Nothing quite stirs me up like people heaping praise on Samsung for "innovating" with TouchWiz’s software features. And every time I try to dismantle this notion, I get called a Luddite. I’m not forward-thinking. I don’t appreciate new technology that’s in its infancy. I’m not curious.
Which is interesting, considering how fascinated I am by it, and how generally up to date I like to keep with technology at large. I make no qualms of the fact that I am a cautious adopter of cutting-edge gadgets, though. I don’t look at a new phone or feature on one and suddenly become enamored with the possibilities it portends gazing 10 years into the future. I am certainly not what you would call a technological optimist, either. Most ideas fail. That’s just how things work.
I’ve been using computers for the better part of 20 years now, and the smartphone is easily the coolest thing to happen to personal computing that I can remember. It’s so amazing that something many times more powerful than the desktop PC I grew up with as a young child now fits in my pocket. That’s serious progress, right? Cellular telephony is amazing, and even more so, mobile internet connectivity. Every day, more people are experiencing the web through smartphones, all around the world – and they’re doing it in place of a PC. The PC is slowly becoming a specialized, rather than a generalist, tool.
And so, smartphones have become something of an obsession, as has the software they use. Even in the 3 years since Android was first released on a smartphone, we’ve seen massive advances in mobile computing.
Android has gone from an ugly, slow, and rather unintuitive state to a form that you might even call user-friendly. It has gotten there, mostly, with the help of some insanely smart people working at Google, as well as the rest of the mobile industry at large (you can’t get far without inspiration). Android has reached a point of maturity where handset and tablet manufacturers no longer have to focus on making basic, simple stuff work. They already do. And companies like HTC and Samsung have become intimately familiar with the OS, particularly in adding to and changing it.
Samsung has taken this as an opportunity to start making Android its own, with various proprietary additions. Things like S-Voice, Pop-Up Video, and gestures.
I used a Galaxy S III for the last month. I lived with TouchWiz. And hey, I don’t hate it like some people do. It’s kind of ugly, sure, but it’s fast, relatively bug-free, and did I mention it’s fast? It’s fast. Oh, and those notification bar power controls really are great.
I even used Pop Up Play once on the GS3 - as a test. I tried S-Voice a couple of times. I don’t actually remember what I tested, but I didn't notice anything groundbreaking. I think I did a web search with it at some point. But really, the most familiar I got with it was when went into its settings to disable it coming on through a double press of the home button, which causes a big delay in the home button's responsiveness when it's enabled. Anyway, here’s the thing: when I read about all these features (and trust me, I did), none of them actually struck me as "must-haves." Nothing jumped out at me and said “this is going to change the way you use your smartphone.” After using the phone for a month, I felt the same way. If you gave me the choice, I'd still choose stock Android every time.
Samsung's Obsession With Sharing, Gestures, And Other Gimmicks
And that’s because of one of two reasons, depending on the trademark Samsung feature we're talking about. Either A.) it simply isn’t ready yet, or is superseded by a superior, widely-used product. Lump S-Voice in here, not only is it not ready, Google’s own voice search product is just better. Or B.) it isn’t actually useful. Here’s where I’d put Smart Stay, S-Beam, and Motion Gestures.
"Option A" items I really don’t have a huge problem with. If Samsung wants to develop a competitor to Google’s own voice assistant platform, have at it. Just don’t take Google’s off the phone (they can’t anyway). And don’t make them interfere with the UX in an annoying way. Which, S-Voice does with that long-press issue I mentioned above.
"Option B" items fall more in "gimmick for the sake of the gimmick" category. Real-world examples would be things like pop-up headlights, automatic seatbelts, or electric can openers. They solve problems that, generally, do not really exist in the first place.
Take Smart Stay, for example. Never once in my life have I heard a person complain “I wish my phone’s screen would stay on longer” that also was aware the awake time could be adjusted. To me, Smart Stay is like the old NASA designed-a-million-dollar-space-pen and the Russians just brought a pencil joke (yes, I know it's not strictly true, the pen was privately developed). It’s ludicrous overengineering, and even then, the idea doesn’t really work, because it won’t function when it’s dark. I tried it during the day in my less than fantastically lit room and it was spotty at best. There is no way to fix the night issue knowing the way Smart Stay currently works (using the front camera), not without installing some kind of night vision system. Which, hey, I’m totally all for. Night vision camera on my phone? Awesome.
Another one I’ve seen talked about is Direct Call. If you’re texting someone in the stock SMS app, just put the phone to your head and it calls them. Magic! Except, I can’t recall a single point in my life where I’ve actually called someone directly from a text message. Usually it’s like 10 minutes after, when someone's late and I’m getting impatient. Why would I bring the texting app back up when I can just T9 them in the dialer, or voice dial? It’s kind of silly. If calling people from your SMS convo immediately is some serious problem a lot of people have, this is the first I’m hearing of it. I tried it, it works, but again, I had to create an artificial use case. I would never use something like this on my own. Heck, I doubt most people who own Galaxy S III's are even aware this feature exists, let alone have any desire to use it.
Or how about one of Samsung’s hyper-limited sharing functions, like S-Beam? Cool, you can transfer videos or other large files over WiFi direct using a quick NFC bump-pair. If the other person has a Galaxy S III. And if you can get S-Beam to work right - I've heard many times it can take multiple attempts to initiate a connection. But again, this brings me back to the "why?" When am I going to need to immediately do a direct share of a large video file or even some pictures stored on my phone to another person’s phone, assuming they have a GS3? It’s such an absurdly limited use case scenario. Does it do something useful? Potentially, but the way Samsung has implemented it is extremely limited. In the real world, people use services like Dropbox, or even just plain old email.
The rest of these sharing features, mostly oriented around photos, are similarly limited. And again, who would use such things? If it requires any sort of setup (and Wi-Fi Direct pairing most certainly does), most people are just going to ignore it. If it functioned without any setup, even if it was on any phone, most people are just going to do what they already do: upload photos to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to share them with their friends. The cloud and social networks have simply changed the way we share. Local files are messy.
Pop Up Play has been hyped in Samsung’s ads, and if you’re the sort of person who watches a ton of [locally stored] videos on your phone, might actually see use once in a while. But it only works with the local video player (read: not YouTube, not Netflix, not Hulu), which destroys the usefulness of it for most normal human beings. Even if it was compatible with these other services, the value itself remains questionable – how hard am I willing to squint looking at that tiny 2″ box with video while I do something else? And let's not forget an app that does this same thing already exists, and it has significantly more functionality.
The palm-swipe-to-screenshot feature? It’s 50/50 on getting it to work. And when it does, oftentimes the screen has registered a touch action in the process, moving the content I wanted to take a screenshot of. It’s maddening. I’d be all for a 3-finger swipe for screenshots, though. Do that. That’s a good idea.
Then you get ideas that are just so outlandish, you have to wonder who at Samsung actually decides which ideas go into the software, and which ones don't. For example, the Galaxy S III has three keyboards, one of which you draw on to type. On a phone.
The Real Problems
The fact is, most of the stuff (note I didn’t say all) Samsung is adding into TouchWiz is there for TV commercials and fancy announcements with orchestras. If you’re a "power user," that's cool, but by definition, you’re in a niche. Most people don’t use their smartphones for much else but browsing, texting, music, social networking, and playing an occasional round of Angry Birds. And not even those basic functions are perfect. In fact, they’re quite often far from it. To me, these little value added "perks" of Samsung’s are a delightful way of distracting consumers from the fact that all smartphones still have some unresolved, very real flaws.
- Browsing the web on a smartphone is basically frustrating 95% of the time. It’s slow, and it’s difficult. I realize a big part of this is the web itself, but a lot of it is the device, too. I shouldn’t have scroll lag anymore, but I do, and it suuuuuuuucks.
- Call quality is terrible. I have yet to use a smartphone with an earpiece that doesn’t make me feel like I’ve suffered long-term hearing damage. The networks are to blame, too, (VoLTE please!) but there’s still massive room for improvement on the hardware side.
- Android has kind of a messy UI. Skins like TouchWiz make it even messier. Simplicity, intuitiveness – these are the things you should strive for. Not a menu with a bajillion options in every app. Setting up or adjusting my phone should not be a game of Where’s Waldo.
- Battery life is still god-awful. The day I can get 48 hours out of a phone that doesn’t then take 5 or 6 hours to charge, I will be a happy man.
- Even the best displays are little better in sunlight now than they were nearly 3 years ago. Which is to say, not very good.
- Speaking of displays, they still break and scratch pretty easily.
- Another Android specific: virtual buttons please.
- Antennas are a crap shoot, especially on Samsung hardware. Oh, and Samsung GPS continues to be pretty bad, too.
- Plastic (especially of the shiny variety) is not a good material for a phone. Where are the carbon fiber phones? Moto’s onto something with Kevlar.
- Low light camera performance still leaves much to be desired on any smartphone.
There are also endless usability quirks that plague modern smartphones (lag switching between WiFi and mobile data, for example, or less than perfect auto brightness systems) that could simply be made better. All of these things (well, most of them) are incredibly, mind-bendingly, unbelievably difficult problems to solve. Many of them require actual hard science. And hard science is, well, hard. But you know what? We will see these problems tackled in our time. And those are the innovations I really look forward to - many of them will advance technology as a whole along the way.
And I’m all for advancement, but don’t tell me using a proximity sensor to initiate an action from inside an app is "innovative." Any developer could come up with it (hell, you could probably make a Tasker for it), and it could be used any countless number of ways. If it’s so innovative, why isn’t everyone else doing it? If you have an idea that’s actually good, you’ll know, because competitors will steal it from you. Especially if it’s something that’s easy to copy.
And I don’t think the next HTC phone, the next iPhone, or the next Windows Phone will have Smart Stay or Pop Up Play.
Iteration Is Not Always Innovation
Samsung’s “throw everything and see what sticks” strategy is exactly the sort of business model I can't stand in technology. I don’t want to be somebody’s guinea pig. That’s not to say I’m going to swear off trying anything new and different before it’s "proven," but I’m also not going to pretend that the reason I buy a smartphone is because it has a dozen features I’ll use once for the sake of novelty, if that, and then never again.
You know what innovations are? Google voice search and actions. The expanded Android notification bar. 3D imagery in Google Maps. Google Now. The recent apps menu. Samsung’s notification bar power controls (they really are super convenient). On the hardware side, Samsung has really changed the game in smartphones - its AMOLED panels are used by all sorts of companies, and they have real advantages compared to IPS LCDs. Its Exynos chips have typically been ahead of the curve, and contain some of the best mobile components on the market today. The Galaxy Note has single-handedly spawned a new smartphone sub-market. Samsung is not short of accomplishments. I just don't think gimmicks like S-Beam or Smart Stay deserve to be put on pedestals next to SAMOLED HD, or the entire concept of the Note.
In my mind, the best innovations seamlessly integrate into the experience of using my smartphone or tablet every day, or naturally encourage me to use it in a way I hadn’t thought to before. They just work. Tapping two phones together and navigating through a klutzy interface to share a file, if you have the same phone as the other person, and if you can get them to link up, is not "just working." I can understand what Samsung is trying to do here (make Android "theirs"), but as someone sitting closer to the "ordinary consumer" side of the fence than, say, Artem - a decided power user - very little of it actually intrigues me.
Some of it does, though. For example, one feature I am interested in is Samsung's multitasking on the Note II. From what we've seen so far, it looks pretty great, and it works with any app (as opposed to the Note 10.1, where it only worked with Samsung apps). So, I'm not saying Samsung is devoid of good ideas - clearly they aren't. But there are so many tweaks and oddities and extras to wade through in TouchWiz that it feels like Samsung isn't actually sure what people will find useful - they just put in everything. Simply having dual-pane multitasking alone isn't worth the extra baggage for me - I'd gladly give it up for a vanilla Android experience in a heartbeat. Samsung really needs to learn that less is more sometimes.
It's sad, but you want to know what my most desired "feature" in TouchWiz is? A button that turns it off.