There are plenty of alternative launchers in the Play Store, most of which are based on the AOSP version of the stock Android launcher. Even Google is getting into the game with the Google Now Launcher, though it's only available for a few devices so far. So you're probably looking at one of the third-party options if you need to change things up on your device. More often than not, Nova Launcher will be the one you settle on. This launcher has an insane number of features and options, and the developer has just pushed some big updates.
Let's dive deep into Nova and see if we can't create the perfect Android experience for the user who needs everything at hand, as well as those who like a more stripped down experience.
Assuming you've sprung for the full version of Nova, there are plenty of features to go through, but we're starting with the features everyone should tweak. In the big 3.0 update, the Nova developer did something neat that might make this launcher a viable alternative for people who have gotten used to Google's launcher. Just head into the Nova settings and turn on the Ok Google menu item. This lets you use the "Ok Google" command from the home screen to trigger voice search just like the Google Now Launcher allows. There's a slightly longer delay, but it works like a charm. Also make sure to check the "Desktop" settings to enable the persistent search bar, if you want.
Nova will import the layout from your previous launcher, but the full complement of widgets will only come over if you're rooted. Based on what you want to do with the layout (we'll get into that later), you can add or remove home screen panels. The layout editor can be accessed from the settings menu, but also with a pinch gesture on the home screen. From here you can add or remove panels and set the main panel.
You should also install the Nova Unread app, which enables unread badges on your app icons. This is a free app, and plugs directly into the Nova Settings. Venture back in there after installing the Unread app and go to the matching menu item. You can choose the size, color, and style of the badges. Make sure to activate the unread counter for all the apps you use. It supports the basics like Gmail, Hangouts, and SMS, but can also do apps like Facebook and Whatsapp. Additionally, there's an option to use the Android notification listener to track unread messages for almost any app. It's not quite as reliable, but still works surprisingly well.
The last thing everyone should look into when setting up Nova is icon theming. The launcher comes with a stock KitKat icon theme, but there are a ton of themes in the Play Store. Some are free, but the really good one often cost a dollar or two.
All the Things at Your Fingertips
Nova makes it easy to load up the interface with content and links so virtually everything is a tap or swipe away -- we're going for high information density here. If you're going all out with Nova, your first stop ought to be to the Dock settings. You can change the number of icons crammed in there, but also the number of pages.
You switch between pages by swiping left and right on the dock area just like you do with home screens. This is a good way to keep the apps you use most easily accessible, but that's not all you can do with that dock. Any 1-unit tall widget can also be dropped into the dock, which is actually one of my favorite parts of Nova. This is great for keeping music controls, system info, or whatever you want close at hand no matter where you are on the home screen.
The next step to making your home screen more jam-packed with information is to tweak the grid layout. This is a fairly common feature in third-party launchers, but it's still something to check out. The icons in Nova are a little smaller than most stock launchers by default, so you could easily bump up the number of rows and columns without making it too hard to hit the right icon. Doing this lets you get more stuff on fewer screens. Combined with some extra docks, your home screen can provide fast access to everything you need.
Less is More
Sometimes I like a more stripped down home screen experience, and you can get that with Nova as well. The extensive gestures available in Nova basically let you remove most of the home screen UI and access all the usual functions with swipes and multitouch gestures. No one else will know how to use your phone, but that might be part of the appeal. You can also create something that looks quite lovely, sort of the polar opposite of the above "all the things" design.
First thing's first -- check those gestures. The Nova settings will show you what is bound to what, for example a two finger swipe down opens the app drawer and a single swipe down opens the notification shade. You can tweak these however you like -- gestures can even be used to launch specific apps.
If you want to go for the most clean UI possible, open the Desktop settings and turn off the search bar, scroll indicator, and icon labels. You'll also want to find an icon theme that matches the minimalist aesthetic you're going for. Then head into the Dock settings and disable the dock with the toggle at the top -- remember, you can access the app drawer with a gesture of your choice. Next up, Look and Feel, where you'll turn off the notification bar. You don't have to do this, but it does look cleaner. Again, you can set a gesture to show and open it.
Going this route, I like to cut everything down to a single home screen panel with just a few transparent widgets and maybe some app shortcuts. Dashclock is good for this as it's very clean and can be used to show a good amount of information. You can still have additional pages, of course, but it's all up to you.
Whatever you decide to do with Nova Launcher (feature-packed, minimalist, or some combination), make sure you backup your configurations in the settings menu. This allows you to keep those painstakingly designed home screens safe and sound for easy switching back and forth.