Is there any distinction between the key functionality of Android controls: Action bar vs. Toolbar, Spinner vs. Dropdown. To me they seem to be the same and I wonder if there is a reason of introducing new terminology for the controls that already existed.

2 Answers 2


Spinners and Pickers are effectively attractive drop-down lists, but they both have a slightly different form.

A spinner is more streamlined, and can be found within the action bar to quickly change data sets or views(email account, calendar view, etc).

Spinner within the action bar

A picker takes up more space, and is more like an analog radio dial, in my mind. It's great for step-wise data like Times, Dates, or other gradually increasing/decreasing numbers. Picker within a dialog

I do admit to being a little confused about the names, since you pick from a spinner and spin a picker, but I try not to ponder that too much.

I'm not sure if anything in Android is called a toolbar, but the action bar tends to serve this purpose in most apps. The main functions sit on the action bar, with the rest overflowing when needed. The action bar can change its buttons depending on context, which makes it behave like a toolbar that only shows up when you need it. For instance, when you select an email, you get options to Archive, Delete, Label, Mark as unread, Star, etc.

  • Thank you Karen :) I was mostly wondering why Android doesn't call a "spinner" a "dropdown" and and "actionbar" a "toolbar". Dropdown and a toolbar are established terms that everyone knows so I was curious if there was a specific reason to invent new names specifically for the android. Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 17:09
  • My assumption was always that they wanted the new terms so that specific details and functionality would be recognizable. Everyone knows what a "toolbar" is: a bunch of buttons in a row. But a "context sensitive action bar" is a distinct subset of that category with clear, defining characteristics. Same with spinner and picker. Perhaps a case of a square being a rectangle, but a rectangle not being a square...
    – Karen
    Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 18:04
  • Anna, could you please mark Karen's answer as the answer to your question. Commented Aug 23, 2012 at 7:58
  • Your assessment of the Toolbar/ActionBar isn't quite correct. There is a Toolbar class (now; didn't use to be). Both ActionBars and Toolbars can have have context aware items on them, though it is easier to pull off with the newer Toolbar class. Either way, it's not a one vs the other thing between the two, it's kinda' weird. See my answer below for details. You also describe toolbar as "showing up when you need it" which sounds more like a context menu, which also exists but is a different system in Android.
    – Mufasa
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 0:22

@Karen covers the Spinner vs Picker question. Regarding the ActionBar vs Toolbar question:

Definition of Toolbar

A Toolbar is a generalization of action bars for use within application layouts.


ActionBar was the first design introduced in Android v3.0 (Honeycomb). It was liked, but difficult to extend beyond the specific use cases Google initially planned for. Later on, Google accepted that the implementation of the ActionBar was a little rigid for what developers wanted to do with it. Especially when the Material guidelines were released.

That brings us to the Material design that was released with Android v5.0 (Lollipop). Due to the increasingly robust uses they wanted the ActionBar to perform, they needed to make something more flexible. But backwards compatibility forced the following workaround: Keep the ActionBar concept and related Activity methods, but copy most of its functionality into another class called Toolbar that is implemented more like a regular View. Now you create a Toolbar and assign it to the ActionBar's spot, replacing the old, limited ActionBar implementation.

The benefit is that this new Toolbar class behaves more like a regular View while still including many of the built-in behaviors of the ActionBar. The new Toolbar can be placed anywhere in an activity/fragment layout, can contain other custom views and layouts, interact with parent views that contain the Toolbar, and more. The ActionBar wasn't nearly as flexible.


Nowadays, everyone uses the Toolbar class then assigns it to the ActionBar of the Activity. (The details of how are easily found in the Android Developer guides.)

In fact, the Material design guidelines pretty much require this since the Toolbar is required to interact with scrolling content and other features that the ActionBar can not offer by itself.

For further reading, see the Android Toolbar developer documentation

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