A beginner’s guide to total Android customization


29 Nov 2012
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A beginner’s guide to total Android customization..

We often, and quite rightly, complain about the way device makers customize the "stock" build of Android to suit their own needs. Customizing software is not inherently bad, but Samsung, LG, and others are usually doing it to push their apps and services. These companies frequently make unnecessary aesthetic changes for the sake of being different.

You don't have to put up with the look and feel of Android on your phone, though. You can customize things to better suit your own style and usage patterns—all it takes is a little legwork. The more time you want to spend on it, the more extensive the customization can be. It all starts with the right tools.


This is a very basic step, but it's an important one. You want the wallpaper on your phone to match the style you're going for with the rest of your customizations. In fact, you can take inspiration from wallpapers to inform the decisions you make regarding icons and widgets. OEMs usually only include a handful of device wallpapers that are, to be frank, lacking. Some of the wallpaper apps on Android aren't much better, and they often have spammy ads all over.

Finding other options is easy. Backdrops is free to download, and you have full access to almost the entire catalog. The developers are frequently adding new original content to the app, and there are a good number of user-uploaded wallpapers as well. If you want to download wallpapers to save them offline, you'll need to upgrade to the full version for $1.99. That includes access to a few premium wallpaper sets as well.

Start simple: change your wallpaper.
Consider an app like Backdrops to help automate your wallpaper picking.

The other app to check out is Google's own Wallpapers app. This gives you access to many of the same backgrounds that ship on the Pixel (like all those great satellite photos). It doesn't have as much content built-in as Backdrops, but it's all very high-quality. These wallpapers work on the home screen of all devices, but don't forget most phones let you set the lock screen wallpaper, too.

What about live wallpapers? Those are still a thing, but you need to be cautious of the potential battery impact. Some are well-optimized, though, and you might be fine with the small additional drain. The wallpapers from Maxelus have always been great looking and surprisingly easy on the battery. Developer Joko Interactive also has some geometric live wallpapers that would look great with the right icons.

Home screens

The part of your phone or tablet that you interact with most is the home screen. Almost any action starts on the home screen, but very few Android devices come with a completely unmodified version of the launcher from the Android Open Source Project. Even Google's devices come with the Pixel Launcher or Google Now Launcher. Other OEMs have their own heavily modified launchers, so for maximum customization, you'll need to grab a more powerful home screen app.

The most popular third-party home screen is Nova Launcher. There's a free version to try out, but it'll cost you $4.99 to unlock the Prime version with all the features. This is definitely not a purchase you'll regret if customization is the goal.

With Nova, you can control the number of home screens, position of the main screen panel, and also the size of the icon grid. This will all be very important as you get deeper into customizing the interface. You can have multiple screens with densely packed icons and widgets or stick to a single screen with themed folders.

Action Launcher 3 (with the Cryten icon pack—more on that in a moment).
Some of Action Launcher 3's settings.
Nova Launcher, with widgets (more on those in a moment, too!).
Settings in Nova Launcher.

Nova isn't the only game in town, of course. The other top launcher you will not regret picking up is Action Launcher 3. Again, this app has a trial version with a full unlock for $4.99. While Nova is a bit of a chameleon that becomes whatever you want it to be, Action Launcher 3 has slightly fewer features with a more distinctive style.

Action Launcher includes basic things like gestures and grid size adjustments, but it also has a slide-out app drawer and widget panel, pop-up widgets (known as Shutters), automated UI theming, and more. It even has a few features of the Pixel Launcher like the swipe-up app drawer and revamped Google Widget.

No matter which home screen you pick, there are some general features you ought to be aware of when customizing. If you're going for a sleek minimalist look, you'll definitely want to remove the text labels from your app icons. Gestures are available in both launchers, offering a way to remove many of the unnecessary visual clutter. For example, you can use a multitouch swipe to pull up the app list or search your installed apps. At that point, you don't even need to have an app drawer button on the screen.

One of the most important features supported by third-party home screens is backup and restore. Both Action Launcher and Nova have that, and you'll make frequent use of it as you play around with customizing your phone. Make frequent backups so you can restore the backup if you screw something up. It's much faster than rebuilding a carefully crafted layout.

There are, of course, other home screen replacements in the Play Store, but these are the top ones. They have excellent update support and a ton of customization features. One of the most popular features supported by third-party home screens is icon packs. That's something you'll want to look into.

Icon packs

There are untold heaps of icon packs in the Play Store, but most of them are not very good. They might look alright at first, but either the selection of icons they offer is very shallow or many of the designs are simply low-effort. You'll have to hunt around for the best ones.

Icon packs can be applied in your custom launcher settings, replacing the stock icons on your device. Some OEMs choose extraordinarily unattractive icons, so almost any icon pack is an improvement. Icon packs are about getting a consistent look to go with your custom home screen's aesthetic. The designers usually have a certain look for each pack like dark material, circular icons, vintage, and even Apple-esque squircles.

Action Launcher 3, with Materialistik icons.
Zooper and Cryten icons.
Zooper and Lines icons.

In general, you want to find an icon pack that has a lot of icons—it's usually one of the top bullet points in the description. You probably don't have 5,000 apps on your phone to go with all those icons, but that means a higher chance the icon pack has icons for all the apps you do have installed. If you are missing icons for apps you use often, you may ruin the vibe with a non-matching icon. Many packs include generic icons that can be manually applied if something you use isn't supported, but that's a pain to do and has to be redone every time you switch to a different icon pack.

Most icon packs cost a few dollars—at least the good ones do. Don't be afraid to give some of them a shot. You can always return the app if the icons don't look as good on your phone as they do in the screenshots. You should also keep in mind that many icon packs come with a selection of wallpapers that match the style of the icons. So, you might not even need to go hunting for a matching image in one of the above apps.

Some of the best icon packs to get you started are Cryten (pastel circles), Materialistik (a highly stylized take on material design), Rifon (clean, bold squares), and Lines (white wire frame icons). The icon pack rabbit hole is extraordinarily deep and can get expensive.


So you've got a home screen with plenty of customization features and an icon pack that matches the aesthetic you're going for... now what? The power of Android customization is that you aren't just limited to moving icons around. If you want to knock things up a notch, you need to get some customizable widgets installed on your phone.

There are two popular choices for building custom widgets on Android: UCCW and Zooper. Both of them are available for free with an upgrade to the full version. UCCW is a bit more full-featured in its free form, as long as you don't mind ads. There's a $5 donation option that removes the ads, but it's otherwise unencumbered. Zooper reserves a few things for the paid $2.99 version like third-party widget packs and widget tap actions.

Editing up some custom widgets in Zooper.
Enlarge / Editing up some custom widgets in Zooper.
These apps are incredibly powerful ways to get data onto your home screen. For example, you can create an all-in-one widget that shows the time, date, weather, battery level, and so on. You can build a widget entirely from scratch if you want, but that comes with a significant learning curve. You have to add each element and shape as a layer, adjust properties, and make sure it renders well on your home screen. You can control down to the pixel level how these widgets look and even use them in place of app icons on your home screen if you want.

An easier way to use these custom widgets is to download pre-made widget packs for UCCW or Zooper (remember, Zooper Pro is required for this feature). The Play Store is crawling with them, so most of the leg work is already done for you. The vast majority of skins are free, but a few might cost you a dollar or two. In general, Zooper's designer community has more consistently high-quality content, but there's less variation compared to UCCW.

While those two are the most popular custom widget apps, there are other apps you might want to check out. One of the lesser-known but still very good widget apps is KWGT Kustom Widget Maker. It lacks the large designer community of the others, but it has very advanced customization options and a cleaner interface. You'll have to make more tweaks to widgets to get what you want from the included templates and handful of third-party packs, but it's a great option if you don't mind the steep learning curve.

Sure, you can use a number of less customizable widgets to get the same information across, but they won't match your design as nicely as these. These customizable widgets let you create something that's stylish and matches your aesthetic. That's a big plus.

Lock screens

Microsoft's Next Lock Screen. You can tell it's Microsoft because of the Bing search.
Enlarge / Microsoft's Next Lock Screen. You can tell it's Microsoft because of the Bing search.
Android does not have any built-in mechanism for replacing the stock lock screen, which makes sense from a security standpoint. However, there are third-party lock screen apps that basically operate like full-screen apps that pop up whenever you wake up the device. Some guides treat lock screen customization as a step you should always take, but we'd advise caution. Google has taken device security more seriously in recent years, so there are more drawbacks with custom lock screens than there once were.

If you choose to use a custom lock screen to finish off your customized UI, you'll have to decide between security and ease of use. If you disable the system lock screen, you won't be able to use features like Android Pay, and factory reset protection won't work. These "lock screens" aren't really secure, either. There are ways to circumvent them, as they are not part of the system. The alternative is that you have two lock screens, which is horribly clunky.

By far the most popular lock screen replacement in the Play store is ZUI. It's free with some ads, but there's also a lot of unnecessary bloat in it like a RAM cleaner, a compass, and an overly elaborate settings panel. It does have a lot of themes and wallpapers, though. A better option if you insist on replacing the stock lock screen is Microsoft's Next Lock Screen. It doesn't have as many customization options, but it looks nicer in general and doesn't include a ton of junk features. You still get the basics like notifications, quick settings, and pretty pictures from Bing.

Your best bet is to use the properly secured native lock screen on your device and change up the wallpaper to match your home screen.

Everything else

Digging into Android's quick setting customization.
Enlarge / Digging into Android's quick setting customization.
Making your phone look a certain way is good, but making it function the way you want is part of customizing it, too. You already swapped out your home screen to enable many of the tweaks above, but you can change your other default apps as well. For example, most Android devices come with Chrome as the default browser. That's all well and good, but maybe you use Firefox on your desktop. It would only make sense to use it on the phone as well. A lot of OEMs also include barebones SMS apps and cluttered calendars as the default. All you need to do is install something else (like Google's Messenger and Calendar) and change the defaults when asked.

If you want to change your default apps after the fact, things are a little trickier. The location of the default app settings are different on almost every phone. In stock Android 7.0, it's under Settings > Apps >[gear icon]. Samsung phones have a "Default applications" menu under the main Applications menu. Meanwhile, LG hides them under "Configure apps."

Phones from OEMs like Samsung, HTC, and LG have built-in theme stores. It might be tempting to just apply one of these themes and call it a day. This can be a small part of the process, but most of these system themes only make minor cosmetic adjustments. You might find the OEM's themes useful to skin the settings and notifications, making them more consistent with the rest of your tweaks. That's not something you can do on your own without rooting the device. However, the icon packs in these themes usually only cover the pre-installed apps. You should still apply a custom launcher and icon pack of your own for maximum flexibility.

A fair number of phones have long had basic support for customizing the Android quick settings, but that capability is vastly expanded if you're running Android 7.0. Google added full support for adding and removing tiles from the quick settings in this version, and OEMs are (so far) sticking with the stock behavior. Nougat updates from Motorola, LG, and Samsung all use the customizable quick settings, meaning you can install apps from the Play Store that add new tiles. What can you do with quick settings apps? You can have a tile for weather, a ring mode toggle, a new tweet, or a search shortcut. There are even apps that let you create custom tiles for any app or setting action on your device.

Go forth and customize

You've got all the pieces of the puzzle now. It's time to start tinkering with all the tools and see which ones you like the best. Start with a new background, add a custom launcher, toss in a dash of icons, sprinkle some widgets, and see what you can come up with. It'll be great, but more importantly, it'll be yours.

Source, images & app links:
A beginner’s guide to total Android customization | Ars Technica
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