Pros: Huge number of customizable options; Unique widgets and plugins; Tons of special effects
Cons: Annoying advertisements; Microtransaction-heavy; Looks awkward on tablets
Verdict: GO Launcher EX offers a huge amount of customization, themes and widgets, but you'll have to pay for many of those nifty extra features.
One of the most feature-rich Android launchers on the market, GO Launcher EX boasts a huge number of customizable options, a plethora of unique widgets and wonderful special effects. However, you'll be disappointed if you're looking to install GO Launcher EX on your tablet, or enjoy all of its features without shelling out extra cash. Read on to find out if you should replace your current Android skin with GO Launcher EX.
Themes and Appearance
If you're a fan of minimalist design, GO Launcher EX may not be the Android launcher you're looking for. Everything about the user interface feels just a bit bigger than Android 4.2 Jelly Bean -- the chiclet-shaped icons look slightly larger and more colorful, widgets pop off the screen and transition effects are flashier. That's not to say that the launcher looks ostentatious, however; on the contrary, GO Launcher EX strikes a nice balance between the almost cartoonish aesthetic of Samsung's TouchWiz UI and Jelly Bean's decidedly understated design.
Dozens of additional themes can be downloaded and managed from the GO Themes app. Most of the themes are quite cartoonish, featuring oversize icons and wallpapers that look like they were ripped straight from DeviantArt. There are a few diamonds in the rough, however, such as the nature-themed Green GO Launcher Theme and the minimalistic Vita GO Reward Theme. Unfortunately, many of the best themes aren't free -- once installed, you'll have to pay for them using either Google Play or GetJar Golds, a form of virtual currency. New themes can also be applied to the lock screen, although like the desktop themes you'll have to pay $1.99 for many of them.
Functionally, GO Launcher EX uses the same layout as Android 4.2, with virtual buttons for back, home and recent apps at the bottom of the screen and the app dock directly above them. From here, however, the launcher lets you customize the desktop to your heart's content, giving you the option to increase the desktop grid size to a maximum of 10 rows and columns, or disable the status bar, dock and icon labels. You can also adjust the font and size of icons.
The app drawer can be similarly customized. GO Launcher EX allows you to sort your apps by title, date of installation or frequency of use; create folders for apps; and hide unwanted apps. We especially appreciated this last feature, as some launchers such as Nova Launcher only offer such functionality with their paid versions.
Infinite scrolling can be enabled to allow you to cycle through your homescreens and app drawer pages without needing to change direction when you hit the last page; from the GO Launcher EX settings menu you can also adjust the speed of screen transitions and choose a screen orientation. Long-pressing apps and widgets brings up a popup menu that lets you replace, rename, delete or (in the case of widgets) resize them.
Unfortunately for tablet users, GO Launcher EX was clearly designed with phones in mind. When we tested the launcher on the Google Nexus 10, it quickly became apparent that GO Launcher EX doesn't take advantage of the tablet's high-resolution display. Icons appear tiny in the app drawer, and although you can increase their size, they look distinctly fuzzy compared to the razor-sharp icons in Jelly Bean. Text in widgets looks similarly tiny, leaving large swaths of the screen empty.
Widgets and Plugins
In addition to fairly mundane widgets such as Weather, Clock and Calendar, GO Launcher EX features a number of unique widgets and plugins. Clean Master doubles as a memory usage indicator and a task killer, allowing you to free up RAM with a touch of a button. In addition, opening the widget in full-screen mode brings up a four-button menu where you can delete junk files, clear running tasks, manage your app privacy settings, and uninstall or backup your apps. The only flaw with this incredibly useful widget is a tiny gift box icon in the upper right corner, which turns out to be a cleverly disguised advertisement.
One of the most intriguing plugins is Toucher, a radial menu that expands from a tiny pointer on the edge of the display. Swiping to the right lets you quickly adjust settings such as brightness, auto-rotate and Wi-Fi. Swiping left brings up quick launch icons for the dialer, messaging and Gmail, and other icons can be added or replaced. Swiping up and down brings up the lock screen and the desktop, respectively. Pressing in the center opens a settings menu, where you can change the Toucher theme, open the recent apps menu and adjust your preferences.
Many of the time-saving features of Toucher, such as the button to open the recent apps menu, duplicate features that have already been baked into Jelly Bean. We can see them being very handy, however, on phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 that lack such features as a virtual recent apps button. The pointer itself proved mildly intrusive on a homescreen full of app icons, but, thankfully, it can be dragged to any edge of the display.
GO Launcher EX boasts a number of other minor plugins, including Multi-wallpaper, which allows you to use up to nine different wallpapers for your various homescreens; Media Manager, which lets you view your music, photos and videos from the app drawer; and Notification, an extremely useful plugin that places a small number on the upper right corner of app icons such as Gmail letting you know how many unread messages you have.
GO Launcher EX offers a huge variety of homescreen transition effects, from the standard gradual transition found on Jelly Bean to visually stunning transitions such as Crossfade, Windmill, Chariot and Roll. We didn't notice any difference in speed when using the more advanced transitions, and you can manually adjust the transition speed in the launcher's menu.
The launcher also lets you map certain apps to gestures of your creation -- a handy feature we would have expected from Samsung's TouchWiz interface. Draw an L-shape on the desktop with your finger, for instance, and Gmail will automatically open. While we wish you could use gestures from inside apps rather than just on the desktop, this feature proved quite helpful when we wanted to open frequently used apps that weren't in our app dock.
Unlike launchers like Nova and Apex, which offer myriad additional features with the paid version of the app, GO Launcher EX provides most of its features for free. There's a trade-off though -- when using the free version of the launcher, you'll have to suffer through advertisements and won't have access to the full features of all of the widgets.
GO Launcher Prime ($5.99 on Google Play) offers a few new features: Multitouch gestures to access the launcher's core functions, four new transition effects and the ability to lock apps. As handy as these might be, however, it's the ads and widgets that will drive you to pay full price for the launcher.
The most egregious problem is the popup ads that occasionally appear while using the free version of GO Launcher EX. These range from prompts to purchase themes to advertisements for widgets. The paid version of GO Launcher EX eliminates these popup ads, but you'll also have to purchase the paid versions of GO-branded widgets to remove ads from those.
In addition, some of the widgets don't offer their full features unless you shell out some dough. The paid version of GO Weather EX ($4.99 on Google Play), for instance, eliminates ads, allows you to change the theme of the widget and offers a 10-day forecast.
On our tests using the Google Nexus 4, GO Launcher EX delivered slightly faster performance than stock Android. Although the difference in speed was negligible when unlocking the phone, navigating to the homescreen or opening the app drawer (both GO Launcher EX and Jelly Bean completed the actions in less than a half second), we noticed a slight increase in speed when opening apps with GO Launcher EX. Gmail, for instance, opened in an average of 1.54 seconds in stock Android and in 1.34 seconds in GO Launcher EX, while Google Maps opened in stock Android in 2.23 seconds and 2.26 seconds in the launcher.
GO Launcher EX performed similarly admirably in everyday use. The launcher responded promptly to our input, and transitions between homescreens and in-app menus felt smooth. While playing the game "Metal Slug 3," for example, we were able to switch seamlessly to Gmail from the recent apps menu.
If you're unhappy with the skin the manufacturer slapped on your brand-new Android phone, GO Launcher EX provides a good alternative. Indeed, the launcher embodies the open-source spirit of Android, with a large array of customizable options, themes, and unique widgets and plugins. It's just a shame that the free version of the launcher is plagued by popup ads, and that so many extra features require you to pay for them. Still, it's hard to turn down such an innovative and attractive Android launcher -- especially when it's free.