Customize your Android home screen experience

Breathe new life into your Android phone with these excellent apps and utilities.

Turn your Android into the coolest smartphone on the block with these awesome apps! Scott Webster/CNET

Of all the great features that come with Android, I think perhaps my favorite is its ability to endlessly customize the home screen and UI. If you don't want to root the device to go deep into modifying , there's still so much you can do with just apps. For example, you can give yourself a fancy home screen with new icons or wonderfully intricate widgets. For those who prefer a simpler approach, there are even apps that install entire customized layouts in one tap.

I've gathered a small handful of my favorite home screen apps here, but nothing that requires you to root your phone for access.

Rather, these are the sorts of apps you can install and play around with on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Come next weekend, you just might have a completely different-looking Android experience.


Nova Launcher (Prime)

There are a number of launcher applications that let users override the standard look and feel that comes with the phone's out-of-box experience, but Nova Launcher Prime ($4.00) has long been one of my favorites. If you don't like the preset shortcuts across the bottom of your handset, or aren't a fan of the app drawer setup, this is the app that can change all that.

In a nutshell, Nova Launcher alters the way your phone behaves when you tap the Home button. Specifically, you can define how many home screen panels you have, the number of icons that fit on the screen, scrolling effects, and much more.

Among Nova Launcher Prime's functions is giving you control over the grid size, the number of rows and columns on your screen. You can also place a persistent Google Search bar across home screens, and tweak the size of the page margins. I love using the launcher's revolving door transition when you swipe between screens. It looks much cooler than a simple slide. Additionally, users can opt to remove icon labels, allow for widgets to overlap, and lock the desktop in place.

Nova Launcher Prime is one the more feature-rich launcher apps for Android. Scott Webster/CNET

I also appreciate the way I can sort my app drawer, hide unused titles, and organize content into tabs. Other minor touches include infinite scrolling panels, custom grouping, menu transparency, and transitions. Suffice it to say, I'm constantly backing up and restoring fun layouts all the time. Doing this can also make for a seamless transition into a brand new smartphone.

A particularly fun, and easy, way to spice things up is to replace the icons representing apps and games. There are innumerable icon packs or themes that one can download to adjust the overall aesthetics. Some of the more popular ones I've encountered along the way are Tersus, Snack Pack, and MIUI 5. Again, hit up some forums or search Google Play and you'll find some rather inspiring stuff.

Nova Launcher Prime isn't the only option for those looking to customize the home screen; the free version is a great way to take advantage of most options and settings. At more than 10 million installs, the free Nova Launcher is a popular and feature-rich home screen launcher. Others you may enjoy include Go Launcher EX, Apex Launcher, and ADW.Launcher.


Solo Launcher

The best thing about Solo Launcher is that it's a totally free alternative to premium launchers. Indeed, you'll find a host of customization and personalization settings, many of which could cost $4 or more elsewhere.

Solo Launcher is a completely free launcher with many premium features Solo Launcher Team/Google Play

Solo Launcher not only operates quickly and efficiently, but it also plays nice with themes from other launchers. Want to change the icon pack? Feel like mimicking the look of a Sony or Huawei? No problem. Other easily configured settings include live wallpapers, lock screens, and colors. Indeed, you can give your Android a KitKat-inspired makeover without waiting on a software update.

In addition to the general aesthetics, you'll be able to adjust home screen transitions, layouts, the app drawer, and home screen dock. I'm a big fan of unread notifications for missed calls, texts, and e-mails, and Solo Launcher provides this at no cost. Once you find a look that you really enjoy be sure to back it up. That way, you can return to it later should you wish to tinker about.

The launcher comes with a weather widget, and the developers also provide a number of additional apps and tools to further enhance your experience.


Ultimate Custom (Clock) Widget (UCCW)

As the name implies, the free Ultimate Custom (Clock) Widget app lets users create custom widgets that lives on just about any home screen. Regardless of whether you're using a stock launcher or something more tailored, UCCW can enhance the look of your desktop. While it's possible to create your own clock, weather, or battery widget, UCCW can also be used for tweaking notifications, alarms, and other options.

Three clock widgets made easy with Ultimate Custom Widget. Scott Webster/CNET

Indeed, it might feel a bit daunting the first few times you try to design your own widget with all your choices for color, transparency, shapes, and fonts. I suggest looking around for templates and already-existing widgets being shared by the community. Poke around the Google Play Store and forums for UCCW UZIP files and go from there.

One of the features I appreciate most is the ability to mimic the feel of other smartphone experiences; it's a breeze to sample the HTC Sense 6 UI or classic skins like Motoblur without much effort. Once you're feeling confident, try overlapping a couple of widgets (like time and weather) for a nice layered effect.


HD Widgets

If you're the type who prefers to dress up your existing home screen without heavy adjustments, I recommend checking out HD Widgets. As one of the more flexible apps for the money, this one provides endless widget layouts.

hdw4beta-1.png
HD Widgets 4 introduced enhanced weather views. Cloud.tv

Regardless of whether you're looking to add a full-screen weather and combination widget or a simple app shortcut, HD Widgets does it in style. Users have myriad options to choose from, including text colors, fonts, background transparency, and layout. One only need spend a few minutes with the latest 4.0 release to see how much customization awaits.

The developer, Cloud.tv, rolled out an entire subset of themed widgets that adds another 60 free templates to the mix. Centered around the aesthetic of Android Jelly Bean, the Colourform pack features Google's Roboto font and even more ways to jazz up the home screen. Looking ahead, a forthcoming Kairo add-on will bring about KitKat-like designs.


Zooper Widget

Zooper Widget might best be described as a tool to create really great Android widgets. Sure, it's actually a bundle of preset widgets, but that's just the beginning.

Zooper Widget is not unlike Photoshop for creating Android widgets. MyColorScreen

The app comes with a number of free templates and customizable options and provides a great jumping off point. Play with Zooper for any length of time and you'll find that it's easy to create a battery indicator, missed calls and message widget, or calendar. What's more, you can also create widgets to monitor networks and data usage, Wi-Fi connections, and other system settings.

If for no other reason, you'll want to have Zooper installed so you can download other widgets from the community. Take a look through Google Play and you'll find scores of gorgeous, functional widgets at the ready.

Zooper Widget is free to download, but there's also a Pro version ($1.99) that opens the door to new possibilities. In addition to removing ads, you'll also pick up the ability to save widget templates to SD cards, and integrate with Buzz Launcher.


DashClock Widget

Those of you running Android 4.2 may have encountered the ability to create widgets on the lock screen . As one of the more handy features in Jelly Bean, lock screen widgets provide at-a-glance information such as text messages, calendar appointments, and other notifications. The DashClock Widget app takes this to another level with a more customized and robust list of what you can see.

DashClock Widget works for Android 4.2+ smartphones and tablets. Roman Nurik

Among other bits of info, DashClock Widget provides users with current local weather, missed calls and unread messages, unread Gmail and/or priority e-mails, and your next calendar appointment. What I like most about this app is that it can deliver all of this on a single panel. Rather than swiping through various screens, DashClock Widget puts it all in one, easy-to-read spot.

Also worth noting is that the app is extensible, meaning it plays nice with other apps. Developers are able to take advantage of extensions that add relevant details to the lock screen. Two such apps that I've found to be helpful are DashClock Keep Extension and DashClock Battery Extension.


ThemerApp

For those who like the idea of customizing the home screen but don't want to get their hands dirty I suggest looking into ThemerApp. Thanks to a simple set-it-and-forget-it setup, you can swap out an entire layout with the tap of a button.

themerapp.png
ThemerApp takes the hassle out of deeply personalized layouts. MyColorScreen

Available as a free app in the Google Play Store, this one acts more like a giant curated library of custom designs. There are more than 300 themes offered today and things only get better with time.

In addition to easy installation, ThemerApp also allows for simple yet deep customization. Like everything you see but those icons? Swap them out for something else. Not so keen on the order in which the widgets display? Move them around, take them out, replace them with your own.


Have your say

There are scores of Android apps that allow users to customize their experience; I have only listed a smattering of my favorites. Which apps do you use to tailor your Android experience? Do you fancy a particular launcher or icon pack? Where do you find your inspiration? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

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