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iPhone 6 Plus vs. Samsung Galaxy Note 3: What's in a widget?

Living with the iPhone 6 Plus, part 3: In our latest post-review check-in, Tim Stevens compares the look and feel of his two favorite phablets.

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CNET

Another day, another installment in my continued struggles to choose a victor between my two favorite over-sized phones of the moment.

As a recap: I've lived with my personal Samsung Galaxy Note 3 for about six months now. It replaced a Note 2, which I had for a little over a year. This is my own phone, one which I use personally (surfing Reddit, casual gaming) and professionally (conducting interviews, lots and lots of email).

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Extensions in iOS 8. Screenshot by Tim Stevens/CNET

I recently had the opportunity to review the iPhone 6 Plus, and we decided it'd be a good idea to keep the comparisons running, since so many of you inquired about how the two stack up. (And yes, I know many of you are interested in how the 6 Plus compares to the Note 4 , but we're all going to have to wait a little longer to see about that.)

Last time I talked about the hardware, but today I'd like to focus on the software a bit more. Specifically: widgets. (Yes, I realize this doesn't relate to the plus-sized nature of these phones, but for me it's an important comparison element of the two platforms.)

I was quite excited when I learned that iOS 8 would finally be bringing aftermarket keyboards to the fore, as SwiftKey was a major reason for my continuing to stay with Android. Widgets, too, are an incredibly useful piece of the puzzle, so again I was glad to see them coming to iOS -- in a fashion.

Android has of course had desktop widgets since the beginning, and even Mac OS has had them for ages. But, for some reason, they've remained taboo on Apple's mobile operating system. That remains true, but the veil is being lifted, slightly, allowing them to appear as so-called extensions in the notification window -- itself a recent addition to iOS, you may recall.

On my Note 3, I use a lot of widgets spread across five desktops. They are (in no particular order):

  • Assistive light: Turns on the flashlight on the back of the phone
  • Calendar: Pretty standard stuff. I dedicate a whole page of my desktop to this. Combines about four different Google calendars seamlessly.
  • Contact quick dial: I have a lot of these for frequent contacts
  • Easy Voice Recorder: Quick and, yes, easy recording for capturing interviews. Just press the "record" button and then start pressing the interviewee.
  • Google Drive: There's a great widget that lets you quickly access your docs. I actually have two of these widgets on my desktop, one for my personal account, one for my work account.
  • Google Search: Finds things in places.
  • TripIt: Quickly tells me where I need to go, which car rental counter, which hotel, etc. Makes sure I don't get lost when I'm jet lagged.
  • FlightTrack Pro: Real-time updates on flights, right on my desktop. Syncs with TripIt, making my life good when I'm on the road, which is a lot.
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Widgets on my Galaxy Note 3 Screenshot by Tim Stevens/CNET

As of now, little of this functionality exists as extensions to the notification window. Granted, it's early days and I expect much of that functionality to come along eventually, but what's out there now is largely disappointing. For example, Strava is my favorite fitness app and Amazon Kindle my favorite reading app. Both now offer extensions, and both extension do little more than launch their respective apps. (Update: A Strava representative wrote me to say that there's a bug that is preventing the extension from always working as designed. It should be starting to record and, once recording, it will display information on your current ride.)

However, Evernote's new extension is fairly handy, with quick links for creating text notes, capturing photos, etc. And of course there are the basic extensions including weather, calendar, reminders, stocks, etc.

Given time, extensions will match the functionality that Android's widgets presently offer, but one big problem will remain, and that's how they're presented. On Android, if discover some wonderful new widgets I can add an additional home screen and tuck them away, placing them exactly where I want. (For example, I have a page of travel-related widgets and app shortcuts.)

With iOS 8, the more extensions I add the longer that notification window will get. Eventually I'm going to be scrolling a long, long way down to find the bottom.

For now, this is a clear win for the Note 3, and for Android in general. We'll get closer to parity as more devs find more ways to make extensions work, but it'll never quite match until we get proper widgets on the iOS desktop. If I had to guess, I'd say that, too, will come in due time.