Native vs. Web vs. Hybrid vs. Progressive Web Apps: Key Differences for Development and Mobile Testing

Posted Oct 28th, 2021

This article explains how native, web, hybrid and progressive web apps vary, how to choose the right app type for your business, and what it means for your mobile app testing strategy.

Not all apps are made the same. Native mobile apps, web mobile apps, hybrid mobile apps and progressive web apps (PWAs) are different in many ways. When choosing the right type of app for your business, you’ll want to carefully consider the advantages and disadvantages of each, then make sure you use the right testing approach.

Below, we explain how these four types of apps vary, how to choose the right app type for your business, and what that means for your testing strategy.

Native, web, hybrid, or progressive web mobile apps – what’s the difference?

Let’s start by defining each type of app:

  • Native mobile apps (i.e., downloadable apps) are smartphone apps specifically designed for a particular operating system—iOS or Android. They are written in cross-platform frameworks like React Native or platform-specific languages such as Swift or Objective-C (for iOS) or Java or Kotlin (for Android). Native apps are installed on a device. They are built using an operating system’s SDKs and have access to different resources on a device: camera, GPS, phone, device storage, etc.

  • Web mobile apps are websites optimized for mobile browsers. Their functionality resides entirely on a server. They are written in JavaScript and HTML5.

  • Hybrid mobile apps combine features of native and web apps. They are written in HTML5 and JavaScript, like web apps. For the most part, they are web pages wrapped in a mobile app using WebView. However, they also have access to the built-in capabilities of a device. They are built using cross-platform frameworks like React, Ionic, Sencha and Xamarin.

  • Progressive web apps (PWAs) are web applications designed to work on any standards-compliant web browser on both desktop and mobile devices. They are written in JavaScript, HTML, and CSS. They function like native mobile apps in that they use an app shell that allows for app-style gestures and navigations.

When to use native, web, hybrid, or progressive web apps

With so many choices, you may want to know what’s the best type of app to use for your business. Each type of app has advantages and disadvantages that can affect the outcome you’re looking to achieve. Here are some key considerations to help you decide:

  • Business case - What solution are you providing? Is the functionality very complex? Does it require sophisticated animations? Are you building a game?

  • Target user base - What are their unique needs? What devices are they using the most? For example, if your users need to access the app from a desktop computer, then a native mobile app is not the right choice.

  • Cost - What is your development budget? What is your budget for QA, ongoing maintenance, etc.?

  • Time to market - How quickly do you need to release your app and subsequent features/enhancements?

  • User experience/performance - Which app type offers the best user experience for the functionality you need to build? Which app type has optimum performance?

  • Security - How secure does your app and the information it can access need to be?

  • Local device access - Does the app need to access any hardware on the device it’s installed on, such as the camera, GPS, phone, or local storage?

How to choose the right type of app for your business

The app type you choose will depend on the business case and target user base for your app. Other factors like cost and ease of development/deployment may also be important to you. Here are the key advantages and disadvantages of each type of app to help you choose the best one for your business:

Native apps

  • Advantages: good user experience/performance, supports complex functionality (including games) and sophisticated animations, connects to IoT devices, good security

  • Disadvantages: high development/maintenance costs, slow deployment, requires more effort/skills to develop, not supported on desktop, requires users to update for the latest fixes/features

Web apps

  • Advantages: cost-effective, easy to develop, fast deployment, accessible on desktop and mobile devices, updates automatically

  • Disadvantages: security gaps, lacking user experience/performance, not available offline

Hybrid apps

  • Advantages: easier to develop than native apps but provide similar benefits, accessible on desktop and mobile devices, good security, updates automatically

  • Disadvantages: high maintenance costs, slow deployment

Progressive Web Apps (PWAs)

  • Advantages: ease of development, no downloads required, accessible on desktop and mobile devices, updates automatically

  • Disadvantages: limited iOS support, no discoverability via the App Store, no push notifications, no game support, no background sync

The bottom line: native apps remain the gold standard for companies that want to deliver a premium user experience on both iOS and Android devices. However, for companies that want to prioritize faster, easier, and cost-effective development and testing, both PWAs and hybrid web apps will be the more suited options.

Web apps and PWAs testing

Because of these differences between web/PWA and mobile apps, the testing approach should also be different.

Why test web apps/PWAs?

If web apps are essentially websites and have already been tested for regular browsers, why do they need to be tested separately on mobile devices? The reason is that there are major differences between regular computers and mobile devices, such as:

  • Mobile devices’ screens are significantly smaller.

  • Mobile devices have less memory and less storage space.

  • Mobile devices use cellular network connection and WiFi, while regular computers use

  • WiFi/ethernet connected to broadband.

  • Mobile devices have limited battery life and are designed to be used while unplugged most of the time.

The cost of cellular data depends on the amount of data used.

What to test in web apps and PWAs

Taking into consideration all these differences, web app/PWA tests should include the tests listed below. However, Progressive Web Apps do come with some extras that should be tested (check out this PWA testing webinar from Sauce Labs Sr. Solutions Architect Wim Selles to learn more).

  • Functional testing: Run end-to-end tests to verify that the functionality is working as expected.

  • Installation (for PWAs): Confirm that you can download, install, and open the PWA.

  • Visual UI testing: Verify that all UI elements are fully visible and well-aligned for mobile device screens. Run this test for different screen sizes and resolutions.

  • Cellular data consumption: Web apps rely heavily on transferring data from a server. If the amount of data is excessive, it might exhaust the user’s data plan and make the app unusable or crash it.

  • App performance: The amount of memory and storage space might differ significantly between mobile devices and regular computers, and even between different mobile devices. This and the fact that mobile devices use cellular connection might cause significant differences in performance.

  • Browser accessibility (for PWAs): Confirm that the PWA works in all browsers.

  • Responsiveness: Verify that the app can be used on any screen size and that the content is available at any viewport size.

  • Connectivity issues: Test an app’s behavior when switching between cellular and WiFi connection. Important to note that extensive use of ad networks might cause bottlenecks.

  • Battery usage: Extensive use of JavaScript might cause fast battery consumption.

  • Offline experience (for PWAs): Confirm that the PWA provides a custom page when users are offline so they stay within the app. Verify that the app’s functionality works the same both offline and online.

  • Accessibility: Test and verify that all user interactions meet the WCAG 2.0 requirements for accessibility.

  • Discoverable: Confirm the app can be discovered via search.

Native and hybrid apps testing

What to test in native and hybrid apps

Native and hybrid apps use different underlying technologies, but they are similar in terms of the functionality they provide - hence, the testing approach will be the same for both types of apps. For functional testing, you will want to test that all of the app's features work as expected. Important functional tests include:

  • Testing the app’s use of built-in device resources: location, camera, address book, etc.

  • Testing the app’s behavior if it faces interruptions like phone calls, SMS and messages, push notifications, etc.

  • Screen orientation testing

  • Gesture testing

Given the explosive proliferation of mobile devices, compatibility testing is critical to ensuring the app works on the devices (and models) most popular with your audience, as connectivity testing:

  • Test with different types of connection

  • Switch between different connection types

  • Test without network connection (if the app is designed to work offline)

Finally, performance testing is an important consideration when testing native and hybrid apps.

Testing tools

There are plenty of tools available for mobile and web app testing. They use different technologies to create and run tests. The diversity of supported features is amazing. Different tools support different operating systems, different types of apps, real devices, simulators, and emulators. Some of them are open source, and some of them are commercial. Some tools run on a cloud, others run locally. This list is just an overview of some existing testing frameworks and their abilities to use web and native apps.

Image > web-native-hybrid-android-ios-testing-tools-matrix

Summary

Native mobile apps, web mobile apps, hybrid mobile apps and progressive web apps each have distinct advantages and disadvantages. What you use will depend on what works best for your business. When testing these apps, adopting a customized approach that is tailored to the type of app will help you ensure a complete testing strategy and deliver the best user experience to your customers.


Written by

Sauce Labs


Topics

Mobile TestingNative AppsHybrid AppsProgressive Web Apps (PWA)