One of the biggest advantages of Android over iPhone is widgets. Android has them, iPhone does not.
Widgets are valuable because they give you an at-a-glance look at lots of different kinds of information and quick access to valuable apps and configuration settings.
I carry both an Android phone (for work) and an iPhone (my private phone), but there are some things where I always reach to whip out the Android phone because I can access the information more quickly via a widget. If I was a normal person that only used one phone and I was limited to an iPhone, widgets are the biggest thing I'd miss about Android.
To help you find some of the most useful widgets, I've put together my list of the top 15. I first published this list of my favorite widgets in August 2010. In this latest update, I've replaced 12 out of the 15 widgets on the list and I've updated the screenshots for Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich."
The best way to view this list is in the screenshot gallery so that you can see each of the widgets. But, you can also view it in list form below, with links to the Android Market for each of the widgets. I've tried to find widgets that will generally work on almost all versions of Android and aren't limited to specific flavors, but obviously that's a tall order.
A couple things to keep in mind with widgets:
- They can hog resources, bandwidth, and battery life so you should make sure you're using a task monitor to keep an eye on them; I wouldn't necessarily recommend running all 15 at once, just pick the ones that are most important and that you'll use the most often
- Widgets can take up a lot of screen real estate and so you may need to use an alternate home screen launcher, such as Launcher Pro, to give yourself some extra space
Arguably, the most well-known widget on Android is the Clock & Weather widget from HTC, but that's obviously limited to HTC devices. The best universal Android widget that does the same thing is the one from Beautiful Widgets, which also offers the same functionality in a variety of differences sizes and configurations and tosses in a few bonus widgets such as a battery monitor and some configuration toggles.
Android comes with a "Power Control" widget that I've always liked because it lets you quickly toggle Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Brightness, and more. However, the "Extended Controls" widget allows you to create a customized version of Power Control with a lot more toggle options.
If you need to quickly scan your calendar to check on your next meeting or see what your day looks like tomorrow, you can't beat the Business Calendar widget. It offers virtually every size and configuration option imaginable. I prefer the 4x4 (full screen) widget in agenda mode with the simple list of all upcoming calendar appointments.
If you use Google Analytics to track web site traffic, this little widget makes it easy to get a get quick glance at your traffic metrics. It takes up the same amount of space as an app icon and you can set up multiple widgets to track multiple metrics.
To keep an eye on the latest news, it's hard to beat Google Reader, since it's completely customizable based on RSS feeds. You can follow national politics or world news or you can follow the smallest trade publication that covers your industry. As long as it has an RSS feed, you can put it in Google Reader and then you can follow it at a glance with the ticker widget that is automatically added when you install the Google Reader app.
Pulse is another news reader that has a great widget. Pulse is a visual newsreader that represents stories with images that it finds within those stories. It has a nice default news feeds to choose from, but you can also search for lots of others from across the web. The widget only allows you to select on feed to use on its ticker.
I've recommended Tripit on my favorite iPhone and Android apps lists because it's a great little service for tracking all of your travel itineraries. It also happens to have a useful Android widget that comes in two sizes.
The simple mission of Google Finance is to track stocks. The app also comes with a widget that allows you to quickly glance at the performance of a single stock or index in a little 2x1 widget. You can have use multiple instances of the widget to track multiple stocks.
9. Direct Dial & Direct Message
In addition to quick-glance information, Android widgets can also provide quick functions (kind of like macros or keyboard shortcuts on a PC). The Direct Dial and Direct Message widgets allow you to pick someone's phone number in your contacts and create an icon that allows you to immediately call or text that person. If you have a photo for the person then it shows their photo in a 1x1 icon. These two widgets come with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (that's why there's no download link), but if you don't have a phone with ICS then you can use a widget like Picture Dial.
The weather update in Beautiful Widgets (above) is usually enough for me, but if I'm going on a trip or worried about the extended forecast and I want to track the weather a little more closely than The Weather Channel's has a great set of widgets. My favorite is the 4x1 widget.
11. Google Docs bar
The Google Docs app comes with a widget bar that provides one-tap access to your list of docs and your favorites and also let's you start a new document or add a photo to your docs with a single tap.
12. Evernote bar
Evernote is a great note-taking service that has multiple mobile apps as well as desktop apps and web access. The great thing is that you can make notes in any of these places and it gets synced to all of the other instances. The Evernote app for Android comes with a widget bar (similar to Google Docs) that gives you one-tap access to your notes, lets you search your notes, and lets you quickly create a new note.
As I've said before, Twitter is a terrific real-time intelligence engine. Now that there's an official Twitter Android app, there are also a couple Twitter widgets (large and small) for scanning your Twitter stream. You can even configure the Twitter widget to display "Mentions" so that you can quickly see who's talking to you (or about you) and respond.
14. ESPN ScoreCenter
This ESPN widget that lets you keep track of the scores from your favorite sports teams. It shows the last game and the next game (or current game). You can quickly tap it to get more details in the ESPN app.
For my fellow wordsmiths out there, Dictionary.com has a terrific widget that allows you to type or speak a word and quickly get the definition. As a bonus, the widget also displays a word of the day.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.