"I need root to do that, don't I?" "No. You absolutely do not."
Changing the way your phone looks or acts can seem like sorcery to some users. When someone sees my custom icons, they sometimes ask if I had to root my phone to do it. They'll see the covers in Action Launcher and think that we had to do something special and/or forbidden to do it. They'll see our Kustom widgets and think there's no way they could do that on their phone. They think you have to void your warranty to make your phone look better.
Well, I don't root my phones to make them look better. And you don't need to either.
Yes, there are some things you can't change without root (though that list seems to get smaller and smaller every year). Without root, you may not be able to replace your navigation buttons with colored or stylized icons. You may not be able to make your themes extend to the notification shade, or into the rest of your apps. You may not be able to change your pixel density or give yourself that glorious system-wide dark mode. These are a small sampling of what can be done with root access, but there's still plenty to enjoy without that particular modification.
I don't care. I can make my phone look pretty without all that.
I do not want to hassle with making sure my Xposed modules don't conflict with my special kernel and the RRO layers I'm using to dark-theme my apps. I have long said that root just isn't necessary for most of us, and it's become even more true since I said it two years ago. Root can take themes to another level, but it's not a level I need. It's not a level that can easily be shared with the majority of our readers.
Even without root, we've got plenty of theming tools at our disposal. There's a hell of a lot that we can do to make our phones look newer, cooler, or just different.
If you're using the wallpaper that came with your phone out of the box, stop reading right now and go grab a new one from our Wallpaper Wednesday collections.Grab one, download it, and set it on your phone. Long-press on your wallpaper and the option to change it usually pops up.
And now that we've gotten some new ink on your home screen, let's go find something that fits you even better. Got a work of art you just adore? Set it as a wallpaper! Looking forward to an awesome new movie? We've got wallpapers for them, and awesome themes to go with them. Just want your phone to show as much team spirit as your wardrobe? There's millions of wallpapers out there for your favorite teams, from Football to Futbol to Baseball to F1 to the Olympic gymnastics team about to compete in Rio.
You can even use your wallpaper to remind you of what's important in your life: your baby grandkids or your lovely wife. Whoever and whatever you hold dear, it can always be there in your thoughts and in your sight by setting personal photos as wallpapers.
This isn't Apple: our app icons are not all rounded rectangles. But that doesn't mean they have to be a mis-mash of conflicting design styles and guidelines. We have thousands of awesome icon packs out there to help us make some order out of the chaos and make our apps look better with our wallpapers and widgets. Whether you go in for uber-simplistic monotone icons or bright candy-colored packs, there's an icon pack out there for everyone.
If you're feeling especially brave, you can even go beyond the icons in packs and use any image you can image — or find on Google. Most common image types can be used as an app icon, but if it's a PNG with a transparent background, it works best (since there won't be a white/black box around your image). I've been making custom icons for my themes since before I even knew what root was; it's easy, fun, and can be ever-so-slightly challenging finding/creating an icon that'll fit just so with that perfect wallpaper you just found.
Widgets are ten kinds of amazing and you're lucky your Android phone has them. You may have heard nasty rumors about widgets like they'll suck your battery dry and tax your poor little phone's memory. Years ago, we may have needed to worry about this more, but widgets (like the rest of Android) have come a long way since then. Widgets can play an important part on your home screen, offering up information and controls without having to open the main app. Instead of opening the Accuweather, you can just peek at the widget on your home screen and see that it's 86 degrees and it's gonna start raining in 33 minutes.
Widgets can be beautiful as well as functional. They can give you music controls and show off your album art in style. They can give you quick controls for your Hue lights without clashing with your dark wallpaper and icons. They're awesome, and you should check them out.
When you've tested and reached the limits of your current launcher, there's always new frontiers of possibility to explore with a new launcher. They're easy to find, easy to try, and no, they won't completely screw up your phone. If you don't like the one you try, your old launcher is still there waiting for you. Launchers have a lot of good and downright useful features like backups, gesture shortcuts, folders that don't look like complete crap and even prepackaged themes.
There's a lot of launchers out there for you to test the waters with, and while many of us on the Android Central staff swear by Action Launcher, I have been and continue to be a Nova Launcher girl. Nova has the best backup mechanism, it's got the most customizable folders (my dock is almost entirely made of folders), and it's the best 25 cents I ever spent in Google Play, back during one of it's birthday sales.
Here's the best part: you don't have to do everything at once. Ease yourself in with some Awesome Icons before you go trying new launchers with sub-grid positioning and custom icon support. Maybe try a few widgets that're already on your phone. Give a Muzei plugin a try to see what kind of wallpapers you like best on your phone before you start trying to build launcher themes around one. Import your current launcher's layout into Nova Launcher and see how you like it before you go messing around with a lot of gesture controls and Kustom widgets.