(Pocket-lint) - Ask an Android fan at any point over the past 10 years what they love about Android, and there's a good chance that customisation is a big part of the answer. Rather than have quite a rigid user interface like iOS on the iPhone, Android has long been lauded for the ability to change the way it looks, and the way it behaves.
A big part of this customisation is Android Launchers on the Play Store. However, over the past few years, we've seen manufacturers add far more customisation choices directly into their own software. And that's only set to continue with Android 12, which has seen a big shift in design and personalisation.
Launchers do still have their purpose though. Choose the right one, and you can use all manner of tweaks. From creating completely custom widgets that look and act the way you want, to changing the size and style of 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 Xiaomi - or a heavily skinned device like one of Samsung’s - and you just want a more stock Android-like experience, the best launcher to download is probably the Nova launcher.
The Nova launcher brings a visual experience which is much more like the stock/standard Android look and feel. As well as offering a look and feel which, by default, feels a lot like the Pixel, it also lets control every element of your phone’s software experience.
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 Nova Launcher as an example in this guide, but the same process applies to all.
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, Oppo and Xiaomi make it a little trickier. .
- Samsung (Android 11) - Settings > Apps > Choose default apps > Home app
- Oppo & Realme (Android 11) - Settings > App Management > Default App > Homescreen
- Xiaomi/Redmi/Poco (Android 11) - Settings > Home screen > Default launcher
- OnePlus (Android 11) - Settings > Apps and notifications > Default apps
Of course, if you have an older version of software, the method might be slightly different. The quickest, and easiest way, is to head to the Settings app and search for "default app" in the search field, and you should find it.
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.
Nova Launcher - see on the Play Store
Customisability at its best. You can change almost any aspect of your phone software experience.
Microsoft Launcher - see on the Play Store
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.
Niagara Launcher - see on the Play Store
Niagara launcher is similar in premise: speed. It wants to help you get to what you want as quickly as possible. No unnecessarily long animations or transitions. It's not overloaded with UI layers. Instead, you choose the important things and they're all that appears on your home screen. It's quick, uncluttered and easy.
Action Launcher: Pixel Edition - see on the Play Store
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 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.