Earlier this month, when Google finally revealed Android 4.4 along with the Nexus 5, there was some speculation about whether all Android users would get the ability to install what is being called the Google Experience Launcher (GEL) on their devices. The launcher is the part of Android that controls the home screens and the application menu, or app drawer.
The GEL is significant because it enables active listening for “Ok Google” to initiate a query or command to Google Now whenever the home screen is displayed on the Nexus 5. Motorola X users enjoy a better form of this active listening that works even while the phone’s display is turned off.
Ars Technica reports in an article that Google added the GEL to Google Search, which is available for download from Google Play to any Android device, and speculated therefore that any Android device, or least those running Android 4.0 and newer, would be able to run the GEL. The reason why this is significant is that this means it is possible for people who own a Samsung (Touchwiz), HTC (Sense), or other Android devices with customized launchers, to add the native Google home screen look and feel to their device, making it close to the “pure Google” or “pure Android” experience previously only available for Nexus and “Play Edition” devices.
In my opinion, the availability of the “standard” Android launcher for any user to install is another key step toward eliminating the problem of fragmentation of Android. No matter what device one buys, the device can always be made to be nearly “pure Android” by simply installing a handful of apps rather than having to root the device and flash it with a ROM, which most users are not going to do.
At the time I learned about the GEL I speculated about how Samsung and HTC would take the news, and while there is no known direct correlation, we did later learn that only the Nexus 5 would get the GEL. Other devices upgraded to Android 4.4, including other Nexus devices, do not get the GEL, at least not right now. While I am not surprised that the GEL is not available for Samsung and HTC devices, it is surprising that it is not available by default for the older Nexus 4, 7, and 10. Alas, today I confirmed this after installing Android 4.4 on my Nexus 7.
Well, not all is at it seems to be, because truth is that it is very possible that you in fact have the GEL on your Android device and just don’t know it. The GEL is included as part of the latest version of Google Search, which was updated in Google Play about two weeks ago.
The quickest way to see whether you have the latest version of Google Search on your device is to start Google Now, scroll down to the very bottom of the display, and look for buttons shown below. (click to enlarge the image) The buttons are for accessing Google Now reminders, customization, and menu are new in the latest version.
All that is needed is an app that enables the GEL functionality provided by Android Police. To install the app you will need to download it to your device and install it. Before you can install the app from your device, rather than from Google Play, you will need to enable the ability to install apps from Unknown sources. Select Settings from the app menu, tap Security, and then tap the check box next to Unknown sources to enable it.
Next, you need to browse to the directory on your device where you downloaded the APK file provided by Android Police and then tap on it to install. To get the APK on my Galaxy Note 8 I put the APK in a directory in Google Drive from my PC, then started Google Drive on the Note 8, browsed to the directory, tap and held on the file name and selected Download a copy.
I use ES File Explorer to browse files and folders on my Android devices, but you can use any file manager to open /sdcard/Download on the device, where you will find the file com.google.android.launcher-0.9.6.886092.apk. You might find, as I did, that there is something else at the end of the file name after “apk” in which case you need to rename the file so that only the “apk” extension is visible. Tap the file name to install the app.
After you install the launcher app, to turn it on press the Home button on your device. You will see a dialog appear titled “Complete action using” with options that include Launcher, with a blue home button above it, and at least one other launcher like TouchWiz home if you have a Samsung device. Tap the blue button for Launcher, then tap Always, and then you will see a new home screen, which is the Google Experience Launcher.
Swipe once from the left to see Google Now. To active Google voice search simply say “Ok Google” with any home screen displayed. Unfortunately, the widgets, app icons, and folders that were displaying on your device will not be visible, you will have to add them back to the GEL. To add a widget, tap and hold on any blank space on the screen to see options for Wallpapers, Widgets, and Settings.
Enabling the GEL is not a one way street, you can switch back to the launcher you were previously using. If your device has Android 4.4 open Settings, select Home, and then select the launcher that you want to use. If you have another version of Android on your device, the simplest solution that I have found to switch between launchers is to install an app called Home Switcher / Manager. You can use the app to switch between launchers, or to change the default launcher. Good news is that the widgets, app short cuts, and folders that you create on the home screens are saved when you switch launchers.
One final note. After you enable GEL you may only see one home screen in addition to Google Now. You can add as many home screen panels as you want by simply dragging an app shortcut or widget to the right side of the screen.
I have installed the Launcher app from Android Police and enabled the GEL on my Galaxy Note 8 and on my Nexus 7 and have not seen any problems. I have not installed the Launcher app on my HTC One as I really like BlinkFeed, although I may research whether I can run Blinkfeed while using the GEL. So far I am enjoying the ability to activate Google Now voice search by simply turning on my device. Swiping from the left to activate Google Now is also handy, though it is nice that the old method of swipping up from the bottom of the screen (or the Home button as is the case on my HTC One) is still available.
While the steps I outline above are simple enough, we really should be able to select the Google Experience Launcher from the Home option in Settings on Android 4.4 without having to install an extra app. Hopefully, in a future release Google will make this last change and enable everyone to easily, and simply use the Google Experience Launcher.