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No, you don't need root to theme your phone

When you think about theming, it's very easy to think about root customizations, from theming your nav bar to giving every app a dark mode, whether it came with one or not. Even my editors thought I'd end up writing about root a lot when I started down this path, and I don't blame them. It's easy to think that customization has to be big, involved, complex, and root-only.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As an avid themer, I can tell you that I don't need root to satisfy my urge to sculpt my Android experience to my tastes, and neither do you.

It's pretty, but high-maitenance

I dabbled with root theming myself last year, from Xposed to RRO themes. Root themes when they work are nothing short of modern magic, but getting something working 100% on root, especially across ROMs and devices, is a perpetual challenge. Root theming is a passion project that is its own reward but often comes with a lot of heartaches, headaches, and hurdles. It's like keeping a puppy... that you reprogram when it misbehaves.

But most of us don't want a digital puppy that can need hours of work at any time when a seemingly innocuous update breaks something. We just want a window plant, something that takes a little water every now and then and brightens up the place without much effort between planting your flowers and replanting others.

Lucky for us, more and more of our phones are becoming more themable without resorting to root.

Ever as before, ever theme so pure, as the sun ill rise

Android launchers used to be a grid of icons, an app drawer, and maybe some widgets, but launchers have evolved just as the rest of the Android world has. We have smart launchers, we have simple launchers, and then we have customizable launchers. From tweaking your launcher's accents to completely overhauling the way you see your home screens, there are plenty of ways to theme your home screen and make it look exactly the way you want.

Launchers from phone manufacturers and third parties alike are getting more themable and more adaptable, adding gestures to do things like access shortcuts and open the app drawer. And with third-party launchers like Nova Launcher and Action Launcher bringing in new options with each new version of Android and from flagships like the Google Pixel, we can be sure that things will only get more and more customizable when it comes to theming your home screen.

Getting started with Android theming

Take theming beyond the launcher

While I may not have dark themes in Google Play Music or YouTube yet — and sweet magic, do we need them — there are plenty of apps out there that allow you to theme them to fit your tastes and UI preferences. For instance, Textra (opens in new tab) will let you make your SMS conversations look more like iMessage, changing the text bubble style and emoji. Practically every Twitter app out there that isn't the actual Twitter app allows you to theme it in some way, and most of the file managers do, too.

Check out some of our favorite apps to theme outside your launcher

Even system theming has come a long way in the last few years. While not all phones have as robust a theming engine as the Samsung Galaxy S8, that doesn't mean there aren't things we can do to jazz things up. Most of the market uses on-screen nav buttons and Samsung has joined them this year, and the best part of that is that they recognized that the nav bar was made to be customizable!

Navigate your way to coolness

If you've grown accustomed to Samsung's reverse-world, fury-inducing nav button order over the last five years, congrats! You can keep it! If not, we can put them back in order the way Google (And pretty much everyone else) intended.

Don't like the standard white or black navigation bar? You can set any color you want for your nav bar. This isn't limited to the Samsung Galaxy S8, but for other devices, you'll need to turn to apps like Navbar Apps (opens in new tab), which can jazz up your both nav bar with exciting colors, emoji, and visualizers — though if a music visualizer is what you're after, I'd suggest using the uniquely customizable and remarkably responsive MUVIZ (opens in new tab).

Only fork I need on my theme is the app drawer button. HEY-OHHH!

There's so much wonderful theming out there to be done and explored, and while root will always open up more options for you, it's not needed. Now get out there, grab a new wallpaper, and get your theme on!

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.

61 Comments
  • Where did that Black Panther wallpaper come from?
  • Justin maller, I'm guessing. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Thanks!
  • I signed in just to find that wallpaper too, do you have a link?
  • Unfortunately, I couldn't find one. I'll just wait until Ara shows us where she got it from.
  • It came from Ethan Livingstone, actually.
  • Here's the black panther everyone is looking for thanks to Ara. BUT! It's too small for a wallpaper, you've been warned. http://www.thelivingstone.me/portfolio/#/minimal/
  • Here are two more choices for it. http://static1.squarespace.com/static/547d2991e4b03f842b2921e1/t/56cb15b... http://static1.squarespace.com/static/547d2991e4b03f842b2921e1/t/56cb15b...
  • Ah thanks man! New wallpaper it is.
    Especially seeing as how much more of a fan I am after the movie. Holy **** it was good!
  • Happy that samsung has customised themes very well on s7 edge Posted via my Awesome Lumia 950 , Beautiful S7 Edge Gold or Surface pro 4
  • You don't need root to theme your phone, but it helps. Though I agree that most users shouldn't have root access to any software, and the people you speak of as seeing an icon pack as being like wizardry top that list, for those of us with more than a basic knowledge of software (and full awareness of risk vs reward) it can be incredibly useful. I look forward to a time when rooting my phone isn't necessary, but that time isn't now. It's best to assume I'm being sarcastic. if I'm ever serious I'll type "/s" to make it clear.
  • Yeah I need that black panther theme ASAP. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I've been combing the interents trying to find it, but to no avail. I'm not giving up, though.
  • Patience, grasshopper. Civil War themes are coming soon. I'm happy Panther is popular, tho. Means I'm doing a good job on it. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I think you're doing a good job anyway. Even if I don't use them, I look forward to Wallpaper Wednesday.
  • Not only did I get my current wallpaper from last week's selection, I added a couple of anime to my watch list from both the article and comments, bonus! It's best to assume I'm being sarcastic. if I'm ever serious I'll type "/s" to make it clear.
  • If AC have it then how are they coming soon? And what the hell are you on about with the happy panther thing
  • AC publish theme guides with resources, usually compiled and written by Ara, and the ones for civil war are coming soon. She's happy that her black panther theme is popular because that means she did a good job. Do you even English language comprehension? Lol. It's best to assume I'm being sarcastic. if I'm ever serious I'll type "/s" to make it clear.
  • Aaaaah right, god I feel so stupid now. I got really confused cosi read it as happy panther. Thank you so much for clearing that up haha. I didn't even realise that Ara was the one who wrote the article, again, feel so stupid
  • Nova Launcher would be even more awesome if included custom sort in the app drawer. That's the only reason I'm keeping the stock Xperia launcher (Z3c).
  • Uh... I have custom sort on my app drawer in Nova. I have five tabs and then some subfolders in the tabs as needed.
  • Yeah, I've tried tabs, but I don't like them much. I prefer no tabs, maybe a pair of folders, but the rest of the apps arranged in a custom order, not alphabetically. The Xperia launcher lets me order them as I like. It's nitpicking, I now, but that's the point of theming, right? :)
  • It absolutely is. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I use nova and have one tab with everything in folders. It would be nice to rearrange the folders tho Posted via the Android Central App
  • I need that Black Panther wallpaper/theme in my life!
  • You lost me at not being able to make the notification drawer a dark theme. Root everything and gain access to your phone! Not to mention, xposed module for no YouTube ads is well worth it alone. Posted via what ever tickles me at the time.
  • Yesssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss Sprint LG G4, ZVA.
  • See, I just pay for YouTube Red and I don't see the ads. No extra software required. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Yeah but you pay for it. Posted via what ever tickles me at the time.
  • I think it's worth it. No ads. Download able for offline and play music. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Offline playback, background playback, Play Music, no ads. Best 8 bucks a month I spend.
  • For me, Ara, the most interesting part has always been changing the complete interface of my phone, not only icons or widgets. Custom Apps like phone's Dialer, Messaging app, Contacts and a lot more like Setting Menu, the look of your Notification panel and even the way color themes change. That's something you can't do with all these brilliant Novas, GO's, and Apex's( at least I have yet to see that). And that's something I love in Samsung after Galaxy A series, their Themes are crazy interesting, so much variety to choose from, everyone will definitely find something for him/her. Huawei's and Lenovo's solutions aren't bad either. Posted via the Android Central App on my Galaxy S3 Neo Dual Sim which thankfully doesn't have S-pen and does not have a horrible metal body.
  • BUT if you want to MAKE a theme not in Samsung's store, you actually have to apply to be an app developer ! Samsung won't just let people make their own themes, it's too bad :(. Also the GPS on the S3 is awful :P
  • my S3 Neo will be gone soon(feeling sad already). As I have my new Zuk Z1.
  • For me, Ara, the most interesting part has always been changing the complete interface of my phone, not only icons or widgets. Custom Apps like phone's Dialer, Messaging app, Contacts and a lot more like Setting Menu, the look of your Notification panel and even the way color themes change. That's something you can't do with all these brilliant Novas, GO's, and Apex's( at least I have yet to see that). And that's something I love in Samsung after Galaxy A series, their Themes are crazy interesting, so much variety to choose from, everyone will definitely find something for him/her. Huawei's and Lenovo's solutions aren't bad either. Posted via the Android Central App on my Galaxy S3 Neo Dual Sim which thankfully doesn't have S-pen and does not have a horrible metal body.
  • And as I mentioned before, you should check Pitch Black Theme for Cyanogen OS, God that's my favorite. It's so aggressive, in your eyes, so vibrant. The way it changes Eben the look of Play Store, one must try it. Using it on my Zuk Z1 and absolutely live it. Posted via the Android Central App on my Galaxy S3 Neo Dual Sim which thankfully doesn't have S-pen and does not have a horrible metal body.
  • Someone send me a phone running CM and I'll try it. Posted via the Android Central App
  • :-/ Posted via the Android Central App on my Galaxy S3 Neo Dual Sim which thankfully doesn't have S-pen and does not have a horrible metal body.
  • Someone at AC is asking for an Android phone?? From general public??? :-/ Posted via the Android Central App on my Galaxy S3 Neo Dual Sim which thankfully doesn't have S-pen and does not have a horrible metal body.
  • Sorry the it changes even* the look... Posted via the Android Central App on my Galaxy S3 Neo Dual Sim which thankfully doesn't have S-pen and does not have a horrible metal body.
  • And absolutely Love* it.
    Damn you Autocorrect! Posted via the Android Central App on my Galaxy S3 Neo Dual Sim which thankfully doesn't have S-pen and does not have a horrible metal body.
  • This is the beauty of Android. You make many customizations by using launchers, wallpapers, widgets and icons easily, You can make Android the way you want it. No 2 phone screens are alike
  • Hey Ara some dark wallpapers on your wallpaper Wednesday collections would be very much appreciated :) Posted via the Android Central App
  • It's on the list. I assure you.
  • No its not but it helps. My phone isn't rooted tho, think I'm done with that actually. I really wish I could edit the stats bar. I don't need to know BT or nfc are on. They always are in my case.
    It would be nice to have more control over location settings and all quick toggles with tasker. Some only work with root.
    The status bar is big for me tho. I hate it being clutter with stuff like that and the am/pm can't believe there isn't an option to get rid of that.
    Hopefully samsung keeps working on the good lock app and includes some of this. I hope that made sense Posted via the Android Central App
  • Just want your phone to show as much team spirit as your phone?  Posted via the Android Central App
  • I sports well, don't I? :) Sorry, fixed. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Personally, I root my old phones. For custom ROMs. :P Flashing CM13 on my old S3 is probably one of the best things that has ever happened to it.
  • That black panther theme though! ~biting my knuckles~ Posted via the Android Central App
  • Drop down ui... I wish I could change the 2 shades of grey and teal....
    The biggest challenge I got is how to make a custom icon with a clear background, currently using Zooper widget with a design of my choice, but God knows what's gonna happen when I give up zooper. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Hows this for a Black Panther wall?
    https://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http2F2Fu%2Fpro...
  • Definitely interesting, but me likely dark backgrounds. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Currently rocking a Samsung S7 Edge as my personal driver and I do miss the CM Theme engine. Using my old LG G3 for work (kicked out the iPhone 5s) and love the custom ROM. I am glad Samsung at least has a theming service now, but I miss all my fav app being themed and love the customised list animations of BlissRom. I still use root on both phones.
    It's always fun to see people I know not believing what you can customise, even with a non-rooted stock ROM
  • I've never been a huge fan of Action Launcher, probably because I don't like using widgets or sidebar drawers. I've been using Nova Launcher for years. I have it on my phone and my tablet. It has all the features I need, and then some. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Thanks Ara for this article and for teasing us with that Black Panther wallpaper.
    But yeah, Google will always find ways. ;-)
    Now my lock screen looks so badass. :-D
  • If you found that wallpaper, can you pass along a link? I'd very much appreciate it.
  • Changing your wallpaper isn't theming any more than changing a picture on the wall in my living room is theming my house. It's just one very small and simple step in the right direction.
  • It's not just a wallpaper; it's launcher settings, it's page layouts, it's icon packs and custom icons, it's custom widgets and gesture controls. It's using apps that have themes, using them well, and pushing developers who don't to include one. Not everyone wants to rip out the sheetrock in the house they live in so they can paint the studs AMOLED black.
  • Yep, a theme can change the whole character of your phone, including icons, fonts, and sounds.. Right now I'm enjoying the Blue Neon theme, which reminds me of a nightclub or upscale bar. Big change from my usual abstract themes, but I like it.
  • Rooting is too much work. Stopped after a month.
  • I got Nova and another launcher yrs back, and hated them both. I just thought they looked terrible, so I kept the stock phone ones. recently, I got the urge to try it as I finally got tired of the LG themes (which I still like, but just got tired). So I reinstalled Nova and downloaded some icon packs and hot damn... I'm loving it now. Not going back to LG's again. I always used the app Backgrounds, which automatically changed some coloring when I changed teh backgrounds. I did like it, but still found it restricting.