I find it amazing how many Android device reviews go on and on about the included, custom launchers without even mentioning that it’s completely replaceable. Heck, I’ve even seen people who refuse to buy certain brands because they don’t like what they call the UI, which turns out to be what they call the launcher. I think everyone needs to know that the launcher is completely replaceable, especially since that’s what controls most of your interaction with the device outside of apps. My favorite phone launcher is GO Launcher EX, so to promote the use of custom launchers, here’s a review of this free launcher replacement.
The GO Dev Team is one of the unsung heroes of Android. The team has a sea of apps on Google Play, ranging from the launcher to an SMS app, keyboard, and others. The insane thing is that it’s free, just go nuts and pick whatever you want from them and they’re just happy you do.
GO Launcher EX is the team’s launcher, and can be downloaded and installed from Google Play just like any other apps. The launcher is also the core app for many of the GO Dev Team’s other software offerings, which come in the form of GO Launcher-specific widgets and plug-ins. GO Locker adds a custom lock screen system to your phone, and GO Notification adds iOS-like badge notifications to the icons of supported apps.
The GO Widgets are widgets that work only in GO Launcher, and they’re generally speaking more capable than standalone widgets, either technically or just qualitatively. This includes things like the ability to flip pages of the calendar with touch, have some widgets that are truly fully resizable without being distorted in some way (the doodle note widget in particular works great this way), and widgets that truly work fully in the launcher. In fact I don’t even use a calendar or SMS app at all anymore because the GO Widget equivalent works just as well. Information access is one use of widgets, not having to launch apps to do something is another.
You also have ability to download widget themes that make all of the GO Widgets look the same, which is a huge thing for anyone who’s tired of having widgets that all look like they belong to different alien OSes from Star Trek. The more buttons and things are in a widget, the quicker it becomes obvious that widgets come from different developers. The screen shot above shows the Email, SMS and Calendar widgets that are exclusive to GO Launcher all with the same theme, and the Onavo data widget that looks like it came from another OS altogether.
Of course normal widgets work as well, you just have the option to get the GO Widgets too when you use this launcher. To be perfectly clear though, themes only work with the GO Widgets, not any widget.
Widgets are nice, but the true beauty of GO Launcher EX is all the settings you can tweak. There are essentially two types of custom launchers out there: those that try to provide a specific, mostly default look (imitating Windows Phone 7, imitating ICS, provide nice animations like SPB 3D Launcher and so on) and those that are more traditional and aim at giving the user absolute control over the settings instead. GO Launcher EX is the latter, providing the tools you need to customize a launcher that is still a “normal” launcher.
Listing everything that GO Launcher EX lets you tweak would take forever, but you can basically weak anything you can imagine. From the number of icons to how the dock looks, icon labels, gesture control, screen transition effects, icon sizes, and so on until the end of time. Naturally you also have themes for the launcher itself, as well as the ability to mix icons between themes, use your own, and so on. The app drawer can also be customized, including adding folders to it to organize it as much as the home screen. There’s a built-in GO Store that gives you access to all the themes, plug-ins and such – including some paid themes.
I’m quite fond of the ability to rename icons to nothing and use transparent icons, since that allows me to create invisible icons. I have those for screen brightness, clock, and various commonly used features that I like to have outside my folders but don’t need to see to know where is. Another feature I’m a fan of is the ability to add various shortcuts other than just apps to the home screen, notably phone numbers. Not just contacts, but direct phone numbers, so that you click an icon and it calls a specific number for a specific contact without any more button presses involved. I have a few of those in my Phone folder and it’s a lot quicker than even the favorites list in the Contacts app. This just goes to show that customizing a launcher isn’t just about vanity, but about efficiency as well. You could potentially have dozens of folders per home screen page, all filled with contacts and direct call shortcuts, organized into folders based on e.g. who they work for and so on – that can be invaluable in an office setting.
Like many third party launchers GO Launcher EX also supports app actions, which are internal features in apps that can be turned into shortcuts instead of using shortcuts to the apps themselves. These actions depend on the app, but as an example I can add a shortcut to a specific playlist in PowerAmp instead of just to PowerAmp itself. All these minor features packed into one launcher is what makes it great in my opinion.
The one thing I miss is the ability to deactivate the dock. On my phone I need the dock, but on my tablet I use ADW Launcher EX instead because I only use a single home screen and don’t want a dock on it. There’s a tablet version of GO Launcher, but unfortunately it lacks 98% of the features of the phone version at this time.
The trick to learning to use GO Launcher EX is to simply play around with the settings. Most of them are self-explanatory, the rest have to be tried. This is a launcher where you can choose between having a single home screen with a few icons and having a whole army of home screens with every widget conceivable, which in itself can be enough of a difference in options from stock launchers to confuse many. The mere idea of being able to determine how many home screen pages you have seems to be lost on many of the stock launchers that come on devices, which just goes to show the difference between a stock launcher and a third party launcher like GO Launcher EX. Imagination will also play a big role here, and I tend to browse the “show us your home screen” threads on the XDA Developers forum to get ideas. There’s a thread like that in pretty much all the device forums, often with thousands of unique examples to act as inspiration.
Go Launcher EX might not be as fancy looking as some of the launchers that specialize in animations and cool effects, but I dare say it’s more functional than many of them. My own reason for using it has a lot to do with the widgets, both in terms of functionality and the ability to make them look the same. The fact that it’s free of course doesn’t hurt either, and the amount of settings you have access to is a must-have on any launcher I use – which is why I never used launchers like SPB 3D Launcher for more than 5 minutes. The price of $0 is also what makes it such an easy app to recommend – even if you just want to try it out. You can have several launchers installed, so you don’t even risk losing anything you already have by giving it a try.[Google Play]