Must-have Android apps

The best Android launchers for enhanced efficiency

Save time and make your Android home screen work better with the help of these eclectic tools.

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Clker-Free-Vector-Images / JR Raphael

Must-have Android apps

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Your smartphone's home screen is the heart and soul of your mobile tech experience — the launching pad for nearly everything you do on your device. And since you use Android, you've got a unique advantage over your iPhone-totin' associates in that your home screen doesn't have to be the same tired old grid everyone else is using. It certainly can be, if you want, but you also have the option to take complete control of that environment and turn it into a time-saving command center for your personal productivity needs.

We're not just talkin' about sprinkling a few exceptional widgets into the mix, either. With Android, you can install a completely new home screen launcher that lets you incorporate all sorts of custom actions, interfaces, and shortcuts into your device's desktop — giving your phone a different look and feel and creating a system that's custom-tailored to the way you like to get things done. It can make a current phone infinitely more useful and make an old phone feel fresh and new again.

The Google Play Store has plenty of commendable launcher options to consider, and figuring out which makes the most sense for you ultimately comes down to deciding what exactly you want to accomplish and what style of interaction you prefer. After spending time with all the top contenders, these are the Android launchers I'd recommend for serious professionals — broken down by what type of experience they offer and in what areas they excel.

Niagara Launcher: Ergonomic efficiency

Sometimes, the simplest solutions can be the most effective. That's the idea behind Niagara Launcher, which works to strip away all the extraneous elements of an Android home screen and leave you only with fast and fuss-free tools to get where you need to go.

The Niagara home screen revolves around a single vertical menu of your most-used apps, but there's much more to it than initially meets the eye. First, any shortcut on the home screen can either act as a traditional one-tap shortcut to opening an app or serve as a way to pop up a supercharged folder with a combination of both apps and widgets inside it.

android launchers niagara launcher JR Raphael/IDG

From the simple vertical app menu (at left) to the supercharged folders (at right), Niagara's home screen is all about simplicity and easy access to the items you need.

The top of the home screen, meanwhile, features a classy built-in info widget that can show you the current weather along with upcoming event info and even your phone's current battery level. Tapping it pulls up a pop-up agenda panel with an even broader view of your agenda.

When you want to find an app that isn't on your home screen, you simply slide your finger up or down along the edge of your screen to move through Niagara's scrolling app list and jump to whatever it is you need. In a nice ergonomic twist, you can swipe or tap the list from the left or the right side of your screen, even, making it convenient to access no matter how you hold your phone.

Niagara has lots of other thoughtful efficiency-oriented features, including an option to show active notifications alongside an app's icon on your home screen — even going as far as to let you interact with notifications and respond to messages or dismiss pending alerts right from that same area. It allows you to stack multiple Android widgets within your home screen's topmost row for easily swipeable at-a-glance views of important info, too, and it gives you a smart search system that's easily accessible with a single swipe upward anywhere on your home screen.

If all of that isn't enough, Niagara features some cutting-edge optimizations for larger-screen Android devices — so if you're using a tablet or a foldable, it'll make especially effective use of all your extra screen space.

Niagara Launcher is free with an optional $10-a-year or $30 lifetime Pro upgrade that unlocks some of its more advanced options, including the built-in calendar and weather widgets.

In short: If you're willing to keep an open mind and allow yourself a few days to adapt to a new and very unconventional approach, you might just find Niagara's clever method of organization to be exactly the efficiency-enhancing change you didn't know you needed.

Smart Launcher 6: Automatic organization

If you like the idea of effortless organization but prefer a more traditional grid-based home screen arrangement, Smart Launcher 6 is an interesting option to consider. Smart Launcher works to organize and optimize your home screen setup for you — continually — without any real thought or effort required on your part. But it does so within a more familiar-looking Android home screen environment.

Smart Launcher's setup certainly isn't conventional, though it has gotten much more flexible over the years. While the launcher still steers you toward a neatly arranged configuration that places your most frequently used apps in two tidy rows at the bottom of your main home screen panel, you're now able to break free from that structure, if you want, and place shortcuts or widgets anywhere that suits you.

Speaking of widgets, Smart Launcher comes with several originals that aren't available anywhere else — including a simple on-screen memo note widget, a responsive compass widget, and a stackable widget framework for creating your own swipeable stacks.

The actual app drawer within Smart Launcher, meanwhile, revolves around an automatically organized series of sections that separates your apps into categories like "Internet," "Utilities," and "Media." And the system's search function, which you can access either by tapping the bar at the bottom of the main screen or by swiping up anywhere in the home screen area, lets you quickly find apps, contacts, or information from the internet in a single streamlined spot.

android launchers smart launcher JR Raphael/IDG

Smart Launcher features a flexible home screen (at left) and a category-based system for browsing all of your apps (at right).

Smart Launcher also includes a built-in news panel to the left of your home screen, with stories provided by Microsoft. Like most parts of the launcher, you can disable that and remove it from your environment, if you want.

Smart Launcher 6 is free with an optional $8.50-a-year, $4.50-a-month, or $12 lifetime Pro upgrade for a variety of advanced features — including a handful of exclusive widgets, the ability to build a widget into a regular app icon and then pull it up anytime with a double-tap, and the option to create your own custom swipe gestures.

In short: If you want a neatly organized home screen that does all the organization for you, Smart Launcher 6 is up to the task.

Microsoft Launcher: The Microsoft-lover's dream

Android is typically a Google-centric affair, but little by little, Microsoft has been creating its own sub-ecosystem right within the platform's walls — and the centerpiece to that setup is the aptly named Microsoft Launcher.

Having Microsoft Launcher on your phone really does make it feel like you're using a Microsoft Android device instead of a Google Android product. Most prominently, the app's feed-like panel gives you glanceable info from your Outlook calendar along with tasks from your inbox and a list of recently accessed documents from your cloud-based Microsoft Office storage. It also offers a Microsoft-powered news experience and a Bing-powered search system.

android launchers microsoft launcher JR Raphael/IDG

Microsoft Launcher puts Bing front and center and adds plenty of other Microsoft-centric touches to your home screen environment.

Microsoft-specific elements aside, the Microsoft Launcher is also just a nicely crafted take on the Android home screen interface, with a pleasant mix of tidy-looking simplicity and more advanced organizational options.

The app is completely free to use.

In short: If you work in Windows and want your phone to feel like an extension of that same ecosystem, Microsoft Launcher is the way to make it happen.

Square Home: Windows Phone meets Android

For all of its Microsoft focus, the actual Microsoft Launcher has nothing to do with the company's now-abandoned Windows Phone effort and the content-packed organizational system that platform established. For that, you'll want to turn to Square Home, which picks up where Windows Phone left off and brings its distinctive tile-centric setup into the realm of Android.

Even if you didn't use Windows Phone, you might find Square Home to be a refreshing change that enhances your workflow. The launcher puts a series of customizable tiles on your home screen, each representing an app shortcut, a widget, or some other sort of action. You can even treat a tile as a three-dimensional cube and store related shortcuts on each side — say, Google Drive on the front, then Docs, Sheets, and other productivity apps on the inner sides — and then swipe the cube in any direction to access the associated items.

Square Home has tons of options, including some that let you control exactly how your tiles appear — everything from the number of columns for the tiles to the size of icons and text within them and the color and style of backgrounds used for different blocks. It also allows you to create some potentially useful custom shortcuts beyond just the usual gestures. You can set certain actions to occur when your phone is set flat with its screen facing either up or down, for instance, or even when you shake your phone.

android launchers square home launcher JR Raphael/IDG

Square Home transforms your home screen into a Windows-Phone-like environment, with plenty of advanced shortcuts and time-saving options.

Square Home is free with an optional $5 lifetime key or $2-a-year premium subscription for advanced features, options, and tile effects.

In short: If you miss the old Windows Phone interface or just like the idea of keeping everything you need in front of you and neatly organized in a geometrical manner, Square Home is your Android home screen answer.

Lynx Launcher: Sleek simplicity

When it comes to optimizing your digital universe, simplicity can go a surprisingly long way. That's the key idea around Lynx Launcher, a relatively new contender in the Android launcher arena and one with an approach that absolutely makes it stand out from the pack.

Lynx Launcher is said to be "inspired" by the Linux-based Gnome desktop interface, but even if you aren't a card-carrying computer geek, there's plenty to like about its frills-free home screen setup. At its core, Lynx Launcher gives you a single primary home screen panel with a simple built-in clock widget at its top and a row of favorite apps on its right side. You can add any additional shortcuts and widgets you want into that main area as well, but it seems designed to be relatively sparse and open.

That's in large part because of Lynx's series of distinctive elements that exist around that primary panel:

  1. With a swipe to the right — or a tap on the nine-dot icon within the favorites dock on the main screen — you zip over to Lynx's lovely alphabetical app drawer, which makes it delightfully fast and easy to find what you need.
  2. With a swipe to the left, you pull up a self-populating Favorites screen. It automatically fills itself up with your most frequently used apps and contacts for especially speedy access.
  3. With a swipe downward on any home screen panel — or a tap on the search box at the top of your home screen — you launch Lynx's swift search system. There, you can quickly find any app or contact on your phone by typing in a letter or two, and you can also perform a standard web search by typing out the full term and then selecting the "Search on Google" (or any alternate search engine you choose) option.
  4. Finally, with a swipe up on any area of your home screen, you summon Lynx's "Desktop" area. It's basically an extra on-demand home screen panel where you can store any combination of shortcuts and widgets for easy ongoing access without having 'em constantly in your face.
android launchers lynx launcher JR Raphael/IDG

The Linux-inspired Lynx Launcher has a sleek and simple primary home screen (at left) with some unusual elements around it, including an especially effective and easy-to-use app drawer (at right).

Lynx packs plenty of customization options, too, ranging from details of the launcher's appearance to more functional changes related to which interface elements are and aren't present and how exactly they work. And it sports a host of custom gestures you can set for launching apps or performing system functions with all sorts of different swipes, if you want to go down that road.

Lynx is free to use in its base form with an optional $4 pro upgrade to unlock some of the more advanced customization possibilities.

In short: Whether you love Linux or just appreciate a sleek, simple setup with plenty of practical touches, Lynx Launcher is an unconventional Android home screen contender that's well worth your while to try.

Before Launcher: Minimalist focus

Speaking of simplicity, ever feel like you're spending too much time on your phone? Before Launcher is all about giving you a minimalist, no-frills home screen for distraction-free productivity — a setup its creators claim can help you open your phone a whopping 40% less than you do now.

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