Multi-Window on phones is the best Android feature you're probably not using

At the end of 2017, I promised that I would spend less time on my phone, since I wanted to reclaim some of that often-wasted time for other things, like reading or spending more time with actual humans. But I need to use a phone — and often many phones — for work, so picking it up less often is a tricky negotiation.

In recent months, I've found myself relying on a feature that debuted in 2016 with Nougat but improved quite a bit with Oreo: Multi-Window. This isn't some new thing: Samsung had its own version of the feature for years before Google integrated it into Android at large, but so few apps supported it that it became a game of sorts to see which combinations would work. But today, in early 2018, almost all apps support Multi-Window in some way unless they need the entire screen, like a game or photo app; and even those that don't explicitly support, like Spotify, work pretty well.

Thanks to smart resizing, Multi-Window even works nicely on smaller phones like the Pixel 2.

Multi-Window has become somewhat of an addiction for me — even on small phones like the Pixel 2 (not the 2 XL), I find myself watching a YouTube video (in portrait mode) on top while scrolling through a webpage in Chrome or keeping apprised of my coworkers in Slack. In the mornings, I use the Clock app to start a coffee timer while catching up on my RSS feeds in Newsblur.

There isn't a multi-window solution for every multitasking problem, but the beauty of it — and all phones running Android 7.0 Nougat and above can use it, which accounts for around 30% of devices — is that it's so flexible. An alternative sizing of around 65/35 lets portrait users see more of one app, which is my preferred view for watching YouTube videos, since it's not possible (at least where I live) to just listen to the audio in the background.

Multi-Window is the best Android feature that no one is using.

Even without employing Multi-Window, an increasing number of people are watching regular 16:9 video content in portrait mode. Perhaps some are just too lazy to turn the phone around, but the likely reason is that it's just easier to hold a phone upright than having to balance it in landscape mode.

Moreover, the proliferation of phones with taller 2:1 (or in Samsung's case, 18.5:9) aspect ratios make Multi-Window even more useful, because these phones have considerably more vertical space to work with to accommodate additional content in portrait mode. So that YouTube video ends up taking the same amount of vertical space as on a phone with a 16:9 display, but there's a lot more room for a web browser or Twitter feed as a result.

Multi-Window doesn't just take a single form, either: on phones, it can also show up as a small floating window above another app. The most notable example is Google Maps, which shrinks down to a little thumbnail during navigation and can be easily expanded to fullscreen with a couple of taps. This versatility really does enhance the experience, especially when, as a passenger in the car, I can visually reference step-by-step navigation instructions without being beholden to the foreground app.

The more I experiment with Multi-Window, the more useful it becomes. And because it's built into Android, I find myself using it now more than ever. Of course, the feature is best utilized on larger devices like tablets and Chromebooks, but given that phones today act like both of those things — I do everything on my phone, including work-related tasks — I'll just keep doing what I'm doing.

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

63 Comments
  • Really needed it just now and app doesn't support it....
  • You can force it for all apps with a toggle in the developer settings.
  • This is an incredibly helpful tip.
  • Great tip indeed. I get so many conference calls which require a pin from the email, and you can't paste the pin in, and the dialer didn't support multi window. Until this!
    Thanks :)
  • Thanks for the tip! Love it!
  • What exactly am I looking for in the developer settings? Thanks.
  • It's near the bottom of the developer options, and the option name is called "Force activities to be resizable"
  • Thank you!
  • Thanks. I'll check it out
  • Just tried and it didn't work....not sure if reboot will help
  • Edit button doesn't work..... Yes rebooted and it worked
  • On my G3 it was terrible because the screen was too short. On my G6, with the new ratio, it makes it MUCH more enjoyable to use.
  • It's really useful on the Note phones, since the S Pen makes it easy to copy and paste between windows. It's not that you can't copy/past without an S Pen, but the stylus makes it so much easier.
  • I've loved multi window since back on the Note 2. On the Z Force now, it's nice, but I do miss being able to switch top and bottom apps on the fly and having floating apps. Are these addressed in Oreo?
  • not a simple solution but swipe up and long press on recent to switch top and bottom app.
  • Yeah, that gets the job done. I was just spoiled for years with how samsung implemented it... but apparently I don't miss it enough to keep me as a samsung customer though.
  • Honestly, I've had phones and tablets that support it for a long time. There have been times when it would have been nice, but there's never been an instance when it would have saved me time. By the time I get into multi-window and do what I need to do, I could have just switched apps. I'm not going to make a blanket statement and say it's useless just because I don't use it, but I really can't think of a case when it's worth the effort.
  • I agree; I'm so used to switching tabs that I never think to use multiple windows, and there are very few times I have to go between both.
  • Use split screen creator, it creates a icon for apps that you would use for split screen. I have photos, and gallery under one icon in the dock, xfinity stream, and connect as another icon, messenger, and duo... etc. They open in split screen.
  • My favorite use for it has been while driving. I have my phone in a dock fairly close to the steering wheel. I keep GMaps or Waze in one pane at 2/3 size and Spotify or Pocket Casts in the other at 1/3. That way I can control what I'm listening to easily while using the GPS. The only weird thing is Waze has to be in the bottom pane to work. It's just a black screen if it's on top.
  • « I use the Clock app to start a coffee timer while catching up on my RSS feeds in Newsblur«  Why? You don't need to have the timer on the screen all the time
  • In my case I do since I'm using a Chemex and like to reference the timer to ensure I'm not pouring too quickly. Esoteric but so useful.
  • Using split-screen creator. You can open two apps at the same time, with one icon. Instead of opening one app, then the other, it can create a icon with both apps already ready for split-screen. I can open ,say, google photos, and the gallery at the same time with one icon. A real time saver.
  • Okay ... so, how do you do it???
  • I know right? I have Oreo on my OP3T and I have never figured out how to do it. I gave up a long time ago and just figured I was too old (38) to understand the new tech in phones anymore and this would just be a feature I never used.
  • Press the card view button that you'd use to switch between apps normally. Then tap and hold on the first app you want in split screen and drag the card to the top where it says "drag here for split screen". Then open another app in the bottom half of the screen.
  • Thanks. First explanation I have seen. Unfortunately, it seems like most of the apps I use regularly don't support it. Oh well.
  • An entire article on the wonders of split screen with a headline saying you're probably not using it, and no mention of how to actually activate it on your device. Well done, AC. Maybe next time you could devote the couple of sentences that another user helpfully noted to actually use this feature.
  • IMO, I've found multi-windows/split screen/tasking to be extremely limited on mobile, to the point where it's often forgettable (on both vanilla Android and iOS). The main problem starts with the minimal display space (on phones, less so on the 12.9 iPad) and virtual keyboards. The keyboard uses nearly half the display, and so the type of "multitasking" you can actually do is limited. If you're using an instant messenger, tweeting, doing a search, or most anything that requires regular input, you're pretty much dedicating a large portion of your display to it. Though possible, it becomes more tricky to immerse in video or even something else that's passive. Then there's the fact that the notification shade can already handle some heavier lifting when it comes to multitasking (like Maps or Messenger, on Android). Which brings up another issue-- multi-window (and tasking) may work for visual interactions, but rarely for audio. If I'm watching a video where I just need a visual demonstration for something, I generally can't do that while listening to music (it will stop playback). The same goes for a game. Most applications aren't programmed to allow simultaneous audio playback. The result is that while you may have "more" flexibility for visual interactions, your audio ones limit you, anyway. This is all beside the fact that you can't run multiple instances of the same app and other possibilities you can on a desktop OS. Multi-windows/split screen/tasking is a fine feature when done well, but in general, there's still a lot of work to be done. Task-switching is much further along, via the dedicated button or notification shade, and it's usually faster, IMO.
  • Totally agree. I actually found it to be useless. It's great the author has found it so useful, moreover power to him.
  • Isn't the Google Maps app actually using Picture in Picture mentioned in the article rather than Multi-Window? I must say I find PnP a lot more useful than M-W as you can still use the main app keyboard whilst YouTube etc is still running in a small window.
  • PiP is a form of Multi-Window as per the Oreo SDK.
  • Totally confuses the conductors on Metro-North when I show my MTA train ticket on top and some other app I'm using on the bottom. Most insist that I switch to full screen thinking I'm trying to put one over on them.
  • Lmao! I can imagine the thought bubble in their heads; here comes a rascal trying to dupe the system with a fake ticket 😂
  • I barely ever do that on my computer.... I have three 24" monitors for a reason. I'm certainly not going to try and cram multiple windows on a tiny ass phone screen.
  • https://media.giphy.com/media/bV7Ul34rRilIA/giphy.gif
  • Oh come on, you're taking all the fun out if it. 😂🤣😂
  • Yes very good for me indeed 😎😎
    Jealous much?
  • 2014 : Touchwiz is so full of useless features than no one needs, Android stock is so much better. 2018 : Multi-Window on phones is the best Android feature you're probably not using
  • Right!!?!?
  • Except it's 2012, not 2014.
  • I've used multi window since Samsung introduced it in 2012, I think the Note 10.1 was the first device and it even had floating windows. Note 2 launched with it, S3 was updated to include it. Nexus users called it a useless gimmick until Google adopted it 4 years later. My favorite thing for years was having a youtube video play across the top of the screen while texting or browsing on the bottom. This was before youtube red and before most phones had a way to keep youtube audio going while doing something else.
  • Everything is a useless gimmick until Google puts it on its phones. Then it's a brilliant innovation.
  • I've loved the multi-window feature as soon as I realized I could let YouTube play in the background while I'm doing something else. Sure it's not truly in the background, but I can shrink the YouTube window to just the height of the video. The rest of my S8+ screen is free for anything else I want to do.
  • Use it all the tinge on my Note 8.
  • Been using it on my Samsung devices for awhile
  • @journeydan - Here's how I listen to music in the background (not sure if it works in Canada):
    1. Visit Youtube via the Chrome Browser (not the app)
    2. Request the Desktop Site
    3. Hit play on your video, and then "hit home" (or whatever it's called now), the video will pause
    4. Slide down the notification and hit the "play" button to resume listening Voila! Background music from Youtube.
  • Hey, that's awesome! Thanks for the tip. I was using an app called Floating Apps to do this.
  • I never use it. Just more bloatware brought in from Samsuck! Just kidding. But seriously, Samsung has so many cool features like this that it's nice to see a "stock Android" user admit that maybe some of these features are actually useful.
  • I remember when it was a useless gimmick on the Galaxy S3 in 2012. You've come a long way, baby.
  • I couldn't wait to get split screen on my Nexus 5X. Since getting it I hardly use it. Thought it would be great for watching YouTube whilst being able to text. Trouble is soon as I bring up the keyboard it pushes YouTube almost of of the screen entirely. Multi window is s feature that I think it's best suited for tablets than phones.
  • I forget that not everyone has Oreo...if you use navigation you can't help but use multi window...so I looked at the title of the article and thought it misleading... Like who isn't using this?
  • I've been using multi window all the way back to the Samsung Galaxy Note II in 2013. 5 years now. It wasn't great at first but by the Note 4 it was pretty much perfectedand has reached its highest point now with being able to open 2 apps using app pair simultaneously on the Note8. If anyone hasn't used it yet, I highly recommend it as a great tool during a busy work day.
  • Honestly. When your keyboard pops up, that multi-windowed experience becomes really awful....
  • Yeah quite often it covers up the text box making it almost useless. For consumption, multi window works great. For getting stuff done, not so much
  • Don't use it often enough even with huge real estate on s8plus. I would rather switch through apps . But strangely use it all the time on tablet. Doesn't feel as quick cor me to switch through apps on tablet and I guess I'm so used to it. It's actually why I have always bought Samsung note tablets for stylus and Multi window.
  • I remember when Google's version came out it ruining split screen on the S7 edge by taking away the ability to resize it in landscape mode. Samsung fixed it with an update shortly after but is that still the case with non Samsung devices?
  • My life isn't so busy that I need to multitask while watching a YouTube video, but it's cool to know that feature is there if I need it.
  • I use Multitasking when I grocery shopping. I use a 3rd party calculator alone with my grocery list. really comes in handy.
  • Don't need split screen; HOWEVER, how about an expanding screen to be 4 times as large as the phone screen. Depending upon phone size, this would give a screen approximately 9/10 inches by 5/6 inches. This then would give a "tablet' size screen, but fold up the be phone size; without having to carry around a tablet.
  • I don't really have a need for it. Double tapping the recent apps button is quicker and the apps remain full screen.
  • I despise it on my S7 the made a app to disable it but that stopped working. I always go to pull down the top bar to get to a toggle switch or sumthin and it thinks i want to split screen so then i have to click that little circle and exit the window. VERY ANNOYING to me atleast, i like some new feature on phones but this one I could do without.
  • At first I didn't see a use for multi window but it has a couple of good uses for me: getting meeting info out of a calendar appointment while also having the phone dialer up, and having my text app up while also my music player.