JR Raphael

Rediscovering the custom Android launcher

October 04, 2012 12:02 PM EDT

Custom Android LauncherA funny thing happened somewhere along my personal Android journey.

Back in the days of Android 2.x, I used to use custom launchers like nobody's business. Whether it was ADWLauncher, LauncherPro, or HelixLauncher (remember that one?), I always had some third-party program managing my phone's interface, frequently with a custom ROM at its side.

Then came Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich. With Google's reimagined and vastly improved new interface, I found myself no longer feeling the need to replace the stock Android setup. I guess you could say I wasn't in a tinkering sort of mood; sure, I played around with different options as they were introduced or updated, but at the end of the day, I felt satisfied with the stock 4.x environment and always ended up going back home to it. The advent of Android 4.1, Jelly Bean, only made that feeling stronger.

Recently, though, I felt a familiar itch. Not a rash, thankfully, but rather the itch to tinker. You know the type of urge I'm talking about: I wanted to add new capabilities to my phone's UI and make it even better. The stock Android 4.x interface certainly doesn't require enhancement, but hey, why not take things up another notch if you can? After all, that type of flexibility is one of Android's greatest strengths -- and it's something you sure as hell won't find on that other popular mobile platform.

So not long ago, I dove wholeheartedly back into the custom Android launcher universe, and let me tell you: It didn't take long to remember why I loved it in the first place.

Android launchers: Unlocking advanced Android power

Put simply, custom launchers open up whole new worlds of possibilities with your Android devices. If you want to change the look of your phone or tablet, you can do it with ease. Or if you're like me and are happy with your stock setup, you can just enhance it here and there with small tweaks and added pops of functionality.

Right now, I'm using Nova Launcher. It's a free 4.x-level launcher that, at its core, closely resembles Google's stock Android 4.1 UI. But within Nova's settings, an ocean of power awaits.

There, you'll find options to customize nearly every facet of your launcher's UI -- making your home screen grid larger or smaller, Custom Android Launcher: Novaplaying with the desktop margins, eliminating or changing the look of the home screen search bar, and changing the animations used when you scroll from one screen to the next. You may even be able to boost your device's performance, particularly if you use a phone with a manufacturer-modified UI (those have a tendency to slow things down, thanks to all the bloat that's often baked in).

Hold the phone, though: All of that barely even scratches the surface. Nova lets you modify the names and icons of app shortcuts, resize widgets that aren't set to be resizable, expand the bottom-of-screen dock, and expand or reduce the number of home screen panels on your device. It also lets you set up custom gesture-based shortcuts for your home screen -- so you can swipe a finger upward to launch Voice Search, for instance, or rotate two fingers clockwise to open your system settings. (To get gestures and a few of the other advanced features, you do have to upgrade to a $4 "Prime" edition.)

Here's the best part: Nova is far from the only custom Android launcher available; it's just the one I happen to be using at the moment. The Play Store is full of interesting options. Apex, for example, is another popular 4.x-level launcher. Or if you're still waiting for 4.x on your phone, you can snag something like Holo Launcher, a free launcher that brings lots of 4.x-level design elements to 2.x-level devices (along with plenty of other extra enhancements).Android Power Twitter

The possibilities are practically endless -- and after my brief hiatus from the custom launcher world, it sure feels good to be embracing that power once again.

SEE ALSO: Find an awesome new launcher for your Android phone