Some thoughts on the GEL

When I first saw the leaked screenshots of the so-called Google Experience Launcher, I hated it. I didn’t see the point of Google Now on the homescreen, and I didn’t like the idea of replacing the previous "centre-outwards" paradigm (which has been part of Android since the very beginning) with an iPhone-style "left-to-right" paradigm.

Even so, I started using the GEL on my Nexus 4 almost as soon as the leaked apks became available; partially because I was tired of waiting for the full KitKat update, and partially because I wanted to see what it was like. After using it for two months now, I have some random, scattershot thoughts on the launcher. I thought I would type them up and post them:

1. Swipe-to-navigate vs. swipe-to-delete

My biggest complaint about the GEL is something I didn’t anticipate: the mismatch that results from combining Google Now’s swipe-to-delete paradigm with the Android launcher’s swipe-to-navigate paradigm. The GEL tries to solve the problem with a weird hybrid solution that is not used anywhere in Android: when you’re in Google Now, swiping to the right dismisses a card, while swiping to the left navigates back to the homescreen.

In practice, I find this trips me up both ways. Sometimes I do an extra swipe onto Google Now and accidentally dismiss a card (yay for the new undo feature), and sometimes I try to dismiss a card and accidentally navigate back to the homescreen. In either case, I find that I have to think about what I’m doing, and this defeats the purpose of swipe-to-delete, which is meant to be an effortless interaction. It’s blatantly obvious that this is the result of shoehorning together two apps that weren’t originally designed to be combined.

How do other apps handle this combination? I can think of two apps that are relevant: Timely, and Google’s own clock app. In Timely, you can swipe in either direction to delete alarms, and you can also swipe anywhere else on the screen to navigate to the next tab. However, the "cards" for the alarms are small, so there’s lots of space around them. Plus, most people probably only have one alarm, rather than the multiple cards that stack up on Google Now. As for the stock clock app: when Google moved the alarm screen from a separate area to one of the main swipeable tabs, they got rid of swipe-to-delete entirely and replaced it with a little trash can icon next to each alarm.

2. Order vs. flexibility

My old Android homescreen was rigidly organised. It was a system that I’d built up over years of using Android, and refined over time. I put all my "work-related" apps and folders (the calendar widget, Google Drive, etc.) on the left-side homescreens, and "play-related" apps (media, games) on the right-side screens. In the centre screen I had a Dashclock widget and my most frequently-used apps from both sides. I considered it very efficient: I could get to the centre screen in one tap by hitting the home button, and from there I was no more than two swipes away from any commonly-used app.

I was loath to give up this system, which is why the left-to-right paradigm of the GEL initially annoyed me so much. However, I’ve realised something since I started using the GEL, which is that the rigidity of my old system was at least partially imposed by the rigidity of the homescreen itself, with its five unchanging panels.

The GEL is different. With its ability to create and delete new panels on the fly, and rearrange them at will, it feels more flexible and "alive" than the old, static homescreen. These days, when I download a new app which contains a widget, I often find myself adding that widget the furthest screen, just to see whether it fits into my workflow. I almost never did this with the old launcher - all the space for widgets had long since been taken up.

The price for this is some loss of efficiency. My furthest screen is now five swipes away, as opposed to two swipes in the old launcher. But I feel like increased flexibility of the new system makes up for it. And having Google Now on the homescreen is a lot more useful than I thought it would be, especially with the addition of new cards such as the website updates card.

3. Why is the GEL not part of the KitKat upgrade?

There has been a lot of complaining and introspection since it was announced that the GEL would be "exclusive" to the Nexus 5. Why wasn’t it bundled with the KitKat update on other Nexus devices?

I think there’s an obvious answer here: the GEL is a separate app from the old launcher, and it uses a completely new homescreen paradigm, which means that it can’t preserve your old homescreen layout. It can import your old icon layout on Nexus devices, but it can’t import your widget layout or homescreen arrangement. As a result, this simply isn’t something that Google can send out as an OTA to "normal" users - can you imagine the combined internet outrage that would ensue if Google decided to radically change and "mess up" the homescreens of millions of ordinary Nexus users? This has to be something that the user either gets from the start (ie the Nexus 5) or makes a deliberate choice to install.

So why not make it available over the Play Store? I expect that Google will, but for now, I imagine they need more time to bug-test it on different devices. At one point I became so enamoured with the GEL that I encouraged my girlfriend to install it on her Galaxy S4 (international edition). Over the next few weeks, she experienced numerous bugs: icons would randomly disappear from folders, folders would mysteriously duplicate themselves, and at one point it deleted all her icons and widgets and reset everything to a blank screen. She got frustrated and switched back to TouchWiz. This is the sort of thing that Google needs to fix before they release it to the general public.

4. Miscellaneous complaints

- The widget drawer is super-clunky. Scrolling through a dozen or more pages of widgets individually, and then having to do this all over again if you add the wrong one, is just an incredibly bad experience. Google needs to come up with a better solution for this.

- Although the new app drawer is more elegant, I kinda miss the permanent link to the Play Store in the top-right corner. This is so ingrained in my muscle memory that I keep tapping on the drawer and opening Google Authenticator by mistake.

- If you long-press the screen, there’s a "settings" button, but if gives you settings for Google Search, not settings for the homescreen. This is dumb. Even if it’s technically the same app now, it still feels like two apps from the user’s perspective. This button should give you the settings for the homescreen. Except...

- There are no homescreen settings. There’s basically no customisation at all. I’m not saying they need to turn stock Android into CyanogenMod, but some more options would definitely be nice. At the very least, they should give us the ability to turn the Google Now screen on or off, and to set a default homescreen. The ability to add an icon pack would would be a nice feature too.

- Could the bottom edge-swipe gesture be repurposed for something else now? There are only four edge-swipe gestures, and all of them are now being used (top = notifications, left & right = navigation drawers, bottom = Google Now). It almost seems like a waste to use such a precious resource on Google Now, given that it Google Now can be accessed directly from the homescreen.

5. Miscellaneous compliments

- The ability to issue voice commands from the homescreen, without having to tap on the search icon, really is very useful, even if it doesn't work quite like the Moto X. I use voice commands way more frequently now.

- I like the aesthetics of the new launcher. The folders are much more attractive - they look like glass panels rather weird holes in your screen. I didn’t like the bigger icons at first, but now other launchers feel weird by comparison. The transition animation when accessing Google Now is beautiful.

- I also like there’s more whitespace, less clutter, and less information density. For example, I approve of changing the app drawer on the N4 from 5x5 to 4x5, and switching the homescreen grid on the N7 to 5x5. Some people will disagree, of course.

All in all, I like the GEL, and I’m going to keep using it. But I do wish it offered slightly more customisation options.