Give Your Android Home Screen an Awesome Makeover

By Ryan Whitwam

Tired of that old UI? Grab a home replacement and get to work.

If you've been using the same old Android phone for a while now, you're probably getting a little tired of the look of the UI. Maybe you just don't like the custom skin the manufacturer put on the phone. Sure, you could go all out and root your phone to install a custom ROM. But that's a lot of hassle and risk when home screen replacements are getting extremely advanced. One community favorite that has been in beta for a few months, LauncherPro, has just hit its first real release.


How a home screen replacement works

Immediately after installing one of these apps, it will make an entry for itself in the system's list of home options. The first time you press the home button, you will be presented with a list of you installed home options. One of them will be 'Launcher" or "Home" depending on your Android version. This is the default Android home application, and is probably what you're used to. To start out, just tap the option for the home replacement you just installed. You can set it as the default, but you want to play around with it first to see if you want to use it. 

A Home replacement technically runs alongside the "real" home application, but you can interact with it just as you would your regular home interface. This has some performance consequences that we'll talk about later. Since you have two home screen running, you can switch back and forth to see how they differ. Once you have decided to give your newly downloaded home replacement a real try, you can hit the home button and check the "Use by default" box and tap the home replacement.  

If things aren't going as planned, you can always go back to the default home screen. To do this, you will need to go into the Android system settings. The exact path will depend on the version of the OS you are running. Just find the Applications menu, and make sure you have it set to display all applications. The find your new home replacements, and open its listing. Scroll down a tap the "Clear defaults" button. This will offer you the same selection menu the next time you tap the home button. You can choose to go back to your regular launcher and set it as default. If you ever want to go back to the replacement, just clear the default for the standard home app. 

The problems with home replacements

While running a home replacement can be a great fun, there are some drawbacks to be aware of. First is the issue of stability. Google churns away with a legion of engineers to make Android's UI as stable as it is, and it still has its issues. Running a home replacement means you will probably see more crashes and non-responsive events. In Android, we call an application crash a "force close" or FC. If you're researching a new home replacement and you see people complaining of getting FCs, watch out. Home replacements can be doubly aggravating because they don't always notify you of a FC, they might just refuse to work for a minute until they've restarted themselves.  

You also need to be aware the act of running many home replacements will impact system performance. These interfaces take up CPU cycles and RAM like any other app would. For most of the modern options, we see 20-30MB of RAM used. Also be aware that if you are running different widgets on your default home and the replacement, you are likely eating up more RAM than you have to. On a newer phone, this probably isn't a big deal. Especially on a Nexus One with Froyo, you shouldn't be seeing any problems from the added resource utilization. But those on older phones like the Hero or G1 should make sure to test performance thoroughly.  

Lastly, take note of your widgets load out. If you run a lot of widgets, things can get messy between home screens. Some phones, for some reason or another, don't like running copies of a widget on two different home screens. The widgets UIs will fail to work, or will just seems little broken. People often blame the home replacement for this, but it is a system level problem. If you are having issues getting widgets to work on a home replacement, try removing it from the original home screen.  

Recommended Home Screen Replacements

LauncherPro Plus . This is an extremely full featured home replacement with some very nice feature additions. This app uses the standard Android convention of scrollable home screens, but offers you the choice of running anywhere from one to seven of them. If you choose seven screens, that can be a lot of scrolling, but LauncherPro has borrowed a new trick from 2.1 builds of HTC's Sense UI. If you perform a two-fingered pinch gesture anywhere on the home screen, you will get a preview of all your home screens. Tap on one to go to it.     
 As you scroll around the UI, you will notice the home screens have a lot of kinetic bounce to them. It actually feels a lot like an iPhone. The launcher at the bottom offers amazing customization options. You have two links on each side of the app drawer icon that you can use to pin apps or shortcuts so they will always be visible. You can choose a background for this area to offer different effects. LauncherPro includes a series of attractive white icons for use in this area to keep the feel the same. 

One last feature is only available in the new Plus version. The developer has worked out a way to add Sense UI type scrollable contact widgets. More custom widgets will be coming soon as well. These are nice to look at and they perform well. Standard Android widgets do not live animate on the home screen, so this is an interesting addition. The Pro version is currently only available on the developer's site for the introductory price of $2.99. You can get it there with a PayPal link, or just wait for it to hit the Market. The developer's country does not allow paid apps yet, so it's unclear how long that wait will be. You have to sideload the app, so AT&T Android users will need this program (Windows only). The free beta is also still in the Market if you're just curious. 

is another popular option, probably because it moves away from the standard Android home screen and emphasizes an attractive design that groups all your information together in one screen. The center of the UI is a clock with weather and the date. This panel can be slid up or down to emphasize the information on either side of it. The top half of the screen has bars for SMS, emails, phone calls, and calendar. The bottom has Google Reader, Facebook, Twitter, and stocks. If you need to see more of your social news, just pull the center bar up, and vice versa for the more standard phone features up top. 

The app list is accessed by hitting the menu button. A second press will bring up the actual menu, from which you can customize the individual info bars. In our experience, Slidescreen is either a hit or a miss with users. You either love the simple UI operation and presentation, or you miss the tweaking, widget-friendly Android home screen layout. It's a little pricey at $6.99 for the full version, but a free ad-supported version is available if you want to try it out for a while.

Sweeter Home 2. Sweeter Home is possibly the most radical approach to changing the Android home screen. It is still in beta, so expect some bugs, but it may be worth your time if you like tweaking settings. This home replacement relies on a series of layers and grids that you can use to develop a custom UI.  

The grids can be used to display information from any area of the phone, and can be resized as you like. There is also full support for standard Android widgets, which can be integrated into layers. Almost any UI design scheme you dream up can be built in Sweeter Home 2. There are some pre-made themes you can download to get you started; these are accessible from within Sweeter Home. Just make sure you watch some videos, and read up on the forums before you dive in. It's devilishly complicated.  

This is everything you need to know before getting into home screen replacements. Changing you home interface can be just the thing to reinvigorate a phone you're getting bored with. You can get useful features like additional home screens, a smoother UI, and more skinning options. But be aware of the possible impacts on performance and stability.  

If we were to recommend only one home replacement, it would be LauncherPro Plus. It's really blown us away as a beta and as a final product. If you want to wait until it's in the Market at a later date, that's fine, but buying up front is a great way to show the developer some support and save a few bucks. Updates will come from the developer's site for now, you'll get an email with a username and password to access the latest builds. It's not the most elegant solution, so be aware of that. Do you use a home screen replacement on your phone? Let us know how it works for you.  
Image credit: LarvaLabs, Sweeter Home