(Credit: Screenshots: Download.com/Tom McNamara)

When the first generation of Google's Pixel phones launched, they came with their own Pixel Launcher. A launcher can change a lot about the look and feel of an Android phone -- determining your app icon artwork, the design of your home screen's dock and app drawer, and what menus pop up when you long-tap an app icon or on an empty space on the home screen. The Pixel Launcher changes all of these things, and more, and it's finally available to download on the Play Store for other Android users.

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While other launchers emulate the behavior of this one, it's nice to have the official one from Google, where it stands to get a lot more support.

You might see a few differences from a standard Android launcher. For example, this one puts the Google search box at the bottom of the screen instead of the top. This makes it easier to access when holding your phone with one hand.

And when you tap on the search box, you'll see shortcuts to your most frequently used apps, as well as search suggestions that change as you type. Tapping the diagonal arrow next to a suggestion pastes it into the search box without actually executing a search, which allows you to type longer search phrases more quickly.

If you want to open your app drawer, just swipe up from the bottom of the screen. This will put a Google search box at the top of your screen, and this is one area where Nova Launcher arguably makes a smarter move: a search tool for the app drawer itself. This is really handy if you have a lot of apps, or if they have names that don't exactly correspond to the labels that they're given in the app drawer (like Google Photos being referred to as just "Photos").

The Pixel Launcher also has a special action when you swipe right: access to an integrated version of the Google app, personalized with your news feed, weather info, and a button in the upper right that takes you to the Google Assistant (it looks like an inbox with lines coming out of it).

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With the Assistant, you can check your calendar; see if you have event notifications or package delivery updates in Gmail; set timers and alarms; get driving directions; have your recent incoming texts read aloud; and access device settings like Wi-Fi, the flashlight, and volume levels. Tapping the multicolored dots at the bottom of the screen begins a voice conversation with the Assistant.

Last but not least, the task switcher (Google calls it "Overview") has a few enhancements that you may not see very often. First, there's a row of app shortcuts at the bottom, determined by which ones you access the most. Second, there's another Google search box, just in case.

If you use a lot of Google services, then the Pixel Launcher's tight integration with Google Search, News, Assistant, and Maps should please you. If you prefer a more indie route, Nova Launcher remains the go-to. Both are worth checking out if your phone feels sluggish, as they're both very "light" apps.

Changing Pixel Launcher's settings

If you don't like how the Pixel Launcher does something, there are a few things you can change, though it pales in comparison to the configuration options of Nova Launcher. Just long-tap an empty space on the home screen and select Home Settings.

Here you can disable notification dots (which indicate additional partly hidden notifications), your At a Glance info like flight times and local traffic, disable the Google app that's to the left of the Home screen, change the shape of your app icons, and a few other things.

The takeaways

  1. Google has released the Pixel Launcher app on its Play Store. It used to be exclusive to the company's Pixel phones (though there are several third-party launchers that emulate its behavior).
  2. Users interested in trying different launchers may also want to try Nova Launcher, which has a ton of configuration options to personalize it to your tastes.

Also see

Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.