Android’s Best Alternative Homescreens

The thing I love most about Android is the ability to change pretty much everything about it. This includes the entire interface of the phone itself. While I love the widget-filled, customization-packed homescreen that you get out of the box, sometimes you get bored. That’s where alternative homescreens come in. They completely change the paradigm of the User Interface (UI). There are plenty out there, but there’s just not enough time to cover them all, and in an effort to narrow the playing field, I decided to only go with apps that are very different from the traditional style. There are a lot of apps that are home replacements, but they keep the seem idea of panels of stuff, just make a few tweaks to it. Things like LauncherPro, Zeam, and aHome are very good at what they do, but you won’t see them below. Let’s jump into it!

*Spark, made by HipLogic, is a very interesting app. It focuses mostly on keeping you informed. It has the weather on the top (the landscape mode shows an extended forecast), a customizable app shortcut slider (scrolls horizontally), AP News, deals from Groupon, and then your Facebook and Twitter, which cycle through statuses. Always at the bottom are Phone, Browser, and app list buttons.

I do like the overall look of it, and the idea of having most of my pertinent info on the same screen is nice. It would be much better if you could customize a little bit more. I’d like to be able to add LivingSocial and other deals sites in with Groupon, and adding my own RSS feed in with the AP News would make a lot of sense. One of the best and worst things it does is social networks. There’s no way to comment, like, or Retweet from within the app. It just shoots you over to the Facebook and Twitter apps to do so. There’s also no easy, clear way to refresh your feeds. However, the huge plus it has is the ability to post to both Facebook and Twitter simultaneously, something that too few apps allow for. If you want a very simple way to keep up to date while still having solid functionality, *Spark is a very good option for you.

NetFront is a little tricky to explain. It’s like a carousel of both apps and info on one screen. You have a large circle of app shortcuts, which is fully customizable. The whole circle is contained in two panels. The one on the right is the main screen, showing half of your circle. You can drag the circle around until you find which app you’re looking for, and bring it to the front. Some apps have been optimized for NetFront, showing you a preview of what’s in it. For example, when the Phone app is in focus, NetFront displays your call log in a scrollable list. When an app that can’t do this is in focus, a user defined widget will be on the top.

On the left screen, instead of the widgets and previews, you’ll find all of your apps in a cube that you scroll up and down. You’ll also find the other half of the app carousel along the bottom. The app list is how you set apps onto the carousel, using press and hold, then moving it to the spot you want. The whole experience can be a bit laggy, and despite the fact that they include Evernote on the carousel, that force closed every time. The Facebook feed preview did this on occasion as well. There’s no native way of posting statuses or liking, commenting, or retweeting either. Facebook and Twitter are inconsistent as well. If you click on the Twitter app from the carousel, it opens the Twitter app. But clicking the Facebook shortcut will bring a pop-up asking if you want to open the app. Clicking on a status or tweet in the previews will send you to the web. Very weird. There’s a lot of good ideas floating around here, but until they figure out the execution, it’s not going to replace my homescreen.

This is a really weird one at first. SlideScreen is similar in approach to *Spark in that it has all of your sources of info on one screen, sorted vertically. But the similarities stop there. SlideScreen goes for the glanceable information approach, a new trend in tech UI. The screen is cut in two by a large gray bar in the middle. This has your time, date, weather, battery level, and connection status (bars). Above this is your notifications: Phone, Texts, Gmail, and Calendar. Below, you find Google Reader for RSS feeds, Facebook, Google Finance (for stocks), and Twitter. The way all this is managed is the cool part. The gray bar can be pretty much anywhere, showing more of or hiding different aspects. If you slide the gray bar to the top, you can get full screen for each different feed, instead of the 1 or 2 items in the feed. Either in the preview or full screen, each item can be marked as read by swiping it to the right. Each item is color-coded and there’s an icon to the right, so you know where it’s coming from. Also, pressing Menu shows your app list, with 8 customizable shortcuts at the top.

I love this app, but it’s not for everyone. The first problem is that not everyone uses GMail for email and Google Reader for RSS feeds, and there’s no way to change those. You can take them off the front screen, but can’t replace them. Again, there’s some annoying inconsistencies in it. Clicking on the icons on the right will bring you to that app for everything on the top part, and Facebook, but you can’t make it open your Twitter app. Also, while clicking on an item on Facebook shows you the comments, there’s no way to comment or like. You can share stories in your Reader feed through apps, which is very handy. If you just want a super simplistic and effective way of seeing everything, SlideScreen is perfect.

This one will be brief, but I had to include it. MetroUI recreates the Windows Phone 7 UI, which I adore. It’s not a perfect recreation though. While the texts, missed calls, and Gmail tiles alert you of new items, that’s it. The creator is still working on it, so they may come in the future, but having working weather, Facebook, and Twitter tiles would be nice. Adding new tiles and rearranging them could be better too. You have to tap and hold on an item in the app list to make new tile, and the arrangement is based on a priority number. Tap and holding to slide tiles around to arrange them would be much easier. MetroUI does do a very good job of cloning the WP7 look and feel, tile animations and all, and is very cool to use.


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