Every Android user has a theme on their phone. They just don't know it yet.
It's true. Even if you don't know what icon packs or launchers are, if your phone has a home screen on it, it's got a theme. Android users don't have to live in their app drawers: they can choose how their phone looks and functions. They can use widgets to interact with apps without opening them. They can use custom icons to theme or obscure the apps on their phone from prying eyes. They can even use gestures and contextual data to help their phone adapt to where they are and what they're doing.
So, what are Android themes and how can you get started with one?
1. What's in a theme?
There are many types of themes within Android, but the one we're going to refer to throughout this article is home screen themes or launcher themes. A theme is the visual styling of your home screen, through the choice and use of launchers, wallpapers, widgets, icon packs, sounds, and other elements.
When most users think of themes, they imagine complex elements and high-maintenance setups. They imagine custom Zooper widgets and elaborate icon packs. And while there are many people who do completely overhaul their launchers regularly, for most of us, a theme does not mean changing the way your phone is set up, only how that setup looks.
Even if you're not interested in making your home screen look pretty, there are some other uses for launcher themes and customization that you may be interested in:
- Hiding apps: Most launchers have the option of hiding an app from the app drawer. Also, for apps that you want easily accessible but wouldn't want a wayward family member finding, many launchers also allow you to rename apps and give them icons less likely to draw the eye.
- Transferring themes and setups: Your mother just got a new phone, but she just wants everything where it was on her old one. Well, with theme backups, you can make all her Android devices look like her old one.
- Efficiency: The less time you spend fumbling around your app drawer looking for the app you need, the quicker you can get back to doing something with your life besides staring at your phone. Many launchers will re-order your apps based on your location, and through the use of your launcher's folders, you can cut down on the clutter, both in your app drawer and on your home screen.
- Choice: Don't like the way your app drawer is alphabetized? Don't like only having a 4x4 grid on your homescreen and not being able to resize your widget? A third-party launcher can give you choice, in how your app drawer is organized, in how much you can put on your home screen.
2. Launchers and how to use them
All phones come with a launcher, which is the interface by which users interact with their phone's apps and customize their home screens. Samsung phones come with the TouchWiz launcher, HTC phones come with Sense home, LG calls theirs the Home launcher, and Nexus phones use the Google Now Launcher, as do Motorola phones. Some of these launchers have more options than others.
Samsung's TouchWiz launcher allows you to resize the home screen grid. Both TouchWiz and Sense allow custom system themes, with theme galleries for users to select from, and the benefit of these themes go beyond the home screen. These themes also reach the notification shade, and system apps like Settings, Messages, and the dialer. So, even if you're looking into getting a third-party launcher, if you phone has these themes, you might want to browse through them.
If you're ready to jump into the wonderful world of third-party launchers, there's a lot out there to choose from, but here are three launchers that should help you get your feet wet.
- Nova Launcher: Nova is one of the most popular launchers out there that doesn't ship on a phone. While being highly customizable, it's still a launcher that is easy for most beginners to ease into. Nova is also has a free version for you to cut your teeth on before you invest in Nova Prime.
- Action Launcher 3: Action Launcher 3 is a fan favorite — and an editor favorite, too — and if you're looking for a launcher with a new twist on efficiency, AL3 may be just the ticket. The quickdrawer replaces the app drawer with an app list on the left side of the screen, and features like Shutters and Covers help conserve space using folders and widgets in new ways.
- Yahoo Aviate: If you want to let your launcher do the organizational work for you, perhaps try Aviate, the launcher that Yahoo acquired. Aviate adapts to your schedule and your locations to arrange the apps and widgets it thinks you need right now.
3. It all begins with a wallpaper...
No matter what launcher you use, you need something to put up behind your widgets and apps. Wallpapers come from all corners of the internet and beyond. If you're not using a picture of your kids or your dog or that lovely little cabin up in Denver that you're gonna own just as soon as the stock market improves, you may want to consider replacing the wallpaper that came on your phone with pictures from one of these sources:
- Muzei: If you're looking for beautiful wallpapers that will rotate out on a regular basis, Muzei and its many, many extensions are here for you. Muzei is a live wallpaper, meaning it's a program rather than a single static image. Muzei will pull pictures from one or more gallery sources and set a new one as your wallpaper every few hours.
- AC Wallpaper Gallery: Another resource for your wallpaper needs is our very own Android Central Wallpaper gallery. Hundreds of wallpapers, from users for users.
- Zedge: Zedge is kinda like the Walmart of wallpapers, ringtones and other theme elements. Zedge hosts thousands of wallpapers for you to download and apply, from dozens of categories.
- DeviantArt: If you're looking for some more artistic fare for your wall? Go to the venue tens of millions of artists use to share their art with the world. DeviantArt has it all, from nouveau tableaus to digital renderings to classic paintings.
- Icon Packs: If you're intending to use an icon pack, many packs come with wallpapers to compliment the icons they've worked so hard on.
4. Widgets, widgets everywhere
Widgets are basically miniature apps that run on your homescreen. There are several types of widgets, from toggle widgets to control your Hue Lights to forecast widgets for your local weather to playback widgets to control your music. Most of your apps probably came with some kind of widget, and in addition there are third party widgets you can download if you don't like those.
They allow us to access and interact with data from our apps without having to open each one. I can go to the next track in Play Music without having to open them app again. I can mute my phone and turn off my mobile data without going into Settings. I can turn on my Hue lights without ever leaving my home screen.
Widgets also serve as shortcuts into apps, or better yet into specific functions of an app. The Google Keep widget lets me access my most recent notes or start a new one without keeping the icon in my dock. The Netflix widget can take me to the next episode of my current shows. My weather widget can take me to current conditions of one of my forecasts, depending on what I click.
Also falling under the category of widgets are Shortcuts, which are lumped into Widgets with many launchers including Nova. The icon for your app drawer is a shortcut. Other popular shortcuts are contact shortcuts, to call your spouse or text your kids, and setting shortcuts, such as Tethering, Location, and Power. In addition, shortcuts can take you into certain playlists, albums, or activities within an app.
5. Make your apps pop — or blend in — with icon packs
Much as we wish it weren't so, not all icons are created equal. Google has guidelines for app icons, but Samsung and HTC and LG do, too. And each developer may have their own ideas about how their icon should or shouldn't fit with those guidelines. As a result, our app drawers often look like a melting pot of icon styles. Well, never fear! Icon packs are here to make our apps look uniform again... at least in the launcher.
Now, most launchers that come pre-loaded on your phone do not allow you to use icon packs from the Google Play Store. Even the themes on HTC and Samsung phones don't allow you to apply icon packs from the Play Store, only from their proprietary stores. So, if you're interested in theming your icons, you'll need to seek out a third-party launcher with custom icon support, such as Nova Launcher, Launcher X, or Action Launcher 3.
As mentioned before, custom icons can help make your app drawer look uniform, but it can also help apps fly under the radar, as it were. Using a false icon or a blank icon can help turn a curiosity into an innocuous calculator or word processor. We're not here to judge, we're just here to help.
6. Can you hear the smartphones ring?
There's a broadway adage that goes "the audience never goes out humming the scenery". No matter how beautiful your theme may be, the portion of your theme that those around you will notice most isn't something they'll see on their screen. It's what they'll hear from your phone every time you get a call, text, or notification. And while you can get sounds for your theme anywhere from your music library, here are a few resources for finding sounds that suit your themes, your personality, and your environment.
- Zedge: Zedge has just about every ringtone you can imagine and some more that you can't. They even have that ungodly Samsung Whistle that my mother just had to have when the family upgraded to Moto Xs... Anyways, Zedge is a great resource, and you can set the sounds directly in the app instead of having to download them and copy them into the proper system folder.
- Reddit: Even if you're not much of redditor, Reddit is a wonderful place to look for ringtones and other theme elements. There are threads in r/Android every few months, if not every few weeks, where users will swap ringtones and ringtone ideas.
- Audacity: Okay, this isn't actually an Android app, it's a desktop program. I've made plenty of themes in my day, and I have to say that my best themes usually come from me sampling something from a YouTube video or a track in my music library. So if you're not finding what you want elsewhere, clip it yourself!
And remember: sounds can be magical, nostalgic, or downright annoying. A co-worker had an Eric Cartman notification tone for two months. Every time he got a text, I wanted to throw his phone through the wall.
Be memorable, not maddening.
7. This is only the beginning...
Once you get used to your new launcher and some new widgets, w'll be ready to dive into gesture controls, Zooper widgets, Tasker shortcuts, and much, much more... the world of Android customization is out there, just waiting to be explored. But for now, show us your screen and what you're using on it! Have a launcher you'll use forever? Which widget never leaves your home screen? Swear by your icon pack? Share them below! And stay tuned for more Android theming goodness!