, so it may be confusing when you press the home button and it reverts back to your old launcher. Which it may do. Your phone could either do that, or give you a handy popup asking you which launcher you’d like to use as a default.
Change default Android launcher
Actually setting the launcher as your default launcher is a process which varies a little depending on your device. With some Android phones you head to Settings>Home, and then you choose the launcher you want. With others you head to Settings>Apps and then hit the settings cog icon in the top corner where you’ll then options to change default apps.
Others like Huawei make it a little trickier. Using the EMUI software from Huawei as an example, you head to Settings>Apps then tap “advanced” on the bottom bar and select “Default app settings”. On the next screen you’ll see a list of all the apps you can set defaults for, select “Launcher” and choose Google app, or which ever other launcher you downloaded.
Oppo, similarly makes it a less than intuitive procedure. In its ColorOS system, you head to Settings then find Additional settings>Default application>Home.
As we alluded to earlier, once you actually have the launcher active on your phone, the home screen appearance changes. Your apps will most likely no longer be organised how you had them before, so you’ll need to spend a few minutes (okay, maybe more than just a few) placing your apps, creating folders, choosing a wallpaper etc.
You can also gain access to your launcher settings, to customise various aspects of it. With many of them, you just tap and hold on the home screen and there’s a settings bar right next to the usual wallpaper and widgets options, you may even seen an icon pack option (depending on which launcher you’re using).
What Android launchers are there?
There are a number of decent launchers for Android, each of them offering something a little different to the rest.
Google Now Launcher
Offers a simple, clean stock Android experience.
Customisability at its best. You can change almost any aspect of your phone software experience.
Microsoft Arrow Launcher
Very clean launcher which intelligently sorts your most used apps and frequently contacted people to make them easy to get to. It also gives you individual home screens for your reminders/tasks, widgets, documents and apps.
Yahoo Aviate Launcher
Yahoo’s launcher is similar in premise to the Arrow launcher from Microsoft. Its aim is to make your most-used features easy to get to. It also gives you a Google Now-like run down of information you need to know for the day. This include directions to get you home, recommended nearby restaurants, weather forecasts in favourite locations and more.
Like Nova Launcher, Action launcher gives you the ability to customise a number of user interface elements within the software. It is Perhaps more appealing to those with little patience to set their home screens up again though, since it can import your existing app/home screen layout, rather than force you to start again.
Other launchers like Go Launcher, Buzz Launcher, Solo Launcher, Smart Launcher and Apex Launcher all offer the ability to customise the appearance of the phone’s theme, icons, and some even add custom gestures for launching specific functions.
Which one is the best depends entirely on what you need it to do. If you have the patience, and want to try a few different launchers out, you have the freedom to do that. Most are free to download, some have “Prime” versions which are paid-for upgrades, but come with more features.