Multi-Window is Underrated, and Every Android Should Have it by Now
All modern phones have multi-tasking capabilities, yet some are clearly better than others. Not only can hardware make a difference, but also software — an incredibly notorious mistake on Samsung’s part for its biggest releases of the year.
But despite the memory management fiasco, Samsung has had the upper hand in Android multitasking due to its excellent multi-window solution. And Note users that know how to exploit it get an extremely useful and unique Android experience.
Older Samsung handsets weren’t deprived of multi-window. I first tried the feature on my Galaxy S3, which had a refurbished version of the Note 2’s. At the time, it was clearly in its infancy. Not only was support limited to a handful of apps (and it is still rather limited now on Stock TouchWiz), but functionality was not all there either. For example, when using multiple windows, the keyboard defaulted to a mini floating version which was uncomfortable to type with, making the experience even worse on the already-small 4.8-inch screen. The resizing bar was also much thicker and slower to operate, prompting many headaches. But since then, the experience has been redefined and it is now more functional and intuitive on any screen size.
The Galaxy Note 3 introduced pen-window floating apps in one of the most backwards and cumbersome ways one could imagine: to trigger it, you had to pull out the pen, select the feature in air command, draw a square, then pick your application. The Note 4 made the process seamless by allowing you to shrink windows and slide them around, and also merge the tabs by carrying them to the top and bottom.
Just having two screens side by side is not enough, as the ability to select, set those up and manage them has to be well implemented.
The Note5 further refined the formula with a multitasking menu that allows for quick, swift access, doing away with the side panel. You can still trigger small windows from the recents panel by dragging them away, and these now persist when going into the menu as well for better continuity.
Getting More Done
Samsung’s multi-window solution is unparalleled on smartphones, and while LG’s alternative delivers similar results, Samsung learned to integrate the feature in a way that is not bothersome, cumbersome nor time-consuming (which is a feat considering the OEM we are talking about). But why is multi-window so useful, and why should Stock Android imitate it?
Multi-window on the Note 4 and Note5 have changed the way I perceive the “application space” on these devices. It is not just the fact that I can have two (or five) applications at once, but that I no longer see applications on these phones as static, persistent and inflexible windows. More importantly, I don’t have to choose between one on-screen task or the other, and I can quickly minimize a window, hop on a new app with the first process still running (be it a loading screen, buffering, or media playback) and get my task done without interruptions on any activity.
This is most convenient when watching videos, of course. You can, for example, browse the internet while youtube sits on top. But you can also take notes of a document as you browse a forum, or message someone when you play a game. Given that many activities take multiple seconds to resume once you leave an app – be it a paused game reconnecting or a video re-buffering – this application can save you seconds. But it can also allow for a level of continuity not seen on any other mobile platform.
Many will be quick to note that you don’t need a Samsung device to open a pop-up video — indeed, many phones have built-in options, and XDA users are also familiar with Xposed alternatives. There are also countless “floating apps” out there. Finally, Samsung’s multi-window is limited in terms of app support; luckily, though, XDA has found a way around this on multiple ROMs and through applications as well. Ultimately, none of this takes away from the intuitiveness, polish and general practicality of multi-window.
You can use it to quickly reply to IM messages without skipping a beat, to continue watching the person on your video-call while you fetch them a link, or to browse the internet while your favorite online-game finds a match. Once you get used to multi-window, and begin treating applications as you would treat windows on a desktop, it turns into one of the most seamless features you’ll find in mobile, and one that can make a difference on multiple day-to-day use-cases depending on your productivity goals (although limited by your inventiveness).
Samsung managed to trim the fat of its older, clunky multi-window iterations and it is now better than ever. I always carry two phones, but I seldom use anything but my Notes (unless I am testing a device for review) for serious or continuous usage — that is, managing work and school or extended leisure sessions.
Despite multi-window traces found back in the KitKat era, and despite a Marshmallow dev preview featuring an early iteration of multi-window, Google still hasn’t baked a proper “true multitasking” solution into AOSP. You can, however, enable the feature, but it’s not something that prompts wide-spread adoption. With the Nexus 6, I expected Google to finally bring in multi-window to make use of the bigger screen. The Nexus 9, too, would have benefitted tremendously from true multitasking.
Without a proper multi-tasking solution, Google’s big screens feel oddly constricting
Now we have two new big-screen Google devices, and one of them – the Pixel C – is meant to be a more productivity-focused Android device. Our favorite platform has made huge advancements in terms of productivity through better versions of key applications like Google Docs and Android for Work… but sadly, without a proper multi-tasking solution, Google’s big screens feel oddly constricting.
But as great as multi-window can be, it also has to be done right. Just having two screens side by side is not enough, as the ability to select, set those up and manage them has to be equally well implemented. The S3’s multi-window feels prehistoric in comparison to Samsung’s latest, and I wouldn’t be writing these words if that’s what I had running on my daily driver today. Whenever Google implements a fully featured and appropriately functional multi-window solution, it must be every bit as good as that of the competition. Even Apple has gone down this route, and developers have managed to get rudimentary versions working through Xposed as well. Given Google is expanding Android and aiming at the workplace, and competing in the productivity space that Microsoft wants to continue holding, I believe it’s in Google’s best interest for Android to introduce true multitasking.
And to be honest, it’s just great for power users. I know countless Samsung casual users who are not even aware of the functionality nor its strength, yet I personally can’t do without it. I’ve grown used to using it for navigation, work, school, and leisure. It opens up the system in a way that enriches the mobile experience without cramping it with unnecessary mechanisms. It allows the platform to bring the best out of applications and lets you save time and work in multiple instances. These and other reasons should be enough for Google to speed up their development on this and make it a priority for an upcoming release. Also, I just really want it on a Nexus device — and I am sure you do too!
Would you like multi-window on your phone? Let us know in the comments!