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The Android launcher experience on tablets is still terrible

The Android tablet experience is often awkward and awful, and that goes double for the launchers, which are inconsistent, inconvenient, and often times ugly. From third-party launchers to manufacturer versions of tablet layouts, there's a lot to be desired, and while part of that blame falls on developers, it also falls to Google, which has still not quite figured out how tablets should behave.

And it falls on us. Because we just don't know what we want.

This isn't how I usually roll, I swear.

Look at this screen. What do you see? I see a lot of wasted space. I see ridiculously oversized grids and laughably scaled widgets. Icons are huge, widget text is small, and there is no real happy medium. Long story short, tablet launchers are phone launchers blown up. That's not always a bad thing, as good launchers make tablets tolerable. The problem is that even good launchers don't make the tablet UI enjoyable.

Even good launchers don't make the tablet UI enjoyable.

Tablets have always been an in-between category. Not quite a laptop, not quite a phone. Phones being covered with grids of icons are fine, as everything's within easy reach of a thumb. Desktop layouts, with a larger grid and a larger flexibility, have a mouse to minimize the impact of reaching across the screen. Tablets are too big for the classic phone grid, and reaching past the bottom third of the screen takes a second hand — though if you can use a tablet one-handed at all, good on you, giant v

It doesn't help that just as phone launchers seem determined to have five icons on the dock, launchers on tablets seem to think the magic number is seven, which leaves gaps in smaller tablets and black holes in larger ones. Icons are often comically oversized to compensate for this, which only reinforces the bloated phone look.

Tablet widgets suck!

Then we have widgets. Widgets, which are already often overlooked on phones, are completely forgotten for tablets. Most widgets are designed to be 4x1 or 4x2. They're not designed for a 7x7 grid, or a 12x12, as I often use on large slates. Try stretching a 4x1 widget across a 10-inch tablet screen, even a good widget like 1Weather (opens in new tab). They all look horrible, but widgets only look as good as developers design them to be, and tablet-optimized widgets are too low on the totem pole for most developers.

So where do we go from here?

So, where do we go from here? Well, it's hard to get launcher developers and widget developers to focus on improving the tablet experience when we keep calling tablets dead. If we're not vocal, nothing will change, either. Ask developers of apps you like if they've considered how their widgets look on larger screens. Get into launcher betas like Nova Launcher's and give feedback on how to make the tablet launcher experience feel less hobbled. The first part of asking for what we want is to figure it out, though, and that's easier said than done.

Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.

40 Comments
  • It's definitely not great, but I can live with it.
  • I read a lot of complaining from the article, but no real solution outside of the vague idea of using the 'wasted' space. Let's be honest: The home screen exist solely as a point of reference to allow you to choose where to go next. It's why the iPhone and iPad have been so successful. It's simple and doesn't try to overwhelm you with unneeded things. Many people who I know that own Android tablets don't bother with widgets and simply use them as iPads; basically a jumping off point to their apps.
  • "If we're not vocal, nothing will change, either. Ask developers of apps you like if they've considered how their widgets look on larger screens. Get into launcher betas like Nova Launcher's and give feedback on how to make the tablet launcher experience feel less hobbled."
  • Bring back Honeycomb from the dead.
  • At least the launcher. I actually really liked that layout
  • Yes, this! Honeycomb was buggy as all hell but the concept was great.
  • I agree, the Honeycomb layout was perfect for a Android tablet. No wasted blank areas along the top and bottom for navigation buttons and notifications. Both was combined along the bottom and looked great.
  • Exactly. Plus the icon you clicked for settings was along the bottom in the right corner near the clock, easy to reach. The idea that phones and tablets should use the same launcher layout was idiotic. Even Apple fanboys are starting to say that they need a different launcher for tablets because they waste even more space than iPhones do lol
  • I utterly disagree. Of the 3 competing OSes Android's Launcher experience is by far the best - iOS only offers a sea of icons. Android's Widgets are much better
    - Windows' Live Tiles are cute, but there aren't enough apps to have a nice selection, they're less rich (only 4 sizes) less useful (they just display content, and less of it, not actions)
    - Android's allows getting a better Launcher, Nova for example offers more options for icon grid size, margins, sub-grid positioning, even icon/widget overlap and transparency. My tablets sit next to my PC screens, their widgets make them a dashboard for social and news feeds. I couldn't do that so well, or at all, with any other OS.
  • I purchased the original Galaxy Tab when it was released. I tried to use it for both work and personal use, but it never "gelled" the way I hoped. I switched to a Chromebook, which seemed to meet my needs much better. Now, with the addition of Google Play Store and Android apps to Chrome OS, I don't see a tablet in the future for me anytime soon.
  • This article is dumb. Wasted space? Put something there! Sure, the default launcher probably doesn't let you, but install Nova (or anything other than the lame Google launcher) and you can tweak the grid to your liking. The real problem with Android tablets isn't the launcher. It's the fact that Android apps still suck on tablets (or, at best, are not as good as their iOS counterparts), and the fact that virtually all Android tablets are just cheap garbage. From a support perspective, you'd be insane to buy any Android tablet because you're almost guaranteed to get virtually no software updates. You're way better off buying an iPad, because of the apps, but also because you know that Apple will keep your iPad up-to-date for the useful life of the device. Personally, because I don't like Apple's locked down ecosystem, I've started buying Windows tablets. Windows 10 gets updates right from Microsoft (guaranteed for 10 years), rather than not at all like most Android tablets. Sure, the Windows app ecosystem sucks compared to Android, but at least you get a REAL web browser, and some of the UWP apps aren't terrible. I can do everything I need to do on Windows.
  • I gave up on Android for tablets, neither Google nor developers seem to care for tablet optimized apps. Windows hasn't done much better with tablet mode, and there are without a doubt fewer apps, but the 2 in1 system and easily switching between tablet and desktop mode is superior to what Android offers IMO. I still use my Tab S2 some what regularly, but it's just a consumption device.
  • Yeah I've been saying this for years. I imagined that Android Honeycomb was going to try and fix this, but I never understood using a phone OS that was originally designed to work in 3" displays (iOS and Android) on a 10" tablet. That's why I stopped bothering with Android and iOS tablets and got myself a Surface. Windows is the best tablet operating system. It has the tiles which don't really waste too much space, and it is also has tons of options within the home screen. The best multitasking. A useful pen, unlike Apples pencil which doesn't even come with an app to use it with. When in desktop mode, it allows for programs to take up the full display or you can comfortably run several of them. Yes, apps are lacking but let's remember that windows as an OS has a library of tens of millions of different programs that can be downloaded online. Things like full Photoshop, creative cloud, PDF editors, music notation software, etc....
  • IMO, Android on tablets is dead.
  • I use an LG G Pad X 8.0 that looks fine to me. Everyone's mileage will vary - as it is wont to do in these situations, but I've never had an issue with LG's launcher on my tablets.
  • Indeedy, the thing I found when going from a Galaxy S2 (4.3" WVGA) to a Note 3 (5.7" FHD) is that I wasn't really getting more screen to 'use', it was the same experience- just bigger.
  • Stock launcher is fine with me for the most part. The non-removable search box google uses needs to go but that's where Nova Launcher or whatever come in.
  • Ok but what do you think they should do ? Complaints without solution is too easy
  • We have to figure out what we want the launcher experience on a tablet to look like and help get it there. We have to ask developers to not give up on widgets that work well on tablets. We have to participate in betas and give feedback on the tablet experience.
  • Isn't the answer Chrome OS? Chromebook convertibles like the Acer R11 and Asus flip C100 already show that the Android tablet is passé. My next "tablet" will be a chromebook.
  • As I said above, bring back the Honeycomb layout. Also tighten up the space between home screen elements (icons and widgets) so less space is wasted. It's not rocket science.
  • Unlike other I don't see tablets as dead, in fact just the opposite. Look at the trend of ever increasing screen sizes though a lil slowed now. That shows the desire/demand is there. The Note 7 debacle wouldn't have been so meaningful if what I'm saying is false. I think the functionality of a non cellular enable tablet is questionable but let's stop the false distinction between so called phablets and tablets
  • I think the authors expectations are too high. I use my tablet primary to read, check email and watch videos. Icons are fine for those purposes. I don't think there's any "wasted space". I have a good email and weather widget. What more do you really expect/need?
  • I got a Galaxy Tab A 2016 model in the sales and I haven't found a single issue with it yet.
  • Hmmmmm. I guess I don't see it. I use a Nexus 7 and an old Sammy Tab 12,2 Pro. I run Google Home Launcher instead of the default on the Tab. I don't need a screen full of widgets just because I have space. That seems a bit silly to complain about. I do use a few more widgets on my tablets simply because I do have more screen room. The Nexus is an odd size for scaling but you get used to it quickly. You don't really need a tablet optimized app for it in most scenarios. Or at least I don't. Most apps render just fine. I upgraded the Tab 12.2 to CyanogenMod 12 and it renders beautifully. The Tab does occasionally scale a bit blurry for apps that aren't optimized. However, I routinely see plenty of apps that are when searching thru the play store. Almost all the apps I use are optimized for tablets. Even my workout app is optimized. There are a handful of small developer apps that aren't that I'm currently using. They scale a tiny bit blurry but not enough to bother me. I don't play a ton of games so maybe that's an area where the slight blur might be an issue. Unlike iPads, you get a variety of options in the tablet market. I'd wager some of the unhappy folks probably purchased a very inexpensive tablet with a lower resolution screen. Not bashing it, just pointing it out. I just don't see it as awful as described in the article. I get the over dramatics for clicks but what was the point?
  • Reading this makes me happy I never pulled the trigger on one. Besides my note4 is a mini tablet.
    Long live the mighty note4
  • I don't have an issue with mine. I put Nova Prime on it and have no regrets. Could be because I use it pretty exclusively for media consumption while traveling now that I have a large screened phone (Axon 7) so I don't really have the same home screen needs that I do on the phone. I'm not even sure if I have a clock widget on there.
  • I agree and disagree. A launcher like Nova that allows for detailed customizations is great when dealing with folders, icons and widgets. This makes the home screen of Android tablets quite usable and more intuitive than iOS. However, the apps and system UI have all taken a step backward in regards to tablet-focused UI since Honeycomb. On a large 9 or 10 inch tablet this regression is quite stark and sad. A Motorola Xoom circa 2011 from the Honeycomb 3.2.6 era is more tablet-focused than the Nexus 9 or 10. The Nexus 10 running KitKat 4.4.4 is more tablet-friendly than when it's running Lollipop 5.1.1 and the Nexus 9 running Marshmallow 6.0.1 or Nougat 7.1.1 illustrates this more pointedly. Because of these tablet-regressions in Android's UI along with a dearth of tablet-focused apps (from Google itself) I find the "ultimate" tablet size for Android to be 7 inches. The lack of "tabletization" is less obtrusive with this form factor. That's also why I still have my Nexus 7 2013 32GB and while it is running CM 14.1 (Nougat 7.1.1), its smaller size, an updated Franco Kernel and Nova make it very usable. If you want something more powerful, get a Shield. I agree that the iOS homescreen layout needs a modernization away from the sea of icons and folders, but the apps and tabletized UI easily make up for it in many ways.
  • I got my son a shield tablet, controller and a subscription to the online gaming (forget the name of it... Geo-something) and I FREAKING love that tablet and use it Everytime he's not in the house.
  • My phone UI is the same UI I use on my tablets. I use Nova Launcher, of course. From there, I remove everything from the home screen. When you turn my phone on you're met with nothing. Nada. Zilch. It's a Note 4, so the only way you even know the screen has been activated is by the buttons lighting for a moment. I use Swipepad as an app launcher which has all my most used apps. If I need the app drawer, a swipe down with two fingers brings up all my apps. I don't use a lock screen, either, which just gets in the way for me. I love the black and blank look on my devices. You don't get a cleaner UI experience. If you use a live background, all you get is the background, which is the point. I don't want or need widgets cluttering up my screen, or even the most beautiful icons.
  • Where you see wasted space I see it as uncluttered. Unlike iOS, I can choose to have just a few icons or all of them. One large widget with no icons or multiple small widgets with a few icons. No two Android tablet will look the same because the users will customise it to fit their needs. For the most part, the screen on my Nexus 10 is laid out the same way as the screen on my Nexus 6. I works for me. AND I don't just sit there staring at the desktop. It is just a stepping stone to what ever app I'm going to run.
  • Right! No two user's tablet screens are the same, and that's a good thing. In my experience, the worst part of Android tablets is not the UI, but the HORRIFIC performance across a broad selection of hardware. I've owned/used Motorola Xoom, N7, N10, N9 and two different Asus Transformers and have never had as smooth experience as my wife's aging iPad.
  • Exactly. Every android tablet I've bought lags, stutters, and drains battery. Yet my higher resolution android phone is buttery smooth. I have tablets for gaming and watching movies, the two things that require decent performance.
  • The Pixle C is every bit as smooth as any high end Android phone or an iPad
  • Nova is bearable on my Sony Tab.
  • windows for pc, ios for my tablet, android for my phone
  • I guess I'm just not as discerning as everyone else here but I'm perfectly happy with the experience on my Z4 Tablet.
    Admittedly I'm not a big widget user.
    I have to wonder though, if Ara has covered their entire Windows/iOS desktop with icons since they are so averse to wasted space.
  • So whats up with new tablets putting the "dock icons" on the right hand side when in landscape mode? Instead of along the bottom. For those that haven't experienced this, the icons are rotated properly, they are just along the right hand edge. So its not like rotation is disabled.
  • Android on tablets is plain terrible to begin with. Always, always slows to a crawl. Terrible user experience
  • About the only things I use my tablet for are (1) surfing the web and read email when I'm on vacation and don't want to drag a laptop along, (2) reading e-books, and (3), copying photos from SD cards to USB drives (for backup) while on those vacations.