Most Android devices you pick up these days will come with a modified version of the operating system designed by the OEM. The most common ones are HTC Sense, Motorola Blur, and Samsung’s TouchWiz. We have our issues with these modifications of Android. While you may not have the option to get a stock Android device on your carrier, there are ways to obfuscate the more annoying features of these OEM skins.
Of course we’re talking about home screen replacements. The Android Market is replete with them, but three specific ones seem to stand out. We’re going to go over what we think of the cream of the crop: LauncherPro, ADWLauncher EX, and GO Launcher EX. Read on to find out which will best suit your needs.
This is one of the most popular apps on the Android Market with in excess of 5 million downloads. It has a ton of features and slick styling. the free version has all the essentials, but if you want to make use of the scrollable widgets in LauncherPro, you will need to pay $3.49 for the full license.
You will of course notice a lot of feature overlap in the various home screen options, but we will endeavor to point out the differences as we go. LauncherPro comes fully stocked with such options, first among them is home screen panel management. You can choose how many screens you would like to deal with. The default is three, but you can set up as many as nine. The method of doing this is a little awkward. It is all handled in the LauncherPro menus; no UI method like in the other apps we tested.
Scrolling between screens is very smooth in LauncherPro, even at times when you have a lot of widgets or icons on the screen. There are also several options for transition effects. If you don’t want to scroll, you can use a pinch gesture to bring up a preview of your screens. They will all be laid out symmetrically, making it easy to sort out which is which. The animation for pulling up these previews is usually quite smooth, but we do notice the occasional spot of lag.
LauncherPro has support for scrollable widgets, both its own and third-party apps. Just check the box for it in the options. This might add just a bit more lag when scrolling, but we found it more than manageable. If you pay for the full version, you get the excellent (and skinnable) scrollable widgets for things like Twitter, Facebook, Messages, Gmail, and more. All widgets, including the special LauncherPro ones, can be resized.
The dock at the bottom is fully configurable with options for multiple docks, custom icons, and swipe gestures. There are also notification badges for icons like messaging and Gmail if you have them in the dock. Swiping up from them will open a handy pop up list of notifications, or bookmarks in the case of the browser.
Stability in LauncherPro seems to be the best out of all the launchers we’ve tested. It runs smoothly for long periods of time, and responds immediately when we interact with it. it handles large widget loads well, and feels extremely native. You can use this home screen and be totally comfortable. You will forget this is a system component you added yourself. All your modifications can be backed up to the SD card too.
This launcher is a newer arrival in the Market, but has made huge strides. This launcher is totally free, and supports a lot of great add-ons from the GO Team. The way that the folks at GO make their money is by selling themes. There are free ones too, but most of the really good ones will run you few bucks.
Unlike LauncherPro, GO is fully skinnable. The skins we tested are not just about the widgets or icons. The app drawer, wallpaper, widgets, icons and shortcuts are all changed up with one tap. Most of the skins include icons for many popular apps. There is a integrated theme store for this, but it’s more of a showroom. It will link you out to the Market to buy.
GO Launcher has the same pinch gesture trick to pull up screen previews. With this app, you get your screens laid out in grid. This is a little less attractive and conducive to finding things, but it does include an easy way to add and edit screens. From this preview view you can add, remove, and set panels as the main one. This is easier than it is in LauncherPro, but we don’t like the grid layout as much. The configuration options are nice, but how often do you really need to access them?
Scrolling from screen to screen in GO is very good, but we would say just a little worse than ADW or LauncherPro. That’s not to say it's bad. We’re talking about very marginal differences here. it is mainly the fancy transitions that seem to slow GO down. If you stick to the regular scrolling, all will be well. Many of the same transitions are available in the app drawer of GO, which we find quite interesting. It uses the side to side page view first seen in TouchWiz, but you can lose the animations and go back to the regular vertical scrolling list.
One unique thing about GO Launcher is the segmented app drawer. You have your regular app list, but also Recent and Running tabs. The Recent list is really useful if you’re often opening the same apps. We’re not really in favor of aggressive task management, but there are times that you just need to kill an app. It’s nice to have this built in.
GO Launcher gets the most points in the looks department. If you pick up the Go Widgets and grab a good theme, it’s a really attractive launcher. All the widgets in GO Launcher can also be resized as you like. Some of the features are a little behind the more mature apps, but GO is a great choice, especially when you consider the fact that most of this is free. This app too will allow you to backup your home screen settings.
ADW is another old hand in the home screen replacement space. Like LauncherPro, this app has a large following in its free incarnation, but we’re going to go over the paid EX version which has some exclusive features if you’re willing to pony up $3.
In the spirit of GO (or maybe GO is in the spirit of ADW), ADW EX has support for full skins of the UI. The transformation is not quite as complete as GO themes, but you still get the important parts like icons, dock, and wallpaper. Also, most of these themes are free. Even if you don’t want to use a theme, ADW has a lot of options built in to tweak the appearance of your icons and dock. You can also change the size of widgets like the other home screen replacements we’ve gone over.
Those great Sense-like home screen previews are available here as well. Just use the pinch gesture on the home screen and you get a bird’s eye view. We are impressed with how smooth this is. We would definitely say the symmetric layout and buttery operation make this the best preview implementation we’ve seen from a home replacement.
If you want to edit the order or number of home screens, just pop open the Menu, and tap Edit. You will get a great interface where you can scroll through the screens, add more, remove the ones you have, and even reorder them using the on-screen controls. We like this method best of all because it keeps the functionality out of the way, but makes it very easy to use when you do need it.
Scrolling in ADW EX is very smooth, but that seems to rely on reducing the quality of the icons and widgets. All three apps do this by default, but you can disable it with no ill effects in LauncherPro and GO. We cannot find the option to do so in ADW. That said, you still get all those nifty transitions. The app drawer uses the side-to-side model, but you can change that. The drawer also allows the creation of Catalogs, which are basically virtual lists. You can switch to different Catalogs on the fly to filter apps. The app list is also very snappy.
We love that ADW EX has swipe gestures available anyplace on the home screen. You can swipe down in the middle of the screen to open notifications, for instance. Swipe up hides the dock by default, but you can do other things with it. Speaking of the dock, all the icons in it are configurable, but it’s a little harder to do than in LauncherPro. Still, all your changes can be easily backed up to the SD card.
ADW has been very stable for us, and there have been almost no performance issues. It is about as snappy as LauncherPro. There is also something very pleasant about the font ADW uses. We like it more than the ones used in the default system and the competing apps.
Each of these home replacements have their own selling points. GO Launcher is easily skinned and has all those great add-ons that participate in the theme. LauncherPro Is super-stable, fast, and very customizable. ADW EX has themes, well-designed customization options, and it too is fast.
Right now, we still think LauncherPro is the best one out there. You can get the free version and it will do almost everything you want. It is not as easy to skin, but you can rest assured it will not fail you in the performance department. GO Launcher is very good, but the stability is just a little below the competition. ADW is really close to LauncherPro, and if you want to skin your home screen, ADW could still be your best bet. If you use a home screen replacement, let us know which one you fancy the most.