Hands-on with Z Launcher, the secret sauce in Nokia's iPad rival

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Nokia would like you to have some faith as it returns to the hardware business and embraces Android.

The company’s newly-announced N1 Android tablet will have to compete with a sea of similar slates, and while its high-end specs and $250 price tag sound impressive, Nokia knows that’s not enough to stand out. So the company has also introduced the Z Launcher, an alternative home screen that does away with Android’s customizable widgets and folders and instead relies on algorithms to figure out what you intend to do.

The Z1 tablet won’t launch until early next year, and only in China at first, but you can already try a beta version of the Z Launcher on some Android phones. Having played around with it, I can certainly say that it’s unique. But whether the Z Launcher is worth sticking with depends on the degree to which you trust its predictive powers.

How Z Launcher works

At first, Z Launcher feels counter-intuitive. The top of the screen shows the time, followed by a list of six apps and a standard-looking dock on the bottom. You might think that you could scroll through the app list by swiping vertically or horizontally, but instead, swiping anywhere on the screen creates a brush stroke under your finger. Draw a letter, the Z Launcher brings up a list of apps and contacts starting with that letter.

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Searching a vertical list of your apps alphabetically is supposed to be faster than a grid view.

Searching by letter is supposed to be faster than scrolling through a traditional home screen. And it very well could be, at least for apps that you’d normally bury in far-flung folders. But the nice thing about arranging your own home screen is the ability to quickly access favorite apps with just a tap or two. That’s where Nokia’s predictive algorithms come into play.

The list of six apps at the center of Z Launcher isn’t static. It changes based on the things you do most at any given time of day. You might see a different set of apps in the morning than you do at night, and the predictions are supposed to improve with time. It’s too early to say how well these predictions work, but it’s a psychological adjustment either way.

That’s not to say you have no control at all. The center dock icon brings up a full app list in alphabetical order, and you can customize the dock by holding and dragging any app icon. (Trying to do this on my HTC One M7 did cause occasional crashes, however.) You can also press and hold on the name of any app on the home screen to hide it. Again, it’s a bit confusing until you realize that pressing and holding on an app’s name and its icon produce two completely different actions.

Android diehards will also likely take issue with the lack of customizable home screen widgets. Z Launcher offers a few built-in ones at the top of the screen for the time, weather and upcoming appointments, but that’s it.

Counter-intuitiveness emerges once more: The home screen shows multiple dots to indicate that you can swipe between widgets, but it’s placed in a way that equally suggests you could swipe between app lists. You can’t.

All of these differences from the standard Android experience could easily be a turnoff, especially on a device other than the N1 where the Z Launcher isn’t enabled by default. That’s not a condemnation, though, as the Z Launcher could become immensely useful as it learns from your behavior. You just have to stick with it, and trust that Nokia knows what it’s doing.

This story, "Hands-on with Z Launcher, the secret sauce in Nokia's iPad rival" was originally published by Greenbot.

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