Arrow Launcher: Good Effort Without Direction
Microsoft’s Android expansion has been well received on the productivity front, but not so much in terms of original applications. While their Office suite managed to bring some of the document-editing excellence to mobile, attempts at entering one’s interface through apps like Picturesque proved to be pointless failures. But even then, some apps like Hyperlapse redeem the computing giant through great quality.
Microsoft seems to be approaching Android with brute, misdirected development and plenty of unorganized output, and if they want their tactical incursion to work out, they need something to coordinate all their efforts. Their latest Arrow Launcher seems to be an attempt at that — while the company is trying to overtake common services with their app alternatives, Arrow provides a homescreen to tie it altogether. This, coupled with their Picturesque lockscreen, allows your phone to have as much Microsoft as possible… short of Windows, that is. So how good is this new launcher, exactly?
Design & Function
The private beta is currently invite-only, but you can find an APK download here, courtesy of Microsoft News. For a beta release, the application works very well, but before going deeper, I want to bring up previous UI expansion attempt: Picturesque offered a lockscreen replacement with an emphasis on photography and slight utility, but in the end, the prominent Bing advertisement and its inefficiency held it back from being appealing. Arrow follows some of Picturesque’s steps in terms of design, and that is one of the most apparent similarities you will notice when firing up Arrow:
The Launcher features a glass motif full of transparencies that is much more reminiscent of the iPhone interface that it is of Material Design. The look itself is good – in fact, it is very good – and Microsoft brings with it custom icons for system applications. Now as pretty as it might be, it doesn’t belong in Android: many of your Material icons will clash, and since you cannot have icon packs, there is not much you can do about it. The rounded squares of system applications are too flat to merge with your material icons, meaning you will not be able to shake off the inconsistency. Whenever you pull your notification drawer, you will once again see the issue, as the material panel looks out of place on top of the glass homescreen.
The lack of customization of Arrow is what ultimately hurts it the most: the UI consists of a row of Recent Applications and three rows of Frequent Applications, independently of DPI. You can only remove these, not add them. The dock allows you to add or remove applications, and you can also swipe from the bottom to access a drawer with apps you can choose (so, in a way, it is an expanded dock) and your recent contacts. The app drawer is vertical and ordered alphabetically, with a search function that filters applications. It is worth noting that you cannot introduce widgets into this launcher, which cancels out one of Android’s greatest strengths. This is all you will find on the main homescreen, and there is not much you can change.
There are other two homescreens, none of which you can remove. By long-pressing empty space, however, you can change their positions and enter virtually inconsequential settings. By default, you will find Contacts to the left and Notes & Reminders to the right. The Contacts screen rounds up the people you contact frequently and recently, like the main homescreen does with apps. From here you can call, message or send e-mails either through the shortcut or by the menu that comes up when selecting a contact. At the top you will find a button that brings up the dialer, and one that takes you to your contacts application. Long-pressing a contact brings up a contact details menu.
The Notes & Reminders homepage allows you to quickly add items for notes and turn them into reminders by assigning them a time and date. You can also star them for visibility and priority, and you can also find a list of completed tasks at the bottom. The interface to input time and date was neither in their glass theme nor in Material, but in Holo. The notification reminder message also looked out of place, and it is rather intrusive.
Performance is good, but not as good as a lightweight launcher. On a TouchWiz ROM, I did notice that it took extra milliseconds to fire up applications and to go back — just enough to make it noticeable. On CyanogenMod 12.1, this was not an issue and it performed just fine. Arrow is still in beta, so much of this will probably be corrected. Microsoft has even added a way to easily debug the application, and they have included a menu to send them suggestions directly.
As of now, this application doesn’t offer anything special. I do appreciate that Microsoft did not plaster Bing all over the UI like they did with Picturesque, and instead relegated that to optional wallpapers. But despite the application being simpler than Picturesque, it offers even less of an incentive to actually have it. Arrow is too rigid in a platform that is all about customization, and the inability to freely and accurately modify most of your homescreen is obnoxious. The app also doesn’t fare well with custom DPI, which gives you a lot of unused space as you cannot customize the icon size, count nor spacing. Then there’s the fact that the theme and iconography clashes with Material Design, which is not only present in UI aspects that overlap Arrow, but also in the icon designs you cannot modify.
The added functionality is also not very useful and can be entirely replicated through widgets, which the launcher forbids. The notes and reminders system is rather useless when widgets and Google Now can handle the task much better and with deeper integration. The contacts tab leaves a lot to be desired and it doesn’t really offer much in terms of functionality. Overall, one can easily get a much more personal and consistent experience through Nova or Action Launcher, but this does serve as a good pre-packaged solution to more casual users who are looking for something new. Power users will probably be better off with their own homescreens.
So to summarize: the interface looks good by itself, but clashes with the rest of the OS and applications. It allows for almost no customizability, and it feels very rigid and inconsistent. It is still in beta, and with the ability to directly make suggestions, one can easily get their opinion to the developers and hope that they will listen. As of now, Arrow Launcher is bland, but not bad — it just has no real direction. If you are on XDA, you are probably a home button press away from finding a better solution.
What do you think of Arrow Launcher? Let us know below!