Widgets for Productivity

The humble home screen widget was a rarity in cell ‘phone circles until Android was released. Some Nokia Symbian devices could add a widget to their single home screen but these were simple and preset by the manufacturer. There was no opportunity to add third party widget support and we've Android to thank for this. In some respects, widgets are one of Android's simplest but also most useful features. Until recently, I have not taken advantage of my devices' ability to display widgets.

With our Android devices, we may add widgets and shortcuts to home screens. I'll explain a shortcut first because this is easier: a shortcut is essentially an icon that launches an application. We can customize a shortcut to take us to a particular part of an application or to open a document in an application, but the shortcut itself is not interactive in the slightest and will always be a size of one across by one down. Widgets are a little different; many are an interactive window into an application with limited control of the device. Some can be very sophisticated and others can be simple. Widgets can be resized or are available in different sizes to suit a number of different devices and screen resolutions.

Widgets can help you get the most from your device by giving you at-a-glance information and updates, but it's important to remember that they can also be counter productive. Productivity is essentially getting stuff done but it needs a focus: if I am working on a given writing project, seeing Twitter or Google+ mentions may well distract me from what I am trying to do. Because of this, I've been careful with the widgets I place on my home screen.

I like Widgetsoid because I can make it subtle and I can set up device setting and application shortcuts. I experimented with a few widgets but much prefered the clean look to my device so that I could see the wallpaper. I largely mirrored this set up with my tablets but could add more shortcuts to the bottom of the screen.

I have also started experimenting with widgets on my home screens. At first, I tried setting up different home screens for different times of the day. I had one for my commute, one for my day job, one for my fiction writing time and another for my non-fiction writing. There's a market here for a context-aware launcher that determines when I'm on the bus heading into or out of work, when I'm at my office, when I'm in writing mode… because it became too awkward to manually switch between home screens depending on what I was doing. I've condensed my widgets onto the one page and this is what my Nexus 7 home screen currently shows.

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With a tablet, I've a lot more on-screen real estate to add widgets compared with a smartphone. The HTC One (M8) that's become my daily driver has just four-by-four space for widgets and shortcuts whereas the Nexus 7 running the stock launcher has six by six space.

This collection of widgets and shortcuts has helped me do more with fewer taps and there's been no impact on battery life, as some websites will claim. More on this later. Meanwhile, I don't want to detail all of the widgets or shortcuts on the screen but I'll discuss my Bus Checker widget first, which gives me the next bus time for my favourite stops. This is an application I likely use two or three times a day and before I used to go into my application tray, find the application and select the stop I want to learn more about. It's easier to use now; I can tap through to the next stop using the interactive widget buttons.

Under the Bus Checker widget I have a combination of three shortcuts and three folders. The folders contain a mix of shortcuts to documents, websites and applications. In my writing folders (Fiction and Nonfiction) I have links to Google Docs files, Gmail labels, websites and the WordPress application. These are all much quicker to use than going into the host application and navigating to the area I want to use. As a side project to using widgets, I now use a Gmail label rather than just the Gmail application (and I have also changed how I organise my Gmail account too).

The only other widget that deserves attention is the Google News & Weather widget, set at the top right. This is important because it always shows the same weather that I see in Google Now, the only criticism I can level at the HTC Weather Clock, which can show different weather to Google.

Let me write about widgets and battery life. Widgets have occasionally been blamed for draining the battery. This can be true because a badly coded widget would keep the device awake even when the screen is off and constantly refresh, but the good news is that badly programmed widgets are quickly reported to the developer and either updated or receive a low rating (and so don't appear in searches). The Bus Checker widget is a good example of a well behaved widget: it's inactive unless the user touches it, when it will refresh but then goes back to sleep. It doesn't keep itself updated. The calendar widget will update itself when something in the application changes, but none of these widgets update when the screen is off with the possible exception of the clock.

Yes; my home screen looks a little cluttered these days but it's made my tablet a much more productive tool and it's quicker to use.

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