Want to upgrade your Android experience? Try upgrading your launcher.
Updated May 2017: Best Launchers has been overhauled and expanded into three categories. We have also removed Google Now Launcher ahead of its removal from the Google Play Store.
The way we arrange, organize, and interact with our apps on Android is called the launcher. Launchers usually consist of a series of home screens, where we can arrange app shortcuts and widgets and an app drawer. Every phone comes with a launcher, but when they drop the ball, there are endless third-party launchers that not only pick it up again but knock it clear out of the park.
Previous incarnations of this article have tried to claim that there is one launcher to rule them all, that there truly is a best launcher out there. I don't really believe that's possible, even though I have a launcher I personally value over all others. You use your phone differently than I do, and I use my phone differently than my co-workers do or my friends or my family. Everyone has their own perfect launcher, but if you haven't found your favorite yet, then here are a few launchers we think will satisfy users of every type.
Best light and easy launchers
Are you someone who doesn't want to mess with a lot of bells and whistles? Do you just want to put your most-used apps front and center, maybe a widget or two, and get one with your Android experience? You want a fast launcher, a light launcher, one that doesn't need a lot of fussing and tweaking, and these are the launchers for you.
Best light launcher: Evie Launcher
Evie Launcher is a relative newcomer to the launcher scene, especially next to storied launchers like Nova Launcher, but Evie is a light little launcher that doesn't quit and uses gestures in a few really good ways. First and foremost, like so many recent launchers, Evie has a swipe up gesture to open the app drawer. Another popular launcher gesture Evie has is the ability to double-tap the screen to put your phone to sleep, either using the phone-locking Instant Lock or Smart Lock-friendly Timer Lock. There's even a gesture shortcut to take you into Google Now, if you miss that dedicated page from Google Now Launcher.
Evie is easy to set up and run with, but you can customize the desktop grid and turn gestures on and off as needed.
You'd think that if Microsoft was going to bring a launcher to Android it'd be a launcher that matches the launcher on Windows Phone… and you'd be wrong. Arrow Launcher doesn't look a thing like Windows Phone, and if you didn't see the login prompts for OneDrive when you try to back up Arrow Launcher, you'd probably never guess it was one of its products.
Arrow Launcher is a browser that's centered around a clean home screen, an orderly utility page for widgets and cards, and a speedy app drawer where you can easily find your apps. Arrow is easy to set up and a breeze to navigate. It's not quite as bare-bones as Evie, but it is a light launcher that's well-worth considering, especially if you have an Outlook account for work or school that it can tie into for email and calendar appointments.
Do you want full control over your home screens? Want to set more than just an app grid and a widget or two? Want to make your home screen look and act the way you want? Then you want a customization-based launcher. Often called theming launchers because theming is one of their more obvious uses, these launchers are for far more than just making your home screen look pretty; they're for making your home screen function more efficiently and more effectively for your life.
By giving you control over gestures, advanced UI controls, and almost every aspect of your launcher experience, these launchers let you customize the way you interact with your phone in ways that truly exemplify the Android experience. These two customization-based launchers dominate much of the third-party launcher market, and there's a very good reason: they're awesome.
When we build themes for our Android Central readers, 9 times out of 10 the launcher we use to build it and to share it with you is Nova Launcher. It's an excellent launcher if you want to build complex themes or if you just want a smartly laid out launcher with excellent gesture controls.
Action Launcher 3 is one of the most popular launchers on the market, and the watchword of both the launcher and its users is QUICK. Quicktheme, Quickdrawer, Quickpage, Quickbar, quick, quick, quick. Action Launcher is determined to be a launcher that gets what you need done quickly so that you can get back to doing what really matters on your phone: wasting hours on gaming and Netflix. To ensure that Action Launcher 3 can be the quickest and best launcher for users who want to set everything up just so, Action Launcher 3 has taken it upon itself to be one of the most customizable launchers on the market, from its robust gesture controls to its ubiquitous Covers and Shutters to hide folders and widgets under a seemingly plain looking app shortcut.
There's a reason it's the only launcher Phil uses (miss you, Modern Dad!), and that's that Action Launcher 3 is damn good at what it does. While it's not quite as intense as Nova Launcher, it's a launcher that's incredibly... well, quick about getting you set up and on your way.
Tired of having to tell your launcher where you want everything? Want a launcher that will learn which apps you like and use more and put them at your fingertips? Want a launcher that knows where you are, what you're doing, and wants to help? You're looking for a smarter launcher, and luckily we've got some launchers that are looking to learn from you and bring the most intelligent launcher experience they can to your phone.
Best smart launcher: Yahoo Aviate Launcher
Yahoo bought its way into the launcher game with Yahoo Aviate Launcher years ago, and the launcher's done fairly well since its acquisition. Aviate uses a combination of the Google Now-like Smart Screen and predictive collections to help you find what you want quicker and keep your launcher experience light and quick. Aviate figures out where you are and what time of day it is and serves up relevant collections, so you can better handle those activities. For example, if you plug in your headphones, it offers you quick access to media controls and your favorite music apps.
Aviate excels for having a high amount of polish and minimal maintenance, even though you might lose out on some customizability.
Smart Launcher 3 is a lot more customization-based than Aviate, but it's still a launcher with algorithms and intelligence at its core, sorting your app drawer into five categories and putting a search bar at the top of your launcher screens. Smart Launcher 3 has some interesting theming support, including its iconic "Flower" QuickStart layout for the apps on your home screen and its new Icon Pack Studio, but its implementation of widgets and item placement on its home screens keeps us from calling it a true theming launcher.
Smart Launcher 3's real magic come from the app drawer and the search bar, where optimization and search can help you find the apps and information you need quickly and easily.