Most of the home-screen widgets you’ll find for Android devices are little more than glorified shortcuts to your various apps—or, if you’re lucky, they’ll offer up recent (but often useless) headlines and updates.
Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find some truly awesome Android widgets that’ll actually help you get stuff done. For example, you can direct-dial a contact with a single home-screen tap, or see the latest messages in a text thread, then tap to reply. You can also quickly find your way to a preset destination, scan a document, and more.
Direct-dial or text a friend or loved one
One of Android’s best features is its ability to let you pin the contact card of a specific person to your home screen, but while a single tap will open the card, you’ll need to tap a bit more to actually place a call or start a text chat.
Look beyond the standard Contacts widget, though, and you’ll find a pair of other options: Direct Dial and Direct Message.
Pick the Direct Dial widget (tap and hold an empty space on a home screen, then tap Widgets), then choose a contact and place the widget on one of your home screens. Now, just tap the widget, and your Android phone will immediately dial the contact’s number.
The Direct Message widget does much the same thing, except rather than placing a call it will instantly start a text thread with the contact you picked.
Don’t forget, you can install as many Direct Dial or Direct Message widgets as you like on your home screens.
Sneak a peek at a specific Messenger thread
If you’re using Google’s Messenger app to send texts and you want more than a simple shortcut for direct-texting a contact, here’s a widget you need to try.
Messenger offers a widget that lets you see the last few messages within any message thread you choose. If you wish, you can then tap a button to reply to a text.
Bonus tip: You can resize larger Android widgets by tapping and holding them, then releasing when the Remove button appears; once you do that, a border with white handles will appear around the widget you tapped. Drag a handle to resize the widget.
View a specific Gmail label
Pinning your standard Gmail inbox to your home screen might seem a bit obvious and even redundant, given the constant barrage of Gmail notifications on your display. But the two Gmail widgets that are available get quite a bit more interesting once you think less about inboxes and more about labels.
The main Gmail widget lets you choose a specific label (or folder, take your pick on the terminology) to view on your home screen, perfect for cases in which you’ve filtered specific messages out of your inbox. The label you pick will need to be synced automatically by Gmail in order for the widget to work properly; if the label isn’t already synced, you’ll be prompted to do so one you install the widget on the home screen.
If you don’t want a big Gmail inbox distracting you on the home screen, you can also install the smaller label widget, a one-tap shortcut to a specific Gmail label.
Get directions to a preset location
Say you’re on a business trip in a city you’re not that familiar with, and you’re frequently firing up Google Maps for directions back to your hotel. Instead of repeatedly opening Maps and tapping in your location and destination, save some time and taps with this handy widget.
The Directions widget for Google Maps lets you pick a destination (say, your hotel) and a mode of transportation (car, public transport, walking, and so on). Once you’ve made your choices and picked a name (like Hyatt Hotel in Houston), the widget installs itself on your Android device’s home screen.
Now, if you stray from your hotel and you need directions back to home base, just tap your new Directions widget. When you do, Maps will instantly open with directions to the hotel based on your current location, no extra taps required.
As with the Direct Dial widget, you can install multiple Directions widgets, each with its own destination and mode of transportation.
Scan a document
I’m a big fan of scanning all my receipts, but I’m generally only going to do it if it’s easy—the fewer taps the better.
Scanning documents with the Android version of Google Drive is pretty simple—you just open the app, tap the big blue “+” button, then tap Scan—but there’s a Drive widget that can shave a few taps off the process.
The tiny Scan shortcut gives you one-tap document scanning straight from the home screen, and you can pick a Drive folder for your scans to land in.
Once again, you don’t have to restrict yourself to a single Scan widget. You could, for example, set up one Scan widget for receipts, with those scans going in one Drive folder, and another widget for, say, contracts that sends scans to a different folder.
Ben has been writing about technology and consumer electronics for more than 20 years. A PCWorld contributor since 2014, Ben joined TechHive in 2019, where he covers smart speakers, soundbars, and other smart and home-theater devices. You can follow Ben on Twitter.