One of the best things about Android is being able to customise everything about your home screen, which you can do with a third-party application launcher. Android has plenty of great ones, but our favourite is Nova Launcher, which strikes a great perfect balance between incredible performance and high customisability.
Update: Our previous pick for the App Directory was Launcher Pro, which we still think is good if you're stuck with a Gingerbread phone or really like its features. We've renamed that post to be the best android launcher for pre-4.0 devices.
- Smooth scrolling and customisable 2D and 3D scroll effects
- Infinite scrolling across the app drawer and home screens
- Customisable app drawer that supports transparency and multi-directional scrolling
- Customisable dock with infinite scrolling and multiple pages of icons
- Multi-item select for bulk adding apps or widgets to folders or home screens
- Theme support, including support for themes from the now-defunct ADW Launcher
- Customisable icons via downloadable icon packs or icon packs from ADW Launcher
- Customisable colours for launcher accents, windows, and tools
- Customisable folder icons, backgrounds, and more
- Support for widgets in the dock
- Complete control over widget placement on-screen, including the option to overlap them if you want to save space
- Support for importing your previous icon layout and widget positions from another launcher or your phone's stock launcher
- Uninstall apps directly from the home screen or app drawer
- Folders in the App Drawer and custom Folder tabs (Prime Only)
- Customisable quick-launch gestures to launch apps or shortcuts from the home screen (Prime Only)
- Option to hide unwanted or unused apps from the app drawer without uninstalling them (Prime Only)
- Unread SMS, Gmail, and missed call badges in the dock icons (Prime Only)
Where It Excels
Nova Launcher is probably one of the most well-regarded app launchers at Google Play. (It's important to note that for the purposes of this roundup, we're considering whole launcher replacements -- not add-on application switchers or shortcut tools that live on top of the launcher you already use.) It's fast, flexible and customisable without bogging down your phone with a ton of unwanted bloat. It's highly polished and actively updated. Even if you don't want a lot of tweaking options and controls, you can pare it down to make it look and feel like a stock Android app launcher.
Nova was one of your favourite launchers so long ago, and even now that the age of app launchers has in many ways passed (thanks to Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean becoming more ubiquitous), it's still well regarded and well loved, and a lightweight alternative launcher if you want something simpler, more customisable, and less bloated than Sense or TouchWiz on your 4.0+ device. We have to give them props for bringing Jelly Bean's launcher tools and options to ICS devices, and you can see in our featured Android home screens that it has a lot of customisation potential.
Regardless, the bottom line is that even though it's immensely customisable and tweakable, it's still fast and easy to use. If you want the options, they're there. If you don't, you can still have a fast, flexible and hassle-free Android experience.
Where It Falls Short
Of course, it would be nice if Nova were available for more Android devices, like those running Gingerbread, but we're not holding our breath on that. Aside from that, we can't ding it on much else. A lot of the best features are reserved for Prime, but it's not too expensive and worth the four dollars you'll spend on it. It could be a touch more customisable, especially compared with its major competition (which we'll get to in a moment), but that's about it.
Nova Launcher's primary competition is Apex Launcher (free, $4 Pro), and honestly either of the two could easily have been our favourite. They're both under active development, both pack lots of features, and both are fast, flexible, give away a lot of great features for free but are definitely worth the money you'll spend on their respective pro versions. Apex's tablet version is all but unmatched, and its latest overhaul makes it really attractive. Plus, rolling in support for Dashclock Widget, a great way to customise your lock screen, with Apex Notifier really sets Apex apart from the rest of the pack. The trick is that Notifier requires running another app in the background, which is a little bit of a pain but not too much.
Regardless, most of the customisation options you'll find in Nova you'll also find in Apex. Infinite scrolling, hiding unwanted apps, scrolling and transition effects, customisable app drawer, icon packs, skins, they're all there. If Nova doesn't appeal to you, Apex certainly will. You may even like it better, and we can't blame you for that. It is missing a few features Nova does have, but they're seriously neck and neck, and on a different day we might award the top spot to the other one.
Between Nova and Apex, that's the bulk of the competition for ICS+ devices. There's always Stock or running no launcher at all, especially if you have a Google Edition or a Nexus device, which we'd have to recommend unless you really like the customisation and theming options that one of these two offers. If speed and a hassle-free experience is what you're looking for -- that is you want your launcher to get out of the way and let you do what you want to do -- stock is the best option. If you don't, we think Nova (or Apex) will give it to you.
Still, these aren't the only players here. Everything.Me (free, in beta) is a flexible, customisable launcher replacement that adds home screens, backgrounds, icons and more with just a few taps. It still requires 4.0+, but you can browse lots of pre-built launcher configurations just by searching for them.
Similarly, Buzz Launcher (free, in beta) is another launcher we've mentioned that also takes the hassle out of configuring your home screens. Browse a massive catalogue of user-created and submitted home screens, select the one you like, and it's instantly applied to your phone, complete with any icons, apps, gestures or tools required to make it happen. To boot, you can also customise every aspect of your launcher yourself if you prefer -- the choice is yours.
It's been a while since GO Launcher EX (free), was the crowd favourite, and while development stalled for a while, it looks like it's been recently updated with new features. The team behind GO Launcher EX let it languish for a while, but it still has a ridiculously large user community, runs exceptionally well on lower-end phones, and offers lots of configuration options, skins, icons, wallpapers and other tweaking tools. The trouble with all of those options is that they slow down the launcher, so you have to be careful how much tweaking you really do. It's also possible that GO Launcher EX's recent updates have something to do with the development team's newest project, the $16 Next Launcher 3D, which by all accounts is stunning, customisable and really impressive -- just really tough to recommend to anyone at that price.
Similarly, for customisation fans, ADW Launcher (Free, $3 for ADW Launcher EX) offers broad compatibility with Android devices from 1.6 all the way up, offers ICS-style features to almost all of those devices without taxing system resources, and is still skinnable and customisable. Dozens of skin packs and icon packs are available at Google Play for ADW. ADW and ADW EX are designed for people who really want to customise their devices, even if it means sacrificing speed to get there. Here's the bigger problem though: Development on ADW is all but stalled, and the apps may be abandoned. ADW EX was updated in February, but ADW itself hasn't been updated since November 2012 -- not even with bug fixes or patches, which doesn't bode well.
Our pick for phones running Gingerbread and below, LauncherPro (free, $3.50 Pro), has long been abandoned by its developer. It still runs buttery smooth on lower end devices, but it's hard to recommend when it's not getting even basic bug fixes or patches, especially as new devices keep coming out. If you do have an older, Gingerbread phone and hate your launcher, give it a try, but everyone else can pass.
Speaking of lower-end phones and pre-ICS devices, if you are stuck with one and want the same kind of launcher that Ice Cream Sandwich offers, you may want to try the previously mentioned Holo Launcher (free), which brings the lean and trim features of ICS's launcher to Android phones running 2.2+.
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