Free Android launchers are a dime a dozen. With dozens of options out there in Android land, it can be overwhelming to decide which one to use — so let us do the hard work for you. After all, it’s easier to choose between three than it is to choose between thirty, isn’t it?
We’ve done Android launcher comparisons in the past, but good paid apps don’t always make for good free apps. Plus, the Android app landscape has changed a lot since we wrote that.
As of now, if you want to give your home screen a makeover without paying a single cent, these are the best launchers that you should look into. They’re all excellent, so you really can’t go wrong no matter which one you choose.
Note: All of the following launchers were tested on a Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini.
Nova Launcher is arguably the most popular launcher to ever grace the Play Store. This beautiful app, created and managed by TeslaCoil Software, is the power user’s dream. It has garnered praise from nearly every Android publication on the Web, and it just keeps getting better.
Case in point: we first reviewed Nova Launcher way back in 2012 and concluded, at the time, that Nova was the best launcher available. Three years later, even with increased competition, we still believe that Nova is a top contender.
What Makes Nova Launcher Great?
The greatest aspect of Nova is its focus on user customization. It provides a number of different settings that you can adjust to create the screen layout of your choice, including multiple home screens, different icon sizes and grid layouts, subgrid positioning for more flexibility, icon padding, etc.
Nova also alters the app drawer. Icon sizes and grid layouts are also adjustable here, but you can switch into a list layout if you prefer. Not only that, but Nova provides a more organized drawer for widgets as well, grouping them by app for optimal organization.
And whether you’re going through home screens or the app drawer, you can enable infinite scrolling that wraps around when you get to the end and you can change the way pages are animated as you switch between them.
Folders on the home screen allow icons to be grouped together in ways that save space and improve organization. Nearly everything on the home screen can have its color changed: labels, folders, tabs, etc.
Docks are the final tinkerable aspect. The dock, which sits at the bottom of the home screen, has a handful of different visual options like background shape and icon designs. Nova allows anywhere from 1 to 5 dock pages that you can swipe between independently from the home screen.
Even on a device as old as the Galaxy S3 Mini, Nova performs well. The animations are smooth, the transitions rarely lag, and all of the actions feel responsive.
While the free version of Nova is perfectly acceptable, you’ll want to upgrade to Nova Launcher Prime ($5) for the full feature set: screen and icon gesture actions, unread counts, custom tabs and folders in the app drawer, hiding apps in the drawer, and more visual effects.
Apex Launcher is one of the oldest free launchers still standing today. The funny thing is that Apex Launcher is often compared to Nova Launcher with the conclusion that both of them are pretty much neck-and-neck in terms of quality, yet Nova is the one that gets all of the fame and recognition.
That isn’t to say that Apex is a Nova clone or anything like that. It has its own flavor, its own nuances, and its own reasons to convince you that Apex may actually be better than the highly-acclaimed Nova. I reviewed Apex back in 2013 and my opinion hasn’t changed: this launcher is a beast.
What Makes Apex Launcher Great?
The first point of interest is the range of sizes available for home screen grids. A lot of launchers, including Nova, limit you to somewhere around six rows and six columns, but Apex allows you to push the limits up to ten rows and ten columns. It’s a bit cramped for a small screen, but amazing for bigger phones and tablets.
Apex also has separate settings for Portrait mode grids and Landscape mode grids, meaning you can optimize the screen layout based on the way you’re holding the device. Other home screen features include infinite scrolling, visual transition effects, and a few other small style tweaks.
The app drawer customizations are great — Portrait and Landscape layouts available here too — but Apex offers something in its free version that Nova only offers in its paid version: hidden apps. Apex lets us hide all of those apps that we never directly launch from the drawer, reducing clutter.
Another Apex freebie that’s a paid feature in Nova? Home screen gestures. You can assign actions to the following five gestures: pinch in, swipe up, swipe down, desktop double tap, desktop long press. There are 15 different actions available.
And of course, you get thematic adjustments like icon sets, label colors, folders for organization, different drawer styles, launcher skins, and more.
All of the above makes Apex a top-notch launcher, but if it’s not enough and you’re still pining for more, consider upgrading to Apex Launcher Pro ($4) for advanced features like drawer folders, unread counts, additional gestures, additional transition effects, and even support for themes meant for ADW, Go, or LauncherPro launchers.
For as popular as it is on the Play Store, dodol Launcher is frequently overlooked in free Android launcher discussions, and that’s a shame because dodol is really, really nice. In fact, at the time of writing this, it’s my preferred launcher on both smartphones and tablets.
The developer has several other apps under the dodol brand including keyboard, calendar, phone, file explorer, screenshot manager, and a few others. But of them all, the launcher is probably the best.
What Makes dodol Launcher Great?
My personal conversion to dodol was due to its performance. I’ve tested numerous launchers on my device over the past few years and while some of them (like Nova and Apex) have performed well, none but the most minimal and barebone launchers were as fast as this one. Yet dodol is not only fast, but full of features too.
Like Nova and Apex, dodol supports custom home screen grid layouts, except dodol goes further than both by providing a range from 3×3 to 12×12 on-screen icons. Icon sizes, labels, colors, shadows, and margins are all tweakable, too. Folders exist to help with organization.
The dock at the bottom of the screen can have up to five pages, each page holding anywhere from 1 to 7 icons. Icon and indicator styles can be tweaked if you want. The app drawer is customizable in a lot of the same ways as the home screen, and it also has the functionality to hide apps and/or labels from the listing.
As for aesthetic changes, dodol comes with a theme shop that has tons of featured and user-created makeovers. Browse through the Top and Dodol’s Pick categories for a mountain of high-quality themes and wallpapers.
Gestures are available, too: swipe up, swipe down, swipe up/down with two fingers, long tap, and double tap. These can all be assigned to one of eight different actions. Unlike the above-mentioned launchers, dodol also comes with a cleaner app that manually frees up RAM.
One thing I really like about dodol is that it’s free. Not just split between a free version and a paid version, but completely free. No ads and no nag screens. It puts up a good fight against both Nova and Apex — and if you ask me, it comes out as the winner.
What’s Your Favorite?
If the above three launchers somehow don’t meet your expectations, or if you’re looking for something a little less traditional, then we also recommend checking out Aviate, Buzz Launcher, and Action Launcher.
Aviate is both clean and dynamic, changing throughout the day to accommodate your behaviors and patterns. Buzz Launcher is one of the most beautiful launchers with over 60,000 themes to choose from. Action Launcher is minimal and fast, yet still intriguing with a few special features.
Which free launchers stand out in your mind? Are there any I overlooked? Or do you think it’s better to shell out a few dollars for a quality paid launcher? Tell us what you think in the comments below!