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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.