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What is the Difference Between Mobile and Desktop Testing?

Owen Savage

Owen Savage

Developing an agile testing strategy across your tech stack isn’t easy and mobile and desktop application testing are two key reasons why that is the case. Mobile and desktop testing have many key differences. This article will take a look at these as well as what tool you should use.

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The difference between mobile and desktop applications

What are the challenges of mobile application testing?

What are the challenges of desktop application testing?

Which tools should you use?

While the functioning of mobile apps becomes more and more important for businesses, the migration from desktop applications to the cloud and web-based software solutions has far from made desktop testing redundant.

There are commonalities between mobile and desktop testing, but with mobile, you’re operating in an environment that is far harder to control. Mobile applications present a complex device landscape which is constantly changing, presenting serious challenges to testers.

The use of mobile devices is constantly increasing and along with it, the need to ensure software works on different operating systems and screen sizes. A user’s experience using mobile apps needs to be seamless.

Many businesses still rely on desktop apps for their core functioning, and they are often still prioritized for security reasons; they can be used without internet connection.

But what are the differences between testing mobile and desktop applications?

The difference between mobile and desktop applications

Mobile and desktop applications are very different things. Let’s start with desktop.

Although they may have a network component, desktop applications run on a user’s local machine.

Usually, updates need to be downloaded locally if you make an update to the application. An example of a desktop app would be a program like Adobe Photoshop, or Microsoft Word.

On the other hand, a mobile application runs natively on a mobile device. Almost all mobile apps have a network component and apps need to be downloaded and installed for updates.

Here are some key differences between mobile and desktop apps:

  • Desktop and mobile applications have different hardware configurations, meaning that applications run differently on each. That has a significant effect on how they are tested.
  • They run on different operating systems. Just think of Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android.
  • They have different screen sizes. Because mobile devices have smaller screen sizes, the user interface and user experience act differently to desktop.
  • Users interact differently with mobile and desktop applications. Using a mobile involves scrolling using touchscreens and gestures, while desktop users will be using a mouse and keyboard.
  • While mobile can connect to either wifi or network, this is not the case with desktop. That has consequences for what can possibly go wrong with them and how they can be tested

What are the challenges of mobile application testing?

Made specifically for mobile devices, mobile applications are split into three types, including:

  • Mobile web applications: normal web applications, but ones that have been adapted to fit mobile browsers
  • Native mobile applications: applications on a mobile that are designed for mobile operating systems. These are developed using platform-specific coding languages
  • Hybrid applications: native applications but those that have features of both web and native apps

Read more: How to Automate Mobile App Testing: 2 Approaches

Mobile applications require testing for several reasons. First of all, they experience changing network conditions – a mobile device frequently goes in and out of network connection, meaning that apps need to be tested to see how they react to such changes. By comparison, this is far less of a problem with desktop – connection tends to be stable even when it is needed.

The differences in operating systems and screen sizes also partly determine what needs to be tested. You need to make sure that your mobile app works well across different screen sizes and even among different retina displays.

With mobiles you also have to take into account the security risk posed by the possibility of phones being stolen. If that does happen, you need to know whether a thief could use your app to obtain sensitive information from the customer.

Other testing specific to mobile applications include the testing of actions like scrolling and swiping, actions that are of course not applicable to those on desktop. They also have a very different user interface to that of a desktop and this affects the way they need to be tested.

Creating a responsive design can become more difficult for small mobile devices, and their limited storage capacity can make them hard to test. That’s because a user can end up downloading too many apps.

This, as well as the variation of app features and functionalities can cause confusion and difficulties when performing load, performance, and usability tests on mobile apps.

What are the challenges of desktop application testing?

When it comes to desktop, the testing areas you need to focus on are different. Despite not being so reliant on stable network connection, you still need to test how desktop apps respond to being on or offline.

Security is also an issue here – if a customer’s desktop is stolen, how easy is it to encrypt your application and how is the data stored?

Further reading: What is Desktop Testing?

With both operating systems and hardware configurations, desktop applications need to be made so that they can adapt to different types. This isn’t just the case between different operating systems but between versions of operating systems as updates are consistently made.

Further, your users may have software installed on their desktop – from firewalls to spyware – that ends up restricting the usage of your app. Desktop application testing involves checking that this isn’t the case by seeing when the app fails to function in different scenarios.

Read more: Can Selenium be Used for Desktop Applications?

Which tools should you use?

Now you know a bit more about mobile and desktop application testing, let’s look at what kind of tool you can use to perform it.

Although so much testing is still being done manually, the most obvious solution to testing desktop and mobile is through test automation. Dependency on manual testing creates both slower release cycles and less certainty on quality, and manual testing simply can’t keep up with the digital innovation required to function in today’s world.

However, commonly used test automation tools can’t scale and they often end up causing bottlenecks in your release cycle. Despite there being many ‘no-code’ alternatives on the market sold us scalable solutions, in reality they’re not. They require coding skills and constitute a thin layer of UI over a complex machine. These skills are built for developers, not testers –they heavily restrict the amount of people in a team that can take part in the testing process. This kind of test automation won’t help you to achieve an agile framework and continuous release.

You should be aware of the complexity of trying to perform testing across your tech stack using a range of different testing tools and integrations. As explained, mobile and desktop testing have many key differences. That means you’re not going to be able to seamlessly integrate a tool designed to test mobile applications with one for desktop.

Take mobile application testing. A common approach for performing this is the code-based Appium, an open-source tool for testing native mobile apps. Although Appium doesn’t have initial costs, in reality you’ll be spending a lot of money on developer resources because it requires heavy coding. It’s not only hard for developers to build a testing framework using Appium, it’s also hard to maintain.

We’ve written extensively on Appium in this blog post: What is Appium Testing?

When it comes to desktop, testers often use Winium – itself built on Selenium to interact with Windows applications – to automate testing. Again, this tool is resource-heavy as it relies on developers who are familiar with Selenium WebDriver.

For more of a deep dive into using Winium to automate desktop testing, check out this blog post: Why Selenium Might Not Be a Good Choice for Automating Desktop Applications.

In their 2023 World Quality Report, Capgemini emphasized the need to integrate test automation into the development process instead of it being organized as a separate activity.

Using tools like these in isolation does little to help automate applications across your tech stack. Instead, you end up with a complex web of integrations. That’s why you’ll want to use a testing platform capable of integrating testing into all of your applications.

We’ve made a comprehensive guide for testing native mobile apps faster, smarter, and cheaper. Download it below to enhance your mobile testing strategy.

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