Customization is my favorite part of Android.
Android provides us with so much freedom, allowing us to completely scrap the setup and the launcher that came with our phones and replace it with something that suits us more. Years ago, before I knew what Nova Launcher and icon packs were, I was trying to make my phone look less blockish and boring. Our phones hold our lives — shouldn't they hold some of our personality and style, too?
Whether you've got theming down to an art or you're just looking for something a little more flexible than your current launcher, these are the best of the best when it comes to theming launchers. They are also two of the best launchers on the market, period.
Here's why you should have Nova Launcher and Action Launcher in your theming toolkit.
The Best: Nova Launcher
Nova Launcher is one of the few constants in the launcher scene: Nova Launcher is coming up on its sixth birthday this winter, and it has been consistently awesome. Nova Launcher has a small learning curve, but once you learn your way around Nova Settings, the theming world is your oyster, and Nova holds quite a few pearls.
The biggest pearl from a theming standpoint is Subgrid Positioning. This allows users to resize widgets and place icons halfways between traditional grid boxes. So you can resize a widget to be 4x1.5 or even .5x.5 if you want. This increased freedom when placing and sizing widgets is invaluable when it comes to lining up elements in complex themes, or even placing element precisely in relation a detailed wallpaper. The ability to stretch widgets to the edges of the grid and the screen almost helps users make more immersive themes with edge-to-edge widgets. Subgrid positioning is a small feature with a big impact, which gives it a distinct advantage over Action Launcher.
Try doing this in Action Launcher. I dare you.
Nova Launcher also allows you to set any color you like for your launcher elements, including transparency. You can even use hex codes to color-match elements of your desired theme exactly, and we've taken advantage of this in several themes. Getting the colors right on your app drawers, folders, and search bars might seem trivial to some, and it's something most launchers don't bother allowing you to change, but for a theming launcher, it is crucial.
If there's a downside to Nova Launcher, it's that while everything is laid out in the settings in a fairly straightforward manner, it still takes time to edit everything individually. Nova Launcher is like a Swiss Army knife: there's so many attachments you never think you'll need but if you ever do, all you have to do is pull each one out until you find what you need.
Runner-Up: Action Launcher
Action Launcher, on the other hand, is more like a switchblade: very quick, very sharp, but without the bottle opener or the nail trimmer. Now, don't get me wrong, Action Launcher has a lot of features, and a lot of customization, but almost all of it is geared towards productivity. There's quite a lot of theming potential, but there are a few things missing that keep it from overtaking Nova Launcher in this category.
One of Action Launcher's most well-known features are their Covers, which allow you to replace a folder icon with the first icon in your folder, and allows you to quickly open that first app with a tap, while opening the folder with a swipe. It's a nice feature, but I'm sorry to say that from a theming perspective, Nova does it better, albeit clunkier. To activate a Cover on Action Launcher, you simply open the folder, tap the three-dot menu, and tap Make Cover. In order to set a custom folder icon, you must make a folder a Cover, then change the icon of the app that becomes the Cover.
Action Launcher's Covers are easy, but lack the customization in look and function of Nova Launcher's folders.
When setting up a Cover on Nova, you long-press a folder, Edit it, then activate Swipe to open folder and set the tap action to the first app in your folder… or any other app or Nova shortcut you want. You can also set a custom folder icon regardless of using Swipe to open in Nova Launcher, as folder icons can be edited just like any other shortcut. It's definitely easier on Action Launcher, but you can do it more ways on Nova, especially in relation to theme-building.
Another feature where Action Launcher opts for a simpler but ultimately less useful implementation is Quicktheme. Quicktheme allows you to quickly set colors that are decided by the colors in your wallpaper, and if Quicktheme pulls the right colors for your wallpaper, it's great.
The problem is, a lot of times, Quicktheme can miss colors we want to use in our theme (especially accent colors), and you can't manually pick a color if it gets missed: you have to re-apply your wallpaper and hope that Quicktheme gets it that time. If you're using a Live Wallpaper like Touch Circle or KLWP, your chances of getting the right colors are slim to none, as Action Launcher pulls colors from the icon rather than the actual live wallpaper.
It's wonderful to have all your color options on one page, but I need all colors at my disposal, not six that may or may not match my wallpaper plus basic black, white and grey.
Now, all of this is not to say Action Launcher can't be used for good themes. Action Launcher currently has an excellent take on the Pixel theme, allowing you to better customize Pixel folder icons and their iconic Quickbar than Nova. Action Launcher isn't quite as flexible, but it is a lot more nimble, and for users who switch themes the way most of us switch clothes, that counts for a lot.
It is a wonderful time to be an Android themer, because Nova Launcher and Action Launcher just keep getting bigger, better, and bolder than ever. Both launchers are actively adding the latest Pixel features to their launchers, from the dock search bar to Adaptive icons. Action Launcher handles the dock search bar a little better because of its heavy investment in the Quickbar already, while Nova Launcher's implementation of Adaptive icons is a little cleaner and more adaptive to legacy icons.
Nova Launcher does more, and Action Launcher does some of it faster. If you're not as nitty-gritty with your grids and widget placements, Action Launcher will get your theme up and get you on your way without much fuss. If you care about the little details, or just need the freedom of being to chose just about everything in your launcher, Nova Launcher is your launcher.
So long as the color choices in Action Launcher are limited to a few algorithm-picked hues and grid sizes limit your icon sizes and folder placement, Nova Launcher will remain the launcher I theme in. And judging by the reception Nova Launcher receives anywhere it's mentioned, it'll remain the theming launcher many, many others use.
Where are the other launchers?
I wish I could tell you there's a lot of great theming launchers out there. But there aren't. There are certainly theming launchers beyond Nova and Action, but none can play on their level.
Apex Launcher is (slowly) making a comeback, but it's still a long, long way from being feature competitive again. ADW Launcher 2.0 is another launcher rising from stagnation, but the UI still needs work, and the configurations aren't easy to use. GO Launcher is spammy. Buzz Launcher's controls are awkward and it doesn't play well with Google Play theme elements. Total Launcher and Lightning Launcher are so powerful but too complicated for most users (even for me!).
Then there are dozens of decent general-use launchers that can do what we call 'light-duty' theming: custom wallpapers, icon packs, and resizable widgets. This includes launchers like Smart Launcher, Arrow Launcher, and Aviate Launcher. They are capable launchers, but they can't compete with Action Launcher for theming, nor can they compete with Nova Launcher.
Updated October 2017: We've updated this article to include the progress made by theming launchers in the last several months, such as Google Now pages coming to both launchers and Android Oreo feature implementation.