Android Intelligence Advice

5 wild new ways to make Android widgets more useful

Android widgets can do way more than you realize — if you know how to unleash their hidden potential.

Android Widgets
Google/JR Raphael, IDG

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Widgets, widgets, widgets. Has there ever been an Android feature so full of promise that went unloved by Google for so very long?

Okay, so maybe there has been — erm, lots of times, actually. But even so, Android's widgets system is a perfect example of an exceptional advantage that Google basically buried, abandoned, and left on the brink of extinction up until its overdue revival in 2021's Android 12 update. (And that revival, by the way, happened for no apparent reason whatsoever. Just a totally random, unprompted change of heart after a decade of indifference. Riiiiiiiiight.)

Google may have given up on widgets for a while, but the good news is that (a) they're back, baby — and (b) the Android developer community kept chuggin' along and coming up with creative new ways to embrace widgets even while they were being ignored on the platform level. And now, no matter what Android version your favorite phone is running, you can step up your own Android widget game and give yourself some fresh and fruitful paths to make the most of your phone's framework.

Here, my dear, are a few fantastic ways to put your favorite Android widgets to use and change the way you get stuff done on your phone. (And if you've got a Chromebook, by the by, be sure to check out this crafty hack for bringing widgets into that environment as well.)

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Android widget enhancement No. 1: The on-demand home screen pop-up

Widgets are a wonderful way to interact with all sorts of info without ever having to open up apps, but having too many widgets can quickly lead to a cluttered and overwhelming home screen.

Well, here's a neat way to give yourself the benefit of a widget while still maintaining a neat and minimal space for working: An excellent app called Popup Widget 3 lets you create an on-demand pop-up widget (get it?!) that looks like a regular ol' icon on your home screen but then loads any widget you want when you tap it.


Android Widgets: Popup (1) JR

You can even get really wild and set up a single icon that opens multiple widgets at the same time — like your inbox and your calendar together:

Android Widgets: Popup (2) JR

Not bad, right?

Popup Widget 3 costs $1.50 and doesn't require any special permissions or manners of access. And it's pretty simple and self-explanatory to set up: Once you install and open the app, it'll walk you through adding in whatever pop-up widgets you want. You can choose the name and even the icon associated with each one along with its precise placement on your screen and how much the screen behind it should dim when it's loaded.

The app will offer to add the shortcut directly onto your home screen for you then, or you can also find all of your Pop-Up Widget creations by pressing and holding the main Pop-Up Widget icon in your app drawer.

And that, my widget-loving wallaby, is but our first winning widget possibility.

Android widget enhancement No. 2: The on-demand universal pop-up

If you like the idea of having a widget on demand but would rather have it be available to summon from anywhere instead of just from your home screen, this next wacky widget option is just the thing for you.

It comes from a spectacular app called Edge Gestures, which works in conjunction with Pop-Up Widget 3 to take that same concept and make it universally accessible. (I told ya it was wacky!)

When you first install Edge Gestures, the app will prompt you to enable it as a system accessibility service and to grant it the ability to display over other apps. These permissions sound scary — and they should! — but in the case of this specific utility, they're absolutely appropriate and necessary in order for it to operate. The former is the only way an app is able to create a custom system-wide gesture, which we need for this setup to work its magic, and the latter is how your widget is able to be shown on top of whatever else you're doing.

(If you're at all worried, note this: Edge Gestures doesn't request any other system permissions, including the ability to access the internet. That means it would have no way to send any information off of your device and to any theoretical bogeymen lurking in the virtual shadows, even if it wanted to. But it seems safe to say that it doesn't. The app is reputable, it's been around for quite a long while, and it has a large number of overwhelmingly positive reviews.)

Where were we? Oh, right: Once you're inside the Edge Gestures configuration area, you'll be able to select exactly what gesture you want to use for pulling up your widget. I'd think carefully about finding something that won't interfere with anything else, like the system-level Android gestures, and that'll be convenient to access without being a command you're likely to trigger by mistake.

So, for instance, you might make the gesture a simple swipe downward along the left side of your screen. To do that, you'd find the "Swipe down" option within the app's "Left" tab, and you'd set it to "Popup Widget" — and then create or select whatever Popup Widget item you want. And remember: You can select one widget or multiple widgets, too.

Prepare yourself for some serious oohing and ahhing:

Android Widgets: Edge Gestures JR

As you can see, this opens up a whole new world of mobile multitasking potential. I mean, really: How could you not love that?!

The final thing worth doing is going into all the other gesture options in that same configuration area and tapping "Clear" for each of 'em to get rid of Edge Gestures' default actions. I'd also go into whichever side of the screen you aren't using — left or right — and tap the toggle to turn the gestures for that side off entirely. That way, you won't inadvertently activate any gestures that you don't actually want or need.

Edge Gestures costs $1.49 to use.

Android widget enhancement No. 3: The floating bubble

Next, here's an interesting twist on that same on-demand Android widget idea: If you like the notion of having a widget always available but aren't so keen on the hidden gesture concept, an app called Overlays will let you create a small floating bubble that you can position anywhere on your screen and then tap to pull any widget up when you want it — just like with Android's oft-forgotten Bubbles system for messaging.

Check it out:

Android Widgets: Overlays JR

By default, Overlays gives you a bunch of its own little widgets to choose from, but the real power comes from adding in widgets from the Android apps you actually rely on. To do that, tap the "Triggers" tab at the bottom of the Overlays configuration area, then tap the red plus button in the lower-right corner of the screen. Select "Manual," then type in whatever name you want for your widget and tap the icon to pick any icon you like.

Tap "Save," then select "Widget" and find the widget you want from the list. At that point, you'll see a preview of the widget. Move or resize it if you like, then hit the arrow in the upper-left corner of the screen to exit out of that interface. Last but not least, tap the name of your newly made widget on the screen that comes up next to change its status to "Always on."

As soon as you head out of the app and back to your home screen, your fancy new widget should pop right up. All you've gotta do is tap the little downward-facing arrow in its corner to minimize it down to a bubble, which you can then press and hold to move anywhere your widget-worshipping heart desires.

Overlays can also create widgets that automatically appear based on context — so you could have something show up every time you connect to a certain Bluetooth device or Wi-Fi network, for instance. To explore those options, just follow the same steps from above but pick "Event" instead of "Manual" when you reach the "Triggers" tab configuration.

Overlays is free with an optional $4 in-app upgrade that removes some ads from the configuration tool and unlocks a handful of advanced features.

Android widget enhancement No. 4: The voice-summoned widget wonder

If you've got a Google Pixel phone, listen up: You can actually call up some of the most commonly accessed Android widgets anytime simply by coughing out the appropriate voice command.

Yes, indeedly: The extra-advanced version of Google Assistant on Pixels has a heck of a hidden secret. Just say "Hey Google," then say something like "Show me the Keep widget."

And by golly, wouldya look at that?!

Android Widgets: Google Assistant, Keep JR

As of now, the system seems to work mostly with widgets from Google-made Android apps — including Keep, Calendar, Chrome, Clock, Maps, Google News, and YouTube Music. It's an incredibly handy way to see whatever widget you need from anywhere in your system and without having to lift a single finger. And now you know.

Android widget enhancement No. 5: The custom web widget

Last but not least in our collection of wacky Android widget possibilities is a very recent discovery for me: the ability to create your own custom widget for practically any website imaginable.

I've got a detailed rundown of all the steps in this column, but the short version is that an app called Widgetify makes it almost shockingly easy to turn any website into a widget and then see it on your home screen. That way, you can keep tabs on it all the time and always have it at your fingertips — whether the site in question is a favorite news source, a forum you frequent, or maybe an significant page from within your own company's web presence.

Custom Android widget: Websites JR

And there ya have it: five wacky, wild, wonderful ways to make widgets even more wow-inducing. Some days, you've just gotta love Android and the creative thinking it enables.

Put even more Googley goodness in your noggin with my Android Intelligence newsletter — three new things to know and three things to try every Friday!

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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