Create Your Own Custom Homescreen Android Widgets With BITS

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custom android widgetsOn an Android device, the home screen is prime real-estate. If you can get users to sacrifice some of their precious screen space for your widget or icon, you’ve made it. But these users can be notoriously hard to please; they each want different things, and they can rarely seem to agree on anything. So as a developer, what are you to do?

One way that many developers go for is to try and provide “sane defaults” and ignore the outliers. Just this week I’ve had a developer say “no” to me when I asked for an extra feature in an application I use. On the other end of the spectrum you will find those developers who try to please everyone by making their application super-flexible, with lots of options and settings that are supposed to let you tweak your app until it’s just so. That’s where you will find BITS, a new homescreen “widget engine” that’s still in beta. BITS lets you build your very own widgets, with lots of different variables, menu options and graphics. But does it work?

To launch BITS, simply add it as a widget to your homescreen. You will then get a friendly beta reminder:

custom android widgets

Keep this reminder in mind — it’s not just for show. It’s also worth noting that BITS has an expiration date, but it’s quite generous. Onto the main screen:

custom android widget tutorial

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Note the amount of text on this screen. Unlike Apple, Google does not impose any interface design guidelines on developers. This leniency really shows in the BITS interface, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Apart from the text, the top side of the screen is populated by a clock. That’s the “default content” for the widget. Now let’s hit the Plus icon:

custom android widget tutorial

We get a menu called “Add A Bit“. The amount of “bits” (data) you can add seemed staggering at first, but I quickly realized it’s mainly weather data. BITS also lets you add the system date and time (obviously), your location, battery level, and a couple of other variables. You can’t add anything like “unread email count”, “missed calls”, etc. I tapped the Sun/Moon option and got this:

custom android widget tutorial

It does indeed look like a “Sun/Moon”, which I assume is supposed to change as the day progresses. Once a “bit” is selected, you get several positioning controls. Again, see how much trouble the developer went through to make this as customizable as possible. You get not one, but two different ways to control the size: both a slider and two arrows. When you tap the arrows, the slider moves. Why would you need such redundancy on a tiny screen, I do not know. But it’s there. You can also arrange the elements in layers, position them in pixel-perfect accuracy and anchor them to the sides of the widget.

I next tapped the time string, and used the drop-down menu to change it into a battery level meter:

custom android widgets example

As you can see above, text elements get a series of four buttons — positioning, font, color and text. Let’s look at the font selector:

custom android widgets example

Quite a healthy selection of fonts there. I went with the aptly-named Bold. Next, let’s look at the color selection screen:

custom android widgets example

Quite a standard slider control there. Note that you can also control the element’s transparency.

Next, I attempted to set my location for the Sun/Moon widget to work correctly. But alas, Tel-Aviv was not on the list:

When trying to manually specify my location, I got another “beta reminder” of sorts:

Note that this was not an outright force-close situation. I tapped “Wait” and BITS went right back to work. This happened only on this one screen, but it happened twice. Having failed to set my location manually, I tapped the option that said “Use device to automatically track location“, and went back to the homescreen to look at my creation:

Those rounded-corner things you see at the top of the widget are “hot spots”. The left one is used to access the settings, while the right one is used to refresh the widget’s data. You can hide the indicators, but the functionality will still work (i.e, just tap the top-left of the widget to enter its settings).

I then enabled the GPS on my device, tapped “Refresh” and waited for several long moments. But alas, BITS could not get a fix on my location (ever the elusive blogger, I am!), and the sun/moon icon remained ambiguous. In other words, it didn’t really work. But it did show my battery percentage in huge, bold, pink text!

Bottom Line

custom android widgetsIs BITS for everyone? Definitely not. But if you’re an obsessive tweaker, you might get a kick out of it. Then again, you might spend the same amount of time tweaking something like Tasker and get a much more impressive result.

In its current state, BITS did not blow me away. But if the developers took the time to add more variables, polished up the interface, and most importantly, enabled editing layouts using a PC and then transferring them to your device, BITS might become a compelling customization tool.

As I mentioned, BITS is still in beta. Therefore, you won’t find it in the market, but you can easily download and install it by scanning the QR code on the left.

Let us know in the comments below what you think of the app, and what creations you have made with it.

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