Is Android better suited to tablets than phones?

November 25, 2012
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Android began life on phones, marked apart from the iPhone by its homescreen widgets. That trend has continued to this day โ€“ย 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 โ€“ 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 โ€“ and feel free to call me obsessive โ€“ 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 โ€“ 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 โ€“ 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 โ€“ in as much as having an accessible file system and widgets that offer a similar experience to desktop Windows โ€“ 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.

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