Ask an Android power user what they love about their device, and you'll almost always get the same response: customizability. Truth be told, that's entirely valid. Android excels when it comes to customization, and a lot of it doesn't even require a rooted device to enjoy.
The most comprehensive of these modifications without a root is a launcher. A launcher dictates everything you see when you look through your apps. App icons, app ordering, widgets, and almost everything else are determined by the launcher. Many people might not realise this, but they can change their device launcher.
If you spend enough time looking around different technology focused websites you might notice a recurring point among users. They don't like TouchWiz. They don't like Sense. They especially don't like MOTOBLUR. But occasionally they like the concept of rooting even less.
That's where Phoenix Launcher comes in. Many people have observed Android's Ice Cream Sandwich as being the most beautiful release of the operating system yet. That's why it comes as a shame to people with handsets that can't be upgraded to ICS officially, assuming they don't have the specs and don't want to root.
I'm in both camps. The Samsung Galaxy Ace (ie. my daily phone and also the device used in this review) has only 256MB of RAM, so is not going to see an official update in all probability. I don't want to root either, but this isn't what I'm going to be discussing in this article. This article is about Phoenix Launcher; a free (and paid) launcher that claims to recreate the ICS experience on non-ICS devices.
Before I delve into the features offered by Phoenix Launcher, I would like to thank its developer for providing an APK of the full version for review. The developer, Andreas Bratfisch, also alerted me that he removed the free version of the app from the Play Store in order to refine it, though this is expanded upon later in the review.
Looks and Customization
First impressions are that it does this pretty well! The time I've spent with a Galaxy Nexus handset wasn't really long enough to form a complete understanding of how Android 4.0 feels, but this seems pretty accurate apart from the lower resolution of the Ace's screen. This is a good first point: Phoenix works on lower resolution screens, and fits perfectly.
Some applications tend to work best on certain resolutions, but Andreas has stated Phoenix runs on LDPI, MDPI, and HDPI devices, but not X-HDPI (yet). Having spoken to him, I know he's using a Nexus S, with a flashed 4.0.4 ROM. The Nexus S has an MDPI display, while my Ace has an LDPI, so we can be 100% certain that it displays on both of these. Having looked through user reviews for the app on the official Play Store, the highest resolution device tested at the time of writing was a Motorola Atrix.
Since Phoenix is not the official Android 4.0 launcher, there are some differences in the settings, as this picture should show:
The settings are varied enough to let you decide how close to ICS you really want to be and how unique you want your launcher to be. The settings aren't as broad as they are in, say, GO Launcher Ex, but they're more than enough for the vast majority of users. If you're an Android power user with custom ROMs, kernels and all the rest, you might prefer to stick to your normal launcher with custom skins and other tweaks.
As someone who really enjoys the Holo UI Google are pushing with Android 4.0, I want to see more Holo apps. I'm already using SeriesGuide to remind myself to watch more television, and QuickPic for the few shots I take, alongside Reddit News Lite for what I do on Reddit. Being able to use the launcher which the Holo UI takes its inspiration from is something I like.
If looking unique is your main concern, Phoenix might not be the launcher for you, since it goes for the stock Ice Cream Sandwich look. There are plenty of other launchers though, and if you want something good looking quickly, then Phoenix Launcher is the way to go... assuming you're a fan of the ICS styling, of course.
This is the app drawer for Phoenix Launcher, and I'd be lying if I said it was perfect. I'm being completely honest when I say that I like it, though. One thing I would change which isn't exactly ICS-native is the scrolling between apps. At present it is horizontal, and I have always preferred vertical scrolling on an endless page. This is a small change at the end of the day though, and I'd still use a launcher I liked even if this one change was not provided. As you can see though, all of the apps installed are sorted alphabetically, which is the norm for most launchers. I noticed this was not the case with the stock TouchWiz launcher Samsung provide, which seemed to just spit apps into an order it determined on the fly.
Something that impresses me a lot about Phoenix Launcher is how it manages to be such an authentic replica of the app drawer in Ice Cream Sandwich; even the Widgets option is present and ready for those who place widgets on their Android homescreen. It's great to see it looking as if it's native to Android 4.0, since it gives me hope that developers won't all just flock to ICS and forget people tied to Gingerbread, Froyo, and maybe even earlier.
The implementation isn't perfect, but that isn't the developer's fault. For whatever reason, the functionality is only available to rooted devices. It's a shame but the developer isn't at fault for Google's design. More positively, he has found a workaround. When going to place widgets on a non-rooted handset, you get the following message:
Tapping the button will open the default Android widget options, which is good enough for most. It might not be 'native', but it's better than a button which simply has no function apart from looking good. While I can appreciate the concern for completing the ICS look, Google really did taint an otherwise perfect feature with their design. I imagine most people who would consider downloading this application are on phones which won't be receiving Ice Cream Sandwich officially, or are unrooted and unwilling to root and install a custom ROM.
To use an Irish colloquialism, the 'Widgets' button is about as useful as a chocolate teapot, but I appreciate the developer has done the best to make the launcher effective for unrooted devices. He explains also that the launcher is primarily designed for rooted devices to take advantage of this feature, which is understandable enough.
The advanced settings button? It's also there, and includes a few options which can be particularly useful in different scenarios. There's a shortcut for the Play Store, which was implemented extremely quickly, to be fair. I'm not sure whether the was even around when the Play Store was still the Android Market, but it adapted extremely quickly to reflect the direction Google wanted to take their marketplace in.
The shortcuts along the bottom of the screen are well implemented, and can be modified. The icons are fixed though, and you cannot change them or their positioning. They can be pointed towards different applications, though, so you could potentially still use them for your four most used apps, assuming the Dialler, Contacts, Messaging, and Browser are not those applications.
Typography might not appeal to most people. Few people really consider a typeface beyond how it looks at a glance. In my opinion that's probably why Comic Sans is still around. For anyone who did not already know, Android 4.0 includes a new font called 'Roboto'. At a glance it's another sans-serif in a similar vein to Arial and Helvetica: both popular fonts with huge histories behind them. To Android users, it's a change from the previous Droid Sans. Even without Roboto as your system font (in my screenshots I'm using Helvetica Neue S), the launcher looks great. If you don't have a device which supports FlipFonts then you're out of luck unless you're willing to root and install Roboto.
Performance and Stability
A good looking launcher is nothing if it force closes regularly. A super stable launcher is only so appealing if it works flawlessly but doesn't offer even a few settings. There might be some people who disagree with that second point, but that is my personal view of the launcher field.
Before I reviewed the full version of Phoenix I decided to do some investigation, and see what the free version was like. My experiences were that it was buggy, unstable, and not really great to use. I tried it for about three days and went back to Zeam, all the while maintaining the hope Phoenix would be smoothed out. It has a lot of potential and simply needs to make use of that potential. I can happily report the paid version is much less unstable. Unfortunately for those who want to try out Phoenix without paying, the free version was removed during the weekend. When I contacted the developer to inquire, he explained he took the free version down for the following reason:
"the free version has some difficult bugs and I have to synchronize the core code of the launcher before I put it online again"
This is completely understandable. In my time with the free version I experienced a few bugs on my Galaxy Ace. With the paid version, which I've been running since Sunday, I am yet to notice a single crash. That is much, much better, and is enough reason to pay. The full version of the launcher is £1.26; roughly 2USD, and that's not really too much to ask. If the code between the two is different then there's also the issue of maintaining code you might not be as familiar with.
When the free version of Phoenix crashed, it really crashed. The screen would go black, and it would hang for eight or nine seconds. Then you'd get the force close window. That wasn't great, but one thing the developer did right in this situation was put you in your Android Settings. That way, you could force stop the launcher and fire it up again, or change launchers quickly. With the paid version occasionally I'll get the black screen as I open my app drawer, and I'll think "Well, it has crashed this time, surely?"... and it recovers. Every single time. I like that.
It would be hard to fault a developer for putting more work, time, and energy into the paid version of their application. After all, they're getting money for working on it and they are not with the free version. It benefits the consumer and the developer if working with the code is easier for the developer, so if you are still on the fence with Phoenix then you'll have to wait it out on a leaner free version. I was given an estimation of roughly a week or two before Phoenix Free returns to the market.
In the meantime I'd actually still be willing to put the money on the standard version. That is subjective though, I won't deny. If you like the look of Ice Cream Sandwich you're going to be more receptive towards anything bringing you closer to it (except an OEM UI layered on the real thing). I do like the standard ICS UI, so that would be a non-issue for me. For anyone else in the same position I can also understand the value of a free version, so it might be better to keep an eye out for the free version before paying up.
The developer has informed me that the application has some problems on certain Galaxy SII models, so buying the app just now may not be advisable if you're an SII owner. While I do not know which models of SII are effected, when the free version is available again it will be worth trying Phoenix, particularly if it's a carrier-specific model such as the Epic 4G Touch or SII Skyrocket. If it works then you have an alternative launcher you might like. If not, you didn't have to pay for it so it was still worth giving a go.
During the course of my time with Phoenix Launcher, I actually finally managed to make it crash. I have three workspaces on my home screen, since I don't need many. When I left the Twitter app I double-tapped the home button, and it displayed nine home screens in the preview. The app then crashed and restarted itself in about two or three seconds. I don't know how that works, but it's the sort of thing that I like to see when a crash eventually happens. One crash in all this time seems very acceptable to me, when it was so quick to recover.
Speed is impressive with Phoenix, even running on my Galaxy Ace's hardware. I acknowledge the Galaxy Ace is not a blazingly fast handset, but it is affordable in the United Kingdom. It was never designed to be the flagship Samsung handset, but it can do most things just fine. Ace prices tend to hover around £130, which is quite good for a low-to-mid-range Android phone.
Similarly, the HTC Wildfire S and ZTE Blade are also fairly common due to their lower pricing. With these handsets finding homes it can be assumed that this sector of the Android market is alive and kicking, so must be considered. Lower priced Android handsets are arguably more common than higher priced options, so if the app runs well on them then it'll open doors for the developer. Phoenix does a good job on my Ace and doesn't eat into the fairly limited RAM too much either, so that's perfectly fine with me. I was going to mention how much RAM it was using, but actually, here's a screenshot of it instead.
The fact some of these phones have no real developer community also spurs the need for launchers among those who don't like the OEM's proprietary Android UI. The Galaxy Ace doesn't have a massive community based around it, so being able to change launchers is the next best thing to rooting and removing TouchWiz. This would not be a problem with the Galaxy SII and other flagship Android devices, since they're effectively wells of unlimited potential.
Phoenix is a welcome foray into the world of Android launchers. It might not boast the most features, or the most settings, but it works. Phoenix hits a niche market for the more savvy Android user, who might not be as experienced with the operating system. It looks good, and works quickly, providing enough settings to keep you varied. In other words, it hits on everything in my personal view on what a launcher ought to provide.
It's not free, but it isn't expensive if the Holo UI is something that appeals to you. While rooting and installing a ROM is free, not everyone wants to do it. Phoenix is the next best thing, and with the variety of Holo themed applications compatible with older versions of Android, you can get a faithful enough reproduction to pass.