Lift Off: Android Launchers Review

screen-final

Android’s winning feature has to be its customization capabilities. Stock standard home screens can be an incredible bore and Google has even addressed this in KitKat, where you can select a custom launcher of your preference from the settings menu.

Home Screen Launchers offer you a way out of your standard Smartphone UI (user interface) and Apple iOS user can’t help but look on in envy as you show off a new home screen every day of the week. But sadly, not many devices will allow you this freedom. First you need plenty of RAM and a fast processor. Quad Core is best, dual core…not so much — with at least 2GB of RAM. Here is a run down on some that I have tested on various devices, for both Tablets and Smartphones.

AVIATE

Still in beta, this is made by ex-Googlers and based around the Google Now card concept. This is an extremely intelligent launcher that is developed to be more functional than beautiful. The card concept isn’t something that will make ducks take to water, as the rectangular boxes that represent your widgets may put fashionistas. The home screen is multi faceted as it detects your location and this is what sets it apart from the rest.

screen-spaces

Aviate has three custom functions, that is to segment the apps you’d use while at home, work or when going places. For example when it detects that you are at work, it offers you a chance to pull out a productivity drawer which has all the apps you’d be normally using. When at home, it gives a different drawer for home use, like maybe playing music or watching videos. You add apps to each of the drawers or download the suggested app. These drawers will also carry app suggestions from the Aviate should it be empty.

The ‘going places’ drawer is the most interesting. You have a choice of bar and foodspotting apps as well as Four Square check ins. For me, I don’t use four squares so you can replace some of these suggested apps with one you’d normally use.

Widget support is rather weak as not all third party custom widgets are supported. However the standard ones that come with it is enough to keep most people happy.

The no nonsense approach is probably best for the more rational users who do not like the clutter of seemingly artistic UI touches. Aviate also scores well for memory and storage usage as there isn’t much going on behind the scenes to take away the user experience.  For now, Aviate is only available on Smartphones but I suspect a Tablet version isn’t far off.

Themer

Mycolorscreen’s Themer offers the best options for styling your home screen but is very complex to use. This project started with a website called MycolorScreen.com, where people shared home screen designs. It graduated to a whole new level with the Themer launcher.

ku-bigpic

The folks at Themer even bought out Zooper Widgets in the process, making it the defacto widget customization tool which you can use. This is not to say that it won’t work with your other widgets, just that it might not work as well as it should.

I will not talk about the bugs here since this is still in Beta and it works well on any quad-core 2GB ram device. That said, you will experience performance issues with dual core 1GB devices. The widgets and the number of customized screens you can add is very enticing for fashion conscious users but as usual, it comes at a price as the more widgets you add, more resources will be consumed.

Themer’s business model created around  brand sponsored home packs for you to decorate your home screens. This means the launcher will remain free. Sponsored branding will generate  revenue to pay off the development cost of Themer and I do think that’s a great idea. You can customized each Theme with Zooper Widgets and this is where it gets a bit complicated. Size, color, looks can be changed but it does take time. Predesigned themes can also have several scrolling home screens for you to customize so you can be spending hours tinkering with the look. The moment you start adding more home screens and widgets, the overall responsiveness will be affected.

Themer also pays individual designers a small fee for designing a great launch packs which you can download and use for free. Not sure if this will transition to a paying model as the app is still in Beta.

Themer is available only for Smartphone use for now.

Espier iOS 7

Espier is a German word for spy. So I am not too sure if you’d be compromising your safety if you used this. Built as an iOS7 look alike and developed by some folks from China. Espier gives your Android device a Jony Ive look without having to pay for Apple hardware. It looks good and works on a unique business model. The launcher has its own hub where some of the functionality have to be purchased. What I like about the Espier is that it works pretty much like the Apple version, right down to the multi touch to remove apps from your home screen or folder. It has a notification bar widget which you can add on to give it a more authentic Apple feel but at a price. Some of the features like widgets cost money, and widgets are proprietary. You can’t add stuff on a home screen like you would on other launchers.

espier-launcher-ios7-cap-android

On a quad core, 1GB RAM device, it worked ok. There were momentary hiccups with the icons but the responsiveness wasn’t affected. On dual core 1GB devices, user responsiveness was akin to prodding a dead possum to life. To be fair, the look and feel of iOS is looking very dated. The Jony Ive look is way over hyped and a tad boring but then again, you can have this look for cheap on Android hardware—and on a larger screen too.

Espier will work on both Smartphones and Tablets.

Buzz Launcher

Looks and feels very similar to Themer, which an option to download themes designed by users. Each theme can be made with a host of widgets and Buzz Launcher, which like Themer, offers its own widgets as a separate download. Users can also add third party widgets.

buzz_launcher_720

Buzz isn’t meant for dual core 1GB devices. Some of the theme packs designed by users make use of a wide range of third party widgets to the point that it overloads the RAM. There are simpler home themes which do far less device resource but if you are a power user, you need a faster device with a minimum of 2GB of ram.

Buzz is available now, and there is a lot of activity from designers who offer their own themes. The missing widgets for the custom themes can be directly downloaded from the Play store, but not all of them are free. Some designers have made use of paid widgets so you need to replace this with something to your liking.

Overall responsiveness depends on the theme and number of widgets it uses. It might just scrap through with a 1GB RAM dual core device but you soon get bored and want to try some hipster home screen that is resource intensive. Widgets don’t always work due to lower RAM so you have been warned. It was slow and turgid on 1GB dual core devices when I tested it.

What makes this a winner is the sheer variety of Theme Packs which you can download for free. It is bewildering!

Buzz will work on both Smartphones and Tablets.

Hipsters Look Out!

Just coz you can hijack your own homescreen doesn’t mean that it will work on all devices. I have always said that having enough available RAM is very important if you want to have a custom screen, a fast quad core processor is preferable over dual core.

Android KitKat’s was designed from the ground up to take advantage of custom home launchers by selecting it from the home menu. What’s more KitKat is also more efficient in juggling storage and RAM, though I have not personally tested it, I am sure it will work better than what you have experienced on Jelly Bean.

There are also dozens of other home launchers which I haven’t reviewed so remember that any custom home launcher you install will have their own quirks. Each widget you add on your home screen will affect your RAM availability. The more widgets you have, the harder it will be for your device to keep up. So don’t go reporting bugs and slow performance issues when your device just doesn’t have the muscle to do the heavy lifting.

Home screen Launchers are the darlings of the Android world. Apple iOS can’t even come close. Five years ago, the Apple home screen revealed by Steve Jobs was ground breaking but by today’s standard, it is merely functional. This is why Android rocks and will continue to do so for a long time to come.

Android KitKat: No Surprises

android-kitkat-4.4-kit-kat-8

The world is flat. I don’t have an issue with it but this flat design approach is probably taking it a step in the wrong direction when it comes aesthetics as Apple fan boys hated it. But let’s not go postal over this. Feature wise there isn’t much to talk about except the following:-

Google Now is the Home Screen

Yea, but only for the stock standard KitKat, so if you have Touch Wiz or some other launcher working ontop of this, you won’t see much of it. This sort of optimization is going to encourage more telco and manufacturer bloatware, which you can’t remove but have to put to sleep manually using the Android App Manager.

Works on 512MB of RAM

As silly as it sounds, but not many devices are shipping with 512MB these days. And even if the stock standard KitKat will only be less of 512MB of code, manufacturers will put in their own bloatware ontop of it so don’t go celebrating this by buying a round of drinks for all your buddies at the bar.

QuickOffice is Free

It has been free since Google bought it out and now comes as part of KitKat. The app gets updated automatically via Playstore so it resides as part of the OS, the bad news is that you might not be able to delete it to free up storage.

Third Party Cloud Storage for Photos and Media

No big deal here. You could already use Box or Dropbox to upload content automatically to the cloud. You can even auto upload to G+. With Gallery integration, you can how back up all your photos of the day to Cloud Storage for sharing or self whoring.

Hangout with SMS, forget FB Messenger

Yes, Hangouts has been improved to take on every sensible communicative process including MMS and SMS. Time to dump your Facebook Messenger app! This will no doubt cause a lot of pain in the patukis  for Zuckerberg and gang who had earlier intended to hijack your messaging app.

Emoji for your Keyboard

No more fiddling around with those icons, it comes free with your standard Google keyboard, which I don’t use anyway. Emoji might change that as you can use this icon pack instead of purchasing those proprietary icon packs when expressing your angst.

Air Printing is now a reality

Wifi is handy, you got a printer on a network, you could just send that PDF you got to the printer in the office. There is a printer hub which printer manufacturers can now release an option for. No more messing around with the network copier and printer for those who hate doing manual labor.

Immersive Mode Full Screen

No more dodgy notifications, jarring buttons or status bars. You go full screen with the app the moment an app launches for media playback. Multi touch support is from the center of the display. Not bad not but nothing great.

44ktikat3jidj

Memory and Storage Optimization

Probably the most important feature that you can’t see. Android has a pretty weird way of dealing with memory/storage and optimizing the process is going to make apps more  efficient. This could mean more fluid app dynamics and leave plenty of room for gaming and social media distractions.

When can I get KitKat?

If you are running stock standard Android, you can get it now but there is a caveat. It won’t work on the Galaxy Nexus, its innards are too old to support the new firmware.

Samsung and HTC will take a good six months before it decides which sets will get an update. As far as I remember, Samsung promised a Jellybean update for GN 1 and it never came, though I was told it was rolled out to certain countries. KitKat isn’t a massive improvement, it is an update to sort out some user experience issues and memory grabs by apps that were poorly coded.

Like iOS7, it is more aesthetics than features. Samsung would be loath to release an update but the smaller KitKat foot print could give them more room to inject more bloatware. For now, you best bet would be Cynogenmod, those band of independent developers have promised to release a 4.4 update as soon as they can pare down the code.

The only visible thing you’d be getting from KitKat are the icons. Since the stock standard KitKat will carry the new and improved icon pack, device manufacturers won’t see the need to skin them into another form.

Who Will be Getting KitKat?

New devices from all he major brands with the exception of Motorola of course—who now offer only stock standard Android. HTC and Samsung will have their own interpretation of a home screen so you won’t be cursed with a Google alternative. The majority of devices with a minimum of 1GB RAM will be able to run KitKat — preferably with a dual core processor.

One Version to Rule them All!

Fragmentation was pretty bad with Android Gingerbread and Honeycomb. This fork has now been unified. All devices shipping with Honeycomb for Tablets can now offer KitKat and this is of particular interest for tablets and phones offered in third world countries where only 512MB of RAM is often the defacto standard for cheap knock offs.

To a large extent, KitKat is like iOS 7. Nothing to shout about, has some nice optimization which you won’t see much of and can be incredibly boring for those who want more. Google Now with Voice command is given more prominence but if you happen to speak with a lisp, chances are you won’t be using it.

The Pen Stylus is Vogue again for Apple?

penscript

I recently had to retire my original GN and take on the GN II, used of course, but with much hesitation. This is not my eulogy to a machine that has served me over the last 20 months but rather, a poetic farewell to a device that I long enjoyed. Now Samsung’s Galaxy Note series of Smartphones and Tablets are the envy of Apple users. That’s right. It is a sleeper hit as far as Apple is concern though Tim Cook has no idea why it should be the case.

As a drawing and sketching tool, it is hard to beat. What’s more there is pin point accuracy with the built-in stylus. What the Galaxy Note lacks is a good SVG editor, which you have to buy on the Google Play. But a more interesting note is that the folks at Adonit wants to convert your iPad into a Galaxy Note with bluetooth enabled Pen called the Jot Script. This gadget isn’t cheap, costing US$75 sans apps. There are some free apps on the Appstore which you can use but this really depends on you. Evernote also has an app that supports the Adonit pen.

For wanna be artist, the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition is the one to kill for. Forget the Adonit imitation that works on the iPad and iPhone. It just will not cut it in the same way as the Samsung’s next big tablet with a stylus.

 SamsungGalaxyNote10.1.2014-635x400

A Question of Different Stylus

Remember those blunt head stylus you can buy for a song from your smartphone shop? Well, they are made that way because it is simply not possible to get it to work with a fine point. Apple has patented a new active stylus but has yet to announce a product release date, it might come once they have their new iPad line fully stocked up

jotscript

Adonit’s pixel point technology uses bluetooth, whereas the one from Samsung Galaxy Note is from Wacom’s own Bamboo Stylus technology. I have owned two Wacom tablets and love the way the feel in your hand but it wasn’t until the Galaxy Note that revolutionised the Wacom Tablet technology as you can draw directly onto the device display. Both types of Stylus are pressure sensitive.

The old Styli which you often find fashioned with a bulb like capacitive foam tip but you could never pin point your pen tip to a drawing. Pin point type stylus are rare as there is quite a fair bit of tech that goes on behind it. For example, Adonit has released a SDK that allows app developers to integrate its function.

Alternative Stylus from Adonit

community

When I was using the iPad, I toyed with the idea of using this weird Stylus that has a flat head. It didn’t look like but it promised pin point accuracy for drawing and note taking. It didn’t take long for me to toss the idea as it would be easily damaged and the extra point heads given to you would be all used up.

active-stylus-patent

Apple’s new patent for a Stylus reflects its desire to bridge what Samsung has done so far with the Note series of Tablet and Smartphones but would that be too late to market? It could certainly satisfy the Apple fanboys who have longed for such a device if they didn’t already have an Adonit Stylus. That said, this alone isn’t going to change the user landscape much as it would take Apple another 18 months to get something like this to market.