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Transform the look of your Android phone with a new launcher

Transform the look of your Android phone with a new launcher


A third-party launcher can change up everything about your phone’s interface.

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Hand holding Android phone against illustrated background
Illustration by Samar Haddad / The Verge

One of the reasons to choose an Android phone over an iPhone is the flexibility you get in terms of customization — and there’s really no better example of that than third-party Android launchers.

If you’ve never come across the term before, a launcher revamps the homescreen of your Android phone. We’re not just talking about a different wallpaper: launchers give you control over icons, colors, menus, and just about every screen handled by the Android operating system. These tools let you manage everything from the number of shortcuts on the homescreen to the way your notifications work; they also give you much more control over how your phone’s interface looks.

Say, for example, you want oversized app drawer icons or icons that are all tinted blue. Maybe you want a custom unread count badge on your default email app shortcut or you want your apps as a list rather than a grid of icons. All these customizations and more are available through launchers. In fact, the tweaks they add are so useful that Google has started adding some of them to Android proper.

Launchers are simple to install and uninstall, and there are lots of excellent ones to pick from. I’ve included instructions for managing them below, as well as a selection of my favorites for you to try out if you want.

Installing and managing launchers

As mentioned, it’s easy to set up a launcher. I’ve included instructions for both Pixel and Samsung phones; depending on your Android phone make and model, these screens and menu options might be slightly different, but they shouldn’t vary too much. 

  • For Pixels, open up Settings and choose Apps > Default apps. On Samsung Galaxy devices, it’s Settings > Apps > Choose default apps.
  • Either way, you’ll then see a Home app entry, which is the name Android uses for launchers. Either tap the entry or look to the right for a cog icon, which you can tap to configure the launcher that’s currently the default.

When it comes to the launcher that comes as standard on Pixel phones, for example, you can turn notification dots (badges on app icons) on or off, hide or show the At a Glance widget, and get smart suggestions about which apps to launch next. These options will change depending on the launcher you’re using.

Default apps page on Android phone, listing Browser app, Caller ID and spam app, Digital assistant app, Home app, Phone app
In Pixels, go to Default apps > Home app.
Default home app page listing Nova7 and Pixel launcher.
The Default home app page will list all your launchers.

To switch launchers, tap Home app and pick a different option: obviously, you’ll have to have at least one alternative launcher installed for anything other than the built-in option to appear here. As soon as you’ve switched, the homescreens, lock screen, app drawer, and menus should have a new look.

Home settings page listing Notification dots, At a Glance, Add app icons to home screen, Swipe to access the Google app, Overview suggestions.
When using the standard Pixel Home app, you have several options to choose from.
Page with Nova Settings on top, and a variety of options listed below.
Third-party launchers will have different options.

You can then customize your launcher as required. Some launchers have more options than others, but most of them come with a comprehensive set of instructions attached so you know what you’re changing and when. You should be able to access a launcher’s settings from its icon in the app drawer.

Don’t worry too much about making a lot of changes or breaking your Android phone interface somehow: if you’re not happy with the launcher you chose, you can simply uninstall it, and your phone’s built-in home app will take over again, exactly as you left it.

Some Android launchers to try

There are lots of Android launchers out there, but here are some of my favorites.

Niagara Launcher

Home page with time on top, and app icons listed in a line below against colorful wallpaper.
Niagara Launcher offers a minimal look and some smart innovations.
Menu with Niagara widget on top and various options listed beneath, such as Weather, Calendar, and Add custom widget.
More customizations and widgets are available with a Pro subscription.

If you’re a fan of the minimal look, give Niagara Launcher a try. It transforms your homescreen to a simple but sleek list of your favorite apps, with smart innovations such as embedded notification previews and summaries, media playback controls, and more. It helps you focus on the apps that matter most and clears up some of the clutter on your smartphone.

Niagara adds customization controls as well — you can still change fonts, icon shapes, and many other elements of the interface, but that’s just one part of it. More customizations and widgets are available with a Pro subscription, which costs $9.99 a year or $29.99 for life.

Nova Launcher

App drawer on top of screenshot, with various options below, such as Open App Drawer / Swipe, App drawer style, Icon layout.
Nova Launcher makes lots of customization options available.
Icon theme page with four icon examples above, several shapes below, and various checked options.
You can tweak your homepage icons in a variety of interesting ways.

Most lists of the best Android launchers will include Nova Launcher, and for good reason: it’s absolutely overflowing with customization options, from transparent notification bars to icon styles to bespoke navigation gestures to a dark mode that enables itself automatically at a certain time of the day.

I like its ability to put frequently used apps at the top of the app drawer and the extensive tweaks available for icons: colors, shadows, shapes, and more. A lot of the customizations are free to use, but to get the full set, you need to buy the Prime version of the launcher, which will set you back $4.99.

AIO Launcher

Dark screen with time and weather on top, “try other themes as well” below, a timer below that, and frequent apps below that.
AIO Launcher creates a whole new look for your homescreen.
Page with Settings on top, and a long list of topics that can be tweaked.
The app offers a variety of options.

AIO Launcher is another launcher that tries to do something different with the Android homescreen beyond tweaks to the icon colors and app grid layout. It turns your home screen into a densely packed series of widgets, so you can see everything from notifications to available storage space on a single screen. There are lots of widgets to choose from, and they’re all easy to modify.

The launcher lets you sort apps into categories and display them in a variety of ways, so you can get to your favorite ones more quickly, and there’s also an advanced search feature that can dig into everything from widgets to contacts. To get access to all of the settings AIO has to offer, you need a premium subscription, which will cost you 99 cents a month or $9.99 a year.

Smart Launcher

Page with Settings on top, and a list of features such as Wallpaper, Global appearance, Gestures and hot keys, etc.
Smart Launcher also offers a long list of options.
Sample icons on top, the topic Icon appearance below that, and several options below that.
Smart Launcher’s “Icon appearance” page also offers a variety of shapes for your icons.

Smart Launcher offers just about everything you could want from a launcher, from polished-looking widgets to innovative layouts for your homescreen to a multitude of tweaks that you can apply to icons, fonts, wallpapers, and more. It has clever features, too, like a search tool that covers the web, your apps, and your contacts.

The widgets included in the launcher are really well done, and you can tailor your homescreen, lock screen, and notifications with a great deal of control. Navigation gestures are supported, as are categories for your apps, which can be very handy. To unlock all the features, you need to pay either 99 cents a month or $21.99 for life.