Over and over again we see that just because something looks really good on an Android smartphone, doesn’t mean it translates well to an Android smart TV box. Personally, I think the stock Android user interface is a pretty good option for daily use without adding something else on top of it. On an Android smart TV box, it’s a different story. The Android UI, even with Lollipop, is going to be plain hard to use when you’re sitting on your couch wanting to watch a movie.
Many manufacturers have their own custom launchers that they bundle with their products. A few don’t, so I’ve decided to find the best Android launcher for a Smart TV box, just in case your new device doesn’t come with one. I’ve already looked at TVLauncher, which gives a simple, remote-ready interface. Because its an amateur development project, it doesn’t look as “finished” as most of the other launchers that you can download. By contrast, Smart Launcher looks sleek and polished, which is probably why it has over ten million downloads to date. In our Smart Launcher 2 review, we’re going to see how it stacks up.
Why Smart Launcher?
When you pick up your phone, you usually go to one of a couple main apps, right? Well, that’s the thinking behind the Smart Launcher home screen. It gives you the information you use most, right at your fingertips.
On the main home screen you’ve got a large format clock with the date underneath. To the right of that is a circle of six “bubbles” for Email, Camera, Music, Internet, Photos, and Communication. If you don’t like the order of these bubbles – the rest of the world will call them icons – you can be add, remove, or arrange them in any order you wish. We’ll get into that more later.
There are two versions of Smart Launcher 2, the free version and the Pro version which cost $4.49. We’ll mainly be focusing on the free version for this review, but there are a couple of useful features in Smart Launcher 2 Pro that you may be interested in. Pro will add user-customizable categories, so if you wanted to create a “Health and Fitness” category, you can do that. Pro also includes popup widgets and a second screen panel for more widget options. It also includes gesture support, but that’s going to be of limited use on a TV box. Finally, Pro will also get any future updates first, which is to be expected since you are paying for it, after all.
Setting it up
Installing most launchers is pretty easy, but Smart Launcher takes it to another level. The file itself is under 3MB in size at the time of this writing. There are two versions, as we mentioned before, and both are available through the Google Play store. When you run it for the first time, you’re greeted with a “Welcome to Smart Launcher” splash screen. Oddly enough, this is the only time you’ll see the Smart Launcher name unless you actively go into the Preferences screen and select the “Version Info” setting.
The next few screens is really where the meat of the setup process is. Smart Launcher will look at the apps that you have installed on the device and group them into six main categories: Email, Internet, Communication (chat), Camera, Photos and Music. On a smartphone, one of these will be swapped out for the Phone app, just to keep six icons on the initial screen. If you’ve got more than one app of a certain type (and who doesn’t?), you’ll be given a choice which one you want to be the default app. Just because the app is listed as the default in your Android Settings screen doesn’t mean that it’s going to automatically be the default app as far as Smart Launcher is concerned.
Don’t worry, if you get a new “favorite app” or you want to change your mind, you can always change the default app later.
Using Smart Launcher
If you haven’t already guessed, the beauty of Smart Launcher is in it’s simplicity. You main apps are one click away, and the rest of your apps are broken down into categories which are available by swiping to the left or clicking the icon on the bottom left corner of the screen.
If you’re using an airmouse, this is pretty straightforward. The launcher will recognize moving the cursor to the left. If you don’t have an airmouse and are still using an old “D-Pad” remote, you can still click left to access the menu. One important tidbit, though, only an airmouse will show the cursor on screen. If you’re just using the D-pad or arrow buttons, you won’t know exactly what you’re clicking on.
From a TV box perspective, that’s my one big complaint. You can’t tell which icon you’re selecting unless the cursor is visible. Because Smart Launcher is designed for touchscreen phones, there’s no need to highlight the selection since your finger will likely be covering the graphics anyway. On a TV screen you don’t have that luxury. If you needed any further incentive to use an airmouse, (but really, you should have already have one anyway), there you have it.
As a side note, if you prefer a left-handed view of the launcher, you can switch the menu to the right hand side from the Preferences screen.
You can add or change icons using a long-press from the main home screen. There are two different, but intuitive ways to do this. If you long press on any empty space you’ll get a slide-up menu from the bottom of the screen. That menu will let you add a bubble, set the lock screen, prevent modifications or change the wallpaper. The other way to add a bubble is to long-press on any icon itself. A “+” icon will appear in the center of the circle of bubbles.
At this point, the process is the same for both methods. You can add an icon that is missing (i.e. removed earlier), or icons for a Generic App, Folder or Shortcut. Usually, the Generic App icon will pull in the app’s normal icon, but I did notice a few cases (Chrome for example) where TV Launcher had its own custom icon.
To change the default app for an icon, you have to remove the app and re-create it. Thankfully, both actions are simple enough not to be an issue. To remove an app, long-press on it and drag it to the trashcan icon in the bottom right.
I couldn’t find an upper limit to the number of bubbles you can add on the home screen. I was up to 15 bubbles in the circle before I stopped. At some point, especially if you’re sitting on your couch, the icons are going to be too small to read. I’d recommend somewhere between 6 and 10 bubbles at most.
Sorting apps into Categories
The app tray is sorted into categories which generally follow along the same lines as the bubbles themselves, but slightly more broad. You’ve got Communication, Internet, Games, Media, Utility and Settings. Smart Launcher does its best to put the icons in the right categories. If it gets something wrong, you can change it manually. For example, all of my email apps were put in the Internet category, but I think they’d make more sense in the Communication section.
To change an app’s location, find the app’s icon and long-press it. From there you can open it, drag it into another category, set it as hidden or even uninstall it.
Smart Launcher Preferences
The Preferences screen is accessed by clicking on the hot-dog style icon in the upper right hand corner of the App Tray. For a minimalist launcher, there are a surprising number of cool customizations and tweaks you can make.
You’ll find a whole host of official and community developed themes which can be added right from the Theme section of the Preferences menu. If you’d like to see some of the designs, be sure to check out the Smart Launcher Google+ page. You can also change the animations and add plugins from the Google Play store to add extra functionality. There’s also a Backup\Restore function if you want to transfer your settings from one device to another – useful if you have Smart Launcher on more than one device.
For Android TV boxes, there’s also a setting to lock the screen into landscape mode, just in case you’re using some apps which don’t adjust automatically.
All things considered, Smart Launcher is an elegantly simple to use Android launcher which transitions well from smartphone to TV box. The interface is sharp and easy to read on a large TV screen. Even though it’s designed for smaller touchscreens, the functionality remains very good when using an airmouse. In fact, it’s tough to find anything negative to say about Smart Launcher, except for the challenge with selecting icons using a D-pad remote.
But don’t take my word for it. Try it out on your Android Smart TV box and let us know what you think in the comments below.