Essential Launcher Features

So, you’ve decided to move past “stock”, knock the “Sense” out of your HTC, make Motorola’s launcher a “Blur-ry” memory, or avoid “TouchWiz” (who can blame you about that?). Now you’re ready to get down to business and see what’s available in Goggle Play for a new home replacement.  What things should you consider when evaluating a launcher replacement?  This article covers the essential features o Android launchers and key points to consider when determining which one is right for you.  LauncherLand uses these criteria as key components of our launcher reviews.

Feature 1: Compatibility

The version of Android running on your device immediately narrows the field of custom launchers you can install.   Some launchers work terrifically on Android Eclair (2.1) and FroYo (2.2) but fall apart on Gingerbread (2.3).  Only a handful of launchers work well with Honeycomb (3.0 &  3.1) but the relatively small installed base of these versions is also reflected in the number of Launcher choices that can be used.  Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS 4.0) and Jelly Bean (4.1 & 4.2) merge features from the Android 2.x  and 3.x and the new stock launchers incorporate those changes and a number of additional features. The significant amount of new features added in ICS and JB make it very difficult for developers to create launchers that are compatible with earlier versions.

Feature 2:  App Drawer Functionality

A common trait shared by mobile device users today is a compulsive desire to hoard a large number of apps on their device.  Users of Apple iOS devices can have pages of apps to scroll through every time they power on their device.  It wasn’t until recent versions that iOS added folders that allowed users to manage a bulging app-pile.  From the start, Android took a different tact, mirroring the approached used other operating systems and separating the App storage bin from the main user interface. The user can then create “shortcuts” to the items in the app drawer on the Android launcher “screens” in the same way as other operating system create shortcuts on the “desktop”.

A shortcut on the home screen of the device is usually present to open the app drawer.  This drawer looks very much like the home screens in iOS with all of the installed apps shown as icons sorted in alphabetical order by name.  Starting in Honeycomb (3.x), the app drawer adopted a tabbed interface with Apps on one tab and Widgets on a second tab.  Users can scroll through the apps by swiping left or right to display the next or previous screen of apps or widgets.

Custom launchers often expand upon this interface by introducing a number of different abilities such as: specifying different sort orders for apps; allowing the user to create additional tabs to organize apps by category; automatically creating tabs for running or frequently used apps; and, providing different gestures and scrolling effects to navigate the app drawer.

The custom features added to the App Drawer are only limited by the developers time and imagination. This essence is common in Android and can be seen in most of the “Essential” features.

Feature 3: Home Screen Functionality

A home screen is Android’s “desktop”, where users can organize shortcuts to apps and system functions. The shortcuts are supplemented by “Active’ programs known as widgets, which can be in a variety of shapes and sizes.  Widgets are used to bring a variety of information to the user at a glance. Widgets can be as simple as a clock, or as complex as a live GPS map of your current location.

Depending upon the device, the screen space for a page can be severely limited, so, like the App Drawer, stock Android includes 5 pages of home screens that can be individually customized. Navigation is also done in the same way as in the App Drawer where swiping left or right cycles through the Home pages.

The Home screen functionality is often the area that most custom launchers diverge greatly in features and functionality.  Most launchers duplicate the features available in stock, while adding a number of unique functions such as: scrolling widgets; re-sizing widgets; allowing the user to change the icon associated with a shortcut; increasing or decreasing the number of home pages; providing functions to rearrange home pages and specify the default or “starting’ home page.

Appearance options can also be adjusted, such as changing the transition effect used when browsing among home pages. Users can also customize the background of the home pages by specifying “wallpaper’ which floats behind the home screen content.  Some launchers allow the use of “Live Wallpaper” that can include animations or can react in real-time to actions the user performs, such as touching the screen or changing the orientation of the device.

Feature 4: Application Docks

The dock is a strip of shortcuts, usually along the bottom of the home screen.  The does not change when you switch among home screen pages.  The stock Android 2.x launcher dock has shortcuts that allow you to turn from page to page without swiping, a shortcut to the phone app, a shortcut to the “App Drawer” and a shortcut to the web browser.  Custom launchers can offer a number of dock enhancements, including variable background, the ability to customize the quantity and size of dock shortcuts, and some even have the ability to create multiple docks that can be swiped in a similar way you can change home pages.

Feature 5: Themes

Android’s stock launchers customization is limited to most of the features described above, but a popular feature of custom launchers is the ability to apply a variety of styles to the launcher through the use of themes.  Themes can store groups of settings, change the look of some widgets, and can even override the standard icons used for popular shortcuts to create a particular look and feel for the device.

While these are the main features to consider when choosing a replacement launcher, each replacement launcher can include literally hundreds of enhancements over Android’s stock or a manufacturer’s launcher.

Posted in Active, Features.