Google Now Launcher has arrived, but you will be forgiven if you don't know much about it.
We are scratching our heads as to why Google Now Launcher was actually launched with minimal fanfare and a low-profile Google+ post. All we can say is: don't let the low-key launch fool you as this is one of Google's most important apps in years.
It is also a little bit of a secret - not much is know about Google Now Launcher and some are confused as to why you would actually need it on your phone.
That's why we have tried the launcher for ourselves and are here to tell you everything you need to know about the app that adds more Google to your Android phone...
What exactly is Google Now Launcher?
On an Android phone, the launcher is basically the maître d': it's the bit of software that welcomes you onto the phone, is in charge of the home screen, and does the behind-the-scenes launching of any apps. It's in charge of the layout of arguably the most important and frequently seen bits of the operating system, and as such is quite important.
It also tends to vary a fair bit between different Android-running phones. Vanilla Android, as released by Google, has a 'stock' launcher, but most third-party manufacturers like Samsung, Sony or HTC tend to use a software 'skin' on top of Android, which changes a bunch of things, including the launcher.
But, because this is Android, switching your launcher is pretty easy – hustle over to the Play Store, and there's innumerable free launchers just vying for your attention.
The Google Now Launcher, then, isn't a unique app – it goes in to bat against an already established market of other options, like the venerable Nova and Apex launchers that were around back when phones had trackballs and short trousers.
Where the Google Now Launcher is different is that it's the first time Google's released the stock Android launcher for download on the Play Store (with some caveats, which we'll mention later). This means that anyone with a device running Android 4.x can have the same experience that's previously only been available on the Nexus 5.
For those who need Google *Now*
The Google Now Launcher does pretty much what it says on the tin – it puts Google's personal assistant-cum-mind-reader, Now, front and centre on your phone. Google Now, in case you're not familiar, is the Google service that is meant to give you personalised information, without you even having to ask for it, in the form of 'cards' that pop up in your notification tray.
Now has existed on every Android device since July 2012 and Android 4.1, but to access it, you have to hold the home button, then swipe your thumb upwards: not exactly the most taxing gesture, truth be told, but it means that you only discover Google Now if you're specifically looking for it.
The Now Launcher changes that: your cards are now accessible through a simple left-swipe from your main homescreen page (which, by complete coincidence, is exactly how Spotlight search used to be accessed in iOS). It's a minor cosmetic change, for sure, but it makes Now far more prominent in the Android operating system, and is a clear sign that Google sees Now as being a tool for the general public, not the tech-blog-frequenting minority.
It's not all cosmetic changes, though. The biggest functional change the Now Launcher brings to the table is an always-on voice capability, like that found in the MotoX. Rather than having to tap a mic button to initiate voice command (as you had to do previously in Android), just preface your question with "Okay Google", and you can query the world's biggest search engine with whatever's bugging you.
Sadly, it's not quite as integrated as the Moto X's Touchless Control features: because the voice commands are a function of the Now Launcher, which is essentially an app. It only works when that app is open on your phone – i.e. when the phone's unlocked, and on the home screen.
The Moto X's Touchless Control, by contrast, is at your beck and call even when the phone's locked, or if you're in another app.
The voice recognition itself is just as fantastic, though: it handles British accents rather well, and the time lag between finishing speaking and bringing up the results is lightning-fast. Just like Siri, you're not limited to simple web searches, either – ask "Okay Google, what's my schedule like tomorrow?", and your phone will list exactly how many meetings you have to sit through.
Finally, if you're on an earlier version of Android than 4.4, the Google Now Launcher also means that you get lots of the 4.4 bells and whistles – transparent menu options, and a user experience that's generally a little faster and slicker.
What's good for you is good for Google
As significant as the Now Launcher is for you and me, it's an even bigger statement of Google's vision for Android down the line. The vast majority of the code for the Google Now Launcher isn't actually contained in the Launcher app, but rather in the Google Search app (the Launcher app is basically just an empty shell with a few lines of code that redirects everything to the Search app).
That, in turn, means that down the line, almost every Android phone will have to ship with the stock Android experience installed – sure, it might not be the default launcher, but it's the work of moments to enable it.
That follows the trend of Google trying to re-Googlify the Android experience – the integration of SMS into the Hangouts app, and the release of the stock keyboard on the Play Store were the opening shots, but forcing manufacturers to include the core Android launcher on every device? That's the full broadside.
How to install it
All that said, at the moment, if you want the Google Now Launcher (and you should – it's faster, slicker and more feature-packed than whatever you're running at the moment), you'll have to do a little work. For those of you with a Nexus device, or other Google Play Edition phone, it's easy enough – just downloadthis app from the Play Store, and Bob's your (slightly more Googlified) uncle.
For everyone else, the Now Launcher isn't officially supported, so you have to jump through one, very small, hoop. Make sure your version of Google Search is up-to-date on your phone, then download this file onto your computer. Hook up your phone to your computer with a USB cable, transfer the file across, then use a file browser on your phone to open the Google Now Launcher APK.
Once that's all done, you just have to go to Settings > Home, and select the Google Now Launcher as the default. Happy searching!