Using an Android launcher is a great way to customize your Android experience without the need of rooting your device. Android launchers generally change the look and feel of your Android device. You are able to change animations and graphics, install custom widgets or give the app drawer a whole new look. Some of the newer launchers like Aviate also go one step ahead, changing the user interface in a manner that your Android device looks and feels completely different.

Quick Links

  1. How Do Android Launchers Work?
  2. Difference Between Android Launchers and Custom ROM
  3. Best Android 4.0+ Launchers
  4. Best Android 2.0+ Launchers
  5. OS Replacement Launchers
  6. Minimalistic & Intelligent Android Launchers
  7. Theme Launchers

Customizability is a great advantage of Android over iOS: You can change the look and feel of your device using custom ROMs, Android launchers and/or widgets. I’ve published the first version of our Android launcher guide a few months ago and we’ve received tons of feedback. This guide is the new and updated version, including many new Android launchers that were published recently.

This article will give you a basic understanding of Android launchers, how to install them and a selection of the best Android launchers on the market. If you don’t want to read the whole article, feel free to navigate using the quick links feature.
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How Do Android Launchers Work?

Android launchers are, simply said, apps that you install on your Android device. When you access the home screen of your phone or tablet, Android uses an app to display the user interface. After installing an Android launcher, the standard interface app is replaced and the new one takes care of displaying your home screen and other UI elements. This is also the reason why Android launchers are sometimes called home replacement launchers. If you have more than one launcher installed, Android will usually ask you which one to use. Simply select “Always” to specify your new standard launcher.

Did you ever wonder why Android looks different on Samsung phones compared to, for example, HTC ones? It’s quite simple: Some manufacturers pre-install their own launchers as well as modified versions of Android on their devices. Installing a custom ROM or using a different launcher can give your device the (software) features and user interface that you want to have!

Difference Between Android Launchers and Custom ROM

While you need to root your Android device for a custom ROM, home screen launchers are simply installed from Google Play or any other Android store. Because many users are afraid of breaking their phone or tablet when rooting it, installing an Android launcher can be a great first step to personalize an Android device.

Android launchers usually offer the following features:

  • Themes
  • Changing graphics and icons
  • Different app drawer layout
  • Gesture-controlled actions
  • Customized widgets

Custom ROMs typically go one step further, adding deeper system tweaks such as:

  • Improved speed, stability and battery life
  • Possibility to install custom kernels (which support under/overclocking)
  • Running up-to-date versions of Android OS
  • A variety of apps that require root access (like AdAway)

If you want to, you can install a custom ROM and a custom launcher. To learn more about custom ROMs and Android rooting, make sure to check out our guide on Android rooting, custom ROMs and apps.

Best Android 4.0+ Launchers

Google Play offers a variety of different Android launchers, some of them offer pretty basic features while others like Themer completely change the look and feel of your Android device. Here’s a selection of the most popular Android launchers for devices running Android 4.0 or higher.

Nova Launcher

Nova Launcher is a performance driven home launcher for Android devices running Android version 4.0 or higher. It’s quite similar to Android’s built-in launcher but offers many additional features such as themes, scroll effects, widget overlapping and placing widgets in your dock. The standard version is available for free. The $4.00 premium version includes gestures, unread counts and drawer groups.

I used Nova Launcher Prime on my Nexus 4 for quite a long time but recently switched to Aviate. For users who want the classic Android experience, Nova Launcher Prime is the best custom launcher around – at least in my opinion. Stability, gestures and notifications for unread messages or calls are well worth the small fee for the premium version.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6KwEkvoarg

Apex Launcher

Apex Launcher is the second big Android 4.0+ launcher available. Both Apex and Nova launcher offer a great experience and include the same tweaks. Apex Launcher offers customization features like having up to 9 homescreens, gestures and themes. The basic version comes for free while the premium version is available on Google Play for $3.99. The paid version adds several things like the possibility to display the number of unread messages, two-finger gestures and overlapping widgets.

Choosing Apex or Nova launcher boils down to personal preferences. As I said above, they essentially offer the same features. Since both home screen replacements come for free in their basic version I would suggest to just test them yourself.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yabQwDEBIjY

Action Launcher

Just like the other launchers mentioned above, Action Launcher uses the Android 4.0+ UI but is designed to get you to your goal “faster”. The launcher comes with a sliding quickdrawer that shows all your apps and widgets – alphabetically sorted. The other distinct features are called “Covers” and “Shutters”. With “Covers”, you can “hide” a folder behind an app, making it accessible by double-tapping the icon to show the folder instead of starting the app. The “Shutters” feature will display the widgets associated to the app when quickly swiping over the icon.

All in all, Action Launcher looks quite nice. Unfortunately, you can’t test it for free because only a paid pro version is available for $3.99 on Google Play.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-CQOKzuiyM

Best Android 2.0+ Launchers

Having an “older” Android device should not limit you in experience the greatness of custom Android launchers. Here’s a selection of the most popular Android launchers for devices running Android 2.0 or higher.

GO Launcher EX

Go Launcher EX has been around for a while and claims to be the most popular home launcher around. With over 5,000 themes and a variety of widgets available in its own Go Store, it definitely offers many ways to enhance your Android experience. Key features include transition animations, a nice app management function (hiding and sorting apps as well as cleaning system memory) and gesture controls.

In contrast to other Android launchers, Go Launcher ex will work on Android devices running Android OS 2.0 and higher. The launcher itself as well as many themes are available for free. Some widgets and themes available in the Go Store will cost a few bucks, though.

I used GO Launcher Ex for a long time on my HTC Desire HD. With newer versions of Android around, the UI is a little bit outdated because of the Android Gingerbread era look. Still, Go Launcher Ex is a great alternative for Android devices that are not capable of running newer versions of Android OS (4.x+).

Lightning Launcher

Lightning Launcher offers a nice and clean Android 4.0+ UI that his highly customizable, fast and light. Unlike other launchers, Lightning launcher offers the possibility to scroll both horizontally and vertically. Besides that, you can also place widgets in folders and scale, rotate and freely move any items on your home screen. If you’re looking for something fast with minimal resource consumption, Lighting Launcher could be perfect for you. Although it might be a little bit complicated to setup all features initially, many tutorials are available to get you started as fast as possible. You can download it for free on Google Play.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D4EPtu99Mdo

ADW.Launcher

ADW.Launcher brings a nice and clean Android OS 4.0+ UI to older devices running Android OS 1.6 or higher. Besides custom themes and widgets, the ADW.Launcher also offers gestures, older tweaking and management. Like the other launchers, ADW.launcher is available for free in its basic version. The premium version ADW.Launcher Ex costs $3.00 and includes additional features like 3D app drawer styles, new home screen transitions and a backup option.

OS Replacement Launchers

If you want your Android device to look like an iPhone or Windows Mobile phone, some Android custom launchers or themes can help you getting that look. Here’s a small selection of the most important ones:

Launcher 7

Launcher 7 brings the Windows Phone 7 experience to your Android phone. The developer claims that the launcher is still in an alpha stage, so bugs and errors might occur. Reviews are quite positive (4.4 out of 5.0 based on roughly 40k votes). The WP7 lookalike launcher comes for free but includes some advertisements. An ad-free donation version is available for $1.49.

Launcher 8

Just like Launcher 7, this launcher seeks to bring a Windows Phone 8 experience to your Android device. Launcher 8 includes fly animations, the typical WP8 tile-design and the possibility to add widgets. Android 4.x devices are supported, but, apparently, perform quite slow. The developer recommends to use Android 4.0 or higher. Like Launcher 7, the app includes advertisements than can be removed by donating $1.49.

Espier Launcher

Espier Launcher brings an iOS user interface experience to Android devices. The launcher combines Android-specific features and gives them an iOS-style. If you want your Android phone to look like an iPhone, you should definitely give Espier a try (or seriously rethink your loyalty to Android). The launcher comes for free and the developers also offer other applications that will bring you a more iOS like experiences such as reminders or notifications.

Minimalistic & Intelligent Android Launcher

Some of us like to keep it simple and clean. Aviate,  Smart Launcher and Everything Home are three home screen replacements that bring a minimalistic, beautiful and smart UI to your Android device.

Aviate

Aviate simplifies your Android to the maximum and comes with a clean design, an intelligent and adaptive user interface as well simplified navigation. Based on your context and preferences, Aviate knows what to display and what not at certain times and locations. While it shows mostly office-related apps during the day, for instance, in the evening it suggests locations and lets you easily check-in using Google+ or Foursquare. It’s basically “an intelligent home screen built around you”. Apps are organized based on categories as well as alphabetical.

At the moment Aviate is only available invite-only, but you can get an invitation here. The app comes for free and is definitely something new and innovative. I’ve been using it for a few days not and really like it!

Smart Launcher

Smart Launcher minifies your Android home screen and offers a low resource and user-friendly interface. Apps in the app drawer are automatically sorted based on categories. The custom launcher is set-up quite fast and does not require much effort. For minimalists, Smart Launcher is a great alternative to the usual Android user interface. The standard version comes for free, with a pro version being available for $2.99 that offers widget support and multiple screen support.

Everything Home

Everything Home seeks to personalize your Android experience at all times. Simply add a certain keyword or search term and your phone or tablet will “change” itself automatically: You’ll get a new wallpaper and a selection of apps installed on your device as well as some fitting web apps that will be displayed on your home screen. Just tell your phone what you’re currently interested in and it will show you everything you need!

Interested? The launcher is available for free on Google Play. I personally did not like the Everything Home, because I don’t want to tell my phone every few minutes what I’m currently interested in just to be able to access certain apps. I also found that the icons of the web apps looked rather bad and I usually prefer native apps.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfEcHi3tmKY

Theme Launchers

If you’re into heavy theming and customizing your Android device, theme launchers might be the perfect pick for you. They heavily modify the home screen with widgets, icons and other graphics. Of course, you can always adjust any other of the launchers above manually, but theme launchers make the whole process a whole lot easier.

Buzz Launcher

Buzz Launcher offers an impressive amount of over 80,000 unique home screens to really personalize your Android experience. Unlike other launchers, you simply select a certain theme and the launcher will do the rest for you within a few seconds. To give your Android device a personal touch, you can adjust the wallpaper or icons. Buzz Launcher also supports gestures and is available for free on Google Play.

Themer

Themer is the “new kid on the block” in the field of theme launchers. With its 43 themes available, it can’t really compare to Buzz launcher in terms of numbers but doesn’t have to hide when it comes to quality. The included themes range from rather minimalistic to very complex and creative. Unfortunately, Themer is still in closed Beta, but you can request a code within the app itself. Check out my Themer review if you want to know more about these launchers.

Final Words

Android launchers are a great and easy way to enhance your Android experience. Some launchers “only” add a few features while others change the user interface completely. As most launchers come for free, I would suggest that you simply try out a few and decide afterward which one suits you the best. In the end it boils down to personal preference and that’s a decision that I can’t help you with (I wish I could, though!).

My personal recommendation for devices running Android 4.0 or higher would be Nova Launcher Prime, Themer or Aviate – depending on your personal preference. Take Nova Launcher Prime if you’re into the pure Android experience, Themer for some easy and great themes (duh) and Aviate for the personalized and minimalistic experience.

As I haven’t been using an Android 2.x device for quite some time, I can’t give you any real recommendation here. I think that I would go with Go Launcher Pro or Action for the sake of functionality while still maintaining a certain amount of speed.

Did I forget your favorite launcher? What are your experience with Android launchers? Please send me a message or simply comment below and I’ll make sure to include it in a future post!