Many Android devices ship with a default home screen launcher that, frankly, kind of sucks. The good news? You can install a new launcher offering better shortcuts, more home screens and extra configuration options. Here’s the lowdown on the most popular options.
We recently discussed how to streamline your Android home screen and how to install a new home screen launcher. While I personally recommended LauncherPro, many of you noted that you’re big fans of other launchers, and rightfully so — there are a few really good ones out there. Today, we’ll go through the most popular three, noting each one’s special features so you can decide which one’s right for you.
ADW is probably the most popular launcher out there and is the default launcher of the very popular CyanogenMod custom ROM. It’s the best option if you want to seriously change your home screen, whether through organisational changes (like adding more shortcuts to each screen) or visually (by re-theming the entire thing).
Layout options: ADW offers numerous ways to re-organise your home screens. You can add up to seven screens, which is pretty standard for a custom launcher, but if you need to fit even more shortcuts, ADWLauncher offers the ability to choose how many rows and columns of apps you want on your home screen — up to eight each — so you can squeeze in as many shortcuts as possible.
If that’s a bit too extreme, you can also choose to just squeeze apps together in the app drawer. This way, your home screen stays tidy, but you have to do less scrolling when you need something in the drawer. You can also set the drawer’s background colour, remove app labels (so you only see the icons) and tone down the 3D graphics effects.
Usability options: ADW has packed a pretty large number of actions into its system preferences to which you can assign different shortcuts. For example, you can re-assign the home button to show a preview of all your home screens, open a specific app or hide the notification bar.
Furthermore, ADW has a few gestures built in to which you can bind these actions. For example, by default, swiping up on the screen shows and hides the notification bar and swiping down shows the notifications drawer.
Themes: One of ADW’s biggest draws is themability. It doesn’t get much easier to theme your phone than with ADW’s built-in engine — just download a theme from the Market (they usually range from free to about a dollar or so) and select it in ADW’s preferences. It will change everything from your wallpaper, icons and miscellaneous UI settings to give your phone a completely new look. Lots of themes contain icons for popular Market apps, too, so it won’t just be your pre-installed Google apps that get themed — apps like Barcode Scanner and Shazam will often fit in too.
Performance: While many experience good performance from ADW, I (along with many others) find that it’s the worst of the bunch in terms of speed and stability. It can be a bit sluggish and I’ve even had a few force closes on it in the past. However, it also provides so many options that it may be worth it for some, and some of those options can actually help performance (like turning down the zoom effects in the app drawer). You’ll just have to try it for yourself and see how well it works for you, but be warned that all this customisation may come at a small price.
LauncherPro is my personal favourite, as it offers quite a few extra preferences and incredible performance (in my experience). It also offers a tiny bit of themability for those that have that itch, though you won’t be able to theme the entire UI; you can only change the dock. LauncherPro comes in a free version and a $US2.99 version, the latter of which features some extra widgets and widget settings. I pay for the premium version primarily to support the developer, but the extra widgets — though easy to go without — are still nice.
Layout options: Like other launchers, LauncherPro lets you choose how many home screens you want, but it also offers a few other options. Like ADWLauncher, you can choose how many apps shortcuts fit in each row, though you can only do it for the app drawer itself. You can choose to organise apps in five shortcut rows on the home screen though, but that’s as far as it goes. If you’d like to, you can also hide icon labels, so you only see icons on the home screen and not the names of the apps below them.
One of LauncherPro’s best features, however, is removing apps from the app drawer. Thus, you can hide the crapware that comes with your phone, or hide apps that you want running in the background but don’t want cluttering up your drawer. Of course, if you need to edit their settings later on, you can always un-hide them with just a few taps.
Usability options: The dock is the centre of attention in LauncherPro, where most of the customisability happens. LauncherPro’s dock is scrollable, themeable and has a few goodies in there that can make your life easier. It features five shortcuts along the bottom instead of the usual two, and you can scroll through multiple docks as well, giving you a total of 15 shortcuts along the bottom of your screen.
LauncherPro also has the usual usability enhancements, like enabling auto-rotation, choosing an action for the home key and hiding the notification bar. In addition, if you put something like Gmail or Messaging in the dock, you can enable dock badges for those apps, so you know how many unread message you have in each.
Theming: While you can’t theme the entire home screen like in ADW, you can do your fair share of visual customisation on the dock. LauncherPro’s default icons are white, somewhat transparent versions of Android’s original icons and they look pretty good — but you can also use the default Android icons if you prefer. You can even add your own from your phone’s SD card, meaning you can make it look like whatever you want. Furthermore, if LauncherPro doesn’t contain an icon for a certain app, you can find LauncherPro-style icons for other apps around the net.
You can also change how the dock itself looks. By default it’s invisible, but you can add a nice 3D glass, iOS-type dock (shown above) or a dock similar to the default Froyo launcher if you prefer.
Performance: Despite its remarkable number of features, LauncherPro is fast. If you have a particularly old phone and find it a bit sluggish, you can still turn down some of the extra UI enhancements, but I’ve found that even with all of them turned on, it’s one of the most responsive launchers around. Scrolling through the app drawer is so smooth it’s an almost iPhone-like experience, so you can’t go wrong if you’re looking for good performance.
HelixLauncher is an interesting case at the moment, as development has slowed down as of late. HelixLauncher is a much more minimal launcher; the only things you really get with it are four dock shortcuts and extra home screens. That’s not to say it’s not worthy of a look — the main focus of HelixLauncher is speed and stability. If you have an older phone that can’t quite handle the more feature-filled launchers, HelixLauncher will probably give you pretty good performance. It’s best for those that may want a bit more than the default launchers offer, but don’t want to have to dig through a ton of settings to get them — they just want the same old launcher but a little faster and with a few extra home screens.
As of right now, HelixLauncher is free in the Market, but only works on 2.1-based phones. Of course, depending on your phone, you might still be waiting on 2.2 for awhile, so HelixLauncher will hold you over until Froyo adds that long-awaited speed boost to your phone (perhaps even enough of a boost to handle one of the more advanced launchers). The developer is moving slowly on HelixLauncher at the moment, but he hasn’t discontinued it yet, so this is one to keep an eye on for the future.
There isn’t really a “best” launcher; it’s all about what you want from your phone. If you want extensive themability, ADW is probably the right one for you. If you don’t need quite as much customisability, but still would like some extra settings, LauncherPro is worth a look. Don’t be afraid to try more than one, either — they’re all free and available in the Market, so you don’t have to jump through any hoops to try them out. Of course, many of you have already gone through this process, so let us know which one is your favourite and why in the comments.