It’s Customization Month on Android.Appstorm! Throughout March, we plan to share with you all our tips, tricks, apps and resources to help you improve your phone or tablet experience and make them suit your style.
At the heart of your Android experience with your device is the launcher — this is the program that allows you to view and start all your apps, add widgets to your home screen and customize the way you interact with your phone or tablet. Setting it up correctly will allow you to not only access the information and tools you need quickly, but also personalize the way the OS looks and feels, to suit your taste.
You’ll want to choose a launcher based on your version of Android as well as your personal needs and preferences, and there’s a vast array of them to choose from in the Play Store — but to get started, you should probably first explore the default launcher that your device ships with — especially if you’re running Android 4.x. Today, I’m going to go over some basic ways of setting up your launcher, with tweaks that are generally available across the spectrum of different launchers to help you get familiar with the possibilities and benefits of doing so.
Android allows you to apply two kinds of backgrounds to your home screen: static images, and Live Wallpapers, which run animations and in some cases, respond to gestures. You can apply any image in common formats as a wallpaper by either locating it in a gallery app and tapping the Set As… > Wallpaper option, or by long pressing anywhere on your home screen and selecting the Wallpaper option to choose a new one.
I generally grab wallpapers from sites like PickyWallpapers, or use an app like Wallbase or ZEDGE to do so, and find that it’s a good idea to get them in a resolution that’s equal to or larger than your device’s screen resolution so that you don’t see any pixelation. Plus, Nova Launcher allows you to have your home screen follow the orientation of your device — portrait or landscape, in the Look and Feel settings — and high-resolution wallpapers will look good both ways.
Change your wallpaper by using images from your device (left); Wallbase has a great selection of wallpapers (right)
If you frequently use an app or several, you can quickly place them on the home screen for easy access — simply open the App Drawer, long-press any app icon and drag it onto the home screen which subsequently appears. Nova Launcher allows you to edit the app icon itself — by loading an icon from your gallery or from an icon pack — as well as its label. You can also toggle the app label display off, if you like.
You can also group icons into folders on your home screen to reduce clutter while still having your apps within easy reach — with most launchers, you can do this by dragging any icon onto another icon to create a folder. You can then name the folder and change the way icons within it are displayed, or use a different icon for that folder too.
Icons grouped into folders by activity (left); An open icon folder (right)
I like to group my apps by the kind of activity they allow me to indulge in — for example, my sources of news, ebook and RSS feed apps (Press, Pocket, Aldiko Reader and Feedly) are in a folder labeled Read, while my games are in a folder labeled Play. And instead of having a layout of multiple little icons for each of these folders (generated by the launcher), I prefer to have icons for each folder that represent that activity. Customizing folders is as easy and basically the same as customizing an individual app icon.
You can change an icon for an app as well as its label
You can trick out your home screen to make information and functions more easily reachable by using widgets that ship with apps: view your calendar without opening the app, read and reply to texts, emails and tweets, check weather and flight statuses, control your device’s settings, music, and more. There are also customizable widget engines like Beautiful Widgets, HD Widgets, Widgetsoid, Minimalistic Text and UCCW to toggle settings and display data.
Widgets bring information and functions to your homescreen
Newer launchers allow you to resize widgets and even have them overlap each other, allowing you to create all kinds of configurations with custom widgets like those you’ll find on more adventurous layouts over at MyColorScreen, a community built around mobile UI customization.
Android’s dock has room for a few persistent icons at the bottom of the screen, which remain viewable across homescreens, as seen in the screenshot above. Modern launchers, including Nova Launcher, allow you to add pages of dock icons, so you can scroll through those as well, independent of the active home screen. Adding icons here works the same way as adding apps to your homescreen.
I like to keep my most-used apps in the dock, such as the dialer, camera (I use Camera Zoom FX), SMS (Chomp SMS for me), Gmail, Chrome, the Play Store, DoubleTwist Alarm Clock, and AirDroid. With Nova Launcher, you can adjust the size of dock icons, set the number of icons per dock page and how many dock pages you want to have.
This is perhaps one of the neatest customization features in Android: shortcuts allow you to launch app-specific actions directly, without having to open the app. For example, you could add a shortcut to call or text a contact just by tapping his/her icon from the home screen, get directions back home from wherever you are, open a Dropbox folder or type out a Twitter update.
To do so, simply long-press on the home screen and open the Shortcuts menu to see what shortcuts your apps make available — my favorite is the record button from Easy Voice Recorder (a lovely free app for high-quality recording) that I’ve placed in the dock for one-touch recording, since I can’t add a widget there.
A selection of shortcuts to choose from (left); Digging into Nova Launcher’s Activities to find a shortcut (right)
If you can’t find what you want using Nova Launcher, tap the Activities option and you’ll get to see all the actions your apps can carry out — this allowed me to launch Google Goggles‘ camera with one tap, bypassing the app’s launch screen; I similarly created a Quick Compose shortcut for Chomp SMS, which I activate with a gesture.
If you want to get the most of your touchscreen, consider using gestures to launch apps, actions and shortcuts. With just a pinch, swipe, double tap or two-finger rotation on any of your home screens, you can open up your app drawer or notification bar, view recent apps, jump to any page of your home screen, launch any app or even a shortcut.
Configure your gestures to launch actions, apps or shortcuts
Our Android devices are capable of so many functions, but you might want to separate your professional and recreational usage on them to stay focused, and one way to do that is by using multiple home screens effectively. Here’s an example of a three-screen setup:
Work: Office suite and accounting apps, Google Apps email shortcut, stock ticker widget
Home: To-do list, sticky notes and shortcuts to recipe books, home decor ideas and tools to measure length, sound and more.
Play: Games for the kids, games for yourself, and apps for watching video, streaming music and reading books, magazines and comics
You can easily configure multiple screens on most launchers this way. Some launchers, including Nova Launcher, allow you to create shortcuts to individual home screens too, which means you can get to any of these with a single tap and avoid distractions when you want to get some work done, or just kick back and relax with some music or video.
Shortcuts to multiple homescreens make navigation easier
Wondering how those beautiful home screens at MyColorScreen come together? Most of them use third-party launchers, user-skinnable widgets — like UCCW, which can display data like battery power, time, date and lots more that you can learn about in our recent UCCW article — and custom wallpapers and icons. Most configurations on the site include links to the apps and resources used to create them, so you can try them out and improvise on your own device.
A homescreen demoed on MyColorScreen (customization by ornberg)
Android is perhaps the most customizable mobile device OS out there, and I’d like to encourage all our readers to get to grips with your launchers in order to get the best experience possible for your needs with these simple tips. Show off your creations in the comments below, and feel free to drop in any questions you may have on how to get the most out of your launcher.