What are widgets?

Widgets have been around on Android phones for years, and are starting to appear in the iPhone notification centre – but what are they and how do you use them? 

'Widgets' are essentially small, 'always-on' apps that appear on your Home screen or in your Notification Centre, providing you with at-a-glance information on any number of subjects.

The precise way they're implemented varies between iOS and Android devices, though – so check out the different sections below to learn more about the sort of widgets available for your particular device.

Widgets on Android

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Android widgets have been around since 2009, and are very much like the apps you use every day.

The key difference is that an app opens when you tell it to, and usually takes up the whole screen while you're using it. But a widget is much smaller than an app and sits on your Home screen at all times, where it will stay until you decide you don't want it around any more.

Usually, widgets are used to relay information in 'real time' – like a clock or weather report – but can come in many forms.

Indeed, many Android apps have a widget mode, which lets you choose between opening the full app or simply getting an overview of the app through the widget. This can save time normally spent waiting for an app to open – but can have a negative impact on your battery life if too many widgets are in use at one time.

Even 'stock' apps that come pre-installed on your Android smartphone have widgets, like Gmail, Chrome, Google Now and the Play Store. More widgets can be installed straight from the Google Play Store directly, and others you might not spot until you install a new app. One example of this is the Netflix widget, which can't be downloaded on its own, but appears on your phone after you download the Netflix app.

Some apps are used as information portals, keeping you up to date with the latest weather or your most recent emails. Others are heavily interactive, and can control apps straight from your Home screen – like a button which turns off your Wi-Fi or a 'shuffle' button for your music player.

How to add new widgets in Android

Android widgets appear on your Home screen, where you might also have shortcuts to your commonly-used apps and maybe even a couple of widgets already.

You can browse the Google Play Store to find new widgets, or check out the apps already on your phone to see which already have widgets.

For most Android phones or tablets, press and hold your finger on the screen to enter the customisation menu, where you'll be able to rearrange your Home screens – as well as add widgets and shortcuts.

On this customisation screen, you'll see options at the bottom of the screen for widgets, wallpapers, apps and settings. These options can vary from handset to handset, so don't worry if yours are labelled slightly differently!

Tap on Widgets to view a list of all widgets currently installed. You can scroll through your widgets by swiping your finger left and right, then pick one by tapping on it. It will then appear on your Home screen, where you can rearrange it by pressing and holding your finger down on the widget, then dragging it into a better position. Remove your finger from the screen to 'drop' the widget into place.

To remove a widget from your Home screen, press and hold your finger down on it for a couple of seconds until it appears to lift up from the screen. On most Android phones, a recycle bin will appear at the top or bottom of the display: Drag the widget over the recycle bin and remove your finger to drop it. Note that this won't uninstall the widget from your phone – it merely removes it from your Home screen.

Widgets on iPhone

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iPhone widgets are similar to Android widgets in some respects – yet also drastically different.

iPhone widgets still give you bite-sized chunks of information in real time – but instead of sitting on your Home screen where your app icons are, you'll find your widgets tucked away in your Notification Centre.

This is where you can check incoming messages, as well as read what you need to know for the day – whether that's your calendar events, weather predictions or your battery level.

You'll notice a bit of a difference between an iPhone widget and an Android one. For starters, there are fewer widgets available for iOS, due to how widgets are implemented on iPhone.

Instead of being interactive, many iOS widgets are more like detailed notifications, offering links to interesting news stories or progress reports for the apps you use, like sports or learning apps.

Some widgets are somewhat interactive, like Steve the Jumping Dinosaur, but in general you'll mostly find custom information from the apps you've installed.

How to add new widgets in iOS

Widgets in iOS appear in your Notification Centre – and that's also where you need to go to add new widgets to your iPhone.

You can access the Notification Centre by touching your finger to the top of your phone screen and sliding it downwards, revealing your notifications and alerts.

To add a new widget to this screen, make sure you're on the Today tab by swiping from left to right, then scroll right down to the bottom of the list.

Here, you'll see a button marked Edit. Tap on it to edit what and how things appear in your Today list.

Now you'll see a list of any widgets or notifications currently added to your Today list, presented in the order in which they appear. Scroll down this list of widgets until you see the do not include list.

This is where you'll find all the widgets on your phone which aren't currently on display. When you see the widget you want to add, tap on the green plus sign to the left of the widget name. Your widget will now jump up to the top of this list, and appear in the Today tab of the Notification Centre.

To change the order they're in, press and hold your finger on the 'grab handle' – the three horizontal lines to the right of the widget name. Drag your finger up or down to move the widget into a new position, then remove your finger to 'drop' the widget into place.

To remove a widget, tap on the red stop sign to the left of the widget name. This will only remove the widget from your Today list – not uninstall it completely from your phone. A widget can always be re-added if you remove one by mistake!

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