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 is a pretty large list of launchers to choose from, but few come close to the level of polish and customizability 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 — that is because Nova Launcher sticks to a fairly vanilla take on Android’s home screen. But there is a lot Nova Launcher can do that is 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. How? We’re going to talk you through some of the main points right here.
Selecting Nova Launcher and getting started
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.
It’s a lot to consider, but here is our recommendation: Unless there is 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.
Getting started with Nova Launcher
Now that Nova Launcher is installed, you have to set it as your default launcher. If your phone is running Android 7.0 Nougat or newer, find the Apps sub-menu (it will depend on your phone) and tap the Settings cog icon in the upper right-hand corner. From there, scroll down until you see Home app, tap it, and choose Nova Launcher from the list.
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.
On phones running pre-Android 4.4 KitKat, there is no home screen selector in the Settings menu. You have to head to the Settings menu, tap Apps, swipe to the All tab, and scroll down until you find your current launcher. Tap on it, and then hit the Clear defaults button near the bottom of the selection screen. Then press your home key, and select Nova Launcher from the options presented.
Some Android manufacturers make it a bit more difficult to change your default launcher than others.
- On most Samsung devices, try heading to Settings and tapping the Applications option. Look for Default Applications, and select Home Screen from the list.
- Huawei phones with Emotion UI (EMUI) hide the setting in a sub-menu. Open the Settings menu, tap Apps, scroll down to the Advanced button, and tap the Default app settings. On the next screen, select Launcher and choose Nova Launcher from the list.
- On Oppo phones running ColorOS, you’ll find the launcher selector in the Additional Settings menu. Tap Default application, then tap Home.
- LG phones relegate the launcher options to a special Home Screen menu. Open Settings, tap Display, and scroll down to Home Screen, and select Nova Launcher from the list of choices.
Once you have switched your default launcher to Nova Launcher, you get a welcome message that will walk you through the basic theme set up.
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 three-button menu that lets you change your home screen wallpaper, insert widgets, or launch the settings menu. One handy difference is a 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. But you will notice something different when you press and hold on a widget. As soon as you lift your finger, you get an accordion menu of four different menu options: Remove, Resize, App info, and Settings.
- 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 screen.
You can use these options to change your widgets to fit whatever designs you have for your home screen.
The Desktop menu lets you customize the layout, scroll, page indicator, and more. Within the Layout menu you can fine-tune the size of your home screen. Tap on Desktop grid and you get a pop-up diagram of your home screen’s layout. Sliders on the left and right add or subtract rows and columns. 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.
Nova Launcher’s Icon layout menu 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.
Once you’ve adjusted the Desktop and Icon layout settings to your liking, you’re ready to move to the next few settings. Width padding and Height padding 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. Persistent search bar and Search bar style let you mess around with the Google search bar that is installed by default on some Android phone lock screens. You can toggle it off, of course, or jump into the Search bar style menu and choose between four different bar styles and six different Google logo styles.
Next up: Scroll. If you’ve grown bored of the transition animation you see between home screens, try one like 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. Alternatively, you can opt for 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 lets you change 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 have to disable the corresponding Play Store setting to avoid error messages.
Diving into the Desktop menu’s Advanced settings exposes even more options. You can allow resizing of widgets on top or underneath of app shortcuts (so that they overlap). You can lock the home screen to prevent changes (handy once you’ve got it how you like it), and toggle a shadow at the top and bottom of the screen.
App and widget drawers, dock, and folders
App and widget drawers
So you have 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 & widget drawer to see our next suite of options.
In the Apps & widgets drawer options, start with Drawer app grid. You will see a familiar grid pattern, with numbers at the side. Using this tool, you can add extra rows and columns to your app drawer. 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 toggled 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.
If you’re nostalgic for the days of having an app drawer that scrolled vertically, you can turn that option on with App drawer style. Otherwise, you can leave it in the more common horizontal-scrolling method, or even arrange your apps into a vertically scrolling list, if you’re feeling unique. The option underneath, Card background, removes the usual transparent overlay and adds a background color to the app drawer, which you can change with the Background option further down.
Swipe to open gives you the option of using an old-style app drawer button or simply 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.
You can also add a search option to your app drawer, either by checking the persistent Search bar option, or toggling the Pull to search option that allows you to pull down from the top of the screen to open a search bar. If you’re the sort of person who’s constantly losing apps, this might be good for you — and even if you don’t like the idea of the search bar at the top, having the option to pull and search could be good in certain situations.
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 Drawer groups > Hide apps. While that’s useful, there is more potential control to be found here for Prime users. Scrolling slightly back up the options and enabling Tab bar > Tab bar 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 > Drawer groups, add your games, and you’ve got a quick and easy way of starting a game break whenever you feel like it.
Had enough tweaking yet? Of course not! You’re a hardy Android explorer, and you’re ready to trek into more menus.
The Dock menu lets you tinker with the icons at the bottom of your home screen. By default, this space is reserved for your phone app, messages, an internet browser, and maybe the app drawer button in the middle, and you may have already tinkered with that setup on your old launcher. With Nova Launcher, you can take that even further, with options to expand the number of available slots on the dock, change the padding at the edge of the dock, or add a base to the dock for extra style points. If the max of seven icons isn’t enough, you can also add a scroll to your dock so you can cram even more onto the bottom of your device.
Under the Advanced options, you wil find the ability to overlay your dock over the top of your desktop background. This only really works with gestures that reveal and hide the dock though, so don’t bother with this unless you’ve delved into the gestures menu (more on that later).
Here you will find the options relating to the folders you can place on the home screen. Two folders are placed on the Nova Launcher homepage by default, so you can easily see any changes you make to the look of the icon and the unfolded window.
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.
Again, this is a great way to get extra content onto your homepage, without taking up more precious screen estate.
Look and feel, Night Mode, Gestures, and more
Look and feel
If you want to change the way that your phone looks, this is the menu for you.
We will 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 the adaptive Android 8.0 Oreo-style icons, turned on by selecting the Adaptive icons option. Within the Adaptive icon style options, you can further customize on that theme, forcing icons into a specific shape to match the theme. Reshape legacy icons continues this, reshaping or adding a background to apps that can’t usually be matched to that style.
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.
Scroll speed and Animation speed both govern very similar effects, and we wager that most people don’t worry too much about this. Still, if you want your app drawer to open faster, or really want swiping across your homepage to take ages, the option is open to you.
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.
The final options in this section control the Notification bar at the top of the screen, where your battery indicator, signal strength, and other notifications lurk. Most of these options are fairly self-explanatory, though Dark icons is an option you might want to avoid unless you have a white background.
In the last few years, much has been made of the effect that smartphone screens can have on your sleep. Blue light from your display can disrupt your circadian rhythm, fooling your body into thinking it’s the daytime, and making it harder to fall asleep. Android apps like Twilight help by tinting the screen into a shade of red, helping to prevent so much of the blue light from reaching your eyes. Many manufacturers have picked up on this in the last few years, adding support for blue light filters into their builds of Android.
Night mode in Nova Launcher doesn’t tint the screen. Instead, it changes all the white or lighter background areas on your phone into a darker theme that’s easier on the eyes in lower light situations. You can set a timer with the Night mode schedule, as well as fine-tuning that to your location’s sunrise and sunset with Location enhancement. If you would rather specific areas were excluded from the darker theme, you can turn off the effect with individual sliders for the Search bar, Drawer, Drawer icon, or Folders.
Gestures and inputs
Here is another one of the Prime-only options. We have seen manufacturers experiment with gestures; Huawei has its system of intuitive gestures, and we recently saw the iPhone X ditch the home button to focus entirely on gestures to navigate. If you are interested in testing out some gestures for yourself, then Nova Launcher is a great place to start.
The first option you see is Home button. This allows you to repurpose your home button to access actions such as App search, Recent apps, or Google Now, or an entirely separate app. The option below, Only on default, ensures that this additional action only triggers when already on the home screen, ensuring that 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; 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.
This Prime-only option is a pretty simple addition, but with a good amount of customization. Notification badges are the little numbers that appear on an icon to inform you when you’ve received a notification in that app. Using Nova Launcher, you can change the way that appears, from the usual dynamic badge, Android 8.0 Oreo-style dots, or unread counts from companion apps. Or if you like, 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.
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. 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.
That is our extensive guide to Nova Launcher’s basic functions done. One of the big joys of an open platform like Android is the customizability that 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 simply dive in, mess about, and see what you like. 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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