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How to use Nova Launcher to customize your Android phone

Tired of staring at the same old home screen? If you’ve got a smartphone running Google’s Android operating system, good news: You don’t have to put up with the monotony any longer. Android supports what are known as third-party launchers, custom apps that supercharge your home screen with new features, themes, and optimizations. There’s a pretty large list of launchers to choose from, but few come close to the level of polish and customization of Nova Launcher, a free (and optionally paid) Android launcher for all devices running Android 4.0 and newer.

Nova Launcher replaces your home screen and app drawer, the scrolling list of app icons normally accessible by swiping up on your phone’s home screen. But on the default settings, you won’t notice much in the way of change — and that’s because Nova Launcher sticks to a fairly vanilla take on Android’s home screen. But there’s a lot Nova Launcher can do that’s not immediately obvious. Don’t like the shape or style of app icons? It’s easy to swap them out. Bored of the transition animations between home screens and apps? Just pick different ones.

There are more customization options than we can cover here without the article becoming enormous, but here are some of the biggest options you’ll want to know about.

Nova Launcher (free) vs. Nova Launcher Prime

First thing’s first: You have to download Nova Launcher in order to use it. Install it like you would any other app by heading to the Google Play Store, where you will face your first big decision: Whether to settle for the free version of Nova Launcher, or spring for the paid version — Nova Launcher Prime ($5).

What’s the difference between Nova Launcher and Nova Launcher Prime? It comes down to customization. Nova Launcher Prime lets you assign gestures (e.g., pinch, double-tap) to apps on the home screen, and adds unread counts — little overlay badges that indicate unread messages — across the launcher. You also get custom drawer groups, which let you create new tabs or folders in the app drawer, an option to hide apps from the app drawer, custom per-folder and per-icon swipe gestures, and an expanded list of scroll effects. In short, quite a lot of additional custom options.

It’s a lot to consider, but here’s our recommendation: Unless there’s a Nova Launcher Prime feature you don’t think you will be able to live without, try the free version first. Run it through its paces and see if you like it and if you find yourself bumping up against its limitations, consider making the purchase.

Alternatively, consider buying Nova Launcher Prime and trying it for a day. If you’re not convinced, ask for your money back — the Google Play Store lets you refund any app purchase made less than 48 hours ago. Remember, you’ll need both the Nova Launcher and Nova Launcher Prime apps installed to use your Prime benefits.

Getting started with Nova Launcher

To get started, launch the app and it’ll walk you through the process of setting up your Nova Launcher homepage. You can choose to start fresh, find an old Nova Launcher setup, or use your current home screen as a basis, as well as decide whether you want an apps button, and dark mode settings.

After this though, you’re likely to be kicked back to your regular home screen. That’s because Nova Launcher needs to be set as your default Home app. The process for changing this is going to be slightly different from phone-to-phone, but in general, you’ll need to head to Settings > Apps, and then find the Default Apps section. On the latest Samsung phones, you’ll find it in the Apps menu as Choose Default Apps, but on slightly older Samsung devices you may need to tap the three dots in the top-right corner and select Default Apps.

On Google Pixels, you’ll need to go to Settings > Apps and Notifications > Advanced > Default Apps. If your phone is on any version of Android between 4.4 KitKat and 6.0 Marshmallow, the process is slightly different. Once you’re in the Settings menu, find the Home sub-menu, tap Advanced, and select Nova Launcher from the available choices.

Regardless of how you get there, you’ll next need to Home App, and then select Nova Launcher. You’ll then be magically transported back to your new, Nova Launcher-powered home screen.

Tweaking Nova Launcher’s Appearance

If you never used Nova Launcher before, you might be surprised by how similar it looks to Android’s stock home screen. The basic customization options aren’t all that different — tapping and long-pressing on the home screen pulls up a menu that lets you change your home screen wallpaper, insert widgets, or launch the settings menu, and the home screen selector button near the top of the screen; selecting it reassigns the default home screen to whichever one is currently in view.

Tapping on the Widgets button brings up a list of widgets from the apps you’ve installed, and tapping and holding on any of them lets you situate them on the home screen. You can also long-press on the widget to access an accordion menu of four different menu options: Remove, Padding, Resize, and App Info.

  • Remove deletes said widget
  • Resize increases the length and/or width of the widget
  • Padding thickens or thins the widget’s borders
  • App Info pulls up the widget’s corresponding menu in Android’s Settings menu.

You can use these options to change your widgets to fit whatever designs you have for your home screen.

Home Screen Settings

You can also make some serious changes to your home screen itself, and you’ll find these options under the Home Screen section of your Nova Settings app. To access it, either open your Nova Settings app from your app drawer, or long-press your home screen and tap Settings.

From here, you can make significant changes. The Layout sub-menu allows you to fine-tune your home screen’s size. Desktop Grid changes how many app icons and widgets you can store on your home screen. Want a super-dense 12-by-12 grid of app icons, or a comically small two-by-two one? The choice is yours. A checkbox near the bottom toggles off the home screen’s snap-to-grid feature, giving you greater freedom in placement.

Icon Layout dives into app icon design. You can adjust the overall size, but also toggle the appearance of the text labels beneath them. A progress slider lets you increase or decrease their size, and checkboxes let you add a drop shadow, a multi-line wraparound, and switch to a different font color and styling.

Padding contains the settings that tweak the distance of the home screen’s border from the screen border — the larger the padding, the further from the screen your shortcuts and widgets will be. Dock changes the border at the bottom of the screen that contains your persistent apps.

Next, the Search sub-menu contains options for Search Bar PlacementSearch Bar Style, and Search Provider. These let you mess around with the Google search bar that is installed by default on some Android phone lock screens. You can turn it into a widget, change the style, or even change the search provider to another search engine.

Scroll contains your options for scrolling on your home screen, and includes changing the transition effect between wallpaper pages. Try Cube, which re-imagines your home screens as faces on a digital 3D cube, or Card Stack, which slowly fades in the next home screen from the background as the previous one slides to the left or right. You can toggle Wallpaper Scrolling, which applies a parallax effect to your phone’s home screen. (If you’ve selected a suitably wide wallpaper, you’ll see it “move” as you transition between home screens.) Or there’s Infinite Scroll, which teleports you back to the left-most home screen when you swipe past the right-most home screen (and vice-versa).

Also, try messing with the Page Indicator and New Apps settings. The former changes the design and color of the dots at the bottom of the screen, which indicate which home screen is in view. The latter allows you to disable the Play Store’s (sometimes annoying) habit of automatically adding app shortcuts to your home screen, albeit only partly — you also have to disable the corresponding Play Store setting to avoid error messages.

Diving into the Home Screen menu’s Advanced drop-down exposes even more options. You can allow resizing of widgets on top or underneath of app shortcuts (so they overlap), lock the home screen to prevent changes (handy once you’ve got it how you like it), or toggle a shadow at the top and bottom of the screen.

App drawer

So you’ve customized your home screen. You could leave it there, but there are also options for altering your app drawer to suit your desires. Tap the App Drawer option in Nova Settings to see our next suite of options.

The Layout options come first. App Drawer Style allows you to change how the app drawer scrolls, and you can choose from Vertical and Horizontal scrolling, or viewing apps as a list. Drawer App Grid has a familiar grid pattern, and governs how many rows and columns your app drawer has. If you’re using a large-screened device, you can make the most of your extra space by adding in extra apps on each screen – up to a maximum of 12-by-12 apps. Conversely, if you don’t like having lots of apps on your screen at once, you can shrink it all the way down to just having four apps on each screen.

Icon Layout lists your options for altering the icons themselves, from simply changing the size of the icon, to changing the color of the text underneath, adding a shadow, reducing the size of the text, and even removing it entirely.

Frequently Used Apps is a useful option that might prove useful to people who find themselves constantly using specific apps — when toggled on, it lists those most-used apps at the top of the app drawer, ready to be accessed whenever you access your drawer.

Swipe To Open gives you the option of using an old-style app drawer button or the newer method of swiping up from the bottom of your screen to see your apps. Your choice on this is purely personal and we recommend mixing it up and trying out each different style to see which you prefer.

One of the advantages of having Nova Launcher Prime is the greater control over which apps you see in your drawer. If you’re a Prime user, then you can find the option to hide specific apps under Apps > Hide Apps. While that’s useful, there’s even more potential control to be found here for Prime users. Enabling Apps > Drawer Groups allows you to create custom app groups, and have them appear in tab form above your app drawer. Looking just for your games? Create a “games” group under Drawer Groups, add your games, and you’ve got a quick and easy way of starting a game break whenever you feel like it.


The Folders sub-menu houses the options relating to folders you can place on the home screen. Folders allow you to group specific apps into a single slot on your home screen. tap it and it’ll pop open, displaying all the apps within it. Think of it as a mini-app drawer and you won’t go far wrong.

If you’re not sure how to make a folder, it’s really easy. Simply take two icons on your homepage that you want to place into a folder, and then drag one onto the other. They should form into a folder that you can add extra apps to, rearrange, and rename as you see fit. Within the Folders submenu, you’ll find options to change the aesthetics of the folders, including the animation when they open, the layout, and window style.

Look & Feel

If you want to change the way that your phone looks, this is the menu for you.

We’ll start with the first option on the list, Icon Theme. Many of the default and common apps on your phone — the various Google apps, SMS messenger, and Facebook — have various custom icons that can be downloaded for them. These can be found in the Google Play Store, in a mix of both free and paid apps. Most of them require a custom launcher, and that’s where this setting comes in. Simply install the icon pack you want to try out, head to Look & Feel > Icon Theme, and select your chosen app.

A new addition directly under the icon themes are Adaptive Icons. Within these options, you can further customize, forcing icons into a specific shape to match the theme, or simply to match your personal tastes. Reshape Legacy Icons continues this, reshaping or adding a background to apps that can’t usually be matched to that style, while Prefer Legacy Icons forces app icons to ignore adaptive icon rules altogether.

If you’re not a fan of Google’s new allowances for varying icon sizes, then Normalize Icon Size should always be turned on. When turned on, this option scales down larger icons to match smaller ones, making sure that all of your apps are a similar size.

One interesting animation option is App Animation. This setting governs the on-screen animation when entering and leaving an app, and it can be changed in various ways. If you were a fan of the way a particular version of Android transitioned between apps, then you’re in luck, as Nova Launcher notes which transition was common in each version of Android. As always, have a fiddle with all of these options and see what you like best; there is little that is hard to change back here.

Gestures & Inputs

Gestures are no longer new on mobile operating systems, having been around for several versions of Android and iOS now. Chances are, if you’ve used a newer phone, you’ve dabbled in using gestures to navigate around your phone. But, if you’re using an older phone, or simply want to add more gestures to your repertoire, Nova Launcher offers a highly customizable suite of gesture options for Android.

The first option you see is Home Button. This allows you to repurpose your home button to access quick actions like App Search, Recent Apps, Google Discover, or an entirely separate app. The option below, Only On Main Home Page, locks this additional action to only the home screen, ensuring you can still access your home screen easily. We recommend you leave this option ticked unless you have another gesture set up to take you to your home screen.

Speaking of those gestures, it’s here that you can find options for these. There are some gestures turned on by default, and we suggest that you take note of which of these you could use for your convenience, as they’re jolly difficult to trigger without meaning to. As a few examples, swiping down will bring down the notification shade, swiping up with two fingers will open your Nova Launcher settings menu, and pinching out (like on a map) will open your recent apps.

Notification Badges

This Prime-only option is a simple addition, but it hides a large amount of customization. Notification badges are the little numbers that appear on an icon to inform you when you’ve received a notification. Using Nova Launcher, you can change the way that appears, including a dynamic badge, Android 8.0 Oreo-style dots, or unread counts from companion apps. Or if you’d prefer, you can turn it off entirely.

Backup & Import Settings

This is the final section of the settings that we’re going to cover here, but it’s one of the most important if you want to save your settings or import them from an old install.

Backup, as you might expect, allows you to make a backup of your current settings, saving them for later. You can manage these in Restore Or Manage Backups. Quick Start allows you to run the starting process again, while Reset To Default gives you a clean slate to start over again. Import allows you to take your home screen layout from your original home screen, replicating the layout where possible. If you’re still fond of your original home screen and just want some of the extra features Nova Launcher offers, then this is probably your best bet.

That’s our extensive guide to Nova Launcher’s basic functions. One of the big joys of an open platform like Android is the customizability it offers, and nowhere is this more apparent than with the myriad of options presented by Nova Launcher. It can be daunting to get started, but our best advice to you is to dive in, mess about, and see what you like. Don’t feel pressured to tweak everything before you start, just go back in every now-and-again, and see what you like and what you don’t. There’s very little in the settings that will break the way your phone runs, and so you can feel free to try out different styles of app drawer, gestures, and overall look. Have fun!

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Mark Jansen
Mark Jansen is an avid follower of everything that beeps, bloops, or makes pretty lights. He has a degree in Ancient &…
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