Must-have Android apps

The best Android launchers for enhanced efficiency

Save time and make your Android home screen work better with the help of these eclectic tools.

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Your smartphone's home screen is the heart and soul of your mobile tech experience — the launching pad for nearly everything you do on your device. And since you use Android, you've got a unique advantage over your iPhone-toting associates in that your home screen doesn't have to be a bland grid of static icons. It certainly can be, if you want, but you also have the option to take complete control of that environment and turn it into a time-saving command center for your personal productivity needs.

We're not just talking about sprinkling a few exceptional widgets into the mix, either: With Android, you can install a completely new home screen launcher that lets you incorporate all sorts of custom actions, interfaces, and shortcuts into your device's desktop — giving your phone a completely different look and feel and creating a system that's custom-tailored to the way you like to get things done. It can make a current phone infinitely more useful and make an old phone feel new again.

The Google Play Store has plenty of commendable launcher options to consider, and figuring out which makes the most sense for you ultimately comes down to deciding what exactly you want to accomplish and what style of interaction you prefer. After spending time with all the top contenders, these are the Android launchers I'd recommend for serious professionals — broken down by what type of experience they offer and in what areas they excel.

Lawnchair Launcher: A Pixel-plus experience for everyone

Google's Pixel phones are known for their standout software — and while Google itself no longer offers its home screen framework to non-Pixel owners, a team of third-party developers has stepped in to fill that void.

Lawnchair Launcher (say it out loud to get the joke) emulates the Pixel Launcher's clean, simple, and visually pleasing foundation — but it doesn't stop there: The app takes things a step further and offers all sorts of powerful possibilities the Pixel Launcher does not, including options to customize and control practically every facet of the home screen environment.

The upcoming version 2 of the app (which is currently being beta tested ahead of its full release) introduces a refreshed and more modern-feeling interface along with numerous new advanced options — such as a series of customizable gestures and the presence of Pixel-like smart suggestions that predict what actions within apps you're likely to look for next and then present those to you right within your app drawer.

android launchers lawnchair launcher JR Raphael/IDG

Lawnchair Launcher brings a Pixel-like look to any Android phone, only with even more options and opportunities for customization.

Lawnchair Launcher is completely free to use.

In short: If you don't have any specific needs and just want a simple and speedy home screen setup that looks great, works well, and gives you a Pixel-like experience with plenty of additional options, Lawnchair Launcher is exactly what you need.

Action Launcher: Innovative optimization

Maybe you're the sort of person who doesn't necessarily want to stick with the status quo and use a traditional home screen setup on your phone. Maybe you prefer coming up with your own personalized systems for optimizing your environment and setting yourself up for maximum efficiency.

Meet Action Launcher. In addition to all the usual stuff, the app provides you with a collection of clever tools and possibilities for extending what your home screen is able to do — things like an optional list-like app drawer that slides in from the side of the screen, a customizable "Quickbar" that turns the typical home screen search bar into a versatile home for your own favorite shortcuts, and an optional pop-in panel that holds any number of shortcuts and widgets and can be opened with any type of gesture you select.

Action Launcher lets you create a customizable long-press menu for your home screen, too, and it allows you to pull up widgets on demand — by swiping upward on an app's icon — so you can quickly peek into something like your inbox or notes list without ever leaving your home screen.

android launchers action launcher JR Raphael/IDG

A customizable long-press menu (at left) and on-demand widgets (at right) are among Action Launcher's useful advanced features.

Action Launcher is free with an optional $5 in-app upgrade for certain advanced elements.

In short: If you like experimenting with unconventional arrangements and finding creative ways to enhance your efficiency, Action Launcher is the easy-to-use toolbox for you.

Smart Launcher 5: Automatic organization

On the flip side to Action Launcher is a home screen setup for the sort of person who wants things to be organized and optimized for them — continually — without any real thought or effort required. That's precisely what Smart Launcher 5 aims to accomplish, and it does an admirable job.

Rather than giving you a completely open canvas for whatever placement of shortcuts and widgets you want (as is the norm on Android), Smart Launcher keeps your icons neatly arranged into locked-down rows on its main screen. To the right of that screen sits a separate panel designed specifically for widgets, and to its left is an "app screen" — which takes the place of a traditional app drawer and separates all of your apps into automatically sorted categories like "Internet," "Communication," and "Media."

Swiping up from the main Smart Launcher screen, meanwhile — or tapping the "Smart search" button at its bottom edge — takes you to a custom search utility, which lets you quickly find apps, contacts, or information from the internet. The tool can even search within apps — pulling up results for pizza places near you from Maps if you search for "pizza nearby," for instance. Last but not least, swiping downward from the launcher's main screen takes you to the Smart Launcher news feed, which is powered by Microsoft News.

android launchers smart launcher JR Raphael/IDG

Smart Launcher features a self-organizing home screen (at left) and a category-based system for browsing all of your apps (at right).

Smart Launcher 5 is free with an optional $7 in-app upgrade for a variety of advanced features and also to remove ads that occasionally appear in parts of the interface.

In short: If you want a neatly organized home screen that does all the organization for you, Smart Launcher 5 is up to the task.

Microsoft Launcher: The Microsoft-lover's dream

Android is typically a Google-centric affair, but little by little, Microsoft has been creating its own sub-ecosystem right within the platform's walls — and the centerpiece to that setup is the aptly named Microsoft Launcher.

Having Microsoft Launcher on your phone really does make it feel like you're using a Microsoft Android device instead of a Google Android product. The app brings native Cortana integration, Bing search, and Microsoft news right onto your home screen. It even gives you a feed-like panel with glanceable info from your Outlook calendar and a list of recent documents from your cloud-based Microsoft Office storage.

Perhaps most significantly, Microsoft Launcher opens the door to establishing a link between your phone and Windows 10 PC via its beta-level Timeline feature, which makes it possible to see recently opened files or websites from your PC and then jump directly back into them on your phone. And all of that aside, the launcher has ample options for customization and home screen personalization.

android launchers microsoft launcher JR Raphael/IDG

Microsoft Launcher emphasizes Cortana and adds ample Microsoft and Windows integration into your home screen.

Microsoft Launcher is free.

In short: If you work in Windows 10 and want your phone to feel like an extension of that same ecosystem, Microsoft Launcher is the way to make it happen.

Square Home 3: Windows Phone meets Android

For all of its Microsoft focus, the actual Microsoft Launcher has nothing to do with the company's now-abandoned Windows Phone effort and the content-packed organizational system that platform established. For that, you'll want to turn to Square Home 3, which picks up where Windows Phone left off and brings its distinctive tile-centric setup into the realm of Android.

Even if you didn't use Windows Phone, you might find Square Home to be a refreshing change that enhances your workflow. The launcher puts a series of customizable tiles on your home screen, each representing an app shortcut, a widget, or some other sort of action. You can even treat a tile as a three-dimensional cube and store related shortcuts on each side — say, Google Drive on the front, then Docs, Sheets, and other productivity apps on the inner sides — and then swipe the cube in any direction to access the associated items.

Square Home has tons of options, including some that let you control exactly how your tiles appear — everything from the number of columns for the tiles to the size of icons and text within them and the color and style of backgrounds used for different blocks. It also allows you to create some potentially useful custom shortcuts beyond just the usual gestures. You can set certain actions to occur when your phone is set flat with its screen facing either up or down, for instance, or even when you shake your phone.

android launchers square home new JR Raphael/IDG

Square Home transforms your home screen into a Windows-Phone-like environment, with plenty of advanced shortcuts and time-saving options.

Square Home 3 is free with an optional $5 key for advanced features, options, and tile effects.

In short: If you miss the old Windows Phone interface or just like the idea of keeping everything you need in front of you and neatly organized in a geometrical manner, Square Home is your Android home screen answer.

Niagara Launcher: Ergonomic efficiency

Sometimes, the simplest solutions can be the most effective. That's the idea behind Niagara Launcher, which works to strip away all the extraneous elements of an Android home screen and leave you only with fast and fuss-free tools to get where you need to go.

There's not a heck of a lot to Niagara, and that's kinda the point: The home screen's main element is its vertical alphabet menu, which lets you quickly scroll or tap to find any app you need without any scanning around. In a nice ergonomic twist, you can swipe or tap the list from the left or the right side of your screen, too, making it convenient to access no matter how you hold your phone.

Beyond that, Niagara offers up direct shortcuts to your own custom-set selection of favorites — to the left of the scrolling list — along with a text-based app-searching system, a general Google Search shortcut, and a simple clock. And when you have a pending notification, Niagara puts it right on your home screen for easy and ergonomic access.

android launchers niagara launcher JR Raphael/IDG

Niagara Launcher revolves around the notions of simplicity and easy access to the apps and info you need.

Niagara Launcher is free.

In short: If you don't care about widgets or customization and want something super-minimalist and focused on optimal ergonomics, Niagara is an exceptional option worth considering.

Nova Launcher: Extreme customization

From minimalism to maximalism, the last launcher in our list is a longtime Android power-user favorite that provides you with every option under the sun. Nova Launcher starts you off with a simple blank slate and lets you set things up in any way you want, down to the tiniest of details.

It's no exaggeration: Once you add whatever series of shortcuts, folders, and widgets you like to your home screen panels, you can peruse Nova's settings to find intricate customizations for almost anything imaginable — ranging from the precise size of the font used for app names to the amount of padding between items, the level of transparency of the app drawer background, and even the style and speed of every animation and transition you see.

Beyond just the customization stuff, Nova has some seriously powerful possibilities for optimizing your home screen to any set of specifications. You can create a custom dark theme that makes various areas of your home screen easier on the eyes as soon as the sun goes down, you can create a variety of custom gestures for quickly accessing any apps or actions you need, and you can add in helpful shortcuts like one-tap commands for tasks like uninstalling or restarting apps on demand.

android launchers nova launcher JR Raphael/IDG

Nova Launcher's extensive series of options gives you an extraordinary amount of freedom to make your home screen look and work exactly how you want.

Nova Launcher is free with an optional $5 upgrade for certain advanced features.

In short: If you want complete control over every element of your home screen environment — and you know exactly what kind of effect you're after — Nova Launcher's got your name written all over it.

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