There was some stiff competition for alternative launchers in the early days of Android, but now thanks to tireless dedication and improvement from the developer, the excellent Nova Launcher stands at the top of the pile. Nova has been one of our favorite apps since it debuted way back in the Ice Cream Sandwich days, and while it's quite serviceable as a free app, the $4.99 upgrade to the Prime version is worth every penny. Luckily, you won't actually have to pay every penny today: it's on sale for 99 cents.
Coming across a genuinely new launcher interface and paradigm on Android is rare. Most third-party clients try to emulate the default Android launcher and add some customizations and improvements here and there. Not to undermine the power of something like Nova Launcher, but there's only so many times you can swipe left and right between homescreens or tap to open and close an app drawer before you wonder what that new launcher you installed does differently. If you seek the novelty of a new welcoming interface each time you unlock your phone, choices are somewhat more limited especially if you want a reliable and simple app, not one that has been built for the sake of difference more than usability.
The Google app is an interesting beast within the Android Ecosystem. It provides speech recognition, Google Now, multiple APIs, and even a launcher. Next to Google Play Services, the Google app is by far the most multi-faceted apk most of us have on our phones and tablets. The latest couple of updates teased users of the Android M Developer Preview 3 with brief access to Now On Tap before it was quickly taken away with a promise that it was still "coming soon". There were also a few other smaller details waiting to be found in a teardown, including the likely return of rotation support on the Google Now Launcher and some more forward motion for offline voice commands.
In short, version 32 is eager to sprinkle shortcuts to your favorite sites all over your homescreen. No having to open the browser first and type in URLs. No searching through a list of bookmarks. Just tap on a website's icon as though it were an app, like you would when clicking on a bookmark widget from Chrome or your phone's default browser.
We know everybody is looking forward to the big Hangouts 4.0 update; and despite a pretty active day for updates, there's no sign that the big green chat app is going to get a big new version today. While we're waiting, a smallish update to the Google Play Newsstand app reminds us that there's plenty of stuff to read in the news. The changes in this release are mostly centered around improving performance and accessibility, and fixing bugs. However, there is one potentially handy new feature making an appearance: home screen shortcuts.
This is the semi-official changelog:
Home icon support: Get direct access to a news edition or topic by adding an icon to your device home screen.
Android users in general like widgets. Android "advocates" (which I suppose includes all of us here at Android Police) remember when it was one of the biggest differentiators between Google's mobile operating system and iOS, back when people were trying to convince us that we didn't really need copy and paste support. So when Nokia's Z Launcher homescreen replacement app launched without widgets, a considerable number of users couldn't switch over because of this lack.
Now the developers have alleviated this problem, so it's a good time to give Z Launcher another chance. Version 1.2 adds basic widget support: swipe to the blank screen on the left side of the main launcher and long-press to add them.
Nova Launcher is easily the top pick for conventional Android home screen replacements, and a "daily driver" for a good chunk of Android Police's staff. The latest update added a Material Design user interface, but there are other goodies hiding just below the surface. For example, version 4.0 includes a simple app search function hidden in the app drawer. It's especially handy if you've got hundreds of installed apps (like Artem) or just don't like organizing your apps into folders (like everyone else).
To activate the search bar, just drag down from anywhere in the app drawer. It's the same gesture used to refresh the page or service in some Google apps.
When it comes to alternative launchers based on the standard Android homescreen design, I think it's safe to say at this point that Nova Launcher is the best available. But developer TeslaCoil isn't resting on its laurels: the app is constantly being updated, tweaked, and improved. Today the biggest update to Nova Launcher in years is going out on its Google Play Store beta channel... and yes, it has Material Design.
Among many, many other improvements. Just about every portion of the app has been expanded or tweaked. Visual elements have been borrowed from the Google Experience Launcher, and the whole thing has been recoded onto a newer, faster Launcher3 base.
Apex might be the last of the major launcher replacements to get a redesign for Android 5.0's visual style, but it certainly doesn't want to be the least. Apex's 3.0 update adds new Lollipop animations and a completely revamped visual style, making it more or less homogenous with Google's own launcher, but with the range of settings and tweaking options that customization fans crave. You can download the standard Apex Launcher for free, with the $4 upgrade app available for more options.
Here's a quick rundown of the changes made for the Material Design update. It's all pretty standard stuff, but put it together and it makes a dramatic difference.