Who says Android has to be dull and ugly? This is a misconception that has been perpetuated since the days of the T-Mobile G1 and the first version of Android. The UI might have been basic and quite square back then, but fortunately this isn’t the case now. Thanks to the openness of the ecosystem, a slew of launchers and themes, and various mods, it is now possible to customize every single nook and cranny inside your phone.
As a matter of fact, this world of customization is the main reason I love Android and never get bored of it, even after a year of tinkering. Below, you will find an assortment of tools to help you get started, improve and even master the art of modding your Android interface.
BAZINGA! The Sheldon Cooper homescreen, one of my own setups
Find The Inspiration
Whether you’ve just decided to get started on modding or you already customize your Android device to the bones but have lost your inspiration, myColorscreen is, by far, the best place to get started. This website is a community-generated repository of Android (and iPhone) homescreens, sorted by popularity and views, with one screen of the day handpicked by the editors.
myColorscreen's screens of the day
The great thing about myColorscreen – other than housing any and all homescreen styles – is that most screens are tagged with the appropriate Market application used to make each element, and some users are helpful enough to link to the icon sets and wallpapers they used. You can then easily see all the details that have gone into realizing a certain look and try to emulate it on your own. Here is, for example, a link to my BAZINGA! homescreen with all the details.
Lifehacker Homescreen Showcase
The Lifehacker homescreen showcase is a nice place to check if you’re getting started on Android modding. You are farless likely to find the tweaked-to-oblivion setups that are abundant on myColorscreen, but you will probably find some good ideas there. It is also harder to browse through all setups, and the amount of details regarding each one (widgets, wallpaper, icons) relies on how much the user decided to share. There are no direct tags on the screen, so you’re left to guess what each element is made from.
Another great place to look at is the XDA-Developers forums. Depending on your device, you can almost always find an XDA thread entitled “Show Your Device X’s Homescreen” in the specific subforums. The setups range from very basic to quite complex; the amount of details shared depends on the user who uploaded it; and most times you end up having to guess how to achieve a certain look. You are also bound by the forum-nature of the threads, so you have to scroll through replies, reposts, and questions, to get to the next shared homescreen.
If you’re serious about modding your Android device’s look, you can scratch off the default launcher that comes with it. Whether it’s Sense, TouchWiz, MotoBLUR, vanilla Android, or anything else, none of these allow for any real customization. The grid size is set in stone, the icons aren’t modifiable, and there’s likely zero chance of you removing the dock or notification bar if you need to.
A customizable replacement launcher should let you change the grid size to allow for more icons, support resizable and scrollable widgets, personalized app drawers, gestures to launch certain elements, customizable icons and wallpapers with varying themes, animations for switching screens, and more.
I will not focus on every feature in these launchers as most of them are quite similar and the details have been covered before with our pick of the best Android homescreen launchers. I will, however, highlight the striking differences and the reasons you consider each of them over any of the others, depending on your usage.
ADWLauncher, which comes included with CyanogenMod 7, has long been my favorite launcher. It’s fast, it’s stable, and it allows for a lot of customization without being bloated with options that are impossible to decipher. The EX version was offered for 0.10$ during Google’s 10 day Market sale and I was ecstatic to buy it as it offers more options. It was also updated, to add support for Ice Cream Sandwich and tablets, merge the Dockbar and dock into one, and most importantly add Folders. If you bought it during the sale too, do yourself a favor and start using it right away.
If you look at any of the homescreen showcase websites named above, you’ll find many setups with LauncherPro as their base. It has been available for a long time, and although updates are getting slow and stale, it has garnered a huge fan base thanks to its speed and exclusive Sense-like widgets that allow access to Facebook, Twitter, Contacts, Bookmarks, and so on, all from the homescreen.
Out of all these launchers, GO is the only one that offers a free pro version with a lot of options. This has been one of the reasons for its marked success.
Go Launcher EX
GO’s awesome distinctive feature, however, is that most themes can apply a certain shape and background to all icons, even if the corresponding application does not have a customized icon in the theme itself. So instead of ending up with half the icons modded and half still the same, you will have a more uniform look across all your icons. Add the fact that GO also boasts a set of dedicated widgets, à la LauncherPro, and you have a real winner for the theming freaks.
If you’re looking for minimalism, you can’t go wrong with Zeam. It has undergone a huge diet in terms of features and footprint, in order to become a lean, fast launcher, but without themes, animations or any of the fluff that comes with ADW, GO or LauncherPro.
QQLauncher differs from the above 4 launchers in that it tries its best to emulate a MIUI look, whether you’re running a MIUI ROM or not. There is built-in theme support, some included toggle widgets, and lots of animations. QQLauncher is worth a go if you’re already running MIUI, as it will keep with the same spirit while adding options that are non-existent in the default launcher, like resizable widgets for example.
SPB Shell is the opposite of Zeam, as far as launchers go. SPB embraces animations, effects, rendering, and all the fluff that only a fast, dual-core processor can handle on a daily basis, and churns out a gorgeous interface, that is tweakable only to a certain extent. I recommend using SPB Shell 3D only if you want to make the least effort, and still end up with something beautiful yet quite commercial.
While replacing the default launcher on your phone is almost a necessity if you want to customize your device’s feel, changing the lockscreen, on the other hand, is mostly optional. Some people like tweaking lockscreens with widgets, wallpapers and different unlock styles, but others are happy with the default lockscreen. We have previously put together 11 different lockscreen replacements, but the three most configurable ones are listed below.
WidgetLocker has long been championed as “the” lockscreen replacement app, and that’s for valid reasons. It supports widgets and shortcuts – just like on the regular homescreen – as well as a different lockscreen wallpaper from your home, and best of all, it can be modded with a multitude of themed unlock sliders.
MiLocker is based on MIUI ROM’s built-in locker. It carries on all the wonderful themes and unlock mechanisms available for that, which are quite a huge amount. It focuses on the actual lock aspect of the lockscreen, with calls and messaging accessible in some themes. MiLocker doesn’t support widgets or shortcuts and only allows for changing the image wallpaper.
GO Locker only works if you’re already using GO Launcher EX. It is quite similar to MiLocker in that it focuses on the unlock mechanism with themes, but also adds shortcuts for the dialer, messages and camera and allows you to modify these to your liking.
Any good Android homescreen setup relies on a great wallpaper. It can range from a simple monochrome patterned image, to a colorful landscape or design; it can be abstract or real or 3D. What matters is having a good resolution, aligning it well so that the elements on top don’t interfere with it, and finding a homogenous mix between it and the rest of the widgets and icons.
Coveroid has one of the most impressive catalogue of wallpapers available, divided by categories and subcategories. They also offer an awesome Android application, with handpicked wallpapers, if you want to browse directly on your phone: Coveroid Wallpapers HD.
Wallbase is the place to hit if you’re looking for wallpapers with a very specific color tone. They do offer regular browsing, searching by keywords, but their stellar feature is the option to filter wallpapers based on a hex color code.
If you haven’t heard of DeviantART, you must be living under a rock. It’s a community-based portfolio for anything related to graphics, imaging, and photography. Finding wallpapers there for your device is a matter of searching for your phone’s name, or looking inside community groups focused on Android, like #Android-Users.
InterfaceLIFT are quite famous in the computer wallpaper community, and they recently added the option to filter by and support Android phone and tablet screen resolutions. The quality there is usually stunning so be prepared to lose countless hours browsing their collection.
Wallpapers HD is an Android wallpapers application, quite like Zedge, except that it offers a similar feature to Wallbase right on your phone: you can filter and browse wallpapers by color. Unlike Wallbase however, you can’t set the hex color code, but have to use the built-in general color differentiation (blue, green, white, black…).
Apps to Make Use of Great Wallpapers
Unless you push it further, a great wallpaper is just that: great. However, if you’re planning on going beyond great, here are two applications you should consider adding to your arsenal.
Open any image on your device and you can use Image Color Picker to pinpoint and find the RGB and hex color code of any pixel in it. It might sound like a gimmick or something only geeks and designers would be into, but if you’re picky about achieving a homogenous feel between your wallpaper and widgets (especially those that allow you to change elements’ colors), then you need this data.
If, for example, you wanted to use a black wallpaper with red elements, being able to find the exact red tone and use it in Minimalistic Text, Widgetsoid or Missed It – we will talk about these later on, don’t worry – can go a long way to maintain a certain harmony in your home setup.
While browsing through the various setups on myColorscreen, one constant that keeps popping up is people using different wallpapers on each of their screens. Stock Android, and every other launcher, limits you to one wallpaper that is scrollable, so how can this be possible? With MultiPicture, that’s how. You choose how many wallpapers to include, crop them, change their order, and then apply it as a simple Live Wallpaper. If you want different styles for different aspects of your home setup, this is the way to go.
A Matching Set of Icons
If you open up your app drawer now and take a look, you’ll see icons of all shapes, colors and sizes. There is no escaping how much of a cacophony of design this lack of strict guidelines (like iOS provides for example) creates. Hence, any Android modder will tell you that there’s a lot of satisfaction in finding an icon set that is well-designed, looks clean, and fits the rest of their home’s setup.
Metrostation is an icon pack that integrates with launchers like ADW, GO and LauncherPro, and allows you to pick each icon separately. It follows the Windows Phone 7 Metro look, with small icons inside a circle which gives a similar look and feel to all your homescreen apps. However, it adds one wonderful feature: you can pick a color for all the icons, so you’re not bound by the white look, but can go for red, blue, green or any other color of Metro icons.
Last year, Paul from Tehkseven released a collection of 12 Android icon sets for free. These range from flat to glowing, from black and white to colored, but every iconset is quite consistent with shapes and colors being the same for all applications.
Like for wallpapers, there are a lot of Android icon sets available on DeviantART. You can search for these, but you can also look in user groups, like #Android-Users. Most sets are available to download for free; some are quite huge with over hundreds of icons; others are limited with a dozen or so – but the quality is usually spectacular.
I am specifically highlighting this iconset, as it is quite different from the regular android square/circle icon size and shape. These are all rectangular icons, with text and images, and Melissa offers a black and white version as well as a colored version for you to choose from. You can apply them to your applications with Desktop VisualizeR (see below).
Press It Icons
You can start by hitting our own 30+ Gorgeous Icon Sets For Android, you can try a Google search for other articles, or you can find good icon sets while browsing other people’s setups on myColorscreen, Lifehacker’s Homescreen Showcase or the threads on XDA-Developers. Generally, there is no central repository for icons, and you’re left on your own to try and find the ones that will suit you.
Once you have all the elements that will define your homescreen’s setup, you should find an overall theme that suits this setup. Android interface themes change the popup dialogues, notification bar and drop down, settings screen, highlights and menus. They are exclusive to certain custom ROMS, like CyanogenMod and MIUI, and most times require root (except if you’re lucky enough to have T-Mobile Theme Chooser pre-installed on your phone).
If you’re running MIUI, you’ll know that it includes its own theme browser and manager. However, CyanogenMod and other ROMs with Theme Chooser don’t have this option, so you have to look around for them. You can start with our own 7 Awesome Themes For CyanogenMod, look on myColorScreen, DeviantArt or XDA-Developers, or use the sources below.
N3xGen is an Android application that acts as a directory for themes. It supports ADW Launcher and LauncherPro, but most importantly, it supports Theme Chooser themes. It lists themes by free, paid, and categorizes them by color, occasion, or certain categories. The themes link to their Market pages so you end up getting them from the official source.
These themes are worth featuring on their own as they are free, based on Ice Cream Sandwich and extremely well made. Sonny started with a first Ice Cream Sandwich theme, then moved on to create eight other color variations of it: cyan, dark blue, green, gingerbread, red, orange, pink and purple. They are also complemented by matching LauncherPro Widgets and Android Widgets Pro themes.
Going Beyond the Theme: Morphs
Morphs are modifications to the aspects of the interface that regular themes can’t touch, like the lockscreen, power menu, and call screen. Some CyanogenMod themes mention in their Market description that they require a certain morph to be applied to achieve the same look as in the screenshots. Other morphs aren’t specific to a theme, but can be applied on top of any. All of them however, are provided as zip files that aren’t specific to any device so you will have to use ZipThemer (below) to repackage them for your phone, and head into Recovery Mode to apply them, like you do with any ROM update. Obviously, morphs require your phone to be rooted.
ZipThemer is a simple application that will allow you to load a modification morph as a .zip, repackage it with your current ROM’s files (no matter what it is), and turn it into a flashable file that you can apply in Recovery Mode. ZipThemer can also package an “undo” flashable for you that will allow you to go back to the way things are, in case the morph isn’t to your liking.
Font Changer is the application you will need to apply any font to your Android device. There’s a Basic tab that allows you to pick a font and apply it, changing almost all the current fonts on your phone, and an Advanced tab. Tinkering with the Advanced settings will let you change specific fonts independently.
Fachadick has a blog dedicated to fonts for Android. His entries list the font name, and provide screenshots with it applied and a link to the zip file. You can either flash the zip in Recovery Mode, or unpack it and paste the font in the Font Changer directory then apply it from there.
djjonastybe, an XDA-Developers forum user, provides a link to a three-part pack of over 100,000 fonts that can be applied with Font Changer on Android. I believe he did a terrific job of finding every font that was ever made and packing it into that file. The collection supports several languages, and ranges from fonts that lack certain symbols, to complete fonts. Basically, with one hundred thousand fonts, there are bound to be some of poor quality, some of excellent quality, and a lot that are average.
Roboto, Nokia Pure and Segoe
If you’re looking for high quality fonts that do not hinder readability and were made with mobile phones in mind, then these are the three you should start with. Roboto is the new Android font that Google is championing for Ice Cream Sandwich, Segoe is the font known in Microsoft’s Windows Phone Metro, and Nokia Pure is Nokia’s new interface font (use this if you’re running MIUI ROM).
This set of widgets is your ally if you want to use special or no icons to create shortcuts to applications or actions on your homescreen. Desktop VisualizeR lets you pick any widget size, set an image, or no image, and the action it should perform with its label. This is the application to use to apply the quirky Press It Icons mentioned previously.
If you’re looking for a highly customizable clock and/or weather application, Beautiful Widgets is it. I personally never gave it a chance, as I was always appalled by the Sense-like feel of the Market screenshots, but I eventually got it; lo and behold, there are hundreds of skins to choose from, and many are clean and well put together.
You haven’t really modded your Android homescreen until you have mastered Minimalistic Text. The application can be used to create anything, from small widgets that launch an application, to big widgets that offer a ton of information: time, date, weather, custom text, battery level, available RAM, and more.
Minimalistic Text is highly customizable with colors, and this is where your hex color codes found with Image Color Picker can be put to good use.
Missed It is a personalized widget that can show the number of missed calls, unread messages, email, and any other application that uses the notification system. You can pick the number’s color when or when not in use, choose numbers or letters, change the text written for every element, realign everything, add a background…
Like the name says, Make Your Clock is your own clock widget application. It feels a lot like a design application, as you can pick each element and move it, color it, and resize it, individually. Fortunately, there is a gallery of finished setups that you can download and even modify. The pro version adds access to other features like battery and stats.
I have tried dozens of toggle widgets, but none of them come close to Widgetsoid’s options. All toggles work perfectly, there are even stats icons and you can add your own application. Plus, every aspect is highly customizable: background, separators, switches, colors, trigger settings…
Phantom is a clean music controller widget that can embrace several looks: Metro, Sense, Minimalistic and more. The background, music player application, volume buttons, artist and song, can be removed or changed to your liking.
Pure Messenger Widget is a set of widgets that are axed on social features: messages, email, calls, Twitter and Facebook. Several themes are supported, and many aspects of the widgets can be customized.
For a clean and well presented calendar widget, Simple Calendar does a perfect job. It supports various sizes, styles, calendars, font colors and backgrounds for a look that can easily fit the rest of your homescreen.
Minimal Reader is a clean RSS news widget with a full news pop-up that can be personalized to your liking: refresh rates, backgrounds, colors, filters, scrolling…
Lots of Transparent Widgets
There’s a good chance that you’re going through this whole article and thinking “great, but no matter how much I clean and customize my homescreen, the Twitter (or Facebook, Evernote, Google+…) widget will come with its white or black background and make everything look useless by covering it up and messing with my clean setup”.
For you, there’s a solution in this huge XDA-Developers thread that lists a series of community-modded applications whose widgets have been made transparent with white, black or blue text. You can even request an application if you don’t find it there and hope that someone answers you back.
Obviously, these are a departure from the secure official apps, so you might want to proceed with a bit of caution and common sense, and check each modded application’s permission requests before installing it.
Do You Know Others?
I have been learning and trying to mod my Android’s homescreen for many months now, and this list is a personal compilation of resources that I’ve accumulated over time. However, when it comes to modding, there’s a vast world out there, so be sure to mention any resources I didn’t list in the comments below.