Lift Off: Android Launchers Review

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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March of the Android Watches

Neptune Pine

Where is Apple’s iWatch? I suppose it is on the horizon come Sept when Tim Cook announces it but then again he might not. But when Apple does come into play, the Watch market could be quite crowded.

Sony is planing an update to its Watch and there are already a few Android watches to date, so why not welcome another one that is up for pre order right now?

Neptune Pine Enters the Frey

If you have US$335 to spare, well put one down for a 16GB version. This baby isn’t just a watch, it is a fully fledged Android device! Neptune Pine sounds like an Apple product judging from the price of this baby.

2.4 inch TFT capacitive touchscreen 
320×240 QVGA resolution

Cellular Networks
GSM/GPRS/EDGE 850, 900, 1700, 1900
UMTS/HSPA+/WCDMA 850, 1700, 1900, 2100


Memory
512MB RAM 
16 or 32 GB mass storage

OS
Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich

Connectivity
Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n 
GPS 
Bluetooth 4.0 
USB 2.0 
Micro-SIM

So if you ever wanted to be like Dick Tracey or Batman, well this could be your next bet. Now, here is my beef with the product. How the hell do you type?

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The 2.4 inch screen is probably pretty big if you were born Hobbit sized but then again, you could probably be able to type better on this than most of us can if you were that small. The keys are tiny! And please don’t use the long fabled example of Apple’s own tiny keyboard on the original iPhone. Judging from the number of “auto correct” faux pas we have seen, Putin could have accidentally text Obama his declaration of War if he ever used one. I don’t believe that such a keyboard can be optimized for anything more than just sending coded Text messages.

It is true that the mobile phone decimated the market for watches and right now, it seems to be going the other way. Will it work? Will it be a hit? Only Geeks and fashion victims may apply.

 

 

 

AnyDo: Task manager on Steriods

I don’t use task manager because they are cumbersome and requires you to input your task via a keyboard. That is as simple as it gets.

Even when I had the iPhone, I didn’t find the use of task managers any more exciting than say ant farming or waxing my shoes. I loathed it.

Why can’t anyone design a task manager that is easy to use.

simple and clean interface

When Siri came along for the iPhone, people found it useful for taking notes and stuff with a push of a button and we all know that Siri has more entertainment value than Google Voice Actions.

So why not this? Make a Google Voice Action enabled task manager….and that’s the wining formula. What I like about it is that it works. Yes, you need to have an active data connection for Voice Actions to work (so does Siri) so let’s call it even on that.

I like using something that is simple and painless. Using a keyboard these days may only take a few stabs of the finger but it is the effort of behind it that scares me.

I like the concept where you press the MIC and speak your note into it, then set it up as a reminder for the day, or the week. You can even it set it months in advance too. This will show up on the user interface under, Tomorrow, This Week or Later.

Later often refers to agendas months ahead in time.

month view for future events

The reminders are just alarms which you can set ahead of the scheduled time and it is

intelligent enough to tell you that reminders won’t work if you key in a time that is in the past.

You can also preset the alerts to go off up to half an hour or at a custom time which you like to decide. This is all quite neat and because it is so easy to use, it makes you wonder why hasn’t anyone thought of this earlier. It also works with Google Sync and even has a reminder option to tell you to return missed calls. Cool.

Those of you who are on ICS and have NFC enabled on your phones, can also share task via Android Beam.

AnyDO is a great app, simple and neat. I highly recommend it.