The Battle of the Home Screens and the Power of Live Tiles

The face of an OS

Probably the biggest and most easily noticeable difference between the smartphone OSes of the big 3 (Google, Apple, Microsoft) is the UI of their respective "home screens". After all, that is what users get to see every time they unlock their phones.

Each OS has its own approach into housing its apps and showing information, and thus each has its advantages and disadvantages. Let's take a look at the home screens of IOS, Android and Windows Phone and see how live tiles fare against the competition.

IOS and its Icons

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The home screen of IOS has remained relatively unchanged since it was first introduced 5 years ago, and that may be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. On the positive side, the home screen is now familiar to millions of IOS users and Apple wouldn't want to ruin it. On the other hand, the lack of major changes to the UI of IOS has made people feel that it is starting to lag behind the competition, being "stale" in comparison.

Probably to biggest "advantage" of IOS and its icons is its simplicity. That's what people who like it usually say to defend it, and I might as well mention it here. It's really very simple - you have a list of icons that represent apps and you can group them into folders. That's it. The problem with this, though, is that Android has always been able to do this, and with WP supporting small tiles in WP8, that advantanges pretty much vanishes. With that said, grouping icons into folder is still something not present in WP, and showing "notification count" on the icons/tiles is something not found in android icons. However, Android widgets and notifications kinda make up for that.

I already mentioned the "notification count" or badges in IOS icons. That's a nice little feature, but in my opinion that is the weakest implementation of "glanceable information" on the home screen in all 3 OSes (not counting the notification center). This is where IOS really lags behind. Glanceable information is available in Android and WP via widgets and live tiles which can contain images and text, as opposed to just numbers on IOS badges.

Finally, the adoption of a notification center at least brings IOS on par with Android, well at least until Jelly Bean. Right now, IOS's notification center is still lagging behind Android like in terms of interactivity. Of course, it's more that good enough for some people, especially since WP has been criticized for not having a proper notification center.

Oh and another thing worth mentioning: You can change the wallpaper in IOS home screen. I said this because you can't do that on WP. It's a minor advantage, I believe.

All in all, IOS has a pretty decent home screen UI. It may be lagging behind the competition, but it works and that's what Apple wants. Personally, I feel like it's old and the leack of glanceable information is very disappointing. It looks boring and stale. It's just not as mobile as the competition.

Android and its Icons and Widgets

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Android is considered the most open and customizable of the the OSes we're discussing, and it shows in the home screen. Heck, even OEMs have different home screens. Again, we can look at it in two perspectives: Positively, it offers diversity and differentiation. Two people can both have android phones and have their home screens look very different. On the bad side, it hinders unity and consistency of experience. Some people just opt to be a Galaxy Nexus just so they get the vanilla flavor of Android. That says something about the custom UI OEMs put on their android phones - Some people just don't like it or they get confused so they go for the Nexus.

Unlike IOS with its single home screen view that houses all apps you install, Android has 2 views: the actual home screen and the app drawer. The app drawer is the rough equivalent of IOS's home screen minus the badge notifications and folders. It shows all your installed apps. That's it. That's not where Android shines, though. That would be actual home screen.

The home screen of Android is the most flexible, customizable and powerful of the three OSes. You can add individual apps and arrange them as you like. You can also group them into folders just like in IOS. You can also change the wallpaper. The only thing missing from IOS is the notification badge on the icons. That's easily destroyed by the secret weapon of Android: Widgets.

The core defining feature of Android that sets it apart from IOS and WP is the ability to add widgets on the home screen. Widgets and incredibly powerful. In fact, it can act as an app itself. It allows not only glanceable information, but interaction with that information as well. You can read tweets and send tweets right from the home screen using widgets.

Functionally speaking, widgets can make the Android home screen the best of them all, but there are some problems and concerns. One of them is aesthetics (and consistency). Widgets can look like anything, which is usually a good thing, but not until you start putting them next to each other. Some people are fine with having different widgets with different styles and looks on their home screens, but some people (including me) would just find it ugly. You can say "then don't put those widgets together" but that defeats the purpose of widgets, right? If somehow Google can form a certain requirement as to how widgets looks in general, then the problem could be solved. But of course, that wouldn't happen because that would go against the open, do-whatever-you-want-with-it nature of Android.

Another problem with widgets is that they don't seem to provide a consistent experience. Some update in the background without me noticing it (which is good) but some only update when I move to the page where they are found, and still some only update when I tap on them. An example is a twitter widget I have. I would see the old tweets only and when I tap on the right arrow to see other tweets, that's when it updates. It is somehow annoying.

As much as widgets have problems here and there, I still believe they are very useful and one of the biggest advantages of Android.

We also have the Android notification bar which is also the best of the 3 (WP doesn't have a notification center). Being able to swipe to dismiss and perform actions right on the notification bar are great features. The only (minor) problem with notifications is manually managing them. Some hate it to the death, buy I personally don't get bothered that much.

In the end, Android provides a great experience with a highly customizable home screen and very powerful widgets. It's simply better than IOS because it has most of its capabilities plus more. The only thing missing is the notification badge on icons. Widgets are powerful, but the notification bar still takes care of that aspect.

Windows Phone and its Live Tiles

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Windows phone has always been praised for its unique metro modern UI that's been described as unique and refreshing. Indeed, it is different from IOS and Android - it doesn't even have icons! Live tiles somehow fill the rolse of both the icons in IOS and the widgets in Android. Some people even argue that they also serve the purpose of notification center. Llive tiles, therefore combines the simplicity of IOS and the functionality of Android (or so it attempts to).

Customizability-wise, WP can change the color theme of the phone, but not the wallpaper of the home screen. You can change the lock screen image, though.

Just like Android's app drawer, WP has an app list. Both only serve to show all apps, but I like the implementation of WP better. It shows it as a list, thus putting more on the screen at a time. Also, the continuous scrolling + jumping to a specific letter allows for faster browsing, especially if you already know which app you want to open.

First, let's talk about live tiles as icons. Live tiles serve as the icons of WP. They are used to launch apps, like in IOS and Android (although widgets can also launch apps, they're icons are still the most common way). They are better than IOS icons in that they can also show notification count/badge just like in IOS, and they can also show more info like longer text and even images (if the tile is big enough). They are definitely better than Android icons because Android icons are static.

Now let's talk about live tiles as widgets. IOS has no say in this area, thus it already loses. Android has the more powerful widget, but what do live tiles offer? Live tiles can show glanceable information just like live tiles. They can't add controls like Android widgets can, so they fall short in that department. However, deep linking can make up for that, and I'll discuss that later. Another advantage of live tiles is that they are more consistent than widgets. While widgets can be made to look like anything, and have it's own style, theme, size and animations, live tiles follow the modern UI style, have a predefined set of possible animations and can only be of 3 different sizes. That enforces visual consistency that widgets lack. Also, live tiles feel more integrated with the app than widgets are. Widgets look like separate apps on themselves. What I'm saying is that developers are more likely to add live tile support for their apps than add widgets for their apps.

Let's now move on to live tiles as notification center. Some people believe live tiles can fulfill this task, some may argue that it doesn't. Toast notifications are present in WP, and you can tap them to launch the app that sent the toast. But what if you miss the toast notification. How would you then know you had a notification? For Android and IOS, that would be the notification center. In WP, that would have to be the live tiles. The problem is that (usually) not all tiles are pinned to the home screen. So if the app that sent the notification is not pinned in the home screen, there is no way to know that it sent a notification, unless you happen to drop by the app for some reason.

The obvious solution is to pin all apps to the home screen. Or practically, pin all apps that you want to see notifications of. With WP8 supporting small tiles, that should actually be viable and practical. The reasoning behind this is that some people hate the constant spam of notifications on Android. In WP8, if you don't pin an app on the home screen, you won't see any of it's live tile notifications.

One advantage of live tiles is that you can arrange them as you wish, so you can put high-priority apps on the top and even make them large tiles, while lower-priority apps can be put on the bottom and be set as small tiles. Personally, I think that would work for me. The only notifications that matter to me are from communication/social apps like sms, missed calls, viber, emails, twitter and facebook. I just generally ignore other notifications.

Let's now move on to a great feature of live tiles called deep linking. Although deep linking is possible on Android widgets, very few widgets support it. In WP8, it is a popular feature that developers are more willing to support. Deep linking allows for a "shortcut" into a specific place/page in an app. For example, you can have a tile that opens a specific onenote note (as opposed to opening the onenote app and navigating to the note every time). You can also pin a specific level of a game to the home screen. This is a great feature that's often overlooked but has a lot of potential.

Finally, real time update of live tiles is somehow possible, as the Nokia Drive app in WP8 can show the route on the live tile. I'm not sure if this is limited to navigation apps, or other apps can take advantage of real-time updates because a clock tile was shown on the HTC devices. If this was true, it's another feature that moves WP closer to android widget functionality and farther from IOS.

TL;DR Summary

Here are things about IOS's home screen:

+ Simplicity of icons and the single view of all apps

+ Folders

+ Notification Badges showing number of notifications

+ Notification Center

+ Changeable wallpaper

- No glanceable information

Here are the things about Android's home screen:

+ App drawer

++ Widgets with glanceable info + controls

+ Changeable wallpaper

++ (Best) Notification center with interactive notifications

- inconsistent widget styles

- inconsistent widget experience

Here are the things about WP's home screen:

+ app list

+ live tiles can serve as both IOS icon with notification count/badge

+ live tiles can serve as (limited) android widget with glanceable information

+ live tiles consistent in style and experience

+ changeable lock screen image

+ changeable theme color

+ deep linking

+ some apps can have real-time live tiles

- non-changeable wallpaper

- no notification center