If there is one, and only one, matchless feature offered on Android and on no other platform, it is a fully customisable home screen. There are widgets, icons, even a possible re-sizing on every account, and basically anything else you can think of. Lets make your Android home screens yours!
But this is too much to some folks, and they just go about splattering their home page with stuff to the point of being frustrated with it, even getting lost in it, and then calling Android an untidy or unfinished product. Sometimes the fault lies within us, and oftentimes a majority of Android users’ biggest mistake is not maintaining an organised home screen.
Why you need organised Android home screens
The point of having a home screen (and not using your apps screen as your starting point) is to make every touch, pinch and swipe of your phone a pleasure to see and an ease to use. A cluttered home screen with too many widgets spoils the purpose.
But that is not all: a well arranged home screen can easily reduce touches and screen gestures, thereby lengthening your phone’s lifespan.
Below is an example of an Android home screen that is organised. This is my own, and I have set it to my taste: minimal, yet with everything at hand.
While certain other platforms have rigid and static grids of square icons, Android gives you a blank canvas upon which you can create any setup that works for you… There’s practically no limit to what you can do.
— J.R. Raphael, journalist
Understanding your home screen
Not all phones offer similar home screens. This often depends on the size of devices (for example, Samsung’s flagship Galaxy SIII offers smaller grid areas than both its Galaxy Note and Note II) or on the resolution and capability of that monitor based on the device manufacturer (HTC’s Desire lineup offers poorer view than Samsung’s Ace lineup.)
What is common to all home screens, however, are the grid-segments they are arranged according to. Your home screen is most probably four columns across. Often it is even four to five rows high. The simple translation of this is that a bigger grid allows you to place more stuff on your Android home screen — but it also makes it notoriously easy to place too much and wreck your experience.
Follow these five steps for a quick (did I mention easy?) set up of your Android home screen. To give you a little more idea, here is a look at my own (current) set of home screens. (Swipe with your finger or mouse.)
Let us take a brief look at what we hope to achieve: your screens need to be good looking — still out first priority — but it also has to give you access to those absolutely essential stuff; remember, you will still access your entire apps list only from the drawer, but things you need regular access alone will adorn your home screens — a quick but sure way of making certain that you have functionality without clutter.
Step 1: Get a good launcher, or mod away
Face it, unless you own a Nexus phone, you probably are not seeing the real Android design: your manufacturer (or provider) has overlaid it with all sorts of things and created its own look. If you like it you can stay with it, but if you do not, you have two paths before you: for the tech-savvy, mod your phone with a custom ROM and say good-bye to your warranty; for the common man, download one of several great launchers from the Play Store. And say good-bye to your warranty one year later.
My personal recommendation for good Jelly Bean type launchers are Holo launcher for Gingerbread devices (not dead yet,) and Nova Launcher for ICS devices. They both have similar features and give you near-perfect stock Android 4.1/2/3 looks. If you like something else, try ADW launcher, one of the earliest; or LauncherPro, one of the most stable; or the ever-popular Go Launcher. People bit by the Windows Mobile bug may like Launcher 7.
Step 2: Get an icon pack
For the love of your God, stop using stock icons with third-party launchers. What always tell people is, if you want a great looking Android device to enjoy for months (or even years) then be prepared to spend at least a few hours setting that thing up.
All of the launchers mentioned above let you change icons with custom icon packs. I constantly use two (both minimal for my taste) namely, the free Metrostation Icon pack and the $0.99 worth SMPL icon pack I use for my lock screen (we shall come to that later) or you can just as well use your own pictures. Other interesting and vast icon packs are the Honeycomb LPP icon pack or the equally good M22-3D icons pack for LauncherPro; try the Metal icon pack for an all-metal look; or if you like to have text icons, you can try out the awesome TextIconCreator pack.
Step 3: Learn what you can place on your home screen
While widgets are probably the most fun things to play with for your home screen, they are not the be all and end all of home screen occupiers. There are several more, as a home screen long-press will tell you, and an intelligent use of that will help infinitely more than seven pointless widgets.
If you have a bunch of apps you use often, say important Google services such as GMail, Goggles, Google+, Wallet, Music and, of course, the Play Store, it would not make sense to place them all on the home screen. Where would you place the all-important telephone icon, which is why you probably bought any telephone in the first place?
Instead, create a folder: drag an icon onto your home screen, then drag a second icon on top of the first one. The two will now be combined into a folder. Keep doing this to add more into that folder. You can then change the folder icon too! On older versions of Android, long-press and choose “add a folder.”
If you have documents you refer to often, throw their shortcuts onto the home screen. If your mobile office app does not help you here, try File Widget from the Play Store: it allows you to place any file or folder of files on your home screen.
We all have websites we often visit. Including this one! So make things quick by putting your top bookmarks. You can even have a dedicated screen or half for this purpose a mere swipe away. If you have your favourite browser set as default, one click can take you places.
On my phone, I never check all my emails; I simply go through the most important ones that the extremely intelligent Google tracks down and files as my priority inbox (Google gave it that name, not me!) With the GMail Label shortcut (home screen long-press > shortcuts > labels) I can quickly access my priority inbox in one go.
Many users are under the wrong impression that one can only add app widgets to their Android home screen. But a quick scroll through the shortcuts collection will show you otherwise. Many apps provide handy shortcuts that are often better than widgets. For instance, WordPress gives me its QuickPress shortcut and the Aldiko reader app even lets me keep an ebook there. Find out what your apps let you do!
Step 4: Ask yourself: how many home screens?
This is another common question for many people: what is the sweet spot when it comes to the number of home screens? The best answer is that there is no such thing. If you hate to swipe around and would rather throw open the drawer every time, have just three or maybe just one screen; or if, like me, you actually enjoy swiping around on home screens rather than the drawer, use all your home screens (most phones allow up to seven.)
But is there a way to determine how many you need? Well, there is this nifty approach I have taken, because I like my belongings organised and possibly categorised, and many others have begun to take that approach now too. That is step #5.
Step 5: Categorising is a good idea
Many of you may be alright with throwing in widgets and shortcuts where you find place, but an equal number of others will find that this method leaves them with a problem: having to remember where each app, widget or shortcut was placed.
A good approach to this problem is to categorise your collections and spread them by home screen. In fact, I even label my home screens by type as you probably saw in my screenshots above. You can go anyway you like, but the underlying principle of this method is simple: it curbs your creating unnecessary home screens and forces you to opt only for the essentials.
Do not forget your lock screen
One underrated part of everybody’s Android usage is their lock screen. Too many people use the default screen, or customise it using some rotten app that eats processors for breakfast.
While I think lock screen design is another question all-together and deserves another article by itself, I will say this: forget security unless you work for the CIA or are guilty of having something to hide. (Except for face unlocks; face unlocks are brilliant!) Make sure you lock screen gives you even quicker access to your most used apps.
You can see my own lock screen on your right (or below, if you are reading this on a phone,) and I have access to several places, including my wallet, dictionary, camera, calculator, music player, notebook, torch, Evernote and quick switch between sound profiles. And there is the usual weather and clock itself. And my website!
To conclude with a few words of advice: make sure you are not using any customisation app that requires a lot of memory. We customise to improve look and feel, not just the look. And remember the simple idea that spending even an hour or two to perfectly set up your home screens can save months of regret and annoyance in the future.
So how will you customise your home scree? Share it with the world as you please. [vhb] Cover image: Flickr/LeeBrimelow