When people describe why they love Android, “customization” is usually at the top of the list. You’re not stuck with just a grid of icons or the default design scheme that comes on your phone.
For full control over nearly every aspect of your smartphone’s look and performance, you’ll want to turn to a custom launcher. The Play Store is packed full of options, but for your benefit we’ve paired down the list to some of the best.
Your preferred choice is going to come down to what you’re looking for with a home screen replacement. Some are good at giving you that stock Android experience, which you might crave if you’re trying to replicate the experience of a Pixel or Nexus. Others try to offer up unique experiences based on your usage patterns. Whichever route you go, the potential is there to build a home screen that works just right for you.
Action Launcher 3
There’s no question about the top choice. Action Launcher 3 wins for its myriad customization choices and in how it brings forth a lot of Nougat and Pixel-style features to your phone.
Among the many strengths is the ability to create custom gestures for specific actions. Swipe up with a finger to launch the settings. Or swipe down anywhere on the screen to make your notifications appear. Pinch in to launch multitasking or get an overview of all your homescreens. Your phone is your oyster, and can be fine-tuned to work just the way that you want it to.
Another plus is with how Action Launcher 3 can give you that Pixel experience. Developer Chris Lacy has implemented many aspects of Android 7.1 Nougat, such as app shortcuts, support for the round icons, and the same folder design that you’d find with the Pixel Launcher. If those aren’t to your liking you can safely ignore them, but they’re nice to have if the siren call of the Pixel grows too strong to ignore but you’re not able to buy one just yet. To get the full package of features, opt for the in-app upgrade for $5.
A close second is Nova Launcher. It shares much of the same philosophy as Action Launcher in that it is highly customizable for practically every key aspect of your phone.
The best features are reserved for those who opt for the Prime version of the app, which costs $5. It’s well worth it if you like Nova Launcher and decide you want to customize gestures for actions. For example, a swipe up can launch an action, an app, or a specific shortcut (like a specific Gmail label).
If you’re feeling nostalgic for the days of Lollipop or other older Android versions, you’ll find the ability to pick the design scheme for the app animation. The background, icon layout, and app drawer are among the many different areas that you can leave your own stamp on.
The Microsoft Garage team has been on a tear with several clever apps for Android. Arrow Launcher is another piece of fruit borne from this effort.
It takes a markedly different approach from Nova and Action Launcher. Instead of endless customization, it attempts to anticipate your needs and throw in some smarts by learning your preferences.
For example, Arrow Launcher divides up your home screen into four different sections: recent, apps, people, documents and reminder.
While you can change up the content on each of these screens or scrum some of them altogether, the core premise behind Action Launcher is that it learns what to display based on your phone’s usage patterns. And because it’s a Microsoft tie-in, the documents screen will display the most recent files you’ve accessed through OneDrive. And those wallpapers come from, you guessed it, Bing. If you’re into Android because of the deep ties to Google this may not be your preferred pick, but it’s a clean and smart option that does merit consideration.
A few others to tinker with
If these choices aren’t to your liking, or if you just want to cast a wider net, there are some other solid choices available to you. Evie Launcher is worth a look if you want something that sticks close to stock Android but gives you many of the customization options like Action or Nova Launcher.
The launcher is clean and gives you an interface that’s easy on the eyes. You also get a smart universal search feature that you access by swiping down on the screen. Start typing and you’ll get suggestions for apps, films, and Yelp-sponsored location results. My preference is still the Google Assistant, but in the world of non-Pixels it does the job.
For something more off the wall, check out Hexy Launcher. It’s the product of SwiftKey Greenhouse, the lab for experimental projects. This means it’s not officially supported, but is a side product of several company engineers. Nonetheless it’s an interesting take, with the launcher organizing your home screen into hexagonal tiles based on your usage patterns. The apps you use more often get bumped into the center of the screen.
Finally, the Google Now Launcher is still an option, but now that the Pixel is the focus of Google’s development it may not see a ton of development work. Google will keep it going for Nexus devices, but I’ve found that it lacks more advanced features on other phones, particularly since you can’t change the number of apps on each home screen.
The key is to experiment and take the time required to find out what works best for your workflow and how you use your phone. Try a launcher for a few days, and keep at even if you run into a few frustrations. It usually takes a while to finally land on the right choice. But once you do, you’ll have a smartphone experience that’s truly personalized.