SF Launcher 2: Material Design, Further Googlified
I’ve been using Nova Launcher for 3 years. I’ve had to test multiple launchers for our XDA link sharing system, and they always ended up in app heaven a few minutes after verifying they weren’t bogus or malicious. There is something you just cannot beat about the simplicity of Nova, which takes Android to its bare-bones core: apps and widgets. Nova gives you a playground of infinite permutations that revolves around just that, with minimal hassles to ensure that if you want to access an application or a widget, it’ll be right where you placed it, when you want it.
This gives Nova a practicality that many other launchers lack, and they try to overtake their share by instead focusing on additional functionality, different aesthetic approaches, or better app integration. Basic Launchers are at the core of Android, and the bigger names have been around for years, and have undergone all possible optimizations to ensure a smooth experience. In contrast, many new launchers suffer from bloat and lag that severely hinders the user experience. And many opt for alternative aesthetics or a quickly realized Material Design look that is often uninspired, underdone, overdone, or looks just plain bad. The constant striving for prettier and prettier interfaces has left many programmers and designers puzzled as to what people really want, because now every app claims to be the prettiest thing since Barbie dolls.
I thought I wouldn’t consider other Launchers because of the pragmatic usefulness of Nova, but recently I gave SF Launcher 2 a try and quickly had it grow on me. SF Launcher 2 doesn’t really focus on adding gimmicks or revolutionary design, nor crazy customization, nor a bare-bone approach. It’s a well balanced Launcher that stands out for neat and minimal usability, and a humble redesign of the homescreen that is strangely more Googly than the Google Experience Launcher. Let me explain.
Google Now, meet Homescreen.
SF Launcher 2 has a homescreen design that is completely different from what Android offers by default. First of all, applications are arranged in cards, which can have as many rows as you want, divided into a configurable number of columns. The cards are under a Google Now-styled header background, that lays behind either a dashclock with time and date, or a search bar to further give it that Now-vibe.
The home-screen doesn’t scroll to different windows, but rather, has a single long vertical window that you smoothly scroll by. Cards can be configured by swiping to the side from the very edge. And I stress on that last bit because, albeit it is somewhat tedious to access at first, it prevents a lot of accidental swiping that could otherwise move the card instead of letting you access and app, moving a widget, or scrolling down. Some applications like Reddit News have this swiping fault at the core of their functionality, and it can be very irritating at certain times. The developer introduced a very nice way to counter this while still retaining a pristine Cards emulation. Oh, and the home-screen supports both orientations.
You can fit in widgets, too, and they are neatly accommodated, resized, and adjusted into the format. Sometimes they might get a bit cut out, but there are options to stretch the card or adjust the widget further to try and correct this. It’s not a perfect system yet, but you won’t have issues with most standard widgets.
The launcher gets rid of the traditional app-drawer in favor of an action panel that can be slid from the left, or triggered with a menu button at the top-left corner of the homescreen. This brings up, by default, a list of all of your apps ordered alphabetically with their corresponding icons to the side. Scrolling through this long list is smooth as butter. However, like many recently materialized applications, the action panel skips a frame every now and then when summoned from the button. I tested this extensively and it seems to only happen with the button trigger, as sliding it from the side yields no frame loss, and you can stress it as much as you want and it’ll still perform smoothly. The drawer can also be set as a grid, and the alphabetical index can be disabled as well.
Scroll scroll scroll
Performance throughout the app is very optimized, excluding the action panel trigger. You can load the homescreen with widgets, and it’ll still scroll like butter. Everything features the nice little material circle pops whenever you press an app or click on a menu icon, and the settings menu too features the rippling presses of Material lists. This gives the app a very cohesive look. As far as animations go, the other animated element that is present happens when swiping cards to the side, where the Card settings zoom in from the side in a very depth-filled and smooth motion.
The launcher also has no trouble launching apps, nor going back to the homescreen. It doesn’t re-draw any elements, but it can use from 50 to a hefty 110MB of RAM, so keep that in mind if you value memory.
Make it yours… maybe.
The application suffers tremendously on one front, though: customization. While Launchers like Nova are immensely popular in part due to the limitless designs you can achieve with their tools, this application limits you to very few and predetermined cosmetics changes. The theme of the app can be made light, dark, or your system background. You can change the header to designs of various materialised locations. The rest of the customization options are locked behind a pay-wall: if you purchase the SF Launcher Plus key, you’ll be able to change the background color of the launcher and app drawer, you’ll be able to set third-party icon packs, and third-party Launcher themes. You can also hide unwanted apps from the drawer with the Plus version.
Even then, the color options for the launcher are further limited to 21 from a Material Design color palette. Themes can add color swatches, but there’s no guarantee you’ll get exactly the color you want. So ultimately if you want customization, this application will not satisfy you.
The settings menu is very short and very straightforward, but still features all the essential toggles. You can select the theme, the header image, what lays on the header, limit the orientation, and configure the app drawer (to a grid or a list). You can also play with a handful of Card list options, like fitting them to the screen width, removing widget backgrounds on wallpapers, and allowing scrolling widgets (but can cause some issues due to the vertical scrolling of the launcher). As a final nice touch, you can hide the Status Bar to avoid unnecessarily having two clocks, and re-summon the tutorial card that teaches you the ropes.
Old vs. New
I’d argue that most people that like Nova aren’t in the market for a new launcher. After all, there’s something special about having your home-screen, that truly moulds to your personality, use-case, and ultimately your life. This results in a very strong attachment, for some users, to their homescreen. Many boards and forums have daily or weekly “ricing threads” where people show off their designs, or gather inspiration for a new one. Android’s beauty lies in its ability to tweak and tinker to one’s heart’s content. And if you are anything like me, one feels strangely proud after finally nailing the look they worked on for hours.
At the same time, a smartphone is a gadget, a tool, a means to an end. While having a beautiful and unique little app housing is something that attracts a lot of people, there are hundreds who would rather settle for a pre-configured, pre-determined and pre-packaged experience in which the control is limited, but the quality is assured. Perhaps this is one of the key elements of success of devices like the iPhone and iPad, which are appropriately called “walled gardens”.
SF Launcher 2 gives you that – a neat and tidy home-screen that will allow you to do what you want, with a very nice looking interface that you won’t have to build from the ground up, and that you can still make yours to some extent. The functionality of Nova is all there, although the cardinality of the scrolling allows for poor navigation, if you are used to plenty of widgets set at your side-screens. But if you are a casual user, or, like me, keep the Launcher minimal, your use-case won’t suffer much from this. The functionality is simple, fluid, and responsive. The user experience is fast and easy. It can satisfy any Android user that really just wants to go about their apps without waiting.
I will return to Nova, once again. But not without keeping this one in my drawer for when I need a change of scenery. I like the simplicity of my other setup too much to dive deep into this one and settle for an experience different from the one I’ve been used to and has remained untouched through 3 years of iterative home-screen redesigns. But I have to give credit to SF Launcher 2, because I can recognize that it is a good replacement that would be both sufficient and appealing to a big part of the Android userbase. It might not be enough to make you move from your own cozy little app-ville, but it’s a functional and clean app-city that warrants at least a visit.
You can get SF Launcher 2 at the Playstore.