The Android app landscape sometimes feels more like a landfill: There are so many random apps, it’s a virtual anarchy. Many of them aren’t very good, but every once in a while, this sort of almost uncontrolled marketplace breeds third-party apps more creative and interesting than those you’d see on (ahem) other mobile app ecosystems.
Today’s app, SwitchApps, is a good example. It lets you switch between running apps and launch your favorite apps – two things Android already allows for – but does it with its own special kind of flair. The basic version is free, but I’ve decided to spring for the $1 Pro version, which I’ll be reviewing below.
In a Nutshell
In one sentence: SwitchApps is a tiny button overlaid on your screen at all times, which you can interact with using multi-touch gestures. For a concise description and a single screenshot, check out the SwitchApps Directory post. And here’s a video for a sense of what it looks like in use:
My own quick-launcher of choice is SwipePad, which I reviewed back in May 2011 and use to this day. But one of SwipePad’s few disadvantages is that it requires swiping from the very edge of the screen – a gesture which can be difficult to produce if you use a case that has a protruding bezel. SwitchApps shows an on-screen target instead of expecting you to swipe from the edge, which is another sort of trade-off: You don’t have to swipe, but a faint icon is always visible somewhere on your screen, no matter what app you’re currently using. When browsing MakeUseOf, it looks like this:
Since I’ve set it to be very faint, I pointed it out in the screenshot above. You can drag it anywhere on the screen, and even flick it away quickly if you just want to get it out of the way. Fully visible, the touch target looks like this:
It’s in the same spot, only opaque now, and more visible thanks to my low-key Nova Launcher wallpaper and theme. You can interact with the button by tapping, long-pressing, double-tapping, and by multi-touch gestures. So, it’s not just a button: You do sacrifice a bit of screen real-estate, but you gain seven different actions (there are four multi-touch gestures). Besides, reclaiming that screen space is easy: Just tap and hold the button, and then tap and hold anywhere else on the screen. Wait for a moment, and the button will disappear (you can retrieve it later from the pull-down notification menu).
Favorite Apps and Settings
A single-tap on the icon takes you to Android’s built-in task switcher, just like long-pressing the home button on most devices:
Nothing exotic, but still useful. But double-tap, and you get into an iOS-esque favorite-app launcher:
The brushed-metal aesthetic is an acquired taste, but the icons are nice and big. Swipe up on the launcher panel, and you get to a quick settings interface:
You can easily change the apps that appear in the quick-launch panel, but the settings appear fixed, with no easy way to pick which ones to use. This quick-settings menu is only useful if you don’t have toggle icons in your notification panel, a feature many Android devices do have.
Tweaking and Adjusting
SwitchApps is anything if not flexible. Its settings screen lets you change anything, from the touch target’s default size and opacity, to what different sorts of taps and multi-touch gestures do. It’s nested, so the “outer” screen, available in both free and paid versions, looks like this:
Some preferences bear a bit of explanation: “Adjust Position” actually controls whether or not you’re able to flick the button away. With this setting enabled, you can grab hold of the icon and just toss it somewhere with a quick motion, and it’ll come to rest against one of the edges of the screen. With the option disabled, you can only drag the icon, and flicking would only nudge it a short distance away so it lies awkwardly somewhere in the middle of the screen.
Also, “Enable Soft Buttons” is such a vague setting, I couldn’t figure it out despite trying my best (enlighten me in the comments?). Even though its description claims multi-touch gestures don’t work when it’s enabled, they worked just fine for me even when it was enabled. In other words, it appeared to have no effect.
Under “Advance Settings” (sic) you’ll find a pair of sliders for adjusting the button’s opacity and size (you can make it fairly tiny if you wish), and a menu item reserved for paying customers, labeled “Pro Settings”. Since I’m a paying customer, I went ahead and tapped it:
This is where the really juicy stuff is: You can decide what each interaction with the button does. Multi-touch gestures work by holding the button with one finger and swiping in the indicated direction with another finger. They’re surprisingly easy to make, and quite effective: Flicking back and forth between applications almost feels like Alt-Tabbing in a computer.
Verdict: Innovative, But Not Essential
I enjoyed playing around with SwitchApps, and it definitely showcases some interesting interface concepts. I could see myself using it on a regular basis if my phone’s hardware Home button started malfunctioning, but as it is, I think I’ll stick with the defaults Android offers, and my own favorite launchers. What about you? Will you be giving it a try, or is SwitchApps just a novelty item?