When I first discussed iOS 14 on June 23, 2020, I guessed that the new widget feature would be one of the more noticeable improvements. What I did not realize was how popular it would be and how much I would enjoy the feature. People like me who use their products to be productive find many great uses. And people who just want to change the look of their iPhone also love this feature, which is evident from all the photos I see of creative iPhone screens and the buzz around them. For example, when Kat Mogus posted a short video on TikTok to show how she used the amazing Widgetsmith app to create what she says is her “aesthetic of”
Create a widget
Apple has a useful page on the Web site that explains how to create, edit, and delete widgets. In short, tap an empty area on the screen to enter “jiggle mode” where you can move apps around. In that mode you will see a plus sign at the top left. Tap the plus sign to bring up a screen with some suggested widgets at the top, followed by a list of all your apps that have been updated to take advantage of iOS 14 widgets. You can simply scroll to find something useful or use the search box at the top to search for something specific.
For example, let’s say you want to place a calendar widget from the built-in Calendar app. Tap Calendar and this will display a screen where you can see each of the possible sizes of the widget. In this case it is a 2×2, a 2×4 and a 4×4. Tap one of them, then drag it to the Home screen.
You can either place a widget in its own room on the home screen, or you can place a widget on top of another widget in a pile – more on that below.
Space for widgets
If you’re like me, you’ve considered the 24 app areas on your first home screen to be first-class real estate, and the second is only important for the four apps at the bottom of every home screen. So at first I was reluctant to place even the smallest 2×2 widget on my screen because I did not want to give up four different apps for just a single widget. But I soon realized that I was wrong when I stuck to my old ways. Here’s why.
Only when you place a widget for an app on the home screen do you really not need the app icon anymore. For example, if you place the Calendar widget on the Home screen and tap it, it will launch the Calendar app. Place a widget for a to-do app, and you no longer need the app icon on the main screen. This allows you to fit at least four app icons, but you no longer need one of these app icons on the home screen.
Second, as mentioned above, you can stack multiple widgets. If you stack four widgets in a 4×4 widget area, you are using the same property on the screen as the four apps themselves would have used. You can switch between the widgets in a stack by simply swiping up or down on the stack.
Thirdly, I realized that it really was not that difficult for me to choose a number of apps that used to be on my first home screen that worked just as well on my second screen. For example, on my iPhone, there are apps like Dropbox and Facebook and eero and Files that I use often, but it’s not really a big deal to swipe over once to another screen to get to them. The slight disadvantage is outweighed by the usefulness of using widgets on the first screen, as discussed below. In addition, it has given me a new reason to go to the other screen on my iPhone, which is now a perfect place for me to place even more widgets – or currently one of the big 4×4 widgets. As for the apps that used to be on my second screen, they are now on my third (and last) screen organized in folders. The apps that are not important enough to be on any of the three screens are now on hidden screens. If I want to use some of the less used apps, I use the new App Library feature in iOS 14 to keep track of all of these.
Please note that I’m only talking about real estate on the iPhone because unfortunately you are not currently able to place a widget on the main body of an iPad screen. They have to live on the left side of the screen, which means that there is actually less space for widgets on a large iPad screen than on a small iPhone screen. And it just makes no sense. I still find widgets incredibly useful on the iPad, but with all the extra space on the iPad screen, I would love to be able to place widgets anywhere, just like the iPhone. This is so obvious that I have to imagine that Apple is working on adding this in a future update to iPadOS.
The usefulness of small programs
Now comes the fun part: using widgets to enhance your life. I love widgets because they display the useful information I need the most, and often make it unnecessary to open the app to get the information I need. For most widgets, you get to choose what information to display, so that the information you see is the information that is most useful to you.
For example, even though I sometimes use the built-in Calendar app, I prefer to use Fantastical (an app I recently discussed in this post), and it has some great widgets. There are currently 12 different widgets to choose from. In the smallest 2×2 size you can choose to see what’s happening, a list of upcoming events, the whole month or just today’s date (in two possible formats). Larger module sizes can display even more information.
I use things to keep track of my “to do” list for work – movements, appeals, discoveries and other projects I work on. The 2×2 version of the Things widgets is large enough to display the three elements at the top of my list, which are the elements I will most likely work on every day. I find it very useful that when I am on my home screen, I am gently reminded of the most important tasks I have to work on.
Another app with amazing widgets is Carrot Weather (which I reviewed in 2018). It has twelve widgets. These widgets are updated throughout the day to show you the weather, and if you pay for a Tier 3 subscription, it’s a widget that displays a weather radar so you can see if rain clouds are near. The Carrot app also has an optional personality. It can be serious and just give you facts, or you can turn on the snarky feature for the app to make stupid (and often timely) comments along with the weather.
The built-in Photos app has three widgets in 2×2, 2×4 or 4×4 sizes, which show a special moment selected by the Memories section of the Photos app. The chosen image changes during the day, and it often puts a smile on my face to look at a picture of my kids when they were younger (and cuter!) While working on the iPhone. For more control over photos, the Widgetsmith app will rotate through photos that are within a specific album in the Photos app. This allows you to use Widgetsmith to display an image of your spouse, children, pets, etc. that changes over time – no matter what you do to one of your albums.
Some of these widgets will be useful on their own, but as I mentioned above, dragging one widget on top of another can create a bunch of widgets. As I mentioned above, you can swipe up and down to manually swap through the widgets in a pile. Even better, if you hold your finger down on a stack for a second or two, you will see an option to edit the stack and use the Smart Rotate feature. (You can also use that feature to rearrange or delete widgets in a stack.)
The Smart Rotate feature is one of the best parts of widgets. During the day, the iPhone rotates the widgets with Smart Rotate turned on, and often tries to show you the widget that may be most useful at that time of day. I love this feature because I look at the iPhone and iPad home screen often, and over a relatively short period of time when the widgets rotate, I end up seeing all the widgets in a pile. In a 2×2 room that would normally be devoted to four static app icons that need to be pressed to see useful information, a 2×2 widget gives me a way to launch one of the four apps, while showing me useful (or fun) information that often makes it unnecessary to launch the app. By often seeing information such as my upcoming schedule and weather, with some pictures thrown in to give me an occasional smile, the space that had four static app icons now becomes much more productive and happy.
For example, I currently have the Fantastical widget and the Things widget in a single pile. When they switch back and forth during the day, I get subtle reminders of what is coming and what to work on. With only two modules in a pile, if the one I want to see does not appear at the moment, it only takes one quick swipe to see the other. And then I can tap on one of them to launch the Fantastical or Things app.
Speaking of Smart Rotate, it’s a similar feature if you use the Widgetsmith app. That app allows you to choose from a large selection of information to display – in many different styles, fonts, colors, etc. – and then you can have the information displayed in the widget changed based on the time of day. This is a great idea that other developers should copy. Carrot Weather is already doing that; for the 2×4 modules that I show on my iPad, in the morning it shows me the hourly temperature for the next few hours, but at the end of the day it shows me the daily temperature for the next few days.
You can not interact with the items displayed on the module. For example, for the Fantastical widget, I simply see my calendar items, and by tapping anywhere on the widget, the app launches so I can dig deeper into the app itself. But there is one exception at the moment: the Shortcuts app. Although the 2×2 version of the widget is used to launch a specific shortcut, the 2×4 widget displays four shortcuts, and the 4×4 widget contains eight shortcuts. It selects the shortcuts from whichever folder you choose, so in the shortcut program you can create a folder called “widgets” and place the four or eight shortcuts you want there. It is very useful to start a shortcut and start using it directly from the home screen. I’m currently using a 4×4 shortcut widget on the second home screen so I can launch 8 shortcuts – the last one is a pretty shortcut that just launches the shortcut app, making it unnecessary for me to have a shortcut icon on the home screen.
I’m still trying to decide which shortcuts to place on the large widget. I recommend that you include a shortcut to start shortcuts for one of the shortcuts, making it unnecessary to have the shortcut app on the Home screen.
This is not all good news. I’m currently working through a bug that one of my widgets will work on when started in the shortcut program, but will not work when started from the widget. I’m still not sure if the fault lies with me or Apple on that fault. Nevertheless, it is already obvious that the shortcut widget is one of the most powerful widgets.
The widgets feature has fundamentally changed the way I communicate with the iPhone home screen. This is probably the most important thing to happen to the primary screen of my phone since I started using an iPhone in the first place. And these are early days. Many popular apps have not yet been updated to support widgets, and those that have are likely to have even better widgets in the future, as we will all find out what’s best about this feature. Furthermore, the ability to create widgets will cause people to create new apps that did not exist before. Widgetsmith in itself is a perfect example, and when I wrote this post, I learned about a new app called Scribblet that lets you write anything – a handwritten to-do list, a drawing, an inspirational quote, etc. – and make it appear in a widget. Sribble in itself may not be my cup of tea, but it shows that developers are coming up with new ideas to take advantage of what widgets can do. And finally, there’s Apple itself, which I’m sure will improve widgets in the future – which will hopefully allow widgets to be placed anywhere on an iPad screen. Suffice it to say that widgets are already good, this feature will definitely be even better in the future.