In November 2012 Android fans were treated to news that Android’s share of the tablet market was growing much faster than previously projected. No doubt there will be many new owners of Android powered tablets once the 2012 holiday season passes. These new owners, or folks who have had a tablet device for a while, may be interested in trying out a new “launcher” for the tablet. For those not familiar with launchers, and I was one of them before I started working on this comparison, the launcher is the basic interface for the device. It controls things like the “grid” where apps are placed, how apps and widgets are accessed, the possibility of creating groups of apps, or automatically rearranging apps on a homescreen.
Readers may have run across references to manufacturers’ interfaces, like Touchwiz or Sense or Motoblur. These are launchers specifically included on devices to replace the stock Android launcher. In my case, I am testing on a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, so I already have Samsung’s Touchwiz launcher installed.
For this comparison, I decided to take a look at some of the launchers we have covered here at TalkAndroid during the past year or that may show up at the top of the list when you search the Google Play Store for a launcher.
Just released, Action Launcher Pro tries to focus on making it easy to quickly access your apps. The key to this effort is an app drawer that slides in from the left hand side of the screen. From the main homescreen, the app drawer can be accessed using the button in the upper left corner or just swipe the screen from left to right. If you have additional homescreens configured, the app drawer can only be called up with the button on those additional screens. The drawer is a scrollable listing of all apps with quick access via an alphabetical key down the side. Just find the app you wan to launch and tap on it. The drawer will slide back out of the way. Interestingly enough, Action Launcher does not use the same app drawer to select apps to be added to the homescreen, opting instead for a more traditional dialog box.
There is also a “covers” feature to improve access to frequent uses of an app, like top web pages for a browser or frequent people for contacts, though I have not been able to get that configured. Action Launcher also has a quick access icon to the Google Play store. Unlike some of the other launchers, it does not appear a dock is available. As you may note from the screenshot above, Action Launcher Pro has a solid bar along the top of the screen. Users can drag and drop icons onto one another to create groups and opening a group enables the ability to modify the name of the group. Action Launcher Pro is available for $3.99 in the Google Play Store. A free, feature-limited edition is not available.
The next launcher to take a look at is ADW.Launcher, which is one of the older launchers available even though updates were on hiatus for a while. As we will see in this review, ADW.Launcher is one of several that share certain core components along with look and feel qualities. When initially installed, ADW.Launcher does a nice job of walking you through some of the basic settings and explaining what they do. Groups can be easily created by dropping one icon on top of another. Unlike some of the other launchers, I have not found any way to rename groups.
At least on an Ice Cream Sandwich device like what I am testing on, trying to drop an icon or widget where one is already located will be prevented. However, long pressing on a widget does provide a drop down menu with options to remove, resize, manage or share. ADW.Launcher does provide a dock along the bottom of the screen to keep favorite apps handy when switching between homescreens. A nice trick to use with the docks is to drag a group onto the dock to have quick access to several apps.
A paid version, ADW.Launcher EX is available for $3.00 with a promise of more special effects and settings to customize your tablet.
Apex Launcher is another launcher in the same family as ADW.Launcher based on the appearance. Once installed, you do not get a walkthrough of features and settings. Like ADW.Launcher, you can long press an app icon for some edit options. With Apex Launcher you can also long press on a group for options or to rename the group. Renaming the group can also be accomplished with a careful touch of the name when the group is open.
When moving app icons or widgets around on the screen, Apex Launcher will shift existing icons around to make space. One item I did appreciate was the much more subdued Google Search and Voice Search. Like ADW.Launcher, you can have a dock along the bottom of the screen and groups can reside there.
For more customization and animation options a paid version, Apex Launcher Pro, is available for $3.99.
Chameleon Launcher for Tablets
Fans of a widget focused device will probably like Chameleon Launcher for Tablets as the widgets drive the interface. This concept is so ingrained, Chameleon will not let you have an app icon actually reside on the homescreens, forcing them to a dock along the bottom of the screen. When first started, Chameleon does provide a walkthrough on how to setup the widgets. I did have to figure out on my own that the app dock is scrollable despite the icons at each end, one for the app tray and one to call up the homescreen selector. The dock does not stay on screen though, with each homescreen getting its own dock. Pressing the icon on the left end of the dock, the screen selector/editor, gives users access to configure when the different screens are used, one of the selling features Chameleon cites as a differentiator.
I will add that I probably had more issues with Chameleon that any of the other launchers. Getting widgets to update was difficult at times and app icons would inexplicably disappear from the dock. Chameleon Launcher for Tablets is available for $3.99 with no free testing version available.
Go Launcher HD
Any time I do a search on Google Play for launchers, a name that pops up all over the results is Go Launcher. For tablets, they have developed the Go Launcher HD for Pad version. When initially launched, Go Launcher HD provides a brief overview of some of the features available.
Go Launcher HD provides the ability to drag and drop icons to create groups and they are fairly easy to edit. However, icons will not shift themselves around to make room. When adding an app icon or widget to the homescreen, Go Launcher HD displays a horizontally scrolling list of apps along with top of the screen with alpha selectors. It functions in much the same manner as the Action Launcher app drawer. However, Go Launcher HD uses the standard app drawer when opening an app.
The power of Go Launcher HD lies more in some of the applications that have included in addition to the interface tweaks. One feature Go Launcher HD provides is the ability to create gestures to launch apps. Just hit the pointing hand icon in the top right to bring up the dialog. You can add a new gesture by drawing the gesture and associating it with an app or just draw one of your existing gestures to launch the app previously configured.
On the negative side, the dock is not scrollable as far as I could tell.
Go Launcher HD for Pad is free in the Google Play Store.
Holo Launcher HD
Holo Launcher HD is similar to ADW.Launcher and Apex Launcher in trying to bring a Jelly Bean like experience to non-Jelly Bean devices. Groups, the dock, and edit options are all essentially the same. One small item is the absence of Google Search and Voice Search icons on the homescreen. I did notice on my screen that icon labels were overlapping onto the icons immediately below them. This is not a problem if you can keep the icons separated by a blank row, but if your homescreen is cluttered with icons it can become a distraction. Hopefully this is a problem unique to the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 I am using.
Holo Launcher HD is free. A $3.99 Plus version is available that provides additional customization options.
Yet another launcher trying to mimic Jelly Bean to some extent, Nova Launcher is pretty much the same as Apex Launcher and Holo Launcher HD. Some improvements from a more standard launcher like Touchwiz, but nothing really paradigm-shifting. Like Apex and Holo, you have the ability to drag and drop to create groups, icons will shift out of the way, and groups can be placed in the dock. One feature I did find useful was the ability to bulk add several apps to a homescreen at once. When you open up the app drawer, which opens full screen, you have a button in the upper right to “Select Multiple.” Tapping that lets you select several apps at once and either save them to the homescreen or create a group for them to go in.
Nova Launcher is free in the Google Play Store and Nova Launcher Prime, their premium version, comes in at only $4.00.
Which is right for you?
Out of the seven launchers I used during the past week, four of them are very similar. ADW.Launcher, Apex Launcher, Holo HD Launcher, and Nova Launcher are all very similar. They use the same round indicator for groups, provide a dock for quick access to favorite apps when shifting between screens, and give users some control over colors, fonts, and other theme qualities. Of these four, only ADW.Launcher can be used on a tablet running anything less than Android 4.0. At least initially, I found myself gravitating to Apex Launcher, though Nova Launcher makes a strong case for itself with features like the bulk app adding.
Action Launcher is new to the game and it shows. In use, I found the app drawer that slides in from the side to be very nice and effective in quickly accessing apps. It would be nice to see that ported over to some of the other launchers. In the alternative, Action Launcher needs to get on the ball in fixing some of the glitches users are finding, allow apps to be pulled from the drawer to the desktop, and implement some other features like a “fixed” dock that other launchers contain. For the time being, unless you really like being on the cutting edge, it is hard to recommend Action Launcher.
Chameleon Launcher takes a unique approach to the interface, opting to focus on the use of widgets. For me, this was very difficult to get used to. For those readers out there who use widgets heavily, this make be a good replacement in order to get the ability to have the screens change depending on certain criteria like time of day or wifi network. I found it to be very limiting. Chameleon Launcher will work on Android 3.2 or better devices, so some users with older tablets can give it a try.
From an interface standpoint, Go Launcher HD is very similar to the ADW/Apex/Holo/Nova launchers. Go Launcher HD differentiates itself through the use of additional features like gestures. Owners of older tablets will be glad to know the minimum requirement for Go Launcher HD is Android 2.2+. A search of the Google Play Store reveals lots of add-ons and themes for Go Launcher HD. Clearly it is a very popular choice amongst users.
The Final Word
If you are looking for a widget-focused launcher, you might want to give Chameleon Launcher a try. Others will find they are pressed to reconsider the paradigm they use when tablet is in hand. Action Launcher is still a bit on the immature side. It possesses a lot of promise, but for now I would have to pass on it while watching for further developments.
That leaves us with the group of ADW.Launcher, Apex Launcher, Go Launcher HD, Holo Launcher HD, and Nova Launcher. Owners of older tablets will be limited to ADW.Launcher or Go Launcher HD. For those users, Go Launcher HD is probably the better choice due to some of the additional apps and whiz-bang features that are included. Users with newer tablets running at least Ice Cream Sandwich can throw the others into the mix. Both Go Launcher HD and Nova Launcher would make good choices for these users.
As you may have noted, most of the launchers are free for a basic version. It should be no problem to download a launcher and give it a try for a week if you are willing to put up with selecting which launcher to use when pressing the home button on your tablet during the testing period. In the meantime, with all these new features available, I’ll be working on figuring out how to use some of the new capabilities to make my tablet experience a little more effective.