The Microsoft Launcher is a free set of interfaces that replaces the standard home screen, dock, and app drawer on your Android phone or tablet. It also integrates with other Microsoft products made for Android, such as Office 365, the Microsoft Edge web browser, and the Cortana virtual assistant. If you've been frustrated with the navigation tools on your phone, or you use Windows 10 a lot, this free app is worth checking out.
The interface looks nice and is easy to navigate: The home screen search bar (which uses Bing instead of Google) is located at the bottom of your screen for more ergonomic one-handed use. Swiping up from the bottom of the screen shows you an app dock containing two rows, below which you have shortcuts to toggle airplane mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, the flashlight, and mobile data. Below that is a slider to control screen brightness. If you want to customize this section, there's a small gear icon in the upper right that opens your launcher settings.
High degree of personalization: Unlike the Google Pixel Launcher, you can enable your own app icon packs for better personalization. You can also set the launcher to use a light, dark, or transparent theme, the last of which even has sliders for the amount of transparency and background blur. Do you want your app folders to be square or circular, and do you want that with a light or dark background?
Also, if you're using an older device, you can enable "high performance mode," which turns off animations and other visual effects. You can also set your home screen and lock screen to download mobile-optimized wallpaper from Bing once a day, if you like to keep things fresh. You don't get quite as many options as Nova Launcher, which remains the gold standard, but there are still enough features here to satisfy most power users.
It integrates well with MS Office and Microsoft Edge: This is particularly helpful for Windows 10 users, because you can sync your Edge browsing and productivity across devices. When you use the search function on the home screen, it opens up results in Edge, which can send the browser tab to your Windows 10 PC. If you use Office 365 as your main calendar tool, email client, or contact list, you can sync your data with the launcher to get notifications for your Outlook inbox or upcoming events that you've scheduled.
Rather than Microsoft Launcher feeling like a company trying to horn its way onto your Android phone, the app ends up feeling like a natural extension of the user experience that you get across the company's different products.
Cloud backup of your launcher settings: The launcher lets you back it up and restore online, using Microsoft's OneDrive cloud storage, its competitor to iCloud and Google Drive. Like those services, everyone gets 5GB of space for free, or you can upgrade to 50GB for $1.99 a month. (iCloud offers 50GB for 99 cents a month, and Google Drive offers 100GB for $1.99 per month, so OneDrive is the most expensive.)
This is pretty handy when transitioning to a new device, or even when you just want to experiment with your settings without messing them up beyond recovery. In addition to backing up the settings themselves, you have individual checkboxes for backing up the look of your home screen and its widgets, your current wallpaper, your to-do list, and your contacts. Separating these elements into different sections gives you a fine degree of control over what you want to keep and what information you want to be stored in your OneDrive account.
The search function isn't as capable as Google's: The Microsoft Launcher search bar only uses the Cortana AI and Bing search engine, which tend not to be as satisfying as Google Assistant and Google Search. For one thing, Bing doesn't integrate with Google Maps, the latter of which is arguably the most capable navigation tool around. Also, Cortana's speech synthesis isn't as good. The Google assistant speaks fairly naturally at this point, making her easier to understand and interact with. (In fact, Google's newly revealed Duplex upgrade sounds eerily like a real person.)
Thankfully, you can still restore the Google search bar via a home screen widget (long-press anywhere on the home screen and tap the Widgets button on the bottom left), and remove the Microsoft Launcher's Bing bar. But you can't restore access to the Google account feed that you access by swiping left from the home screen. The Microsoft Launcher replaces it with its own set of cards that don't integrate with your Gmail, Google Calendar, Google News, or other Google services.
And if you stick with "Hey Google," you can't enable "Hey Cortana" at the same time (if you've installed the Cortana virtual assistant). It has to be one or the other.
The Microsoft Launcher offers a lot of customization, personalization, and company product integration that you won't get from the other launchers, but you'll need to dig into its settings to maintain smooth access to your Google Assistant.