Friday, June 6, 2014

Gadget Goodies 24

As you may remember, from our last two Gadget Goodies posts, we switched to a Sony Xperia Z Ultra.  We've talked about the device, it's size and, particularly, the upsides and downsides of that.  Just to reiterate, my previous device combination was a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 and a Nexus 7 (2013 model).  I made the change because I wanted to cut back to carrying one device.

As we've mentioned before, the Z Ultra has a 6.4" 1080p screen.  Which means the display is gorgeous.  That's my latest screen, to the right.  The launcher is Action Launcher Pro 2 (reviewed in Gadget Goodies 16 -- The Face of Your Device, Part 2).  And that brings us to our subject for the day.

There are several things that make our screens look the way they do.  First is the launcher.  That's the foundation of the UI.  After that, there  are widgets, icons, and wallpaper.  For the most part, the combination of those things will depend on the device owner's priorities.  And, to some degree, on screen size and the features of the specific launcher.  The end result can be downright gorgeous, totally ugly, or somewhere in between, depending on the capabilities of the device user. What we're going to look at are some of the ways that can be done.  And this will be more an overview than anything else.  Let's take a look.

I like to have a good looking device.  But, first and foremost, functionality is the priority.  If I'm going to spend the kind of money they charge for smartphones and tablets, the device is going to have to help me get things done.  If beauty gets in the way of making my life easier, I'll lean toward functional before I consider looks.  That doesn't make my priorities (or anyone else's) better or worse.  Just different.

I've pretty well settled on Action Launcher Pro as my "go to" launcher.  You can follow the link above to read my review and why I use  it.  Each launcher has its own specific features.  The Quickdrawer menu and Quickpage, Covers, Folders, and Shutters all made ALP compelling for me.  I can set up everything for easy access to what I use most or need to get info from quickly.  And the combination allows me to cut down to one simple homepage.  Simple and easy are two of my favorite words.

I'm just going to deal with my own choices of add-ons.  But, once we've decided on a launcher, everything will fall into place, depending on the features and functionality of the launcher.

The wallpaper is likely to be either first or last choice of our add-ons.  Sometimes, we have a background we know we want to use and choose the other add-ons and their placement, based on the design of the wallpaper.  Other times, we may have a widget or icon set that we want to use and our wallpaper choice is based on size and placement of those.  Either way, the wallpaper isn't a trivial choice.  It ties everything together.

Most launchers allow selecting alternative icon sets.  Those can be free or relatively inexpensive. Many of my favorites come from Allen Pender and Andrew Gallagher, otherwise known as Double A Designs.  They create new ones frequently, so there's a variety.  And everything they do looks good. I have some apps I use regularly that aren't the most popular.  Which can end up with some icons not matching the rest of the set, no matter whose icons I use.  Double A Designs sets are large enough that I can change some of the icons with an alternative choice, to better match the rest. With the right set, the device can look like the icons are intended to match either wallpaper or widgets.  The right choice will connect with both.

Then, there are the widgets.  Those function in a variety of ways, from simply displaying something, to allowing access to apps, to actually doing some things themselves.  Often, they're related to an app.  For instance, many of the weather apps include widgets.  With an app's widget installed on the homepage, that app's data or functions can be accessed without having to open the app.  If you have a weather, news, or music app you really like, that's handy.  But most have one style of widget and what happens when that doesn't match how you've designed the rest of your screen?

Two of my favorites aren't actual widgets, per se.  UCCW and Zooper could better be described as widget engines.  When each is installed, the user won't see anything.  And clicking on the app will only bring up a configuration window.  But there are tons of "skins" for each.  Those create things like to do lists, weather widgets, homescreen music players, and more.  The skins control how the widgets look and which UCCW and Zooper functions are used.  They may use media utilities to access your favorite player, but  UCCW and Zooper do a lot.  UCCW is free, Zooper has both a free and a paid Pro version ($2-2.50 US, depending on which app store).  There are both free and paid skins, price not always dictating the quality of the skin.  Some of the Zooper skins will specify that they need the Pro version of Zooper to work.

If you're wondering why use Zooper or UCCW, the operating phrase is "customize, customize, customize".  Where the standard widgets for most apps are fairly limited in design, there's no such issue with UCCW and, particularly, Zooper.  Widget skins are limited only by the imaginations of the creators.  So, yes there can be a few bad ones and a small number that are just plain dull.  Most are just really nice and useful.  But there are some that range from the exceptionally elegant to the blatantly bizarre.  Some are very focused, others are multi-function.

If you think I'm a big fan of Zooper, you're right.  Enough to buy the Pro version for the extra features. There's one more reason I like it.  My design skills leave something to be desired.  But Zooper lets even me modify designs to suit my needs.  The clock in my screenshot is part of a set by Mauro Marinetti.  They have different colors for the hands and markings, two different style hands, and the numerals on the four quarters. I added the day, date, and battery percentage, matching the font and coloring of the numerals, and positioning them properly.  Even someone with minimal design and programming skills can do what I did and customize a standard skin.

So, we have a combination of launcher, wallpaper, icons, and widgets.  Whether our device is unusual enough to be recognizable by itself or not, the combination of those things can make it even more uniquely ours.  If you're like me, that's an evolutionary process as we try different components till we get the right combination.  And, once we have the right components, that's likely to last for a little while, until we get the urge to try something different.  Sound familiar?

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