Is Android better suited to tablets than phones?

by: David GilsonNovember 25, 2012

Android began life on phones, marked apart from the iPhone by its homescreen widgets. That trend has continued to this day – even Android 4.2 has lock screen widgets. The advent of Android tablets has put a different slant on things by giving widgets more space to shine. Once you’ve used Android widgets on the expansive screen of a tablet, is it possible to be satisfied with the same widgets on a phone screen?

The great benefit of widgets, as espoused by Android fans during debates with iPhone fans, is that they present information without opening an app. The logical extreme of this has been seen in devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 with floating video players, side by side windows, and vast amounts of pixel space to show large widgets. At this point, you begin to see that Android is closer to a desktop experience than any other phone operating system (perhaps with the exception of Nokia’s Maemo user interface).

Take the Nexus 7, it has all the standard widgets that we squeeze onto our phone screens – they take on a whole new life on a with that tablet’s pixel density and size. They can be expanded to show a much greater amount of information, showing us much more of the daily information that matters to us. Overall, the quality and immediacy of the user experience is vastly improved.

While many recent Android phones have resolutions in the realm of 720p, there are millions of handsets out there which have the lower 800 x 480 (WVGA) resolution. Laying out any of the regular widgets on such a screen look extremely cramped when compared to what we see on an Android tablet. Android widgets look so cramped on WVGA screens that it’s only really practical to have one widget on a screen at once. Then, spreading widgets out across multiple homescreens is common in Android, but doing so obscures the information that one would want widgets to show.

A typical Nexus S homescreen

Of course, one could argue that I’m overstating the importance of widgets, and that Android homescreens are just as good when used to hold a grid of frequently used applications. This is true, but – and feel free to call me obsessive – it seems like a waste to use homescreens as an app launcher when there is a dock and the entire application menu which even sorts apps alphabetically. If homescreens are not used to host widgets things quickly become too similar to the iOS experience.

Take a look at the competition, iOS and Windows Phone. These phone interfaces seem to suit their medium slightly better. They don’t try to show as much as widgets do, because they can’t. iOS has icons with unread counts, and now has the notification drawer which one might argue Android had prior art on. The alternative, Windows Phone, doesn’t yet have a notification centre, but its live tiles give unread counts, and thanks to their flipping behaviour they can show a limited amount of preview content too. Still though, Windows Phone is limited in that live tiles only preview content from the very latest item in each app, but it does integrate people better into the user interface than Android does – and iOS doesn’t even come close to that.

The greater dimensions of the Nexus 7 gives widgets room to breath

To be clear, the common theme I look for in user interface design is having the maximal amount of personal information on show for the least amount of effort and least time spent looking at the screen. While Android and Windows Phone easily beat iOS in this department, a poorly configured Android homescreen would not be as effective as Windows Phone. However, an Android tablet will perform eminently better than any of the phone interfaces because of the extra space per homescreen.

As computers and tablets begin to slowly converge (e.g. the Asus Transformer range and the Microsoft Surface), Android could be facing a new range of usage scenarios – what with the trend of ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) in enterprise, and even more so if Microsoft release an official Office client for Android. If Android offers an experience is more desktop like than is offered than iOS – in as much as having an accessible file system and widgets that offer a similar experience to desktop Windows – then we could perhaps see a similar swing in the tablet market as has been seen in the smartphone market.

The wildcard in this assessment how well will Windows 8 and Windows RT perform? Microsoft is seemingly moving away from the desktop experience that the whole world is accustomed to. However, the desktop is still there, beneath the Metro surface (no pun intended), on the x86 variants, while on Windows RT the desktop isn’t accessible to third party developers, but there is still a file system. Given that Windows 8 and its tiled interface will eventually end up on all consumer PCs, Windows 8 and RT tablet sales could benefit from a virtuous circle of familiarity.

Despite all of my idealistic user interface design values, the market has spoken and it is seems to be happy, or making do, with the Android user interface as it is.

What sort of information do you prefer to be on display and how do you have your Android homescreens set up? We’d love to see your phone and tablet configurations in the comments.

  • satsmine2k4

    All i can say is that Android is getting is comfortable to use on tablets. I am so loving Android on my Nexus 10, however the limited choice of tablized android apps kinda sucks but android is getting there and the introduction of N7 and Nexus 10 are major steps towards a great Android tablet experience…. However, Android on phones is just amazing and cannot (yet) be compared to the android exp on tablets… I am eagerly waiting for more tablet apps….

  • Sam

    windows 8 on tablet is much better as It has both widget and icons together and show more information.

    • Peterson Silva

      … And yet in Android there are clickable widgets that manage to make your phone not look like a picture drawn by an oompa loompa during a geometry class.

  • Hell no! No matter how much people hate on iOS, it is a better ecosystem on tablets. Android on the other hand is best suited for smartphones. The widgets, the notification system, the features are all convenient for on-the-go use. As of now, the apps for Android tabs arent well customized.

  • aj

    all i hav to say is dat even apple keeps d best on ipad nd not on d iphone.
    d big screen is more optimized nd dere is no need to crib bout it cause apple fans dont crib bout it
    dey r retard nd dont even noe d differences b/w tablets nd phones nd go gala on dere iphone/ipad
    nobody has ever noticed d diff b/w an ipad nd a iphone so why this

    • Mike

      Stop being lazy and spell out words like they appear on a Webster Dictionary

  • Woody

    Huh? Your proposition seems like a false dichotomy. I would compare Android on a phone with iOS and Windows 8 on a phone. I haven’t used Win8, but overall, I think that it’s a failure as an ecosystem, and therefore, irrelevant.

    What does a tablet have to do with it? Personally, I much prefer Android on a phone to iOS on a phone. When I use iOS devices, I find that I’m constantly running into walls that limit what I can do. I spend a lot of my time trying to figure out how to get around the limitations imposed by iOS. Also, I find that everything, including the interface, is far more open to customization on Android, vs iOS.
    What difference does it make how these OS’s compare on tablets? That has no bearing on their merits as a phone OS.

    • Denzo

      Classic. Haven’t used it, but think its a failure. Great stuff.

  • Android is better on a phone.

  • sggodsell

    With android 4.2, I can now have a guest account on my tablet so the kids can play there games and not touch my email or buy anything off the play store. I also have office suite pro on my account and not on the kids account. They don’t need to play with spreadsheets or office documents. With the latest version of android it will definitely give surface a run for its money. I can buy 3 nexus 7 tablets for the price of 1 surface tablet.

  • note

    android is better OS for tablets than phones?

  • gautam divekar

    windows 8/rt is the best interface for tablets out there !!!!

  • williamworlde


  • williamworlde

    Sorry about the last post; error. This one is MUCH longer; I promise. :-)

    Anyway, I just moved away from iOS on a jailbroken 3GS to a mature Android device, the 1-year old Samsung GNex. I LOVE my new phone and if *anyone* can help me increase the volume (I can’t hear the person I’m speaking to!), I’d *really* appreciate that! Thanks.

    Why did I jailbreak my device 2 years after getting it? I couldn’t do the things I thought the original OS could be capable of, AND, it was boring! No interactive capabilities (read deeper into this), plus, having that ability on a 3.5″ (or elongated 4″ screen) wouldn’t be a treat, I would imagine.

    With mid- to high-tier Android devices’ screens generally being 4.3″+, I think that OS is well-suited to them. I have setup just 3 screens on my new device, using Nova Launcher to get rid of the other 2 and further customizing my interface.

    On one screen, I have my Inbox, Flipboard, and News & Weather widgets elongated to show live info at a quick glance – determining if I want to go into the app. Along the right side of that same screen, I have 6 other “communication” icons, like Messaging, etc.

    On my home screen is my clock and 6 of my most frequently accessed apps along the right side again.

    On the third screen, I have my most frequently used apps. It’s a 6×6 layout, so that’s a potential 36 apps, but I’ve used 1 row for “quick actions(?)”, like BT, Screen brightness, etc.

    As my App folder icon is in the dock, I can access any other lesser used app from almost anywhere almost instantly.

    I could only have done those things after jailbreaking my 3GS – and then it became really slow! And, I don’t think that Apple will ever open their system to total user configuration. That’s just not the type of user they cater to, or generally speaking, that use their products. I am example: My venture into smartphones was the 3GS; it was a “safe” choice for me.

    Windows is not an option at this time. MS’ revamped venture into smartphones is still too new for the intelligentia out there to begin experimenting with the new OS with fervour. This will very likely change in the future.

    So, what are we left with? Android. I think with its VERY open source OS it IS best suited to phones, the computer we interact with most frequently in our lives.

    As for tablets, I am certainly glad that MS came out with their new tablets. I want a productivity tool to replace my laptop and I live and work in a *Microsoft Windows world*, whether you or I like it or not. I am not a gamer, or graphic-oriented, but use Word, Excel and Outlook to communicate on a daily basis for my livelihood.

    **NOTE 1: I originally got the LG Optimus G, a fantastic phone! But the thing I like about most LG designs is also the reason I returned it. I like their “blocky” design, but alas, it was too large for my hands and “cut” into it with its “sharp” edges. (Also the reason I didn’t get the 4S; although it’s a beautiful device, its edges are way too sharp.)

    **NOTE 2: I bought and returned the ASUS X202E laptop running Windows 8 too. I like the OS and the laptop was a good buy, on paper at least. There were some hardware issues, the reason I returned it. I broke my cardinal rule too: Never buy brand new technologies! I AM going to get a touchscreen W8 notebook though. As a longtime Windows user, I think this new OS *is* the future. There are always naysayers with new technologies, but I believe MS has seen the future and is taking/dragging us there. I am grateful.