Hands-On With The New Nexus Launcher

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It’s been several days now since the new Nexus Launcher was leaked into the wild. As a Nexus 6P owner currently running the latest Nougat Preview, I felt I’d be missing out a bit if I didn’t try out the launcher I’d likely be running in a few days anyway.

So, I downloaded it (link at end of article), and first tried installing it like a normal APK. I didn’t read the instructions, of course. If I had, I’d have known that the swipe left for Google Now feature didn’t work, and trying to select the new “Daily Wallpapers” feature will just crash due to the absence of the Wallpaper picker. Makes sense. Once I put the required files in the appropriate places in /system and rebooted, all was good with the world. (Less adventurous users can just flash a zip file – links at the end of the article)

Once it was running, the first thing I noticed was the obvious omission of the app drawer button. “No big deal.”, I thought. I swiped up on the bar, and the familiar N-styled drawer slid up, now with a fancy new “Search apps” bar at the top. I’ve slid this drawer up hundreds of times now, and I’ve noticed no issues with the animation smoothness. Every time, it’s like butter. The side effect of switching from a button to a slide motion is that every now and again, years of muscle memory kick in and my thumb instinctively darts for the round thing at the center of the bar…meaning I’ve accidentally opened Chrome several dozen times in the past few days. Despite this – having to swipe up just feels more intuitive…like it should have been that way the whole time. And, given that you swipe down for quick settings and notifications and left for google now, it seems to flow better with the launcher. Small and trivial, I know, but still noticeable.

After fiddling with the animation, I took a good look at the redesign to the app drawer. Nothing major has changed from the N preview version, but the drawer has been expanded slightly to fill the entire screen now, where previously it was inset just a small amount from the edges of the screen. This minor expansion gives a slight amount of room to increase icon and font sizes, which seems to add just the slightest bit of emphasis to icon appearance. Again, small and trivial, but still noticeable.

On the desktop itself, the normally prominent Google search bar has been truncated into an oval-shaped button with the new “G” logo placed on the left-hand side of the screen. This affords the home screen some new real estate, in which you will now see two lines of text displaying the Month, day, day of the week and year. It’s handy and looks nice, but I’m not certain it’s necessary. Additionally, there is nothing in the settings section of the app to allow for customizing what is displayed here, which I found to be slightly odd. What I found to be even odder was that when I tapped on this date indicator, I was not greeted by the calendar or clock app. I was not greeted by anything. I’m hoping that this is still a WIP, and that before the final release, Google sees fit to make sure we can customize this display and link it to an application of our choosing.

The wallpaper selector has been given a major overhaul, and now looks and acts like it’s own application – which it is. Most notable of the new features here is the “Daily wallpapers” section, which is something we’ve already seen in other third-party live wallpaper apps. You are presented with several categories of wallpaper (Earth, Landscape, Cityscape, Life, and Real Textures), of which I counted 40+ images just in the earth category. In other words, there are a lot. From here, you can either select a single wallpaper, or pick the daily option. If you select daily wallpapers, your phone will download a new image from Google every day (Wifi-only is an option) and automatically set it as your background. And, while other third-party apps have already provided this kind of feature for a while, we are still talking about the resources available to Google, which means you’re going to get some amazing backgrounds not accessible from other apps. In addition to the Daily Wallpapers, you can still select from on-device and other installed sources.

That is really about it in terms of the new, visible changes in the Nexus Launcher. The widget selection screen is literally unchanged from the current iteration – at least in terms of appearance. The settings screen is a lot more sparse than in the current launcher, and actually looks like a placeholder or just a rough layout until somebody got around to polishing it. There are only the basic options to choose from, and the UI actually breaks from the rest of the Settings elements in the system, having no hamburger or overflow menu.

Overall, I think that this particular bit of tinkering on Google’s part will be very well-received. Some people may have adverse feelings about the removal of a longstanding Android tradition, but this simple change is one that actually makes a lot of sense, and adds an extra bit of room to the screen for an additional app shortcut in the tray. And who doesn’t like more room? The daily wallpapers – while technically a feature of the new Wallpaper picker and not the Nexus Launcher – are still a nice touch and likely something I will use regularly from now on. Aside from the elements that appear unfinished in this release, my only actual gripe is that the date display doesn’t open any related program…which I suspect will change before the Nexus Launcher sees an official release. All in all, it’s a very nice overhaul and I’m looking forward to seeing the finished version.

If you’d like to check it out now, you can either download and install just the APK (non-root users), or download a flashable zip for the full experience – but you need to be rooted and have a custom recovery or use Flashify to install.

Click here to download.

Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments section.

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Ben K

Ben is a full-time IT Manager for a major healthcare provider in Milwaukee, WI. When he's not saving the staff at his work from their technology, he can probably be found living as his alter-ego Digitalhigh on XDA-Developer forums, where he has a number of custom ROM releases, as well as other projects. For hobbies, he is also an avid musician, lover of all things technological, and a dedicated father and husband. He also enjoys sunsets, spicy food, and long walks on the beach. XD

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