If you’re an Android user, you probably appreciate just how customizable and feature-rich the base operating system is. But things can always be improved, and by far the easiest way to expand the utility of your Android phone is by installing one of the many third-party launchers available on the Google Play Store.
These launchers make fundamental changes to standard Android and incorporate new features like enhanced home screen customization and in-depth gesture command editing. If you want Android to look and function exactly how you want, a launcher really is the best way you can achieve that.
What to Look for in a Launcher
There are a few key points you’ll want to use to compare various launchers against each other.
- Unique Features: There’s little point in installing a launcher if it doesn’t offer you something new. The best launchers out there integrate new features or designs into Android to deliver something useful while not completely ripping out what makes Android, well, Android.
- Visual Customization: Whether it’s changing UI colors or the shape of the icons, some great customization options are always appreciated. For some launchers, this is their main selling point, while others include stuff like this as a fun bonus.
- Active Development: For as many launchers as are currently available, there are also plenty that are no longer in development for various reasons. And when it comes to an app that’s affecting your phone at a deep level, you want to make sure it’s up to date. Because of that, we limited our selection of apps that are still under active development and have been recently updated.
Smart and Customizable: Smart Launcher 5
Smart Launcher 5 is a fairly straightforward launcher, but it packs a lot of useful stuff. The custom “SmartSearch” search bar can pull up articles, apps, and contacts quickly, a dedicated gridless widget page allows for as much freedom as possible, and apps auto-sort into categories in the app drawer to save you some hassle.
And that’s just the stuff on the home screen; Smart Launcher 5 also allows you to fully customize gesture controls and has slick menus for switching around the location of your home screen pages (So you can, for example, make your app drawer available via a right-swipe instead of the traditional upwards-swipe.). There are also a lot of visual options available, like various app icon shapes, UI colors, and multiple fonts.
Smart Launcher 5 is free to download, but there is a premium subscription in the app that grants access to deeper app organization, 3D perspective wallpapers, and two-finger gesture commands, among other things. For the premium version, you’ll have to pay $2.49 a month, $6.99 a year, or $16.99 for a lifetime license..
Ol’ Reliable: Nova Launcher
Nova Launcher is not only one of the most well-known launchers, but it’s also been around for quite a while—which means you should be able to count on it to stay around. And on top of that added stability, Nova Launcher includes some great features and options without straying much from the stock Android experience.
Nova primarily focuses on the home screen and app drawer. There are a lot of options available here, so let’s just go over the highlights. You can adjust the home screen grid layout (which is basically just how many apps will fit onto your home screen) and icon shapes, make substantial changes to how the app drawer looks, and easily swap between custom icon packs—you can even mix and match specific icons from various packs together.
The visual options are more than appreciated, and ensure that you can make your home screen and app drawer look exactly how you want with Nova Launcher. If you’re interested in having more tools like gesture commands or folders within the app drawer, then you’ll need to pick up the paid version of Nova Launcher, Nova Launcher Prime, for a one-time payment of $4.99.
Simple and Powerful: Apex Launcher
Featuring a simple and easy-to-use design, Apex Launcher is great if you’re new to using a third-party launcher (or you just want something straightforward) but still want a solid set of features. Apex Launcher lets you choose from various visual themes, allows you to adjust your home screen grid, and grants you a decent amount of control over how the app drawer functions. You can also edit gesture commands, and you’ll find your apps automatically sorted into various categories upon opening the home screen.
While Apex Launcher is free to download, it’s supported by ads. You can spend $3.99 every three months or buy the lifetime license for $8.99 to remove the ads, along with unlocking some additional stuff like unread badges and dual-finger gesture commands.
All-in-One: AIO Launcher
AIO Mobile Apps
AIO changes things up substantially from stock Android, as it heavily alters how the home screen looks and operates. Instead of a ton of widgets and app icons, everything from your apps, notifications, emails, calendar events, and more is combined into a single, scrollable screen. There’s a lot of data packed in here, and you can customize what shows up—there’s also an app sidebar available to act as your app drawer.
While this is a major shake-up, if you spend the time to adjust to it, it can come in handy. Having all of your important info in one place means you don’t have to switch between apps as often and gives you a better overall view of what’s going on at that moment. You can also unlock the ability to use custom app icons and even more viewable data by purchasing the full version of AIO, which costs a one-time payment of $3.99.
Best for Windows Users: Microsoft Launcher
For heavy Windows users, the Microsoft Launcher grants some additional functionality by allowing your phone and computer to sync-up easily. You can use Cortana and share sticky notes between your PC and phone, along with using the glance view to look at all your notifications, news updates, and calendar events in one place. On top of that, your app drawer gets a clean-looking Microsoft makeover. This launcher also allows you to use custom icons, customize various gesture commands, and access the Microsoft news feed.
And finally, one of the biggest advantages of Microsoft Launcher is that it delivers all of these excellent features completely for free.
Visual Freedom: Total Launcher
When it comes to visual customization, Total Launcher wants to grant you as many tools as possible. The app comes with loads of pre-installed widgets that can be deeply customized and has plenty of options for customizing your home screen—whether that’s app icons or different layouts. It may take a while to properly learn your way around the launcher, but if you’re into having a truly personalized home screen, then that time will be worth it.
Total Launcher is free to download, but if you want even more features (like gesture commands), then you’ll need to pick up Total Launcher Key from the Play Store for a one-time payment of $4.99.
One-Handed Design: Niagara Launcher (Early Access)
Niagara is a really unique launcher, but before we get into specifics, we want to warn you that it’s currently still under development, so don’t be surprised if you run into a few bugs while using it.
Niagara is designed to be fully usable with only one hand, and it achieves this by merging your home screen and app drawer together. You now have access to a master list of apps (arranged alphabetically) that you handpick favorites from to appear when you enter the home screen. From there, you can slide your thumb along either side of the phone to access a quick menu and jump straight to the part of the list you need to be at. For what Niagara is trying to achieve, it’s hard to think of a cleaner way to do it.
Niagara also has some options for customizing gesture commands and altering how the UI looks with different fonts and themes. This launcher is free to download, but if you want access to more features, like folders and the ability to hide the Android status bar, you’ll need Niagara Pro. This subscription costs $3.99 a year or $10.99 for a lifetime license—the developer has stated that the price is likely to go up after the app is out of early access, but lifetime licenses will still be respected.