Nokia does seem to be talking its venture into Android more seriously than many thought. The company has come out with three handsets, and now it has even come out with a launcher application for Android, the Z launcher. There is a hint of irony, though – the Z Launcher will not be available for the Android devices of the very company that made it. The official site recommends, “trying Z Launcher on newer model top selling phones like Samsung’s Galaxy 3, 4 or 5 phones (sic!) and Nexus 5 running Android OS 4.1 or higher” and points out that the launcher is not optimised for tablet usage. No, we are not going to get into the whether there exist phones called Galaxy 3, 4 or 5 (we think the author forgot to prefix an ‘S’ to those numerals) or indeed if some of these can be called ‘newer model top selling phones.’ Suffice to say that the launcher which is available for download from the official site and is in beta status worked fine on our Nexus 5.



The first thing that strikes you about Z Launcher is how relatively uncluttered it is compared to some other launchers in app stores. There is no attempt to play around with fonts or icons. What the launcher instead focuses on is to provide a different user experience. There is a single homescreen – you can swipe to the right and left all you wish, it will move not. The upper part contains the times and date, next to which is a forthcoming appointment from your Google Calendar. Beneath this is a list of six applications, arranged in a manner right out high school – name first – with the app’s icon in front of it. Bang on the bottom is a row of five icons – four apps (we had HangOut, Camera, Gmail and Chrome) with an icon to access other apps in the middle. Tap on the icon to access other apps and you get the apps arranged pretty much as you do on a Windows Phone device: alphabetically, one below the other, once again in that name-with-icon-in-front layout.

It is a clean, simple layout and works speedily enough. But the real charm is the fact that the apps on the homescreen are laid out as per your usage patterns. Nokia claims that the Z Launcher learns how and when you use apps and places them on your homescreen accordingly. The more you use the Launcher the better it understands when you need certain apps. So if you take a lot of pictures towards the evening, you will see Instagram (or whichever app you like to use for the purpose) on the homescreen. Similarly, if you do check social networks and mail frequently, they too will be on your homescreen. You have to do absolutely nothing. A bit like Cover Lock Screen which we reviewed earlier this year and the EverythingMe Launcher, which again we had seen earlier this year. Contextual app prediction so to speak, and well, we must say that for the most part, Z Launcher gets it right. A neat addition to this is the Scribble feature. Basically all you have to do to search for an app is to scribble its first letter on the screen and well, the launcher promptly displays a list of apps and contacts and other content which start with that letter. You can also use the feature for Web searches, although we would advise not going beyond writing three letters as the app’s performance gets distinctly iffy.



And that, ladies and gentlemen, is it. In a world where launcher apps pride themselves on changing the entire look and feel of your phone, Z Launcher plays just two cards – app prediction and a scribble search. It is a simple formula, and delivers a speedy and uncluttered experience. No, it is not as shockingly innovative as some would have us believe, but it does put together some very handy features in one package that works smoothly and moves well beyond the “look we have different icons” approach that most launchers and themes take.

The problem is that it is not all roses. While the “write a few letters to open an app or do a Google search” concept is cool, it is erratic, as the recognition of characters seems a bit iffy – sometimes we found the app simply stop recognizing letters that we were trying to write on the screen of our Nexus 5. Beta blues possibly. Incidentally, the scribble feature works only on the homescreen – you can only scroll on the app list screen. Those who do keep a lot of apps on their devices will find the constant scrolling to browse their apps (you can barely see eight in one screenful as the top is always occupied by the time and calendar appointment – compare that with the 16 apps per screen you get to see on the Google Now launcher) a bit of a pain. But what really – REALLY – hurts the launcher is the toal absence of customization options. Yes, we do not mind the absence of multiple homescreens and widgets that much, but to not to be able to even change a wallpaper from the launcher’s settings or not being able to place the apps of one’s choice on the lower panel? That does tend to get a bit much and frankly goes against Android’s most basic ethos – that of flexibility and giving control to the user. Round that off with the absence of a Google search bar and support for any sort of voice control, and you will realize why we have turned off the launcher on our Nexus 5. The fact that it is currently supported on a very limited number of devices improves matters not.

Some might accuse us of being harsh, but honestly we cannot really come up for a concrete reason for anyone using a high-end device to switch to the Z-launcher (ironically, we think it is best suited for relatively basic users who want quick access to their apps and functions and not power users who love to mess around with app arrangements and folders – it would rock on a Moto E and yet it comes only on relatively high-end devices at the moment). It does have some innovative elements and is speedy and simple enough, and those who worship at the altar of minimalism will doubtless sing its praises. As of now, however, we think it needs to do much more. And it just might – forget not that this is a beta.

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Associate Editor

Nimish Dubey has been writing for more than a decade now (well, Windows 3.1 was around and Apple was on the verge of being finished when he started). He has been published in a number of publications including The Times of India, Mint, The Economic Times, Mid-Day and Femina on subjects that vary from tech write -ups to book reviews to music album round ups. He managed to interview Michael Schumacher once and write two books for young adults along the way.