Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Gadget Goodies 15 -- The Face of Your Device, Part 1

The things I do are things that require a certain level of professionalism.  My phone and tablet are tools in my various endeavors.  Because of that, they not only have to cover a decent social life, but the various things I do as part of my church's volunteer staff, as a blogger, as a budding writer, etc.  We have screenshots from my Nexus tablet, clickable to display larger images.  And, yes, My Note 2 is laid out in much the same way so that both function very much the same.  There are two launchers that seem to work most like I do.  We'll look at both.  They're equally compelling.

This week, we're starting with a newcomer, Aviate.  It's not for everyone, but it's definitely a classy piece of software.  If you want something that lets you change your screen to a great work of art, based on your tweaks, you can stop reading now.  If you're looking for a launcher that, while not yet extremely customizable, still looks better than many screens I've seen, and both works with you and for you, keep reading.  Screenshots are from the original alpha version.  Cosmetically, changes are minimal in the beta that dropped yesterday.  [October 17, 2013, 10:32 --The review has now been revised several times, as I discover new features in Aviate.]

A month or so ago, I was asked by an online friend if I'd be interested in testing a new Android launcher called Aviate.  It had a community on Google+ for testers, so I got to see some of the comments and a screenshot or two.  Enough to be willing to give it a try.  I figured I could try it and, if it wasn't what I wanted, I could gracefully exit.  I was in for a surprise. Or two.  Or three.

I installed Aviate on my Nexus 7, first.  More on that, later.  It's pretty easy to figure out.  At least in terms of setting it up. And Aviate has a thriving Google+ community to help figure out the rest.

That's my Aviate homescreen, to our left.  The topbar and the app dock are the only constants.  Those stay a consistent size, though there are changes in the topbar that we'll discuss in a bit.  The rest can be pictures and widgets.  And those will vary in size, depending on how many you use. Most widgets will display perfectly in the widget boxes Aviate uses.  And, as of the newest version, they can be moved around in the Add/Remove mode, so they no longer need to be added in the sequence you want them displayed.

I should point out, here, that Aviate is one of the most stable launchers I've tried.  And I've tried a bunch.  That's one of my surprises.  Because the version I've been using is the very first alpha version.  There's a newer beta version that, as i said, literally came out yesterday.  The cosmetic changes are minimal.  But the stability is still going strong, may even be better.

One page to the left of the homescreen is a section called Spaces.  Those will vary, based on time of day or locale. These are what show up in the topbar.  They will always show the time.  Each has a drop down appropriate to that particular Space.  Including an associated app collection.

Aviate makes use of Yelp info, so that, if you're near a restaurant, your drop down from the topbar should include info on that restaurant.  It should change for other nearby places, too.  Like supermarkets, etc.  And you can manually bring up the list of nearby places, as needed, just like other Spaces

The Spaces on the left page will vary.  And it appears that the left hand page is there to allow some manual control of the topbar, but Spaces really need more user control of when they automatically show up.  The included app collection in the drop down is another one of the surprises and is best described as we discuss the page to the right of the homescreen.

To our left, here, is the page to the right of the homescreen. When you first set up Aviate, it will automatically sort your installed apps into categorized app trays, called collections. Those are accessible from this page.  With very few exceptions, the categorization was right on.  The collections and names are static, at least for now.  I suspect that will change with future versions.

I've eliminated a bunch of things from a lot of the categories.  I use the collections to access my most used apps.  There are about 20 categories, some of these show up in the topbar for associated Spaces.  So, for example, you might have YouTube in Entertainment, Music, and Home.  Some of your personal choices may need to be manually included in the appropriate categories.  In other words, there's possibly a little manual tweaking of collection contents, after you first install Aviate. Except for newly installed apps, you're mostly done after that.  What categories are visible and in what order are totally customizable.  So is the order of apps within a category.  And you can hide the categories you don't want displayed on the page.

There's one more page, farther right than the collections.  It's an alphabetical menu.  Except it's a page instead of a pull-out menu.  Having that gave me the freedom to limit what was in the categories.

We mentioned settings, earlier.  Right now, there's only one for the launcher.  You can switch between the dark theme that I usually use and a Google Now white.  There are toggles for some of the system settings.

As you can see from the screenshots, Aviate has a very clean, professional look.  It is limited in customization, though. You can't have side by side widgets on the homescreen, it can't yet use custom icon sets, there's no personal control of automatic Space changing.

We mentioned that Aviate was an alpha version (replaced by a new beta, yesterday).  That's probably the biggest surprise. For a first test version to look and function this well is truly amazing.  And the fact that it's more stable than some production run apps is a jaw dropper. Yes, it has limitations in the alpha and beta versions, but it's solid enough to be a final product for some devs.

The latest version seems to be mostly changed under the hood.  Spaces seem to be working a little differently.  Some of the features that were limited to one Space are now in more than one, where appropriate.  How widgets are added and removed is easier to use, both for Spaces and the homepage.  Overall, Aviate is smoother. Customization and the fancy extras, such as icon sets and greater user control of Spaces, are thought to be coming in future versions.  But, for now, the devs seem to be making sure everything works in a first class manner.

Before I forget to get back to it, let's look at where I do and don't have Aviate installed.  The Google Play store refused to install it on my old Galaxy Tab 10.1.  That's expected.  The website says Aviate will not work on tablets.  That's where the next surprise comes in.  It installed and runs perfectly on both my Note 2 and my Nexus 7 2013.  And that's both the alpha and the new beta that do work on the Nexus.

Much of my review comes out of the use of the original alpha version.  I've had less than 24 hours to dig into the second test release.  So, I need more time to explore the changes.  But both versions have been solid, though missing some features and flexibility I'm hoping for, in the future.  There's so much promise there.  I'm not letting this one go, anytime soon.  It looks good, is stable, and it works very much the way I do.  And it keeps getting better.

Next week, we'll look at my other favorite, Action Launcher Pro.  While the two launchers look and act differently, the functionality is very similar.

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