Nokia’s Z Launcher: a Test Drive

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Nokia’s attempt at an Android launcher was surprising. 

Yes, you read that correctly. Nokia is heading into the launcher space.  For those who are unacquainted with what exactly a launcher is, a launcher basically replaces your home screen and app grid to give the user a custom interface with various animations not usually found in your phone’s default user interface. These changes can be massive or they can be subtle – from custom icons to funky animations when you scroll to new brand-new widgets on your home screen.

So what’s the big deal?

On Wednesday, Nokia released its own iteration of an Android Launcher titled the “Z Launcher”. Currently, it’s available for a limited number of downloads as a pre-beta from the company’s website.

The concept behind the launcher is gesture-based input. You write out letters on the screen itself rather than typing it out via traditional input methods. You can jot one or more letters, either at once or in succession and remove whatever you’ve written with a back swipe. The Z launcher uses these as input – for example, scribbling the letter “A” shows you a list of contacts and apps that begin with that letter. Scribbling more than 3 or 4 letters automatically gives you suggestions based on Google search, allowing you to continue your search from that point onwards.

Realitychecks.in nailed the gesture
Realitychecks.in nailed the gesture

In addition to that, the launcher learns from your usage habits. Depending on what time of the day it is, the home screen will automatically display different app and contact shortcuts based on the frequency of the most used apps and recent contact enabling faster and easier access to your phone. The bottom of the launcher acts normal.

IF it sounds gimmicky, it’s not – rather surprisingly, that handwriting recognition is spot-on, almost to the point where you never need to scroll through an app list again. The secret lies within MyScript, a tool used worldwide used for handwriting recognition and digital ink management.

For a beta, it’s surprisingly smooth. Running on my Nexus 5, I feel no slowdowns or random crashes whatsoever, the gesture input is smooth and results are displayed almost instantly.

Now I’ve been running the Android stock (KitKat) launcher and have tried a myriad of 3rd party launchers. I must say I find the practicality of Z Launcher very legit. It’s not flashy and there are no customizable widgets, but the Z Launcher seems to be handling the functionality quite well. Going about your daily routine, calling people, being on Whatsapp, replying to emails yada yada yada, I find it actually more productive to have a launcher that sees what apps you use frequently and then offer them on your home screen.

The usage trick isn’t new – Indeed, Aviate by Yahoo does this in a similar way, by giving you a list of apps based on your location (home/work/school), but it looks a tad complicated compared to Z Launcher’s Spartan ease of access. Everything you need is just a scribble away (literally).

Is it available for my phone?

Currently, Z launcher is only available as a limited download. The app is optimized to run on the Nexus 5, Galaxy S5, S4, and S3, Moto X, HTC One and Sony Xperia Z1. Compatibility on other devices has not been thoroughly tested and the possibility of system crashes and bugs is likely.

How do I get my hands on it?

This is an early preview of the launcher, and if you’d like to test it out, sign up for at the app’s home page. On your Android handset, go to Settings > Security and enable installing apps from unknown sources. Visit the app’s download page, grab a copy of the APK, and then install it.

As of the 20th of June, Nokia’s closed up the pre-beta of Z Launcher – they have not commented on whether it will open up again or not. You should, however, be able to get the APK off someone who already has it.

Rooters take note that Z Launcher will not run on your rooted devices by default, but there’s a workaround. With a simple workaround involving the installation of the Xposed framework and RootCloak module (which hides the fact that your phone is rooted), you can install the launcher and try it out for yourself. However, that’s a fair bit of work for a launcher.

Is it worth it?

It comes down to user preference. I’ve been using the Z launcher since it rolled – and I’m still using it. At the same time, a colleague of mine (who also got the launcher and has the same phone) isn’t impressed with what it does to the home screen.

However, a lot has to be said for how well that handwriting recognition integrates with the rest and how simple it makes your phone experience. Frequency of usage is a pretty simple and effective way of arranging stuff on a home screen. It works.  If you didn’t get the chance to try it out yet, give it a go. Get the APK file from a friend and start scribbling.

Ciao.

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