iOS navigation has matured to the point where it doesn't matter where our apps are hiding anymore--with a swipe and a few taps we can navigate through the deepest of folders in just a few seconds. Power users can manipulate iOS to do their bidding: We can launch apps, make calls, and send messages without needing to jump through a single home screen hoop, thanks to a little help from the Notification Center, Siri, and even Spotlight.
Launcher apps take this concept to another level. Where Apple's solutions add up to little more than secret passages and hidden shortcuts, launchers provide a centralized place where we can manage and organize our favorite apps and everyday tasks into a single, contained system. While they're not quite as powerful or convenient as the ones on our Macs (mostly due to the lack of keyboard shortcuts), launchers on iPhone are little gems of efficiency, condensing series of actions and complex taps into literal easy buttons, and saving our fingers from their routine daily calisthenics. For example, I can use iOS to devise a pretty easy way to call my wife--set her up as a favorite contact, enter the multitasking carousel, find her name at the top, tap, and select the phone icon--but with a launcher app I can boil that whole process down to a single tap.
However, not all launchers are created equal. While I can recreate the rudimentary task described above in any of them, the ease and speed of use can vary greatly. There's a perception that launchers are geared more toward professional users, but with a thoughtful user interface that needn't be the case: The best ones balance power and simplicity in a package that promotes productivity and encourages exploration. Bundled actions are a must, of course, but URL Scheme and callback support are equally important for more advanced users.
Above all, launchers need to make our lives easier. It's not just about cutting down on taps--it's about creating an experience that operates on a faster and more efficient plane than the one Apple has created. Here's our list of favorites--or rather, favorite.
Winner: Launch Center Pro
If not for Launch Center Pro ($5), the idea of the iOS launcher would probably still be in the planning stages. Contrast might not have been the first developer to make one, but it was certainly the first to get it right, and nearly three years after its debut, Launch Center Pro is still the one to beat. And it might be another three years before anything comes close.
For a powerful productivity app, Launch Center Pro's simplicity is stunning. The interface consists of 15 squares inside which you can place groups or actions. Tapping one of the spaces launches the specific action, whether that involves something that can be accomplished without leaving (like turning on the flashlight or adjusting the screen brightness) or jettisoning off to one of its many supported apps. You won't find any traditional folders within Launch Center Pro, but long-tapping on one of the customizable group icons brings up a new screen of squares that lets you slide your finger to trigger one of the related actions. It's a clever use of multi-touch and a good example of just how much attention Contrast has given to detail.
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