Mobile Widgets
Smartphone Basics

Mobile Widgets | The unsung Hero

Widgets and applications do not mean the same thing, but they are similar terms. In mobile computing, for example, we tend to think of widgets and apps as “objects” that enhance the user experience. But widgets and apps are separate types of programs that run on a Mobile phone and they serve different purposes. Please visit my earlier post “Desktop & Mobile | Applications & Apps” to understand Desktop Applications & Mobile Apps.

Widgets are basically self-contained mini programs that live & run on the phone’s home screen and stays open all the time so that you can just glance at it and get the information that you need without opening an app. They tend to perform simple functions — like the Clock widget showing the time and temperature — but do so dynamically so you do not have to fiddle around to update them. Apps, on the other hand, are typically programs you tap open and run. Apps can be very multi-functional, like a program that lets you create and edit spreadsheets right on your phone.

Easy way to think of it is: Apps are programs that you need to open. Widgets are apps that are basically always running on your home screen. So if you had a battery App, you would have an icon that you would click and it would show you all the battery info on a new screen. If you had a battery widget, when you are on your home screen the app is already running on a part of the screen showing you all the info without having to click anything or open a new window.

Widgets History

Mobile Widgets History

In Android, the word widget is a generic term for a bit of self-contained code that displays a program, or a piece of a program, that is also (usually) a shortcut to a larger application. Widgets first appeared in Android in version 1.5, and really gained traction thanks to HTC’s Sense-flavored version of the operating system. Prior to the release of the HTC Hero and our first taste of Sense, widgets were functional, but pretty bland in appearance. Since then, OEMs and independent developers alike have done some marvelous things with widgets, and it’s hard to imagine using Android without them.

Most Android phones come with a handful of built-in widgets. This is just the tip of the iceberg though. A quick trip into the Android Market will dazzle you with the huge catalog of third-party widgets available, with something that suits almost every taste.

App Activities & Service

Some apps include their own widgets to sit out on the phone’s home screen while grabbing information from that app — like a weather app that has a widget for showing the current conditions and any storm alerts in the area.

A part that starts and becomes visible when you tap an icon are called (in Android) “Activities.” But the app may also have another part that is a “Service.” The Service part refreshes every so often, downloading current weather conditions and temperatures. This Service, then, is the widget portion of the Weather app that runs in the background. When you tap on the weather app and it opens to its own screen and shows additional information, this is the “Activites” portion of the app and does not run in the background.

Widgets & Battery

App & Widget Battery Usage

Certain widgets can help save the phone’s battery power by making it easy to turn off power-draining features. However, running a lot of widgets that constantly check the Internet for fresh information can run down the battery as well. Certain widgets can cause lag due to constant updating.

Widgets will use somewhat more of your resources than apps, simply because your widget uses memory and battery life every time you wake your phone and view the home screen. Apps only use the resources when you open them.

Widgets & Apple iOS

Without a doubt, one of the biggest differences between iOS and Android is its fundamental handling of information. Google decided to allow widgets onto a phone’s Home screen so that, theoretically, users would have the information they need right at their fingertips. Apple, on the other hand, has doggedly stuck to its guns over the years, with iOS remaining a collection of app icons rather than live widgets.

Before iOS 8, iPhone owners had a very restricted—read: Apple-only—widget ecosystem. Sure, you could jailbreak, but only apps like Calendar, Reminders, and Stock, pushed information to your iDevice’s Notification Center by default. One of the most useful, and long-awaited features starting iOS8 is finally adopting third-party widgets. Now third parties are welcome.

Why use Widgets?

In the past, there were fair arguments for limiting widget use. Phones didn’t have as much RAM and networks were slower, so using up precious resources was a big concern. Nowadays, with 2GB of RAM and LTE in every major phone, it’s not that critical.

  • Time: The Android Widget takes less than a minute to check the weather.
  • Money: If you have a limited data plan you will save considerable amount of downloaded data.
  • Memory Space: As Widgets are smaller than Apps you are saving device’s memory space.
  • They put information “in your face”: To-do list apps that you can’t see at a glance are worthless. Half the point of a to-do list is so it can remind you of things you’d otherwise forget. However, having the widget [Google Keep] on a home screen makes sure you won’t miss it. Weather widgets, Calendar widgets, and others are similarly useful—you get updated even if you aren’t actively looking for that information, which is helpful.

Widget Advantages

  • Widgets can save battery life: You heard me. Using a widget like Dashclock to check for important emails, IMs, voicemails, text messages, calendar appointments, and battery status all in one glance can lead to using your display less, which will yield far bigger battery savings than the widget will drain.
  • They use that giant screen you paid for: With screen sizes trending upwards, it only makes sense to make use of all the extra screen. This goes double for tablets.
  • Widgets let you see everything at once: With the exception of Samsung’s Multi-Window feature, you can’t really use more than one app at the same time on Android. Widgets may not be full apps, but if you have a tablet and you want to see notes, emails, RSS feeds, your calendar, and a custom remote control all on one screen, widgets are the way to do it.

Frankly, widgets are pretty underrated. With just a little effort you can turn a home screen into a dashboard for most of the important things you interact with on your Android device. This approach fits particularly well on mobile world, where space on screen is limited, and where it’s not easy to switch between applications.

Widgets Usage

Ultimately, widgets aren’t really that different from regular apps on Android: some are written well, some are written poorly, but overall they’re incredibly helpful when done right. Particularly in Android 4.0 and up, they’re a lot smoother and nicer than they used to be. If you haven’t played around with the ones already on your phone or available in the Play Store, now’s the time.

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