Widgets and home screen customization are two of the biggest differences between iOS and Android. I didn’t quite see the point of widgets when I first came to Android (and I’m still not 100% sold), but I’ve tried to find ways of using them. Some of the most useful widgets have been small one-click things like activating the LED light or killing background tasks, but the more common widget type involves information displays for things like Twitter, RSS etc. Unfortunately, the current state of widgets on Android leaves a lot to be desired, at least for me.
The way I see it, widgets have to be able to stand on their own to be useful. If you have to enter the main app to actually do anything other than stare at the widget, then you might as well keep with just an icon. There are widgets that stand on their own with no problems at all, like the TV Show Favs which shows me a list of upcoming TV episodes, lets me scroll and mark as seen etc. I don’t ever have to be in the app. Twitter is somewhere in between that and “pretty icon”, having to go into the app to reply and things like that. Still not bad.
Then you have the apps that disappoint me so much in terms of their widgets that I want to cry. Take the first screenshot. That’s the biggest widget available for PowerAMP, a third party music app. It’s nice and all, but it isn’t really a replacement for the app because it’s missing, well, those things I’ve drawn in; equalizer controls and song list. I wouldn’t mind dedicating an entire home screen to the music player app if I could just have it be a full replacement for the app itself (which honestly doesn’t look very good in portrait, and is in serious need of a tablet upgrade to take advantage of the screen real-estate). The way it is though I have to enter the app to find specific songs/albums/etc, which limits the usefulness of that widgets drastically.
Even so, PowerAMP is miles ahead og Audible and BeyondPod. Audible is an audio book player/store service, and the thing about audiobooks is that you often spend days or weeks getting through a single one. I therefore assumed that the widget would be somewhere along the lines of a “this is what you’re currently listening to these days” type of thing, perhaps pulling down book info from Audible to use in the bigger widgets. Nope. What you see above is the maximum sized widget you can get, and as you can see, it doesn’t even have a freaking clue what I’m currently listening to! In fact it’s outright bugged, showing the playlist being empty and no book playing, all the while showing how far I’ve gotten in that specific file and what chapter I’m on. BeyondPod is even worse, and perhaps one of the most disappointing widgets I’ve ever seen. That tiny 4 x 1 thing you see above is what they call the large widget in this specifically Honeycomb-optimized app. What the heck? It’s a play button and a skip button. It’s a podcast player and downloader, where is the list of new episodes available for download that I assumed would be in the widget? A window showing either the video or show album art wouldn’t hurt either.
Still not at the bottom of the barrel though, because that position is occupied by the apps that don’t have widgets at all. A couple of examples have been masterfully finger drawn by me above. Zinio is a magazine reader/store app which is both cross-platform and an old player in that game, and it’s been on Android for a while now. It might be the newsstand widget on iOS (yeah, the widget for the OS that doesn’t have widgets) that put me off, but I simply assumed that Zinio would have a widget that would give me a quick way to see when new magazines are out, and perhaps even a way to initiate download without entering the app. Nope. No widget at all. The same goes for Kindle and Aldiko, the two ereader apps I have installed. As with Audible, books are often left to their own devices for a while, so I thought it would be nice to have a nice widget on one of my media home screens that showed me what I was reading and perhaps even a few lines of text from where I left off. Just to remind me that I’m in the middle of a book, you know. Apparently neither of these companies have thought the same, as neither have widgets.
These are just examples of some of the widget let-downs I’ve come across since moving to Android. Others include online newspapers without news widgets, the inherent uselessness of Google Reader and Gmail not being able to show the full emails and stories without opening the apps, and not to mention that Google has apparently restricted third party access to Gmail so that I can’t even use the Gmail widgets that come with some of the much better looking widget apps out there. Again, widgets to me should be ways of not having to open apps, and there are very few widgets out there that actually achieve this. I have a feeling that if Android was iOS this would be no problem whatsoever, and that it’s simply another example of Android lacking software-wise. I still use widgets, but honestly, their usefulness at this point – at least for me – is severely limited.