Android App Widgets Tutorial

Learn how to give your users fast access to the most important functions of your Android app, right from their home screen, using App Widgets. By Matei Suica.

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The most successful applications are often the simplest to use. This means that users want to see the information they need “at-a-glance” without unlocking their phone or launching the related app. On the Android platform you can achieve this in two different ways. The first, and most recent, is Android Wear, and you can learn more about in Getting Started with Android Wear with Kotlin. The second, the topic of this tutorial, is through the implementation of App Widgets. App Widgets have been available in the Android ecosystem since version Android 1.6 (Donut).

In this tutorial you’ll create an App Widget for a Coffee Log application that will allow you to control your daily usage of caffeine right from your home screen. :]

Note: Most developers love coffee, but we also know that health is very important, so I advise you to read the interesting article Health and Fitness for Developers

You’ll follow the typical process for Widget development and learn how to:

  • Create the Widget user interface
  • Get up-to-date information in the Widget
  • Interact with the Widget

If you’re new to Android Development, I recommended that you read Beginning Android Development with Kotlin before you start, as well as Kotlin for Android.
For this tutorial you’ll also need Android Studio 3.1.2 or later.

Getting started

The first thing you should do is to download the sample project for this tutorial using the download button at the top or bottom of the tutorial. The zip file contains Android Studio projects for the starter and final versions of the Coffee Log application.

Unzip the file in a folder of your choice, go to File/Open or choose “Open an existing Android Studio project” from the Welcome to Android Studio window, and select the build.gradle file in the root folder of the starter project.

File Open

Select build.gradle

Once the project finishes loading and performing a Gradle build, you can have a look at the file structure, which should be like this:

File structure

Now that you are in the project, take a look around, especially in MainActivity, where all the logging happens. CoffeeTypes is a simple enum class with all the coffee types and their caffeine quantity in grams, while the CoffeeLoggerPersistence class is managing persistence using SharedPreferences.

It’s time to start tracking our caffeine consumption! Build and run the app by going to the Build\Make Project or using the green “play” button from the toolbar. The app will appear in your emulator or device, looking like this:

The app allows you to see how many grams of coffee you drank so far today and select new drinks to update your consumption count. Each selection leads to an update of the total displayed.

To use the app to log your coffee consumption, you have to launch the full application. As always, we can do better. What about making your user’s life simpler with an App Widget like this one?

Widget idea

With a Widget, you can access the same information as the application, and display a powerful motivational quote, just by using your device home screen. As you can see the layout is different because the list is now a set of 3 buttons.

There’s a lot to cover to create an App Widegt, so let’s dig in!

App widget anatomy

As the Android documentation says, an App Widget is a component that can be embedded in other applications, typically the Home screen. Security and performance are very important, so the Android platform has defined a very clear protocol that describes how an App Widget communicates with its own app and interacts with the hosting one. This is why the developer has to provide a configuration file with the following information:

  • The Widget layout
  • The Widget screen space
  • Whether the Widget can resize and how
  • A preview image that users will see when dragging the Widget on the screen
  • How often refreshing data can happen
  • An optional Configuration screen

As you’ll see, the Android system uses this information in different stages of the Widget lifecycle. The layout information is useful when the Widget is running and interacting with the user. Resize, preview and screen space required are useful when the user decides to select the Widget and drag it into the Home screen.

User interface

As you’ve seen in the previous images, apps and Widgets have different UIs. This is because the available space is different, as well as the user interaction modes. For both apps and Widgets, you can define the layout using a resource file.

You have to remember that a Widget is running in a different application and so some restrictions are in place for security and performance reasons. This means that you can only use a subset of the standard components, with which you can then interact only using a specific object of type RemoteViews. In particular, you can use only:

  • AnalogClock
  • Button
  • Chronometer
  • ImageButton
  • ImageView
  • ProgressBar
  • TextView
  • ViewFlipper
  • ListView
  • GridView
  • StackView
  • AdapterViewFlipper

Along with ViewStub, which allows a lazy inflation of a layout, you can only use the following containers:

  • FrameLayout
  • LinearLayout
  • RelativeLayout
  • GridLayout

Extensions of these classes are not allowed.

The check on these constraints is strong. Because of these restrinctions, a Widget layout has to be very simple and only use simple components like TextView, Button or ImageView.

Resizability and preview

The configuration file is the mechanism used to describe your Widget to the Android system. You can use this for setting the supported Widget sizes, telling the system whether the Widget is resizable or not, and providing an image to display when the user decides to add a Widget to their Home screen. You’ll see all of these when you insert your Widget for the first time.

Refreshing the widget

The data the Widget displays must always be up to date without wasting system resources. This means that the UI should be updated only when the data changes, and this can happen for different reasons. If the user interacts with the Widget, you need a way to update the UI and then send the event to the main app. If something is happening in the main app, you need a way to tell the Widget to refresh.

The Android platform also provides a third way, an automatic refresh of the Widget at an interval that can be set using the configuration file. Performance limitations don’t allow an update frequency greater than 30 minutes.

Matei Suica


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