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Android Pie's new Overview is giving first-party launchers a big advantage

Android Pie is here and it's got goodies for everyone — except for third-party launchers, it seems. Android Pie overhauled the recent apps screen when it switched over to the new gesture navigation system and renamed this new recent apps and app shortcuts screen Overview, and Overview also has the app drawer built right into it, meaning that you can pull open your app drawer with two quick swipes up from the new pill-shaped home button.

There's just one problem: it's a launcher feature that almost no launchers can actually use.

The new Overview interface is lovely: the app previews are bigger, the horizontal carousel means that it's harder to accidentally tap the wrong app by mistake, and the quick access to any app through the included app drawer means that I need return to the home screen far less while I'm trying to get things done. Then I switched from the Pixel Launcher back to Nova Launcher for my patriotic summer themes, and suddenly the Overview menu got a whole lot less useful.

Because of the app suggestions and app drawer being built into this new recent apps UI, Overview is a launcher feature that still required system permissions. Google won't give third-party launchers the permissions they need to use it, but manufacturers can build it right into the launcher they ship on their phones, just like the Google feed pane that originated in the Google Now Launcher, may it rest in peace.

"Okay, so third-party launchers will just build a companion to build into Overview the way they did for Google Now, right?" Well, not so fast.

The key difference here lies in the permission levels needed for each feature. The Google Now pane required either a launcher with system permissions or that the client app using the Google Now feed be debuggable. That loophole allowed third-party launchers to create debuggable add-ons to enable Google Now without system permissions that they can't get, and there's no such loophole for the Overview suggestions and app drawer features in Android Pie. It's not looking good, but it isn't going to stop launcher developers from trying; the Smart Launcher team tells Android Central it is looking for ways to try and bring this feature to its users, and it is not alone in that search.

Swipe left and right

Since third-party launchers can't offer up suggestions or app drawers in Overview, users are left with a bit of a choice. Would you rather have a launcher with robust features like customizable gestures and smart app drawer sorting, or would you rather have the app drawer in Overview and just try to ignore the shortcomings of Android's lackluster first-party launchers?

I want the best app drawer in Overview and Pixel Launcher doesn't have it

For those who only use the home screen for a couple of app shortcuts and a cute wallpaper, the the Overview screen will essentially replace their home screen. After all, why go back to the home screen when you can open your app drawer anywhere? Power users that swear by Smart Launcher 5's app drawer or Nova Launcher's subgrid positioning would rather return to a home screen that's set up just they way they want than deal with the dull and often cringeworthingly mismatched app drawers most manufacturer launchers come with.

As for me, I'm stuck here in the middle. Sure, the app drawer in the Pixel Launcher is a downgrade from my Nova Launcher tabs and my Smart Launcher categories, but being able to open any app on my phone in three seconds via the Overview menu is such a time saver, especially when my most used apps are always sitting in that five-app dock below my most recent app.

In a perfect world, I could have both, but we all know the world we live in today is anything but perfect. I can hope and dream that Overview can work together with the best launchers on Android to give users the experience they deserve no matter where they open their app drawer from. But I remember how long it took for Google Now panes to come from the Google Now Launcher to third-party launchers, and so I'll settle in.

I'm going to be hoping and dreaming for a long, long time before that day comes.

Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.

45 Comments
  • Holy cow. Give them time, its been what, one day?
  • Developers have had access for 6 months. It can't be done because accessing "recent apps" can requires system permissions (or root). Google doesn't allow apps to do this because Google wants to ensure that only manufacturers can spy on everything you do.
  • Almost a year.
  • What language is the last sentence? "I'm going to be hoping a dreaming for a long, long time before that day comes."
  • English
  • Android Central has horrible editors and writers.
  • Exit stage left
  • If you would not have told me what I was missing I would have never known since my Essential had Nova Launcher installed on it when I upgraded to Android Pie. Thanks, thanks a lot lol.
  • Share my pain!
  • Google made the software and the operating system. They have the right to do what they want with their launcher and operating system. I do understand the dilemma faced by those that like other launchers. In time there might be workarounds, or even something better.
  • No, Google doesn't get to just shaft all of the launcher developers out there simply because they develop the OS. They don't HAVE to force this functionality to work only on system apps, and they could still run this in a fashion that works with a debugger flag. They chose not to. My guess is that they chose to do it this way because they assumed launcher devs wouldn't make the app drawer dynamic (and instead just push a generic 5 apps under the search bar when a user swipes up), but the reality is that this could be done multiple ways and would be an awesome way to give users more control. I may not ever want the Facebook app to show up in my Overview, or I might want a specific set of 5 apps to be there no matter how often/seldom I use them. Users also might want a certain 5 apps to be there based on location (if I'm at work and swipe up, show GroupMe, Outlook, etc; and at home show me Messenger, Messages, News, etc). These types of controls will never be implemented by Google, because they want to rely solely on their AI initiative to give you the right apps at the right time. Hey, maybe Google's system would be more intuitive than anything a user could implement on their own, but I still foresee a good set of users that would never be happy. For me, personally, it's pretty good at knowing what app I want to use next, but I really hate that the apps are always in a different order. I get used to muscle memory and find it frustrating that I can't keep apps in specific spots.
  • I'm on the traditional homescreen side. I'm a heavy themer and have done fullscreen setup using zooper, kwgt and other heavy theming tools to create fully unique looking homescreens, its the reason I use Android and it'll be a sad day if Google did decide to take it away. I really hope that Nova and other 3rd party launchers finds a way around this so we can still have the feature that made Android compelling on the early days over ios for years to come.
  • I understand the theming side of it but ever since going Nexus and now pixel I get why people love IOS so much. I've owned older Samsung devices and even now owning a note 8 along with my pixel 2 xl I absolutely love the pixel experience. It's clean and stable and apps just work unlike on my note 8 where I've noticed a lot of apps crash or freeze up. One other point is my note 8 is on 8.0 with June's security update where as my pixel has Android p and on August security update I'll take software updates and stability over customization any day. I know pixel owners like customizing as well but I think more pixel owners like the stock experience even more.
  • I don't bother with themes for battery saving reasons but as a former iPhone user turned Android and Pixel convert (I have a Pixel 2 XL and love it) I could never use anything other than a Pixel now as I don't like Samsung's bloated software and the clean fluid, fast experience of a Pixel along with the quick updates is a major reason (but not the only one) why I left Apple for Android and I'm never going back.
  • You probably talking about unoptimized widgets on the playstore. Theming maker apps like Zooper, KWGT and KLWP barely impacts battery.
  • I have a note 8 and s9+ and every app I have "just works." I'll admit though "Samsung Experience"(touchwiz) doesn't play all that well with most launcher outside of Google's and Nova from my own experience. But then again that doesn't surprise me considering samsung doesn't use Google's traditional stock overlay, they use a custom one. Which is why the Note and S models typically have features you don't see on other android phones until two major updates late (split screen and popup window are two primary examples). Bixby even rolled out with built in feature Google Assistant wasn't offering until this year (so much for it being "useless" and "half baked"). So as far as the comments I alway see about samsung devices getting Google updates and security updates late is hilarious. Samsung devices might not get the regular Google updates but they do still get samsung updates for Knox and the "Samsung Experience" which keeps their phones updated. Also f.y.i. the reason you typically see Samsung devices used by companies like they do with crappie, I mean apple phones, is because the Samsung device exceeds industry security standards (256 bit encryption to be exact)
  • Something is wrong with your Note 8, my wife has a Note 8 and apps don't crash, I have S8 and no app crashes here either.
  • Yeah, it's a nonsense post. The pixel is no more stable than any other flagship. Smoother maybe, but not more stable. I'm on OnePlus following several Samsungs - I don't even remember the last time I had an app cash.
  • I don't understand the new onscreen navigation area at the bottom. Why would you remove the always-available back, home and recents buttons, but then leave the exact same dead space without giving us the three most used and important functions all the time? What goes on in Mountainview meetings where anyone wouldn't say "the emperor has no clothes." Just put the buttons there or give us the ability to put them there. Jesus...
  • If you're like me, and you always keep auto-rotation disabled, it's nice to have that extra space on the right as a dynamic space for when I rotate YouTube videos or Waze navigations... Otherwise, I agree that they really should have either made this a) more symmetric and made a back gesture by swiping to the left, or found a way to remove the navbar altogether.
  • It's amazing that this half-baked gesture system made it all the way through the development cycle without any Improvement at all. I mean, when the first developer preview dropped, people were like "this is bad." All they had to do was fix it, by copying Motorola, or OnePlus, or Xiaomi, or Apple, or any other company with a better gesture navigation system. And they just didn't do anything. Then again, this is the same company that released phones for the last 5 years with enormous bottom bezels and on-screen navigation bars that take up a bunch of screen real estate, while virtually every other manufacturer smartly used the space below the screen for capacitive buttons.
  • Apple and Motorola are the ones that has half baked gesture, especially Apple with the crappy multitasking gesture that is fiddly and don't always work. Google's is the best implementation and will only get better.
  • I've seen but haven't used Apple's gestures but idk what you are smoking. Moto actually nailed the Android gestures in my opinion the problem is there's no Moto phones worth using that have it
  • I agree with the apple comment, and agree to disagree with that last comment on moto phones. I happen to think they're great 0hones just lack in the camera and memory management categories. Their G series is arguably the best mid range phone out in comparison to what else you typically see in any given local wireless retailer. The Z and X lineups could use some improvements if Motorola plans on continuing to offer them at $600+ of they want to convince ppl to buy one of their premium tier devices instead of a Nexus, Pixel, Huawei, OP, LG, Samsung, or Apple(although idk y anyone is still by these over priced mid range phones). But yes I agree Lenovo nailed the touch gestures.
  • When the pie launcher gets put out to pasture, Google will provide the necessary APIs to allow this feature.
  • Really? Can't wait I'm so pumped.
  • I'll forever be a fan of the 3 button navigation, and the app drawer icon. I didnt like the swipe up for app drawer. I have a single page of a weather widget, with a 5 icon dock housing phone, messages, app drawer, camera, browser. To get to anything in my app drawer I just hit home, and move my fiber slightly up to hit the app drawer icon. Because of the muscle memory it is basically a double tap and is the fastest way for me to use my phone
  • Instead of using smart launcher do what I do and use their smart drawer app. It is the app drawer part of the launcher as a standalone app. So I have best of both worlds, the pixel launcher and overview benefits as well as categories in an app drawer. https://www.androidcentral.com/e?link=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.anrdoezrs.net%2F...
  • With Nova Prime customized the way I want it & being so familiar with it at this point, I hardly ever need to open the app drawer
  • Like many here, I think this is a non issue. I will use the launcher I want. I almost never use an app drawer and I am not about to start using gestures. It is Googles insane design choices as to why I never would own a Pixel. So far I have not found a perfect phone, there will always be choices. Right now the only phones I would consider are from Samsung and LG, however, LG has done a few dumb things lately, like the G7.
  • I'm with you. I put Nova on my Pixel 2 and am back to buttons. The recent apps switcher is great in the gesture navigation but that's the only thing that is. As for owning a pixel well, the main two reasons I do are the clean software and phenomenal camera. But if they keep going this route I may be forced to go back to LG or Samsung. I've almost bought a V35 a couple times lately but just can't justify it.
  • I got the P update this afternoon. I had tried all the betas but always found bugs and went back to stable Oreo. This final version is good so far but I can't do the gestures. The overview is nice but not worth the hassle of dealing with this half baked interface.
  • Interesting, I'm assuming google is trying to restrict some of the freedom they give to their users so the idoits that don't know what they're doing can stop screwing up their phones and then blaming on the android OS. A common issue I see way to often on a daily basis where I work
  • Pixel 2 XL on the new Pie - and I don't have a pill button. I still have the back, home and recent buttons on the Pixel launcher... Although - I've got to admit - I still use Nova as may main go to launcher, and have Microsoft's launcher as an alternative.
  • Okay - System
    Gestures
    Swipe up on home button.
  • Ah... That's kind of cool. I actually like it and using it with Nova.
  • I will be sticking with my smartlauncher. No real need for overview.
  • Unless you *only* use 5 apps on a regular basis, which will always appear in that dock on the bottom, why would anyone prefer this? Having had the same setup for 4+ years now on multiple phones, my 3-home screen set up has basically become muscle memory to swipe left or right to get to the correct home screen for the app I want. No idea how this could be quicker for anyone that needs to frequently use more than 5 apps.
  • Hey, this story was tailored for me this morning. A couple days with a slice of the pie and I'm so sick of my icons, but I don't want to loose my features of Android 9. (It's not a good trade off to me) I'm a Nova fan, and have been for sometime now, but I'll stay on Google launcher until someone catches up. Heck, just give me a app in the meantime that will change my icons!
  • Are there people who are using Android Pie with first gen Pixel or Pixel XL?
  • In Nova Prime you can open your apps with one click or one swipe, so how can more swipes to open an app be faster?
  • The Pie swipe up can be done from anywhere, from any app. With Nova you have to return to a home screen to use gestures.
  • Plus when running the Google Launcher , everything is just so much more buttery smooth.
  • The left/right gesture scrolling of the recents menu is also jerky for third-party launchers. I always overshoot the app I want. Swap between Google launcher and an alternate launcher and you'll see. I can't go back to vanilla, uncustomizable launchers (especially because of the app drawer limitations) so I have to pass on gesture nav for now
  • One word, Magisk or of course TWRP install to system.