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Customise your Android user interface with a new skin or launcher

If you’ve got an Android phone then chances are you might have heard about Android skins before. Sadly, it’s not a TV show in which insecure cliquey robots take drugs and hump each other.

Android skins, as the name suggests, are visual skins that you can install on your Android phone replacing the standard menu layout of your phone. This goes way beyond simply making a fancy background; Android skins alter the appearance of app icons, widgets and the general layout of the phone.

Some makers of Android phones, most notably HTC, install their own custom Android skins/user interfaces. Compare the look of last year’s HTC Desire (which has the HTC Sense skin installed) to the Nexus One, also made by HTC (with virtually the same specs as the Desire) but runs on the default Android UI.

Phones from the Nexus range – the Nexus One and the Nexus S – come with unvarnished vanilla Android, as do the majority of ZTE’s Android phones, when they’re not sold under a network name like the ZTE Blade aka Orange San Francisco.

This then, is a brief guide to the best ways to customise your Android phone with a new skin. We’ll be updating this article with information on new skins, launchers and ways to get themes on your Android phone as and when we hear about them.

Lead image credit: Flickr user oFace Killah

Open Home and Open Home Unlock Key

Described by makers Better Android as the “best and the most popular home app on the android market”, Open Home is a comprehensive Android customisation tool.

Installing Open Home on your Android phone not only gives you a neat take on the general Android interface (we like that when you long-press on an icon, a little toolbar pops up) but it also gives you access to tons of free skins and icon packs, allowing you to customise the look of your Android to the nth degree.

The screengrabs above show off the ace ‘RustyMetal’ theme designed by XDA Developers forum member ‘mannyb’ (probably not Bill Bailey in real life), and this cheeky iPhone theme sent in to the Better Android team.

Open Home 6 also comes with a nifty screenshot option that allows you take quick screengrabs. It’s not quite as useful or customisable as the No Root Screenshot It app, but it’s useful for taking quick picks of your cool new theme in a pinch (saves as PNGs).

Open Home Android Market link

Open Home and Open Home Unlock Key (cont)

Other features of Open Home 6 include the ability to drag and drop icons on top of each other to create folders, like you can do on Sony Ericsson’s current crop of Android phones (including the Xperia Neo) and on the iPhone 4 (natch).

There’s also the ability to deftly jump from one homescreen to another by performing a pinch to zoom gesture (like on HTC phones running Sense) and the ability to change and edit fonts (like you can on Samsung phones running TouchWiz).

To get the most out of Open Home though, you’ll need to fork out £2.50-odd for the Unlock Key; once you’ve downloaded this you’ll then be free to download and install the hundreds of free skins that are available on the Android Market. This is just a one-off purchase and if you’re into the idea of installing custom skins then it’s well worth it.

Open Home – Unlock Key Android Market link

LauncherPro and LauncherPro Plus Unlocker

LauncherPro, as its title suggests, is more of a replacement for your Android phone’s launcher. The launcher is the toolbar-esque thing that normally sits at the bottom of the screen, giving you quick access to basic phone features like the dialler, messages, the browser and the app tray.

On phones running stock Android, you just get shortcuts to the dialler, app tray and browser, which can’t be changed or customised.

LauncherPro bumps up the shortcut count to a healthier five and gives you the freedom to add shortcuts to other phone functions and apps. So you can have quick access to the camera, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever you want at any time. You can assign specific contacts to shortcuts, so you can have your girlfriend, co-worker or the local vet on speed dial. The music app, a torch app, the Android Market – literally whatever you want to have quick access to.

LauncherPro Android Market link

LauncherPro and LauncherPro Plus Unlocker (cont)

When you assign a shortcut to one of the five slots you have a choice of using the existing app icon or assigning one of the built-in LauncherPro icons. You can have fun confusing your mates with this; I pranked Mat Smith by assigning the camera shortcut icon to a speed dial shortcut amongst other things.

Those with a bit more time on their hands can also have a go a creating their own icon packs for use with LauncherPro.

Though the standard LauncherPro app is free to download, the LauncherPro Plus Unlocker gives you a greater degree of customisation in the form of widgets. This costs around £2.20 and is an upgrade that unlocks advanced features and not a separate app.

You can add widgets for specific contacts, kind of like you can on Motorola’s Motoblur UI, add widgets for specific bookmarks, the calendar, messaging, Twitter and Facebook. These widgets can be resized as you see fit and come in black and white flavours.

LauncherPro Plus Unlocker Android Market link

SlideScreen is an interesting take on the whole Android skinning thing. Instead of redrawing icons and respraying everything with a cool new theme (but more or less keeping the user experience the same), SlideScreen turns your homescreen into a giant aggregated feed, blending emails, tweets and Facebook friends’ wall posts into one.

The visual effect is similar to the old-style announcement boards at train stations, which adds to the feeling of rolling updates coming in.

All of your apps are accessed by a simple tap of your phone’s menu key where they’ll pop up in a familiar looking tray. You’ve the option of adding quick links to eight of your favorite apps or most used functions at the top of the screen.

There’s two versions of SlideScreen – free and Pro. The Pro version – priced at £4.30 – doesn’t seem to offer any different functionality, save for the removal of the ads. We really like the aesthetic of SlideScreen but think that the Pro price point might be too steep for some.

SlideScreen Android Market link

SlideScreen Pro Android Market link

Beautiful Widgets

Beautiful Widgets as its name suggests, is a repository of some nicely designed widgets. As well as clocks and notifiers to tell you if it’s raining outside or not, you can also apply these stylised icons to battery meters and individual toggle controls for things like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth if you’re a little bored of your Android phone’s regular Power Control widget.

Our current favourites include these Ubuntu weather skins from designer Joe Steiger (actually part of his Ubuntu-themed LauncherPro pack) and the stitched felt stylings of Vostradamus, another XDA Developers stalwart.

New skins and themes are available to download on a fairly frequent basis and are stored on your Android phone’s SD card.

The skins themselves are free to download once you’ve purchased the main Beautiful Widgets app for £1.75. The BW Animation Package is available to download as a separate add-on, if you like your weather updates nice and animated.

Beautiful Widgets Android Market link

BW Animation Package Android Market link

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