The quiet power of Android's custom launchers

When it comes to something as personal as a home screen, a properly tailored concept can make all the difference in the world.

Android Action Launcher
JR Raphael

Look, I'll admit it: I'm not your average Android user.

I try out a lot of apps -- like, a lot of apps. (Though to be fair, I'm not afraid to ditch any that I don't actually utilize over time.) I'm always on the lookout for useful new ways to use my phone. And I'm constantly tweaking my setup in search of that ever-elusive state of maximum efficiency.

While I was away for paternity leave these past few weeks, though, I found myself setting those habits aside and putting on my "normal user" hat -- you know, the one where I use my device more like a typical phone owner as opposed to a card-carrying and column-writing geek. I wasn't trying out new stuff or seeking out clever hacks; I was simply taking and sharing tons of pictures, scanning through the occasional news headlines, and doing an obscene amount of messaging and calling with family and friends.

And with that perspective, I realized what it is about my smartphone setup that truly works for me -- what foundational ingredient allows my phone to feel like it's perfectly suited to my brain.

The not-so-secret sauce? It's none other than the launcher. The launcher is the framework of any home screen -- and the home screen, as our iPhone-toting pals are slowly but surely learning, is so much more than a mere grid for icons.

A launcher can change the way you interact with your device. It can make your life simpler. It can make it easier for you to access the items you need -- making pertinent info available at a glance or with a quick tap, swipe, or pinch in just the right spot. That's valuable if you're using your device for business, using it for pleasure, or using it for some combination of the two. And you sure as heck don't have to be a power user to appreciate it.

Whether you dance around Android like a pro or just stick to the basics, a good launcher can make a bad phone tolerable and a great phone phenomenal. But like most things in the world of personal technology, there is no universal "right" answer. Finding the "best" launcher is mostly just about figuring out what sort of setup and series of options works best for you and your own personal preferences. 

And man, are there some spectacular choices out there. I've long been a fan of Nova Launcher for its total-control approach to customization and the plethora of options it provides -- not to mention the fast pace at which its developer consistently works to implement interesting new features and ideas (have you seen his latest innovation?!).

I recently spent some time using Evie Launcher and came away impressed by how it uses search as the centerpiece for the home screen experience and how transformative of a notion that turns out to be. Instead of just doing more of the same, its developers set out to create something meaningfully different from everything else out there -- something with its own distinct purpose and raison d'être. As a result of that clever and original approach, they managed to build up a respectably large fan base in an impressively short amount of time.

I even spent several months using Google's new Pixel Launcher after picking up a Pixel of my own last fall. While it's far less feature-packed than my typical launcher selection, I really dig its simplicity and the clean, platform-consistent aesthetic it brings to my device.

But no matter how many launchers I try or how much I enjoy them, there's one launcher I just keep coming back to. It's Action Launcher, by a fella named Chris Lacy -- and it matches my workflow in a way no other launcher ever quite manages to parallel.

The funny thing is that I'm not even using some of Action Launcher's marquee features these days. The launcher got its name from the customizable "Action Bar" it offers in place of the standard Google search bar at the top of the home screen. I took advantage of that for years, but after my time with the Pixel Launcher, I opted to go with a simpler Pixel-inspired "search pill" along with a weather widget for that area instead.

Action Launcher Android: Home Screen jr

Action Launcher has long been known for its swipe-in-from-the-side app drawer, which can make it easier to access and scan through your full list of installed applications. Again, though, following my time with the Pixel Launcher, I found I really liked the swipe-up app drawer behavior Google introduced -- so I stick with that setup in my own personal Action Launcher arrangement now as well.

Action Launcher Android: App Drawer jr

The one feature of Action Launcher I always miss when I'm away from it is something called Shutters -- basically widgets on demand. They've always been a high point of the launcher for me, and with the recent advent of App Shortcuts in Android, they've become part of a splendid two-pronged system that saves me time and makes my home screen extra useful.

See those little circle indicators on each of my home screen icons, in the first image above? Those tell me what functions each icon holds beyond the obvious tap-once-to-open-the-corresponding-app action. Icons with a square on the indicator hold an on-demand widget (aka a Shutter). When I double-tap them, that widget appears -- giving me a super-quick way to peek in at things like my inbox, calendar, notes, and text messages.

Action Launcher Android: Shutters jr

Those work hand-in-hand with App Shortcuts, which give me easy access to in-app actions directly from the home screen. Those are available on any app where you see two lines on the indicator (which is now every single app on my home screen except Inbox -- c'mon, guys...). Just like in the Pixel Launcher, I can double-press on any such icons to pull up the associated shortcuts and jump directly to whatever function I need.

Action Launcher Android: App Shortcuts jr

This setup fixes the foundational problem with Google's own implementation of App Shortcuts: the fact that, as seen in the Pixel Launcher, there's no visual indicator telling you when shortcuts are available -- which means you have no way of knowing when they're available and when they aren't. It's just not a great user experience, and I've watched firsthand as numerous friends and family members have been befuddled by the behavior.

With Action Launcher, the shortcuts are actually sensible. And combined with Shutters, they make for a powerful one-two punch -- a way for the icons on my home screen to become genuinely useful in multiple ways and in a manner that's easy for me to follow.

(I should note that the combination of Shutters and App Shortcuts is something still new to Action Launcher and currently available only in its beta release -- but that'll likely change before long.)

Action Launcher gives me other subtle touches that make my life easier, like custom gestures (I can swipe up anywhere on the home screen to open the app drawer, for instance, or swipe down anywhere to open the notification panel). But more than anything, it's the on-demand widgets that keep me coming back -- because for me, they're precisely the kind of feature that makes my phone more efficient and turns my home screen into a command center that's custom-tailored to my needs.

Realizing that reminds me of one of the key reasons I've chosen to use Android all these years. Having these kind of choices and being able to make a personal device work the way I like it to work is pretty incredible, especially when you have a thriving community of creative developers working to deliver excellent options.

I may or may not move away from Action Launcher at any given point in time, but you know what? Being able to make a gadget fit my needs instead of being forced to make my needs fit the gadget is a powerful thing. And that, my friends, is something I'll always appreciate -- no matter what hat I'm wearing.

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