By Andrew C. – Writer, TDG Online
Welcome back to the battlefield, Droid Guy readers. Today I am going to be comparing the most popular app launchers for your favorite mobile OS, Android. If you are anything like me, when I first heard of a Launcher you were like, “what is that?”. Coming from the land of Blackberries, I can say that it’s similar to a theme for Blackberry. The desktop is the main view for the phone when Android first loads, and the launcher will allow the user to change the view or behavior of the Android desktop. That being said, when I first started to read about app launchers for Android there were a lot of terms being thrown around that made no sense at all to me. I really had no idea if it mattered what an app drawer looked like because I had no idea what that was. So, for those of you who are not familiar with you Android phones, and the anatomy of the Android desktop, allow me to break it all down for you in the next section. I plan to give you some basic information about the parts of the Android desktop. Immediately following that, I will tell you about a great app that allows you to easily try different launchers, and set defaults. Finally, for those of you who are too cool for tutorials and lessons in such noobishness, feel free to skip on down to the reviews section.
The Android Desktop
The picture above is a visual learning tool to help me describe the android desktop, and it allows me to show off my advanced Photoshop skills (just kidding). The following terms describe the anatomy of the android desktop or home:
- Background or Wallpaper – The pretty picture in the background behind all of the application icons on your desktop. In this case the screen capture on the left shows the Android mascot, Andy, eating an apple. That is the wallpaper or background on this desktop.
- Pagination Dots – These little dots (highlighted in blue) help to show you what page in your entire desktop (which can consist of several pages) you are on.
- Dockbar – the group of icons at the bottom of the page that are usually set to launch frequently-used applications like the dialer, or the call log.
- The App Drawer – the page or group of pages that allows users to quickly look through all of their installed applications is the app drawer. Usually viewed by clicking on a button that looks like a grid on the dockbar.
- Status Bar – the bar that is usually at the top of the page that shows the time, battery life remaining, and notification icons.
- Notifications – the gray page that gives you more detailed information about notifications (not shown).
- Highlighting – color that highlights selected icons (not shown).
- Widgets – special icons that serve a specific purpose. Example, icons that look like a large clock, or icons that scroll the latest news (not shown).
Now that we know a bit about the parts of the Android desktop, let me introduce you to the best way to try out newAndroid launchers, Home Switcher. Normally, when you download a new android desktop, you are required to select a launcher to open when you press the home button on your device. On the same screen you are able to select to make your choice be the default from now on. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, the kicker is, if you decide to change your launcher back to your default, or another already installed launcher, you have to navigate to the current default launcher application under you settings and choose to clear the default. This can be a pain, and I’d imagine that if you don’t change your launcher quite often, it may be difficult to figure out which launcher you are using. That’s where Home Switcher comes in, when you start home switcher all of you launchers that are installed will display, and each will have buttons that you can click to either launch it, or make it the default. This makes trying out new launchers fast and easy.
I thought it would be wise to begin reviewing app launchers by starting with my device’s default launcher. As a Samsung Vibrant owner, my device came out of the box with TouchWiz 3 installed. TouchWiz 3 is a rather simple, fast launcher, with relatively few customization options, but several custom widgets. There are a few widgets for timekeeping, a couple for contacts and social media updates, and a news reader. As far as behavior and appearance modifications go, you are allowed to change your wallpaper, and you can change the number of screens (up to 7) on your desktop, and the order, but that’s really it. The stock launcher and it’s widgets will vary by manufacturer and device, so if you are a Galaxy S owner, this is what you get with no changes whatsoever.
The second launcher that is out to claim dibs on your home screens is Helix. Helix’s response time when you press a command is very fast. It is easily one of the fastest launchers, if not the fastest that I’ve seen. Helix is probably not going to win over anyone with its widgets, because there aren’t any, but it does offer some customization options that you stock browser is most likely missing. Helix dock can contain up to 5 icons, and users can pick which applications that they want to have on the dock. It also supports screen rotation so that the desktop screens can be viewed either horizontally or vertically once the option is activated in the configuration menu.
Of all the launchers that I have tried out for this review, I would have to say that Home++ has to be the most unique. This launcher is not heavy in the widgets department, but it does offer up its own flip-style clock and calendar widgets. Home++, like Helix supports screen orientation and up to seven screens. It gives users the option of scrolling, or locking the wallpaper screen. It supports a feature called workspace looping, that allows you to keep scrolling in one direction and you will continue to go through the screens from one to the next, and back to the beginning. All of these options are nice, and expected for a custom launcher, but the features that really make Home++ stand out are contained in the what it calls the power strip.
The power strip is a group of 6 buttons that replace the doc bar, and when scrolled to the right, users will find that there is a mini status bar that replaces the dockbar. The buttons in the power strip perform the following actions, open voice search, launch browser, show the app drawer, show notifications, show bookmarks, and launch the task manager. The built-in task manager that allows users to end all running apps, with the option of ignoring any apps that the users chooses to ignore. The mini status bar gives users a quick way to change their phone’s ring type, change their data connection settings, and view the battery usage statistics, which are not usually easy to find when searching for them in the settings menu.
On important item of not is that the Home++ launcher can seem a bit slow to respond when viewing the app drawer, but users should be aware that there is a settings in the app itself that can be changed to increase the performance of the app drawer display for this launcher.
If you have ever fooled around with CyanogenMod you may be familiar with our next entry in the battle for your desktop. ADW.Launcher (ADW) is a 100% open source application that is featured as the stock launcher in CyanogenMod, an open-source, community built distribution of Android. ADW.Launcher is a very robust launcher app when it comes to customization. ADW allows users to have up to seven screens. On those screens, ADW allows users to customize its dockbar’s three buttons. It also allows users to show and hide the status bar with as little as a simple swipe, allows users to customize icon labels, pagination dots, swipe actions, and set default home screens. It supports either horizontal or vertical app drawer scrolling, and it lets users choose how many apps to display in the app drawer, or the desktop on a single screen. ADW offers a preview feature that allows users to view a small single-screen rendering of the entire desktop for quick navigation and organization.
The ADW desktop is quite fancy, and customizing it, can be quite a daunting task, but for users who do not wish to make every decision for himself there is quite a selection of ADW themes readily available for download from the Android Market. The most recent version of ADW has an extensive theme database featuring lots of free and premium themes developed by the Android community. Finally, once you get ADW set up like you like it, be sure to take advantage of it’s nice backup feature, and hope you never need to try out the restore feature.
I would like to add that during the testing of ADW on my device I experienced no lag whatsoever, which may have been due to an upgrade since the last time I gave this launcher a whirl.
LauncherPro is a launcher that is both super-fast and chocked full of customization goodness. You can pretty much customize everything with it. It boasts all of the wonderful customization options that are listed above under ADW with the exception of the ADW themes. LauncherPro adds to the list of options, a customizable 5 button dockbar that is actually scrollable up to 3 docks, so for all of you math majors out there that is 15 total dock buttons available for customization! LauncherPro also offers Unread count icons for certain notification apps, it allows the memory conscious users to keep tabs on memory usage, and it even has a feature that lets users choose apps to “hide”.
LauncherPro is highly customizable, and has lots of advanced features that can appeal to even the most demanding Android enthusiast to tinker with while still giving the everyday Android users a solid launcher to just use. As a matter of fact, for those of you out there with a highly capable HD display like the one found on the Galaxy S devices, I suggest you give LauncherPro’s 3-D app drawer a try, and show it off to all of your friends, it’s simply beautiful.
LauncherPro is the only Launcher app reviewed that has a premium version. Launcher Pro Plus gives the users access to four widgets that handle contacts, bookmarks, calendaring, and messaging.
After spending some time with each of these launchers, I was able to see that each one had a something to offer over the others. Some were simplistic, and offered the user basic functionality without the fuss of having to change any settings, or worry about the settings. Some found useful ways to handle common tasks like viewing battery usage statistics. In the end, I feel like any of these launchers would serve you well as you default desktop launcher, but one stands out above the rest. Overall, I have to recommend LauncherPro. Simply put, LauncherPro does it all. From displaying all the widgets and desktop components to displaying nearly none of them at all, and hiding stuff you don’t want to be easily viewable, LauncherPro aims to please. You really just have to give this app a try.
Thanks for checking out the App Battle for this week. As always, be sure to let us know what you think about Android desktop launchers below in our comments section. Let me know what I missed, tell us what kind of apps you would like to see compared, or just tell us what you’ve got installed, and why. We look forward to hearing from you.