Woe be unto you, non-Pixel owner. Your current Android phone is probably feeling a bit primitive after you’ve seen all of the cool features Google has bestowed upon the Pixel. There’s that whip-smart Google Assistant, a new homescreen design, quick access to tasks with app shortcuts, and unlimited photo storage. The party’s raging, but you’re not invited.
Don’t fret. Like many good parties there’s another way to sneak in the back. This is Android after all, the land of sideloading APKs and endless customization. In that spirit, I’m offering a few suggestions on how to get as close as possible to the Pixel experience without actually buying one.
These solutions aren't perfect, and as time goes on Google is probably going to make the Pixel even more distinct from the other Android phones out there. But if you like what you see in the Pixel but aren’t ready to pull the trigger on one yet, this is the best way to get as close as you can without buying new hardware.
Step one: grab a new launcher
Your home screen launcher controls the look and performance of many aspects of your phone, making it the critical first step to any software renovation project.
My recommendation here is simple: Action Launcher 3. And don’t be cheap. Pay for the full version, because developers who make quality software like this should be able to make money from it. Then they can keep working on the app to make it more awesome.
Action Launcher 3 includes a mode that directly emulates the new design of Google’s own Pixel Launcher. You get five icons on the dock and that “pill” search tab. More importantly, you also get some of the features that are currently exclusive to Android 7.1, like app shortcuts and support for the new standard round icon format. That version is only available on the Pixel or in dev preview for Nexus devices. So this is the best way to get it.
However, instead of a tap-and-hold you’ll need to create a custom gesture to launch the shortcuts. You’re also not able to drag an action onto the screen to make its own widget, although I find it’s more convenient just to use the shortcut instead of adding on another widget.
However, it’s worth noting that due to an API restriction you can’t slide over to Google Now just off the side of the home screen. If you miss that functionality, the best workaround is to drop a four-by-four widget onto the screen all the way to the left. It’s not perfect, but it gets you close.
If you’re adventurous, you can also sideload the Pixel Launcher APK yourself.
Since it’s not officially supported on non-Pixel devices, your experience may not be buttery smooth. However, I found that it works rather well on a Nexus 5X with a few caveats. For one, the slide over to Google Now doesn’t work. Touching the “pill” search button will take you there, although it doesn’t fire up a search quite as lightning-fast as it does when used on a Pixel.
Make some aesthetic changes
While the launcher will do most of the heavy lifting there are other ways to Pixel-ize your phone. Google has put the Wallpapers app in the Play Store, so you can throw down some of those impressive landscapes or urban scenes.
You don’t get the ultra cool live Earth, which changes the view of the globe based on where the sun is, but at least most of the other wallpapers are there.
Oh, and don’t forget about small touches like the ringtones and notification sounds. Unlike on Nexus phones, those on the Pixel sound pleasant and feel well thought out. These were very well thought out in comparison to past Nexus devices. It’s clear that Google really thought through all of the elements that can make a phone great.
Get the Google Assistant (well, kind of)
The Google Assistant is baked right into the Pixel, making it one of the great differentiators compared to other Android phones. Unfortunately, that means there’s no way to get that kind of integration on your own. However, the Google Assistant is baked into Allo, and it’s no slouch. You can still do plenty, like use it to send voice messages, get detailed weather information, create appointments, and ask to see certain images from your Google Photos.
Since it lives inside of Allo there’s no way to access these powers outside of opening the app. Adding a homescreen widget or app shortcut would be a nice compromise until the Google Assistant comes to more phones.
In the end, you can do a lot to get close to the Pixel experience thanks to the customization available in Android. But when it is time to upgrade, we do highly recommend the Pixel for the optimal all-Google experience.