Why you can trust ZDNET
:ZDNET independently tests and researches products to bring you our best recommendations and advice. When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission.Our process
'ZDNET Recommends': What exactly does it mean?
ZDNET's recommendations are based on many hours of testing, research, and comparison shopping. We gather data from the best available sources, including vendor and retailer listings as well as other relevant and independent reviews sites. And we pore over customer reviews to find out what matters to real people who already own and use the products and services we’re assessing.
When you click through from our site to a retailer and buy a product or service, we may earn affiliate commissions. This helps support our work, but does not affect what we cover or how, and it does not affect the price you pay. Neither ZDNET nor the author are compensated for these independent reviews. Indeed, we follow strict guidelines that ensure our editorial content is never influenced by advertisers.
ZDNET's editorial team writes on behalf of you, our reader. Our goal is to deliver the most accurate information and the most knowledgeable advice possible in order to help you make smarter buying decisions on tech gear and a wide array of products and services. Our editors thoroughly review and fact-check every article to ensure that our content meets the highest standards. If we have made an error or published misleading information, we will correct or clarify the article. If you see inaccuracies in our content, please report the mistake via this form.
Had you asked me, roughly a decade ago, what the first thing I changed on my Android phones was, I would have answered the launcher. If you're not sure what the launcher is, think of it as the desktop environment for your smartphone. It allows you to view notifications, open apps, and more. Back then, my favorite launcher was Nova Launcher Prime. I liked it because it was highly customizable, fast, and very reliable.
The thing about third-party launchers is that they can bring a level of fun, excitement, and personalization to Android that the stock launchers cannot. Instead of using your phone as a manufacturer believes to be the "right way," a third-party launcher allows you to do things your way. That's central to the Android ethos…or so it should be. Unfortunately, some of the stock launchers have forgotten that idea.
During my journey away from those launchers, something changed and I no longer felt I needed to to return to those "after-market" interfaces.
Let's first talk about what it was that changed my mind and what could possibly change it back.
The Pixel Launcher
The reason why I first walked away from third-party Android launchers was simply that the Pixel Launcher (even in its infancy) was such a clean and easy experience. Although I enjoyed the incredible customization Nova Launcher Prime offered, there was something to be said about a launcher that had me returning to my minimalistic design preference, while still retaining a high level of functionality.
When I bought that first Pixel 1, I was more than pleased with how everything seamlessly tied together and did so in such a way that was as easy on the brain as it was on the eyes. The Pixel launcher checked all the boxes for me…and then some.
What I found most interesting, however, was the aesthetic of the Pixel Launcher was exactly what I was attempting on Nova Launcher Prime. The big difference is I didn't have to do any customization with the Pixel Launcher. Out of the box it perfectly suited my needs and I was more than okay with that.
Fear of malware
Once the Pixel Launcher had solidified itself as my interface of choice, something else happened…malware.
Not to me. I've been very fortunate to never have had to bother removing malware from any of my phones. But the exponential rise in various types of malware made me realize that installing third-party software on Android (or iPhones) was a risk I wasn't willing to take.
To this day, I only install apps that I absolutely must have. That, of course, precludes third-party launchers from making their way to my devices.
I speak to this issue regularly because it bears repeating. Installing mobile apps (regardless of the platform) is a crap shoot. Yes, both Google and Apple vet all apps that wind up on their app stores but that isn't infallible. Malicious apps are discovered in the Google Play Store with an almost shocking regularity. Because of that, I'm not willing to risk having my data compromised.
What could change my mind?
I grow more and more concerned that Google's next big move with Android is to go all-in on AI and I'm not okay with that. Not only do I not want a piece of software attempting to do everything for me, but I also don't want to risk my information or content being used to further train Google's AI models.
Don't get me wrong, AI has its place but that place should not be on a smartphone where users are constantly transmitting information that needs to remain private and personal. AI, as we now know it, is only just getting off the ground and there's no telling where it might lead us. But I can't help thinking one plausible outcome would be a singularity, where AI is in far more control than we allow ourselves to believe.
Sure, it might sound like science fiction but I am also a writer of fiction, so those types of scenarios come far too naturally for me. And if AI winds up powering the Pixel Launcher, you can bet I'll be heading back to Noval Launcher Prime (or something else that meets my needs).
Should Google toss the Pixel phone deep into the AI waters, I've also considered jumping off that ship for another device. I've considered the Nothing Phone 2 but cannot imagine that hardware can compete with what Google has going with the Pixel Pro line.
I don't know what the future holds but it's a safe bet that Google will be going all-in on AI. Should that come to fruition, I'll be looking for a different phone. If that happens, I might also find myself returning to the world of third-screen launchers for whatever Android device I land on.