Sometimes simple is best - using a single homescreen

Published by at

One of the much-hyped additions to Symbian^3, over S60 5th Edition, was the ability to have multiple homescreens, Android-style. Surely more homescreens are good, surely more widgets are good - or so goes the theory. But I'm not so sure, having lived with the N8 for a month. Here's my Luddite and rather unfashionable perspective on the homescreen phenomenon.

The idea of a homescreen on a phone - or a standby screen, in Nokia's old parlance - was and is to present, at a glance, all the things you really need to know, saving you from going into multiple apps, one at a time, just to see basic information. Which is a great idea if that's how things are left - and assuming you have the screen real estate to show everything that's needed.

Screenshot, single homescreenUnfortunately, as is the way with things, programmers got more and more ambitious, deciding that they wanted to present blocks of information that were significantly bigger - and prettier. And, as a result, the concept of multiple homescreens was borne, first seen in Android, with three, and then five, then seven and even nine homescreens, all of which could be filled with widgets and shortcuts and general frippery. Heck, HTC's Sense UI (a layer on top of Android) even enhances this by allowing multiple 'scenes', each of which can comprise a new set of up to nine homescreens.

And even Symbian has now got in on the act, with three homescreens on all the new devices. And even the older Nokia Eseries phones had a 'mode' setting, equivalent to HTC's 'Scenes', for switching between, for example, 'Personal' and 'Business'.

My problem is this - the whole concept of a homescreen was that it would be your 'home'. The one place where everything you really needed to know was gathered. Not a starting place for swiping backwards and forwards multiple times, trying to find the piece of information you're after - you might as well just dive into the main menu and go to the appropriate application.

I've been trying to like the Symbian^3 triplet of homescreens and have utterly failed. I've tried spreading the widgets out, I've tried 'theming' them ('Telephony stuff', 'Internet stuff', 'Media bits', etc) and I've tried prioritising them ('Really important bits', 'Less important bits'...) and so on, to no avail. I'm obviously a simpleton because I've found I function best when there's just one homescreen, one place to glance, one place to land up every single time.

Widgets and icons on other homescreens tend to just get forgotten - in the buzz and busyness of life, I literally don't remember that the other homescreens are there - apart from when I want something that I know they contain and then it's an irritation to have to swipe left - or right - and then find the thing I wanted was on the 'other' (third) homescreen after all.

Is it just me? Am I too old-school? Am I losing my marbles? [Answers on a postcard to Rafe please]

The intriguing question is, given the premise of only being allowed one homescreen, one place for everything that's really important, what should I put on it? Which information is critical and which is not?

Rejected after a few weeks of trial and error were:

  • the Symbian Music player widget, for music control (turns out I don't listen to music that often and when I do the Music app is in the foreground most of the time anyway)
  • Nokia Social widget (nice idea, but behind the widget is a clunky Web runtime-based system that needs to be at least twice as smooth and twice as fast, so I found myself always bracing myself before tapping the widget)
  • BBC news (again, nice to have the info in the widget, but then I would tap through and still only see a couple of lines of article and would end up having to go to the full web page anyway)
  • AccuWeather (once set-up, with disregard for data costs and connections, it works fine, but on my various PAYG SIM cards, I like to control data rather more)
  • Favourite contacts (lovely to see faces of my family on the screen, but in practice my communications with them were mainly reactive, i.e. they'd call or text and I'd respond. It's rare that I initiate a conversation!)

I've ended up with the homescreen shown above, right. It gives me everything I really need to know at a single glance and gives me ready access to my most-used functions. From the top, we have:

  1. Standard time, date and profile - tapping on the profile name to change profiles is very useful and something I do several times a day
  2. Notifications - I hadn't considered this one until Tim Salmon mentioned it recently. Symbian normally pops up alerts (e.g. new text messages) and you're more or less forced to deal with them immediately, whereas this widget shows the number of things 'missed', along with detail from a received message, as shown here. 
  3. Calendar - only one appointment is shown here, but your next two can be displayed, an essential reminder of what's coming up for a forgetful person like me!
  4. Shortcuts - aside from those apps that can be accessed by tapping on a homescreen icon or panel (so Profiles, Calendar, Clock, etc. don't need their own shortcuts), these are my most accessed four applications: Micropool (a superb pool game), Podcatcher (the open source podcasting client), (the latest splendid beta of) Ovi Maps 3.6 and (the native Symbian version of) Opera Mini.
  5. Gravity - the latest three tweets (or at least part of them) from my Twitter contacts. Again, tapping on the widget switches to the running Application.
  6. Email - the built-in email system on Symbian^3 works adequately and the homescreen widget certainly shows off what it can do. Now if Nokia could only sort out proper syncing of read/unread/flagged messages, I'd be really happy with it....

So there we have my admittedly personal solution for a single homescreen that really does show everything I need in one glance. Beats swiping and scrolling around all over the place, at any rate.... 8-)

Comments welcome. Are you a multiple homescreen person or an 'at a glance' single screen user?

Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 3 Dec 2010