Nova Launcher review: King of the mountain after all these years

Nova Launcher has been around for a long time. How long? Well, Nova Launcher Prime (opens in new tab), Nova's premium upgrade, was one of the first paid apps I ever bought back in 2012 during Google Play's 25-cent sale. A lot has changed in that time, and while trends in Android have come and gone, Nova Launcher has stayed one of its best launchers.

Here's how Nova Launcher continues to win its place as the home screen of millions, and it starts with how Nova runs for the first time after installation.

If this isn't your first device with Nova Launcher, it asks you if you want to restore a previous Nova backup file. Restoring a backup from local storage or the cloud, Nova skips the rest of the setup process by applying the settings you had in your backup. For users who bring launchers from one phone to another — or reinstall all their apps after factory resets — being able to restore your backup without going through the entire setup process first is a blessing, and one not many other launchers replicate right now.

If it's your first time, Nova Launcher can be a little intimidating off the bat. Rather than being asked about wallpapers and what apps they want on their dock, Nova asks users how they want the very launcher to look: light or dark themes, material cards or Pixel-esque solid backgrounds, app drawer button or swipe to drawer. Nova tries to help ease users into the multitude of settings available to them by showcasing three easy-to-understand setting options and giving them a simple A/B choice.

Once you've picked these three settings, you're taken to your new home screen, which is sparsely populated with Google apps. You can easily import your layout from your previous launcher to save the time and frustration of putting everything back where you want it. From here we have a few additional options, almost all of which live in Nova Settings.

I have spent years poking around Nova Settings while tweaking themes and testing new layouts, but even I have to admit, Nova Settings is a bit of a basket case. Just as Nova Launcher has remained largely the same launcher with a few more new styles and features added in over the years, Nova Settings has kept nearly the same format for the last five years, just expanding with the addition of more and more features.

It's got everything but the kitchen sink, and it's easy for settings — and users — to get lost in it. That said, there are quite a few gems hiding in these settings are it's worth familiarizing yourself with, including Nova Launcher's biggest ace in the hole: subgrid positioning, which is quite well hidden in the Desktop grid settings.

Subgrid in action

Not too small, not too big, it's just right.

Subgrid positioning allows you to place app shortcuts and widgets between the normal grid spaces on your desktop. If a 5x1 widget looks too small and 5x2 is too big, you can use subgrid positioning to resize your widget to 5x1.5, which makes your home screens more flexible and can help you get everything in just the right place.

Gesture shortcuts — assigning tasks to actions like swipes and double-taps — may not seem all that hidden considering they get their own folder in the main Nova Settings screen, but keep in mind those are only half the gesture controls that you can assign in the launcher. Every app shortcut on your home screens can also have a swipe gesture added to them — and every folder can, too!

Folders be awesome

Speaking of folders, I know that Action Launcher's Covers are the bee's knees when it comes to folder features, opening your folder with a swipe and open the first app with a tap. Well, I'm here to tell you that not only can Nova play that tune, it can play it better. If you want to turn a regular folder into a "Covers" folder, you can edit the folder and tap Swipe to open. Nova will automatically change the folder icon and tap action to the first app in the folder.

But what if you want to tap to open the folder and swipe to open the first app inside? Instead of tapping Swipe to open folder, tap the Swipe action and select the first item in folder. What if you want to swipe to open the folder, but don't want the first app icon as the folder icon? No problem there either. In the folder's edit window, tap the icon to change it to whatever icon you want. We've got all the Covers functionality — and more — just without a cutesy name.

Find true love in a launcher

I know Nova Launcher gets pegged as a theming launcher — and we've used it for a lot of themes over the last few years, but Nova is for more than themers. It's for users who know how they want their launcher to look and use the same layout on device after device using Nova backups. It's for users who want the option to make their phone look like a Pixel or like a Samsung Galaxy S8. It's for users who want their phone to look how they want, from the most basic layouts to the most minute details.

It's for users like you. And me.

Have you used Nova Launcher for what feels like forever? What keeps you coming back between your affairs with other launchers? What gems have you discovered and treasured in Nova Settings? Share with us in the comments.

Want to give Nova Launcher a try? Here are the first five settings you'll want to know

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.

  • I can't imagine using a phone without Nova.. What an awful experience that would be.
  • I always give new versions of stock launchers a chance before going to nova. Both for the novelty of something new and for the "right" feel of the phone. Samsung is getting there but there is always that thing I'm missing. Mostly it's number of icons in app drawer or desktop folders. 3x3 is not enough Samsung.
  • 3x3? On my s8 I have 5x5 on home screen and 5x6 on app drawer, all on stock.
  • Nova is the first thing I install on every new device I get, whether the stock launcher is good or not.
  • F yeah
  • Yep. The only way to truly enjoy Android's customization freedom.
  • I can't help but feel that these launchers use more system resources than native launcher. This is the reason I stick with native launchers. I mainly used launchers earlier when Android wasn't fully developed.
  • Try it rather than just feel it. The difference in the use of system resources is negligible. I've had dozens of phones since I started using Nova. I always give the stock launcher a go for a bit after first receiving a phone, but then I install Nova since I greatly prefer the features it has. I've never had any noticeable hit to performance or battery life. If someone is seeing a major difference when using high quality launcher like Nova, something more is going on.
  • Even if that's true, which it's often not. The only way it would make a real difference is on some kind of crappy single-core 512MB RAM 2013 budget device... The launcher is low impact, it doesn't require gargantuan amounts of RAM or CPU cycles to run and as long as it isn't badly coded won't impact system performance. If you actually like the launcher that came with your phone then that's fine. But if you're not using something you prefer because you "feel" it might occupy 4MB of RAM inserted of 3... I'm sorry, but you're using your phone wrong.
  • For me Nova is so overrated.. Probably because I am not into customization and all this bs... But got the Prime for cheap (on sale) tried it, my phone started slowing down (P9) now on nougat the Nova is crashing a lot... Not worth for me the hassle.. :-))
  • Picked up Nova a few yesterday ago during a holiday sale. It's Pixel setup is flawless.
  • 2012 - Nova Launcher
    2017 - Nova Launcher
    3017 - Nova Launcher
  • LOL
  • Question: I like being able to double tap to lock / unlock my phone, arrow launcher has that but in Nova when I go to double tap gesture settings it gives me apps to open, does anyone know if there's a way to make it unlock / lock that I can't see? It does everything else so I'm guessing there must be a way to do this. . .
    Edit: I see the double tap gesture to lock the screen but it does not seem to work for unlock
  • You need to make it a device administrator. That's the only way it can lock and unlock the device.
  • I did that, but I can only lock, not able to double tap to unlock?
  • If you go into Nova Settings > Gestures and Inputs > Double Tap, it should be under the Nova tab of actions.
  • Uh, how does a launcher unlock your phone unless it replaces your lock screen? Nova will double-tap to lock, but doesn't unlock your phone because Nova isn't on your lock screen.
  • I read it wrong. My bad.
  • Ok, thanks, so the arrow launcher must be replacing my lockscreen . . No way arrow is as full featured as nova, I was just trying to get that feature . . Thanks Ara
  • Lock is an option, not unlock...
  • If ONLY they could add Google Now on left swipe (I know you can swipe up, down, with one or two fingers but the muscle memory is there).
  • One of the reasons I switch back and forth between Google Now Launcher and Nova Launcher. I do have the gesture swipe up to the google app which is close to the Google Now cards but still a little different.
  • Agreed
  • I have Nova launcher prime installed on all of my devices. Hands down the best launcher available in the play store.
  • I didn't start using Nova until last week, and it is literally the best thing since sliced bread. That is all.
  • This is one of the first apps my wife and I install on a new device.
  • Ara, have you tried the updated adw launcher? I'd like to know how it compares to Nova
  • ADW is an odd duck in how it's settings are laid out, to my mind. I have been meaning to go fill-in on it for a week or two as a test...
  • +1, keep coming back to Nova launcher on every device. One of the best out there in terms of performance, customization etc.
  • +1
  • I love Nova launcher combined with KWGT. I always try the stock launcher first, just to get familiar with new features; but in the end I miss too many Nova features and switch back. That said, I had gone without it for years because when I first tried it years ago, the lag on my device at that time was a huge problem. When I finally tried Nova again, I was amazed at the improvement. No lag - arguably smoother than the OEM experience. After my experience, I can't help but wonder how many people don't use it because of a bad initial impression - they really need to give it another chance.
  • I've been forcing myself to use Pixel launcher this month to see if I could warm up to it. But that hasn't happened yet, and the month's almost over. I'll be back to Nova in May. I miss the gestures and the desktop sizing options and the ability to mix-n-match icons from different packs to avoid the sucky ones. I'm just too damn picky, aka, the major Nova demo.
  • I tried to use the stock S8+ launcher. It is ok. Def better than previous years. But I can't add additional app notification bubbles, I had to come back...
  • I've only half way setup TouchWiz Home. I'm sure I'll get around to it.
  • What weather widget is that ?
  • Looks like 1Weather