Facebook Home alternatives: 12 innovative Android launchers

Don't live your life in Facebook? Try one of these exceptional Android launchers to spice up your home screen and make your device do more.

Ready, set, launch!

With this month's high-profile arrival of Facebook Home, Android launchers -- apps that replace your device's home screen -- have entered the public consciousness.

However, Facebook Home isn't as revolutionary as all that -- launchers have actually been around for years. And while Facebook's offering could arguably be considered more valuable for the company itself than for users, there are other launchers that provide powerful ways to expand your phone's functionality.

From basic to bizarre, these 12 launchers show off just how versatile the Android platform can be.

Nova Launcher

If you want a home screen environment similar to Google's pure Android interface -- but with loads of customization potential -- Nova Launcher is one of the best places to look. Nova is based on Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean) and lets you control almost every element of the experience.

With Nova, you can adjust the size of the desktop grid (which determines the number of icons), pick from an assortment of animation effects, make the app drawer look and work any way you want, customize the appearance of folders, change and resize app icons and labels, and even adjust the speed at which scrolling occurs.

Nova Launcher is free; an optional Prime upgrade will unlock extra advanced features for $4.

Apex Launcher

Like Nova, Apex Launcher offers an enhanced home screen environment similar to Google's pure Android interface -- and it shares many of the same features. The two launchers are generally neck and neck in development, in fact, and it's often a tough call to say which is ahead.

Some of Apex's interesting features include the ability to use an Android 3.x-style tablet interface on your phone or tablet, the ability to set a variety of custom gestures and the ability to implement a diverse array of icon packs and themes.

Like Nova, Apex is free and can be upgraded via an optional $4 upgrade.

Action Launcher Pro

Action Launcher Pro ($4) provides a fresh and innovative take on the Android home screen that involves making it easier for you to get around your device.

Action Launcher replaces the traditional app drawer with a sidebar-style "quick bar." It also implements a quick search area that lets you perform a universal search in which relevant results appear and are refined with every letter you type.

Action Launcher has several other bells and whistles as well, such as the ability to assign secondary swipe-based functions and even pop-up widgets to shortcuts on your home screen.

SPB Shell 3D

SPB Shell 3D brings a whole new dimension to your phone -- figuratively and literally -- with its beautifully designed 3D interface.

SPB transforms your home screen into a futuristic-looking nine-panel information hub. By default, the panels are populated with pre-made screens featuring content related to your calendar and contacts, weather, notes and pictures; you can replace any of the panels with your own custom creations.

The 3D effects throughout SPB are wildly impressive, but it all comes at a cost: SPB will set you back $14.95 -- a price that makes other custom launchers look like a steal.

Launcher 8

Jonesing for a taste of Windows Phone on your Android device? Fear not: Launcher 8 has just the fix for you.

Launcher 8 brings a Windows Phone-inspired interface to your Android home screen. The launcher gives you a customizable set of live tiles, like one that shows how many unread text messages you have and another that scrolls through images stored on your phone.

You can move the tiles around and change the way they look -- and you can also add regular Android shortcuts and widgets, which are stylized to fit within the WinPhone theme.

Launcher 8 is free.

Espier Launcher

If you ever find yourself missing the plain old grids of iOS, this one's for you: Espier Launcher makes your home screen look like an iPhone, complete with those little red notification bubbles and that weird wiggling icon effect any time you long-press the screen. Espier Launcher even has an iOS-like preferences panel.

Of course, this is still Android, so you have some options -- including the ability to hide icons from the home screen and designate one panel as a place for widgets.

Espier Launcher is free.

So.Ho Social Launcher

Want a launcher that puts social media front and center but doesn't completely take over your phone? So.Ho Social Launcher may be your answer.

So.Ho puts a scrollable social-media stream on your main home screen panel. You can configure it to use Facebook and Twitter; switching between the two networks is as simple as touching a bar at the top of the screen.

Unlike Facebook Home, So.Ho leaves the standard Android dock in place and also provides you with four traditional Android home screen panels that can be populated with normal apps and widgets.

So.Ho Social Launcher is free.

Buzz Launcher Beta

Android's customizable nature enables users to design some amazingly cool and creative home screens. Buzz Launcher Beta gives you a quick and simple way to see other users' setups and implement them onto your own device.

Buzz lets you browse through a gallery of home screen setups and -- with a couple of taps -- get any of them up and running on your phone in seconds. Buzz will even show you what supplementary apps and widgets you need to download in order to achieve your selection's complete effect. You can upload your own creation for others to use, too. It's really a phenomenal concept.

Buzz is free.

SF Launcher Beta

Google Now has popularized a new minimalist card-centric interface that's slowly making its way across Android. With SF Launcher Beta, you can make your entire home screen follow that same aesthetic.

SF Launcher divides your home screen into three sections: a Now-like header with a customizable image that changes based on the time of day; a widget card on which you can place any widgets you want (and toggle between them by scrolling left or right); and an apps section that holds shortcuts for any apps you designate as "favorites."

SF Launcher is free; an optional "Plus Key" unlocks extra functionality for $2.

Smart Launcher

While most launchers seek to add functionality to the Android home screen, Smart Launcher aims to simplify the environment.

Smart Launcher turns your home screen into a six-icon ring with shortcuts to your Camera, Music, Phone, Messaging, Gallery and Browser applications. Tapping an icon in the lower-left corner of the screen pulls up an optimized app drawer in which all of your apps are automatically arranged by category.

The basic version of Smart Launcher (pictured here) is free; the Pro version costs $3.59 and adds widget support -- widgets are stored on separate panels accessible via an icon at the lower-right corner of the screen.

MXHome Launcher

MXHome Launcher lacks much of the raw customization power other apps offer, but it brings a playful look and plenty of whimsy to the home screen -- elements that may be appreciated by younger Android users.

For example, MXHome has an unusual animation mode that places a floating balloon with your current battery level on your phone's desktop; you can touch your finger to the balloon to move it anywhere on the screen. Different types of petals float down the screen from time to time and really go wild when you touch your finger to the display.

MXHome is free.

Everything.me Home (Beta)

Everything.me Home (Beta) takes the concept of a custom home screen to dynamic new heights. It puts a large "What's on your mind?" box at the top of your screen. You tap the box and say a word or two -- a movie name, type of food, sports team or whatever -- and the launcher instantly transforms itself into a custom-made panel that revolves around that term.

Everything.me can work like a regular launcher, too, with customizable panels packed with flourishes and features.

Everything.me is free.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.