Intermediate guide to customizing Android

Introduction:

Have you gotten the hang of using your Android phone and want to dive in on customizing Android as you please? Well this guide is for you! This guide will cover all of the customizable functions of Android such as Launchers, Keyboards, and Core Apps.

This guide is considered on the intermediate level because of how abstract customizing Android can be. I won’t be providing step-by-step instructions and will instead discuss components that can be modified, styling, tinkering, and of course provide some before and after screenshots of my phone.

Customizing Android can be a fun experience that taps into your more artistic side, or perhaps you want to customize to allow Android to be more accessible for you? Either way this guide can be considered a rough blueprint on how to get started.

I highly recommend getting the ad-free paid versions of third-party apps as ads can be very annoying for apps/components like these.

Table of Contents

Google's Project Mainline

Let’s start with why customizing Android to such an extent is even possible.
While android has always been customizable recent efforts have made things a bit easier.

Thanks to Google’s efforts to modularize Android for easy updates it has become possible to change how a lot of Android looks and behaves. This allows for a wide range of customization options with the added benefit of the core components of Android being kept up-to-date by the Google Play Store.


Style and Functionality

Some good examples of why you might want to look into customizing Android include:

  • You dislike the Android skin/apps used by your phone manufacturer.
  • You have younger / older users who may benefit from more accessible options that are available.
  • You want specific functionality not present on the default suite.

You could say, go from Samsung’s OneUI to something more akin to Google’s Nexus/Pixel style, or maybe you want to go crazy and make Android look as wacky as you would like.

The components that I will cover in this guide will be:

  • Launchers
  • Dialers
  • Keyboards
  • Lock-screens
  • Other apps
  • Widgets

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Launchers

What is a launcher on Android? It is the component of Android that shows you your home screen, widgets, as well as a list of all applications. The launcher is also responsible for launching other apps. For most people this is the heart of making Android really your own.

Below you can find a few launcher options, but definitely take a look at other launchers available in the Google Play Store!

Installation & Usage

Install the launcher of your choice from the Google Play Store like any other app. Launching the launcher’s app will switch you over to that launcher. Usually, at this point, you will find yourself prompted to select a default launcher, select the new launcher and hit “Always”.

If the option for the default launcher does not appear you can usually find it under:
settings -> apps -> default apps -> home app

The Launcher Used in the Guide.

For this guide I will be using Nova Launcher Prime by default, a paid version of the excellent Nova Launcher.
Nova Launcher is well reviewed and has a plethora of customization options in the paid version. I’ve been using it for years with zero problems, but similar results can be had using other launchers as well!

This launcher performs great and supports typical launcher extras such as icon packs. I like this launcher because I can make other phones have a similar look and feel to Google’s Pixel launcher found on Pixel devices.

Other Launchers

Other excellent launchers that may fit your needs better.

Apex Launcher

One of the oldest and most well known launchers around is the Apex Launcher. Lots of customizations options and a very vanilla feel. If you want something with history and a more traditional Android look you can’t go wrong here.

One thing I really liked from my time using Apex was how easy it was to setup. Apex was able to import all my appearance settings from Nova and I really did not have to tweak much to get it how I like it.

One thing I didn’t like was the prompts to pay for the full ad-free version, they were common and persistent.

Evie

Evie is the launcher I use on my parents phone, what I really like about Evie is it’s ability to have large icons with easy to read text as well. Perfect for those who might not necessarily be tech savvy. Building upon the accessibility, Evie also allows you to hide apps from the app drawer (for me hiding apps that would only confuse my parents). For someone else this could be a great way to (visibly) escape pre-installed apps.

Evie is also lightweight and has it’s own unique app drawer style that some may or may not like.

Microsoft Launcher

If you use Microsoft’s Office 365 ecosystem at home or at work you might find the Microsoft integration features really nice in this launcher.

I used this launcher for awhile back when Microsoft first released it and was pretty impressed. It has basic customization options and does not seem to have any performance impact on normal usage. Animations are smooth and there was no advertisements (as far as I’m aware).

Smart Launcher 5

This launcher has a real “iPhone” vibe. The default appearance with the rounded corners and a emphasis on gestures was not really to my liking. Apps were organized into categories and adding/removing apps from home pages was a bit of a chore. Not to mention that almost all of the customization options are locked behind a paywall.

Square Home - Launcher : Windows Style

If you liked Windows Phone’s home screen you might enjoy this launcher. It uses the same tiling methodology that is present on Windows 8, Phone 8, 10, and Phone 10. It even has live tiles for certain apps like galleries.

The launcher feels smooth and surprisingly right at home with Samsung’s OneUI for those looking for an alternative to the default Samsung launcher. I found myself surprised at how much I liked this one. A lot of the customization options require the paid version.

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Dialers

Dialers are how the phone makes and receives calls and handles other features such as call screening. I honestly don't know much about alternative dialers but don't be afraid to experiment with them to find features you like.

Recommended Dialer

Google’s Dialer is available to download off the Google Play Store, for the default dialer for most people go for this.

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Core Apps

Thanks to the modularity of Android we can replace a bunch of default apps with different ones. For the sake of simplicity I will use Google's apps as the example apps, but there is a wide variety of apps to choose from that can be used interchangeably.

There are a wide variety of alternatives to the default apps that Google/Samsung include on their phones. For the sake of simplicity I will be using Google’s products as the example of core apps that can be swapped out for alternatives that may better suit your needs (or desire to avoid google/samsung).

Google’s GBoard

This keyboard is smooth, supports a variety of input modes (swiping / voice) and learns as you use it. Simply install it and change to using it as the default keyboard by running it. (It will prompt the change for you.)

Files by Google

Honestly, I can’t say much about this as I use a very nice Google alternative. I find Google’s Files by Google app to be too simple… Some things that you really expect from a file browser can be sorely missed using this app.

Google Contacts

Google’s Contacts app syncs with your Google account and can be managed from the web. Google’s Contacts app is so good that I honestly see no reason to use an alternative, but don’t let that stop you!

Google Calendar

I don’t think there is much to say about Google Calendar. Despite being the default calendar app for most people it is also one of, if not the best, calendar app.

GMail

You would think that Google’s Gmail app would only support Gmail, but it actually supports a wide variety of mail providers. If you need to mix a lot of different providers in one app there may be better alternatives still.

Google Messages

Now this one is a bit of a given, as many of the manufacturers default apps are NOT supported on Republic’s service. Your two choices are this or Republic Anywhere.


Tinkering

Tinkering is the heart of making your Android your own. Don't hesitate to dig into the customization options for the various launchers you may find on the Google Play Store. One of the great things about tinkering with launcher settings is if you end up making something you don't like it is easy to go back to square one and begin again.

Nova Launcher and Common Settings

Common settings for launchers include:

  • Home screen row and column counts.
  • Dock row count and style.
  • App icon style, including icon packs and how they appear on the screen.
  • Folder behavior and appearance.
  • Notification integration.
  • Gestures and inputs.

Not every launcher will have all of these settings. Nova Launcher Prime has all of them. Some launchers may even have more customization settings catered to their more unique designs.

What my home screen looks like with my Nova Launcher settings.

Screenshots of the Nova Settings








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Before-and-Afters

Nova Launcher -> Square Launcher


Nova Launcher -> Microsoft Launcher


Nova Launcher -> Smart Launcher


Nova Launcher -> Apex Launcher


Nova Launcher -> Evie Launcher


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Conclusion

With that you have a rough blueprint for customizing Android and digging into its expansive ecosystem.
I would love to see your before and after images! Post your images and I will include my favorites in a new section of this guide a month or two from now. Feel free to also discuss your favorite core app alternatives!

If you have any suggestions for this guide don’t hesitate to put them here either.

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