These launcher apps will propel your Android experience

by Marty Gabel

One of the greatest things about the Android OS is its ability to be customized. Rather than being stuck with the same look and feel, Android users have the opportunity to tweak their home screen, icons, and widgets in a multitude of ways to get the look and feel they desire.

Manufacturers like HTC, Motorola and Samsung provide a ‘skin’ over the vanilla Android OS that users of Google’s Nexus One and Nexus S phones already enjoy. HTC’s “Sense,” for example, offers many handy widgets, but its overall intrusive behavior has upset many Android users looking for a more streamlined experience akin to Google’s original intentions with the OS. But even many Nexus One and Nexus S users themselves are also looking to improve the flow and functionality of their ‘plain-looking’ Android experience, and this is where the Android Market comes into play with its plethora of new ‘Launchers’ to enhance your daily phone use.

We’re going to look at a few of the popular ones here, but we’re not going to judge which one is best -- that’s something only readers can decide after trying them. There are many, many more launchers out there we won’t be covering, but this particular writer recommends reading an article by Mitch Harris at Radio Android for a very comprehensive look at 18 of them!

Five to start you off

ADW.Launcher (Free)

This open source launcher is a very popular choice. It lets users replace their application drawer, assign drag and drop action buttons and offers hundreds of themes in the Market so you can customize your set-up exactly as you like. ADW may seem a little overwhelming at first, but for power users it has an option for pretty much anything you can think of, and developers who continually strive to improve and enhance the app. Its flexibility and customization make ADW a great choice.

LauncherPRO (Free)

Another hugely popular choice with Android customization fans is LauncherPRO. Read any of the discussions in the forums about launchers, and there will be arguments for sure about which one is better. LauncherPRO allows users to have seven home screens, animated previews, cool app-drawer effects, and once again, a multitude of customization options. One feature of LauncherPRO that HTC phone users may like is its ability to allow them to still use their handy HTC Sense widgets on top of the new skin.

GO Launcher (Free)

One of the newer launchers on the market, GO Launcher prides itself on being quick and efficient. It offers the usual home screen and UI customization options similar to ADW and LauncherPRO, but also adds an in-built task manager, support for gestures and extra notifications options within the home screen dock. Icons are easily managed and you can organize items into convenient folders. As it’s still fairly young, expect GO Launcher to be updated and improve over the coming months.

aHome ($4.99)

aHome comes at a price ($4.99) but is a popular and well-received home screen replacement. It’s not as fully-functional or ‘tweakable’ as some of the other launchers out there, but instead goes for a simpler, more streamlined experience. Wallpapers and themes can be downloaded directly within the app, and there’s plenty of built-in widgets so users don’t have to spend time plowing through the Market for suitable ones. aHome’s simplicity is its prime advantage, but those looking for complete control over customization may be better served with ADW or LauncherPro.

Zeam Launcher (Free)

Android users desiring a more stripped-down, minimalist home screen look and feel, should try Zeam Launcher. It doesn’t overwhelm with confusing options, but still offers the ability to customize icons and features scrollable widgets, multiple dock options and more. Zeam is lightweight and fast which will definitely appeal to many users looking to save battery power and for those who may find that the other launchers in the Market make their Android experience a little sluggish.

What next?

So you’ve got your launcher installed and are happy with it. What next? Well, there are thousands of themes and widgets available in the Android Market which you may want to investigate. Because these launchers run on top of your existing Android ‘skin’, many users may find some of their beloved proprietary system widgets may not function properly. However, do not fear, there are plenty of alternatives available to make life easier. And remember, you don’t need to have installed a new launcher to get the best out of these!

Beautiful Widgets (~$1.95)

This popular app offers a set of widgets including clocks, weather and toggle switches, many with beautiful animations and plenty of functionality. Most impressive, however, are the 375 free skins to change the look and feel of your Android experience, so your home screen will be thoroughly unique and always adaptable.

Pure Calendar Widget (~$2.00)

A great calendar/agenda replacement for one of your home screens, Pure Calendar allows users to sync appointments and notes with Google Calendar, Astrid, TouchDown and other apps, multiple skins and sizes, plus the ability to be ‘scrollable’ if using ADW.Launcher or LauncherPRO. Its fresh, clean look makes it a perfect replacement to the stock calendar. Worth noting: the developer has additional widgets in the market for messaging, weather and music.

ADW Theme TRON Legacy Pro (~$0.94)

Now, we’re not singling this one out because we think ADW is the best launcher, we’re merely using the TRON Legacy Pro theme as an amazing example of what can be done with imaginative Android skins. This sci-fi theme with its specific widgets, wallpapers, and new icons demonstrates an incredible attention to detail and the ability to dress up your Android device with a unique look and feel that will make it stand out from the crowd.

To root or not to root?

Finally, a quick word about ‘rooting.’ Only for those brave souls willing to mess around with the deepest guts of the Android operating system, and all the potential landmines along the way, rooting is a method of giving Android owners 'superuser privileges' which allow them more control over the operating system. Those prepared to take the gamble will be rewarded with an amazing selection of themed skins and mods that go beyond even anything discussed here, and the true ability to customize your Android experience from the ground up with fewer restrictions. Try it if you dare, but before you dive-in be sure to check out the XDA Developers forums and their handy app for useful tips and advice.

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