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?
- What's in a theme?
- Launchers and how to use them
- Wallpapers: the most basic and pivotal personalization
- Widgets: the forgotten home screen element
- Icon packs: make your apps stand out or blend in
- Sounds: can you hear the smartphones ring?
What's in a theme?
There are many types of themes within Android, but the kinds we're going to refer to throughout this article are home screen themes or launcher themes. A theme is the visual styling of your home screen, achieved through the choice and use of launchers, wallpapers, widgets, icon packs, sounds, and other elements.
When many users think of themes, they imagine complex elements and high-maintenance setups. For most of us, though, 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, but for apps that you want easily accessible but away from prying eyes, many launchers also allow you to rename apps and give them icons less likely to draw the eye. Or make them invisible altogether.
- Transferring themes and setups: Your mother just got a new phone, but she 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. Some launchers will re-order your apps based on how frequently you use them, 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 5x5 grid on your home screen and not being able to resize your widgets? A third-party launcher can let you choose just about everything about your launcher experience.
Launchers and how to use them
All phones come with a launcher, which is the interface through which users interact with their phone's apps and customize their home screens. Samsung phones come with the "Samsung Experience" launcher, HTC phones come with Sense Home, LG simply calls its launcher the Home launcher, and Pixel phones use the Pixel Launcher, and so on.
Both Samsung Themes and Sense allow custom system themes, with theme galleries for users to select from, themes that reach the notification shade and system apps like Settings and the dialer. Even if you're looking into getting a third-party launcher, if your 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 is one of the most popular launchers on the market. 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.
- Evie Launcher is a cunningly simple launcher with quick reaction time and blissful freedom in its features. Capitalizing on recent launcher trends in gestures and layouts, Evie feels cutting edge without feeling like a beta product, giving users a clean and stable launcher that's quick as a whip.
- Smart Launcher 5 is a launcher that aims to be as smart as it is beautiful, combining some elegant theming prowess with a smartly-sorted categorical app drawer. This launcher is quick to setup, quick to customize, and it's worth a look if you don't want to take much time to get your launcher set the way you want it.
Wallpapers: the most basic and pivotal personalization
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 going to own as soon as you win the lottery, 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, even every few minutes if you want.
- Android Central's Wallpaper Weekly roundups: We've gathered wallpapers for a wide variety of styles and topics for your wallpaper pleasure. From holiday wallpapers to puppies and dragons and landscapes of all kinds, we've got at least one wallpaper here you're bound to love.
- Zedge: Zedge is kind of like the Walmart of wallpapers, ringtones, and other theme elements. Zedge hosts tens of 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 intend to use an icon pack, many packs come with wallpapers to compliment the icons they've worked so hard on.
Widgets: the forgotten home screen element
Widgets are 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 sort of widget, and there are third party widgets you can download if you don't like those.
Widgets can 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 or one of my forecasts, depending on what I click.
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 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, even as Adaptive icons try to bring some semblance of order to the chaos. Well, never fear! Icon packs are here to make our apps look uniform again... at least in the launcher.
Now, most launchers that come preloaded 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 without doing it one at a time, you'll need to seek out a third-party launcher with custom icon support, which most third-party launchers do.
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 curiosities into an innocuous calculator or word processor. We're not here to judge; we're just here to help.
Sounds: can you hear the smartphones ring?
There's a Broadway adage that goes "Nobody leaves the theater 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 your 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 nearly anywhere, here are a few resources for finding sounds that suit your themes, your personality, and your environment.
- Zedge: Zedge has nearly every ringtone you can imagine and some more that you can't. They even have that ungodly Samsung Whistle that my mother must have. 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, and ringtone/wallpaper threads pop up in fandom reddits all the time.
- 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' sounds 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.
This is only the beginning
Once you get used to your new launcher and some new widgets, we'll be ready to dive into gesture controls, Kustom 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 in the comments! And stay tuned for more Android theming goodness!
Updated April 2018: New year, new themes, new links, and we've undertaken some spring cleaning for your reading pleasure.
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