One of the most impressive ways to customize your smartphone is to install a launcher. Launchers allow you to take advantage of tons of custom Android themes and icons, as well as offering near complete control over how your phone performs when switching screens, launching apps and more. Here are the best launchers for your Android smartphone or tablet.
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ZenUI is a launcher which bridges the gap between the bloatware-heavy, low-end launchers – brimming with ads and unwanted apps – and the more intricate, enthusiast launchers.
ZenUI not only has a pool of high-quality themes – and the expected dearth of shabby ones – to choose from, but it also includes advanced customization features for those who want to refine their Android experience.
Developed by Asus, this Launcher does feature some of the trappings of the more spam-y, bloatware-y launchers, such as the awkward search menu, accessed with an upward swipe, setup by default with trending search suggestions. But, like the three Zen-specific shortcuts, it adds to the home screen, this can easily be removed.
You can adjust the home screen grid size, transitional animations for moving between home screens (the ‘accordion’ one is particularly nice) – you can even theme the folders.
What’s more, ZenUI includes a security tool for apps, CM Applock for Asus (provided by Clean Master developer Cheetah Mobile) to prevent unwanted users from accessing certain content
The applock works similarly to a screen lock. However, this component can be used with an ‘intruder-selfie’ function which employs your phone's front-facing camera to snap a picture of a person trying to enter the app. This only works if the person has a failed attempt at opening the app first, before getting inside. It would be far more interesting if it just snapped users trying to access your apps. Still, it might be fun to show a few friends.
Finally, ZenUI supplies an ‘unread counts badge’ so you can see how many unread messages or notifications you have for each app: it’s considered a premium feature in some launchers. It’s functional, and support for this does extend to WhatsApp, which is probably where most people would want it.
It’s intuitive, customizable and has possibly the most impressive selection of icon packs and themes of any product on the list. This could be your best entry point into the world of launchers.
- Price: Free
- Size: 22 MB
- Android requirement: 4.3 and above
- Version tested: 188.8.131.52_16051
Smart Launcher Pro 3 has its own distinct flavor and is unlike any launcher on the list. It begins with a short setup procedure where you are asked for your preferred dialer app, music app, and photo app from those you have installed (if you have any installed).
Select them, hit start, and you’ll be dropped into a single home screen populated by six apps, some of which were determined in the previous steps. A swipe left brings up an organized app drawer (Smart Launcher organizes it automatically, you can't change the order) and swiping to the right brings up several screens designed for widgets.
That’s it. A single home screen with six apps. You can increase the number of these apps or remove existing ones, as well as customize what they do. But, crucially, you can’t add more home screens.
It’s a minimalist setup and an interesting design decision. One might ask why there is only one home screen for apps but three screens for widgets when they’re typically fewer in number?
This, I presume, is to force users to create a manageable single space. If you’re aiming for a less cluttered home screen, Smart Launcher Pro 3 necessitates it.
Smart Launcher Pro 3 implements a handful of functions to make single home screen usage easier. Chief among these is the extra function that each app button can make use of. You can use a single tap for one action or a double tap for another. This is a great way to save space on the home screen because each app button has the potential to open two apps.
How about making your dialer app open in one tap, and making contacts appear with a double tap? Or you might consider launching WhatsApp with one tap, and Facebook Messenger with a double? Maybe a single touch on the camera icon will launch your camera app, while tapping twice could start Instagram?
You don’t have to make use of this feature, but it works, and highlights what the developers have done to support the core goal of singular home screen use, rather than spamming the app with hundreds of incongruous features.
You can also customize how the app drawer looks in several interesting ways. It defaults to a flower-petal setup: six apps in a circle. But you can change it to a simple grid, like on a standard home screen, Honeycomb style, or – my favorite – Arch. This gathers apps in a non-linear format which climbs up the side of your display. It looks organic and very cool.
Smart Launcher Pro 3 supports free and premium themes that compliment its already sophisticated look. But I’d say its focus is more on usability than style. If you want to redefine the way you use your phone and optimize it for ease-of-use, give this one a try.
- Price: $3.99
- Size: Varies with device
- Android requirement: Varies with device
- Version tested: 3.16
This is a Microsoft product and it feels like a work in progress. But wait, before you run and hide, hear me out. Arrow is a very interesting launcher for several reasons. Firstly, it doesn't look like any other launcher and lacks bloatware apps and boosters, so it’s already noteworthy.
But also unlike many other launchers, its focus is not on fancy looks and dazzling transitions; Arrow Launcher appears to be aimed at business-type users. This is evident from the use of its relatively plain wallpaper and home screen headings like People (a contacts list) and Reminders.
I currently make use of several Android apps for notes and planning: Reminders is an entire home screen dedicated to this. It's perfect for the type of user it targets and this page also integrates with to-do list app Wunderlist. It's a good idea, but it would great if it supported other apps like Evernote or Google Keep (though admittedly I don’t even know how this would work).
Another of Arrow’s strengths is its Recent menu. I don’t use the native Android recent apps menu because I think it's clumsy – I have dozens of thumbnails of every previously used app, so finding what I want can be difficult.
Arrow Launcher, by contrast, displays recent items not by app but by content. It begins with recent pictures and then is followed by other content, such as downloads, videos or recently contacted people. It might not be there with a single button press like Google's recent apps and it's function isn't exactly the same, but it’s nonetheless intuitive and useful.
Arrow is a light and simple launcher compared to most others but because of this it does have fewer customization options: you can't change app icon sizes and font styles here (though you can use custom icons).
Regardless, it's still one of the best launchers in my recent tests. It’s a dry Microsoft product that lacks some versatility, but it's nonetheless fresh, unique and something which I'm sure could serve a certain type of user better than its stock launcher.
- Price: Free
- Size: 9.1 MB
- Android requirement: 4.0.3 and above
- Version tested: 184.108.40.20667
We have written extensively about Nova Launcher Prime, with a whole bunch of tips and tricks. Many say this app is the reason to buy an Android phone rather than an iPhone and it's easy to understand why.
Nova doesn’t look like much when you first open it. You won’t see 3D floating clocks or animated weather apps like in some launchers: it includes just three folders labeled Google, Create and Play, a Google Search Bar and a Gmail widget on the left home screen.
But open up the settings menu and you'll find a trove of options for customizing a whole range of features: from app margins and sizes, to font colors and appearance, to your app drawer layout and animation effects, to screen gestures, to dock settings to unread badges; the list goes on.
Essentially, as far as customizing Android without Root goes, Nova Launcher offers about as many options as you’re likely to find.
This launcher is filled with small but impressive details like the possibility to add a colored dock bar to the background of the bottom shortcuts area (where you normally find your Camera, Dialer and Contacts apps). It’s purely an aesthetic option, but the fact that you have options like this makes Nova so interesting.
You can also alter the number of app icons which appear in the dock, from one to seven – a feature you won’t find in most other launchers which optimizes the space at the bottom screen. Like Apex Launcher, it even lets you increase the number of these dock pages (in this case up to five).
The overall performance is buttery smooth and Nova supports a slew of gestures. I can’t help but find it incredibly cool when I use the clockwise two finger gesture to open my banking app – as if cracking open a safe. It’s the potential that Nova Launcher offers a smartphone that makes it so worthwhile.
Disappointingly, TeslaCoil hasn’t updated the app since December last year, but hopefully when Android 7.0 Nougat is released some additional content will be added. For now, we’ll just have to settle with one of the most user-friendly and varied launchers on Android.
- Price: $0.99 (currently sale, free version also available)
- Size: 49 KB
- Android requirement: 4.0 and above
- Version tested: D
Apex Launcher is a feature-packed launcher with free and premium versions, but even the non-paid version offers a huge amount of customization and doesn't contain ads or bloatware apps.
Apex Launcher is in many ways very similar to Nova, offering a wealth of options for the app drawer, dock bar, folders and home screen and it even includes a backup option for transferring the same settings to other devices.
So it's dense, but unlike Nova it also supports a huge selection of themes. These custom-made icon packs and wallpapers can be very impressive and show off what's great about Apex.
You can also customize the home button to house more than one action. One press will bring you to your home screen, as usual, but a second press could be used for any number of shortcuts, like opening another app, taking you to your notifications, or launching the Apex Settings menu.
One of the coolest features of Apex is that you can make use of several dock bars. This is traditionally comprised of four to five fixed buttons, but, like home screens, Apex Launcher allows you to make use of a few of these. This means that you can optimize toolbars for certain tasks. You might want to have a toolbar for calendars and diary info or a toolbar just for media viewing. Perhaps you could set one up with shortcuts to your favorite websites?
This is a strong alternative to Nova Launcher and definitely its closest competitor, there really isn't all that much daylight between the two; if you glance at their settings menus they almost identical.
But Apex hasn’t been updated in more than a year now: it’s not really optimized for the latest Android versions. It’s light on transition effects and lacks a transition effects animation preview, which would be nice. It's also light on gestures, though more of these can be added to if you purchase the pro version.
This may swing it for you, but if you're tied between these two launchers, try the free versions of both out first before you decide if you want to spend any cash.
- Price: Free
- Size: 4.7 MB
- Android requirement: 4.0.3 and above
- Version tested: 3.1.0
Are you rocking a custom launcher that we've missed? What do you think is the best Android launcher? Let us know in the comments.