Theming is about customization and creativity; it's about making things different.
Despite the overwhelming urge to be "not the same" a great amount of time, tech, and talent goes into making 'stock' themes. And many a loving Android nerd proudly rock 'stock' or 'pure' setups. These adjectives aren't quite accurate, so we're not going to use them for the rest of the article. The look we're aiming for in this guide emulates Android as Google intended, so we shall call it Nexus, after the devices that come with this experience out of the box.
It's not hard to understand why Google's visual approach to Android is a popular one, as it's a cohesive look and it's got a wonderful simplicity to it without straying into bland vanilla. The Nexus look has evolved over the years, but now that we've settled into the Material Design era, it's gotten easier and easier to achieve the Nexus look on other devices. Here's how we do it.
Now, there's two ways to go here, and they'll both appeal to different types of users. The first and simplest option is to install and use the launcher that comes on Nexus phones: the Google Now Launcher is a clean launcher offered by Google with a simple setup that puts Google Now on the left-most screen of the launcher. If you're someone who doesn't like futzing with a lot of settings, you're in luck, because there are only really two settings you can turn on/off for Google Now Launcher: app suggestions at the top of the app drawer, and whether the launcher will rotate or stay in portrait.
Google Now Launcher doesn't support custom icons so you can't get the pretty Nexus icons for your system apps without using an app like Awesome Icons (and even then, you'd still have your Samsung/HTC/LG/manufacturer icons in the app drawer). You also can't resize the grid, which is 5x5 on Nexus devices, but for some reason 4x4 on everything else. The only supported gesture is the swipe left for the Google Now page.
In short, Google Now Launcher will feel stock and get you that all-important Google Now page on the left, but the icons won't look like Google's and if you have a larger screen, you might feel like the home screen grid leaves a lot of wasted space. That's where Nova Launcher comes in.
Nexus theme in Nova Launcher
The default setup in Nova Launcher is actually pretty Nexus in feel, but we can bring it up a few more notches between some Nova Settings, a few sweet icons, and then we'll still have the flexibility of Nova. Think of it as Nexus Plus. Now, the following is a list of Nova Settings that will bring the launcher in line with the Nexus look. Use what you like and ignore what you don't.
- Desktop > Grid size: Google Now Launcher is 4x4 or 5x5 depending on the device, and I highly recommend at least a 5x5 grid, if for no other reason than so your desktop icons match up with the dock.
- Desktop > Icon layout: Turn on app labels on the desktop, displaying the name of the app below its icon just as Google does in Google Now.
- Desktop > Persistent search bar: You can add back in the search bar that Google keeps at the top of its home screen if you like. You can also customize the style of the bar with the setting directly below this toggle.
- Desktop > Scroll effect: Simple and Tablet scroll styles will match the effect Google Now Launcher uses when transitioning between pages.
- Desktop > Infinite Scroll: Google Now does not use an infinite scroll, instead
- Desktop > Page indicator: Selecting the dotted page indicator where the current page is a bigger dot than the others will match Google Now. By default the indicator should be white, but if you're coming from another theme, you can set it to white in the Page indicator color setting directly below this one.
- App & widget drawers >Frequently used apps: If you want the app suggestions at the top of your app drawer like you can have on the Google Now Launcher, this will enable it.
- App & widget drawers > App drawer style: Google Now Launcher switched from a Horizontal app drawer to a Vertical one last fall. If you want to go with the current Vertical grid, that's fine, but if you got too used to the old style, then Horizontal is here for you.
- App & widget drawers > Card background: Rather than showing your wallpaper, Google Now Launcher's app drawer is backed with a white card. If you want that white card, this is where you get it.
- App & widget drawers >Transition animation: The Circle animation best mimics the transition used by Google Now Launcher.
- Folders > Folder preview: Line mimics the folder style used in Google Now Launcher, stacking the apps one behind the other.
- Folder > Folder background: Now, we have some options here. You can either select the Circle, which matches what Google Now Launcher currently has on non-beta devices, or you can select N Preview for the folder backer that developers are seeing on the Android N preview.
- Folder > Transition animation: Circle mimics the Google Now Launcher animation, and it's the better animation overall.
- Folder > Background: You want that white card-like square for your folders, so select the white color and drag the Transparency down to 0%.
- Gestures & inputs > "Ok Google" hotword: Google Now Launcher listens for its favorite phrase while you're in the launcher, and Nova can do it, too! Just make sure your voice has been trained properly (and recently) and toggle it on.
Now, we've got the launcher laid out as Nexus-ish as we want, but we still need to do something about our app icons. Now, Nova Launcher technically comes with a Marshmallow icon pack included… but it doesn't extend beyond some of the system apps and doesn't look all that great in my humble theming opinion.
Instead, we're gonna get ourselves a custom icon pack, and while there are a breathtaking amount of Material icon packs out there, here are a few that we think stand out:
- Glim (Free, $2.79): Glim is one of my favorite icon packs of all time, and that boils down to three words: Color. Alternate. Choice. Not only are there thousands of icons in this pack, but most Google, system, and popular apps have the icon in a rainbow of colors. Want to make your entire app drawer red icons for Christmas? Glim had me covered. Want to make all your dock icons the same lovely orange as BB-8 for our lovely Star Wars theme? Glim's got ya! Glim is available in paid and free variants as well as light or dark variants, and you should absolutely add it to your arsenal.
- CandyCons (Free): It's not one of the biggest icon packs out there, but what it lacks in numbers it makes up in creativity. Not only are there beautifully done icons for every google app, but most apps have 4-6 variants, from a mere color switch to a completely new take on the icon, including some of the best Google Play Music icons I've ever seen.
- Materialistik ($0.99): Quite possibly one of the most popular icon packs on the market right now, Materialistik is not quite Google's icons, but it's still material and quite creative with its color choices. If you're happy getting a material icon in an eye-catching palette, then Materialistik is here for you.
Install the icons of your choice and the entire pack in Nova Settings > Look & feel. If you want to indulge any of the colorful alternate icons, you can set them by long-pressing an icon in the app drawer and dragging it up to Edit, or long-pressing an icon on the home screen and selecting Edit. Tap the icon to change it, and then select the pack and icon at will.
Now, once you've got the icons and layout, we're still missing that snazzy Google Now page on the left. Now, we can't quite recreate it in Nova, but we do have a few options. First, we could put a full-page Google Now widget on the left-most screen. Second, we could just use the long-press home button to bring up Google Now on Tap (or Google Now proper, should you have that set up instead of Now on Tap). Third option is to take advantage of the gesture shortcuts in Nova Launcher Prime and set Google Now as a gesture shortcut like double-tap or a swipe up from the app drawer icon (which you can set by long-pressing the app drawer icon and selecting Edit). The choice is yours.
There are lots and lots of material design wallpapers out there. Far more than the selection of stock wallpapers that seem to crop up with each new wave of Nexus devices. And again, I would never recommend using a stock wallpaper over something that actually brings some personality and personalization to your device. Want some Material Design Avengers wallpapers? Here you go. Want hundreds of Material and Nexus wallpapers to choose from? Knock yourself out. There's even a fair number of material wallpapers in the icon packs we recommended. You've got options. Use them at your leisure.
Google seems to launch another messaging app every other year, and while this year's stab Allo isn't out yet, there are still two Google messengers for you to choose from:
Hangouts is Google's web messenger client, offering instant messaging and audio/video chatting across Android, iOS, and desktop clients. For those of us who heavily use Hangouts already, we can merge our text messages in with it, at least for now. There are some inklings that Google intends to de-merge text messaging from Hangouts.
Google's Messenger app is material, simple, and quite beautiful. And while it doesn't come standard on any non-Nexus device, it's available for any Android phone running Jelly Bean or above. It even offers a few features most SMS apps do not, like location sharing and voice message support. And unlike Hangouts, it doesn't crash at the drop of a hat.
Now, Google Photos is pre-loaded on most (if not all) Android phones, so all you need to do to get the Google experience here is open the app and enjoy. You should already be doing this because Google Photos offers free unlimited cloud backups of photos under a certain resolution. As a photo gallery, Photos has two main ways to dig through your photos: through the list of photos that have been uploaded to your account, or through the individual device folders. If you have multiple phones all syncing through Google Photos, you can see them all on one timeline in the app instead of switching between phones. There are even some decent (if basic) editing tools included for cropping and filtering photos before you share them.
When the keyboard from Google's Nexus devices came to Google Play in 2013, it introduced a lot of users to a clean, simple keyboard with Google's smarts behind it. Google Keyboard brings us voice typing backed by Google's voice recognition, and Google's yellow blob emoji. It's even got a dark theme, for those of us not wanting to be blinded every time we try to type something… It's also got a swell handwriting mode, whether you're scratching out something with your fingertip or using a stylus.
There are a lot of Google apps that are pre-installed on your device already, including possibly some of the ones we cover. If you want to make your phone feel more like a Nexus, simply open up a few more of those. Give Inbox a try, or see if there's anything you'd like to read in Google Play Books. There are also dozens of Google apps in the Play Store just waiting to dazzle you, like Google Keep or Google Opinion Rewards (yay free money!).
And how do you make your phone look and feel material and Google-y? Share your theming tricks and tips in the comments, or sound off in our Theming forum!