In Praise of the Google Experience Launcher (and Stock Android)

Nexus 5 with GEL

I had the rare pleasure of helping someone get their first proper Android smartphone, a Nexus 5 from WIND Mobile. In showing her how to use it I was reminded of just how good the stock Kitkat Launcher is — and Google’s stock Kitkat ROM, for that matter.

I’m using the same Google Experience Launcher — some call it GEL — on my own Nexus 5; it’s already swayed me from the launcher I’ve been using for the past year. And the painful reminder of the extra voice and search integration not yet baked into my current custom ROM is making me consider going stock.

For this die-hard Android modder, that’s a pretty big deal.

What Google Does

What brought me back to GEL (from Nova Launcher, if you were wondering), was the better Google Now integration. In addition to swiping up from the home button there’s a much more elegant way to get to Google Now — just swipe to the left.

Nova has copied a lot of GEL’s look and feel for devices running Android 4.4; unfortunately this swipe to the left for Google Now gesture isn’t one of them.

What My ROM Doesn’t

I’ve been using OmniROM on my Nexus 5 since day one. It’s been mostly great, although the daily system upgrade notifications are getting to be a bit of a pain. There is no stable or monthly build of Omni; the team just keeps pushing out nightlies and baking in more features as per their roadmap. It wouldn’t be so annoying except that up until this point the ROMs have not been pre-rooted, meaning that  I’ve had to flash a SuperSU after every upgrade.

There are two features specific to stock Android 4.4 that Omni doesn’t yet have: One is Internet search in the phone dialer, the other is voice control on the home screen. Omni is apparently working on their own version of integrated dialer search using OpenStreetMap. It’s a great thing to look forward to, but I kind of want this feature now. As for activating Google Now with an “Ok, Google…” à la Moto X, I don’t think that’s coming to Omni any time soon…

Xposure

The biggest reason I use custom ROMs is for the extra privacy features that they offer. But there is another way to take back your privacy via stock Android and root; Google may have yanked support for App Opps in v4.4.2, but that same permissions control is still available with at least two Xposed modules — XPrivacy and AppOpsXposed.

According to this thread on reddit, a growing number of Android modders no longer seem to be flashing ROMs at all, as the tweaks they are looking for are served quite well by the Xposed Framework, along with maybe a custom kernel if one is so inclined.

It’s especially compelling for me to have all the functionality of the Google Experience Launcher and Kitkat — and at the same time control over app permissions. Writing this post has pretty much convinced me to wipe my Nexus 5 clean, again, and go this route for a trial run.

For the other Android modders out there, are you using a Kitkat custom ROM, or stock Android with additional tweaks? Tell us about it!