Switching to Android: iOS 14 may look great, but Android launchers still put it to shame

Switching to Android hero
Switching to Android hero (Image credit: Android Central)

As part of my Switching to Android journey, I'm documenting the differences between the two operating systems, exploring the Android features that you might take for granted, but that iOS users may find a compelling reason to switch sides.

My first couple of days with Android 11 and One UI 3.1 underwhelmed me. I successfully transferred my compatible iOS apps over, and there they sat as plain little circles or rounded squares, crowded in on one another. In particular, my Pixel 3a icons looked insubstantial, the display so cramped that several app names ended in ellipses (i.e., Google P...). Bad aesthetics didn't exactly make me enthusiastic about the transition.

Before iOS 14, iPhone users happily lived with the same aesthetics and similar UI for years. They may care more about Apple apps than customization.

For regular Android users this is a trivial issue: just reconfigure your settings to make the apps more accessible or prettier, right? You'd be surprised how many longtime iPhone users, myself included, aren't used to changing anything more drastic than the wallpaper. Apple designs may have followed the "think different" motto in the past; but most Apple users fully expect their hardware and software to retain a particular style for years at a time with only incremental changes. Customization was a foreign concept before iOS 14.

When Apple's new OS, App Library, and widgets came out, my future colleagues argued that iOS 14 was a better version of Android 11. I can only speak to the Apple side of things, but I personally wasn't quite as impressed. Yes, the widgets are especially handy and a huge step up for Apple's UI. Yet the App Library relies on the same folders as before, just auto-organized. To me, iOS folders are like garages stuffed with stacks of old tools you hold onto and use once in a blue moon — not where you keep the daily apps you actually need. Besides that, the apps themselves are still their usual square selves.

I was open to a new experience, even if I was used to Apple's style. Then I found out about Android launchers: Android theming had been almost completely off my radar until that moment, and every friend with an iPhone I asked didn't know it was an option either.

I fell eagerly down a rabbit hole of launchers, icon packs, and custom KWGT widgets, tools that made playing with phone settings appealing instead of a chore. Customization is undoubtedly one of the high points for Google in the iOS vs Android battle.

Launching my creative side

Google Pixel 3a Photo

Source: Michael Hicks / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

As an easy starting point, I looked through AC's best Android launchers list and applied them one by one to my home screen. My immediate, unexpected favorite was Microsoft Launcher, thanks in part to its multi-level dock but mostly because of its scrollable widgets page. Being able to scroll through previews of all my favorite apps, instead of having to swipe through different pages or open and load multiple apps, is a genuinely cool feature that I only wish Apple and Google would copy.

With other launchers, it was a mixed bag as a new user. I'm certain that Nova Launcher and Action Launcher are some of the most popular tools for a reason, but they both can be overwhelming for an iOS user that's still figuring out which way to swipe to open a menu, or how to even find the elusive App drawer! I found myself preferring launchers like Niagara Launcher that have an immediate impact without much user setup. Yes, I know that's my casual iOS self talking, but I'm trying to ease into things!

Android users probably take launchers and icon packs as a given, but they're a revelation for a formerly complacent iPhone user.

Android icon packs are also something that you likely take for granted, but were a huge gust of fresh air for me. There may be iOS icon packs now, but they're mostly so expensive that you can't easily switch between different packs based on your mood. I'm currently on a minimalist kick with Whicons, but I switch to Crayon Icon, Mellow Dark, or a couple other fun options depending on which wallpaper I'm using.

I also downloaded KWGT presets through KWGT Pro. I'd read about talented Apple fans who'd created iOS 14-style KWGT widgets, and while I personally can just keep using my iPhone if I wanted that, I was very intrigued by the idea of creating custom widgets. I have some coding and design background that I thought could be put to good use, and wanted to try pulling information from apps like Goodreads that didn't have official widgets.

I didn't fully understand that KWGT mostly limits you to design customization, allowing you to use specific tools and info like music players, time and date, or phone battery life. It's possible that I just don't have the developer know-how I need yet to pull off my dream of a Goodreads reading challenge widget. As far as I know, these mostly seem to cater to artistic types that want their widgets to be more uniquely colorful rather than smarter.

Most Android users will just take what other people have built rather than spend time creating something just for the looks. And outliers like me aside, most Apple users probably don't care about customization, and just want a phone that handles all the necessities for them.

Prioritizing style or substance

Samsung Galaxy S9 Photo

Source: Michael Hicks / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

When iOS 14 launched with its new organizational system and home screen widgets, it inspired plenty of hot takes. One that riled up the AC commenters was the idea that iOS 14 widgets make Android's look like an absolute embarrassment. It's safe to say that I spent more time playing with widget colors and app themes because I don't exactly know yet where they should be, or how much they've changed. But based on my fresh perspective, there are a few annoyances to point out amidst an overall positive experience:

  • Is there really not a Google Photos widget yet for Android? It's one of my favorites on my iPhone, so the absence here seems absurd.
  • It's very frustrating to me that Android doesn't shove app icons into the next window if you try to add a widget and there isn't enough room. I don't like having to individually drag enough apps away to make room.
  • It's generally far easier in Samsung One UI 3.1 to tell that you're currently using a launcher, and to tap the bottom square button to find your way back to One UI Home. On the Pixel, it was tricky to find the settings, and I'm still not entirely sure how to turn it off without a guide.

Those points aside, I generally think that Android launchers and customization got me enthusiastic for Android phones in a way that benefits like a fingerprint reader didn't. It's possible my enthusiasm will fade: Joe Maring argued last year that a simple home screen is better than one with widgets and cute icons. But I plan on playing with icons and widgets until I figure out what I like, instead of just letting Apple deciding for me what I should like!

Michael L Hicks
Senior Editor, VR/AR and fitness

Michael spent years freelancing on every tech topic under the sun before settling down on the real exciting stuff: virtual reality, fitness wearables, gaming, and how tech intersects with our world. He's a semi-reformed Apple-to-Android user who loves running, D&D, and Star Wars. Find him on Twitter at @Michael_L_Hicks.

  • Need an article going the other way for those of us who are fed up with GOOGLE but not sure about iphone features.
  • HA! Good luck getting away from Google on iOS.
    You are aware that Google pays Apple about $2 Billion/year to be the default search engine on iOS?
    Also, the Apple apps like mapping, email, safari browser, etc. all pretty much suck and you will find you will STILL use the iOS versions of; Google Maps, G-Mail, Chrome browser, Google Duo, etc. on iOS.
  • As a person that uses an iPhone, iPad, and Mac, I am almost completely done with every Google service except Google Search. I formerly used almost all Google services. Drive, Photos, Calendar, Reminders, Gmail, G Suite, etc. Then I switched to iPhone after I decided I liked my iPad more than my Android Phone. Apple's software gets more consistent support on all facets of their services. And no, their software doesn't suck. Apple is perhaps one of the BEST companies when it comes to making software. Google Drive replaced with iCloud Drive. Google Calendar replaced with Apple Calendar. Google Tasks replaced with Apple Reminders. Google Keep replaced with Apple Notes. Google Maps replaced with Apple Maps. G Suite replaced with Apple Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. Chrome replaced with Safari. Gmail replaced with iCloud Mail. In fact, I've even replaced Google Home with Apple HomeKit. And yes, I am deep into the ecosystem at this point. How many regrets to I have? Zero. I've never been more organized and productive. I can use my devices with peace of mind that something won't be abandoned eight months down the line, and that my iPad will work for several years. Now maybe there is a difference between "tech enthusiast" and "it just works", but I am at the "just works" stage of technology at this point because I don't have time to concern myself with Google's BS.
  • How did you replace Gmail with iCloud mail ? Even if you configure gmail creds on 🍎mail, you are still using Google service. It's funny sometimes what people say. I tried to use 🍎mail and 🍎calendar on my Mac instead of outlook and it sucks.
  • I setup my Gmail to redirect to my iCloud email address. So I am using an iCloud email address. I didn't setup my Google on Apple Mail. I get mail to both iCloud and Gmail, so it's really just combined all on iCloud.
  • My experience going from lifelong android to ios is mixed. Gave up on icloud and Apple Maps and switched back to Google Drive and Google Maps as they are much easier to use. And don't get me started on itunes as the central point to import. That is needless aggravation. Have replaced the ios music app with Flacbox. Will stay with iphone for their long term product support. Got tired of replacing android phones every few years because of limited support life.
  • no you don't. Apple needs One app for every kind of mail out there instead of 2-4 on android. Safari is better than chrome on iPhone. you do not need to replace those apps. btw most google apps are better on iPhone than they are on google. but they aren't better than native iOS apps.
    every single 'new' feature in Android 12 has been taken from one UI or iOS.
  • Most Google apps are inferior on iOS, their Android versions are much better because of the full OS integration that the iOS versions don't have due to the locked doors nature of IOS and Apple favouring their own apps which are mostly inferior even to their Google apps om iOS except for mail and Safari but Chrome is a better browser overall when it comes to comparing both platforms.
  • I don't care about the other Apple apps but Safari is great, especially the privacy features and I also like Google Chrome but on Android not iOS as it sucks.
  • Its great to hear you are enjoying your journey into Android.
    Also love to hear you mention Microsoft Launcher because I love it for the exact same reason as you!
    The scrollable widget feed was a big enough feature for me to ditch my Nova Launcher Pro. I have pretty much removed most traces of Google from my phone besides Messages.
    I use almost all Microsoft services now. Outlook, Bing, and Office pretty much cover everything Google did but better for my needs and with fewer apps. Outlook is mail and calendar rolled into one app and has a better widget than Google.
    Office is excel, word, PowerPoint, notes all rolled into a single app.
    OneDrive syncs everything seamlessly with the cloud and does a better job of photo management.
    Edge browser is amazing using less resources and offers collections.
    ToDo is like Keep on steroids but the killer feature for me was the widget. It is so much better than the keep widget they are not even comparable.
  • I kind of forgot about Microsoft Launcher. It has come a long way and decided to put it on my N20U to see how it works compared to Nova or Samsung Experience for awhile.
  • Microsoft services sucks to me apart from Outlook, I use Gmail and almost all Google services oh and if you use YouTube that's also owned by Google.
  • Unlikely. Most iPhone users don't want to leave the Apple cult. Seems similar to a cult to me anyway.
  • Like the Android cult?
  • The definition of a cult includes that its members are a minority and that it has a single leader. Android has the majority of the market by far and there are numerous offshoots - in religious terms Android is the Catholic Churches and Apple is the Church of Latter Day Saints.
  • oops this is wrong
  • I've just gone in the opposite direction (android to ios). I haven't found a way to delete the auto-arranged folders in the ios app library. I don't like the way they're arranged, so I haven't found them useful. Would prefer to go straight to alphabetical listing. Is a bit too rigid for me.
  • pull down after you get into Apples retarded 'app library' and a alphabetical list comes up. soon as you flick up, the keyboard goes away
  • Android and iOS both suck. They are both buggy. They are both needlessly complex. And they both employ the same maddening, reprehensible tactic: moving existing settings and features to completely different locations in the interface with every release. I am very close to going back to a flip phone.
  • no they don't ... go make something better so we can your OS that's 100% bug free. (that's not possible in case you didn't know that)
    neither are complex... search for what you are looking for. why go thru menu's just pull down and type whatever you are looking for, it shows up no matter where it is in settings. you can't blame the OS for suckling if you don't know how to use it right
  • Want basic, choose iPhone.
  • And if you want to proper phone that's a proper pocket computer that is versatile, flexible and you can use your phone how you truly want and make your phone truly your own and not what Apple tells you, choose Android
  • "It's very frustrating to me that Android doesn't shove app icons into the next window if you try to add a widget and there isn't enough room. I don't like having to individually drag enough apps away to make room." It doesn't because it would annoy people their carefully made layouts would be messed with. I agree that's annoying but I wouldn't want my customisation to be broken.
  • i like to keep a simple homescreen with 3 folders (games, social, utility), a row of apps and Google's wonderful "at a glance" at the top of my screen.
  • "It's generally far easier in Samsung One UI 3.1 to tell that you're currently using a launcher, and to tap the bottom square button to find your way back to One UI Home." Bottom square button?
  • There are things that I like about both systems, but iOS still confuses me with regard to folders..... where are my files? Android operates much more like I expect my PC to operate.
    I do think OneNote is better on iPhone....or so I'm told.
  • as cool as launchers are. i Love Samsung One UI on my S21. Really good. But, i also Love my pixel 5 UI because it's so minimal and clean. Can't tell which i love more. So for me, I never really use launchers.
    If i did it would be Nova
  • lol I just switched back to my iPhone 12 Pro Max from the S21 Ultra because I couldn't stand the ads in Samsung apps. Plus, Apple is more ubiquitous and works better for my life. iMessage and FaceTime are vitally important to me and that trumps customization, for me.
  • I like ios and Android but lately I've been leaning more towards Android because I like the flexibility, functionality and customisation, and don't like the restrictions that Apple places on users at least not anymore and want to switch to Samsung and Android on a permanent basis, as I love Samsung's One UI.
  • Microsoft launcher is great. Thanks for the tip. Only issue is the news feed. It's all left wing crap or irrelevant articles. MS needs to offer a way to customize the news sources. It's useless.
  • Interesting article. Sorry for the long post to follow. "...tap the bottom square button to find your way back to One UI Home." I'm assuming the "bottom square button" is a home button. It should definitely NOT be used to jump between launchers. Pick a launcher that lets you use the phone the way you want to use it, and set that as your default. That's your new home screen. You now have new ways to organize your icons and info and to launch your apps. You should be thinking about how YOU wish your phone worked, and then finding a launcher that lets you have that. We all want our home screens to be organized, simple, and intuitive, but that means something different from person to person. Nova lets me make my phone UI behave the way I would design it if I were in charge. Others would likely hate my setup, but that doesn't matter at all. I want to be able to launch all my common apps without stretching my thumb. So I have a 4x3 grid in the middle of the bottom third of my screen. I need more than 12, so some of those icons launch related apps if I swipe up or down. (For example, if I swipe down on Gallery, I get Snapseed for photo editing). I want constant access to time, date, and weather, so I have a KGWT widget that I designed to match the wallpaper. I want to know if I have agenda items on certain calendars, so I have a widget that is invisible unless I have something coming up that day. I have a similar invisible widget that only shows some text if I have an upcoming alarm. And there is lots of blank space. From any app, a swipe up from the bottom takes me to the home screen where I get all my key info. The a second touch takes me to 95% of the apps I use on a given day. Because this is how I want MY phone to work. Add in Goodlock for Samsung phones, and I can make basically everything in the UI function in ways I like. It sounds a bit like you are using your launcher as an additional screen, instead of a home screen replacement. You are not getting the most out of your phone that way. On the other hand, if that is what you like, who am I to tell you you are wrong? The beauty of Android is that you get to decide.
  • "Before iOS 14, iPhone users happily lived with the same aesthetics and similar UI for years. They may care more about Apple apps than customization." Of course apps are more important that customization. They should be to everyone except maybe a 10 year old. I use my phone to get things done not to stare at the screen....lol. Customization is great and fun but its not more important than apps.
  • Both things are important, that might not be true for you, but it is for many, many users, besides, android launchers are not only customizable for just appearance, but some very useful functionalities as well, apple users in general tend to be happy with just what they have used, and in reality do not like any changes from what is familiar to them, that's it
  • Apps are important, that's no lie. Are they mainstream apps with bells, whistles and the capability for being cross platform (i.e. - a note taking app like Google Keep) and also for offering the capability of backing up off phone making it easier should you lose, change or reset your phone (again, Google Keep and how a simple download, sign in and you can pick up where you left off) or apps no one has ever heard of? However customizing your phone for both appearance and operation can be important as well, apparently more so to some than to others. When you look at your phone multiple times a day why not spruce it up? Why not make in a sea of black slabs of glass and plastic make it your own and no one else's? Some can go to an extreme, but also some don't even bother to try (i.e. - Apple who until IOS14 was locking users into the same home screen since the iPhone debuted in 2007 some fourteen years ago).