In the first of a new series on Android.Appstorm, I look in turn at each of the Android manufacturers and the changes they make to Android’s start up, interface and basic functionality. In each case, does the end result justify the huge investment in programming time and the resulting delays for end users in seeing each new version and update for the Android OS?
Here, for the purposes of the review, Samsung’s TouchWiz is implemented on Android 4.1.1 on the Samsung Galaxy S III and the Galaxy S III mini, and on Android 4.2.2 on the Galaxy S4 — I’ve sprinkled screenshots from each throughout, as needed. Summary? There are significant benefits here for new users, and for advanced users too, provided they’re happy to delve deeply into Settings to turn a few things off. The level of Samsung’s ‘additions’ to the platform is slightly worrying in places but is, overall, manageable.
One area where Samsung’s appeal to, shall we say, less technical users is very evident. From the first screen that a new user sees, ‘Accessibility’, through to the ‘Easy’ homescreen mode, there’s not much here that can trip up even the most inexperienced user and they will be left with a working phone with most of what they need in place.
Having Accessibility first, on the language selection screen, is very handy, meaning that visually impaired users won’t need the help of a fully sighted friend to help set the phone up and then enable the appropriate options deep in Settings — as long as the user has basic sight, the font size selection, the description of the Talkback gesture, and so on, are probably enough for independent set-up.
Samsung, understandably, tries to encourage the user to create a new Samsung account or sign in with an existing login — the company wants to grow its own alternative ecosystem (apps, games, chat, etc.), but it’s evident after using any Galaxy for a while that unless you want to interact with other people using Samsung accounts then there’s no reason whatsoever to sign up or sign in here. Your standard Google account is quite sufficient. It’s true that some of Samsung’s content store applications require a Samsung account, but I’d recommend you hide most of these apps anyway (see below), so this too becomes irrelevant.
Throughout the set-up process, Samsung uses ‘fun’ icon montages to present a friendly face — there’s none of the minimalism of Google’s stock Android set-up. Users also get their first sight of the Samsung virtual keyboard, (in my opinion) one of Touch Wiz’s weak points, of which more later.
Homescreen ‘Easy mode’ is just one check mark away — just the mention of the word ‘easy’ and most new users will be onboard immediately, of course. However, the reality is a little underwhelming. Don’t think of ‘Easy mode’ as a set-up wizard or a system wide simplification, it’s just an alternative set of installed homescreen widgets — ‘Weather’, ‘Favourite contacts’, ‘Favourite apps’, ‘Favourite settings’, all in simple icon grid layouts — around which users can add some of their own extra widgets and experiment.
‘Easy mode’ turns out to be something of a disaster, despite Samsung’s best intentions. This is because the configuration of homescreens that a user ends up with, after a little playing, gets totally abandoned when they switch to ‘Basic’ mode once they’ve got the hang of things. Meaning that the poor user has to start from scratch. It would have been far better to just start everyone in ‘Basic’ mode in the first place — and note that there’s no ‘Advanced’ mode, I’m guessing that such wording would be deemed to scare people off. Not Appstorm readers, of course…
Something that, quirkily, goes along with ‘Easy mode’ is the choice of five system fonts, though you’d have thought that the user would have changed this in the accessibility section beforehand if they had a sight problem. Still, always good to offer choice here, and it’s only a one-time question.
Somewhat curiously, even if you skipped signing into (or creating) a Samsung account earlier, there’s still an almost obligatory ‘Samsung account update’, presumably TouchWiz calling home and getting the latest authorisation hooks, should the user decide to use the system later on. It would have been better if this had installed silently in the background though, as we know Android OS is capable of doing.
One helpful tweak is a Samsung redone set of first-time prompts for the new user when faced with being able to swipe between homescreens, swipe down the notifications pane, touch and hold to drop a widget, etc. These can be left in place by the newbie or ticked to not ‘show again’.
TouchWiz in Day to Day Use
Technically, TouchWiz can be construed to include both the UI changes made to stock Android and the bolt-on sensor functions. I’ll leave the Samsung add-on applications, since they can be easily hidden (if need be) using just about the most useful UI tweak, a ‘Hide applications’ menu function in the main app grid — just tick the ones you want to hide and you’ll never see their icons again. Well, not unless you use ‘Show applications’ later on…
The Samsung Video Hub, Game Hub, and so on are separate on some devices and collated into a Samsung Hub on newer phones like the Galaxy S4. They’re valid content buying options but items can be overpriced and the core Google Android Play Store is a better bet, not least because you may well upgrade to a non-Samsung phone in the future.
The core Android homescreen concept is largely intact here. In fact, I’d argue that it’s enhanced considerably in that you can pinch into an overview of your homescreens, remove any that you no longer need and, in use, swipe around from the leftmost to the rightmost, as if they were on an infinite carousel. This is a huge timesaver when navigating a Samsung device.
Adding applications and widgets is more intuitive than on stock Android too, you just tap and hold in a blank spot and are prompted to change wallpaper, or add apps, widgets or a folder. Far easier than the somewhat back to front method currently used in stock Android. Homescreen shortcuts and folders can be dragged into the dock, where the existing item gets bumped up into the original homescreen spot.
Stock Android has been deprecating a ‘menu’ key since v4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich, of course, but Samsung is a firm believer that menus are essential for both its UI and applications. As a result, all of its current devices have physical menu (capacitive) buttons and Samsung makes full use of these to add in homescreen and app menu functions. Some of these duplicate UI features (e.g. ‘Add apps and widgets’, ‘Create folder’, etc.), but given that many users may face a mental block when staring at their smartphone’s UI, having the central functions also on a handy ‘menu’ key could be a life saver, however inefficient it may seem to Android purists.
Menu functions in the app grid include a handy ‘Play Store’ shortcut, the ability to create folders within the grid, iOS-style and, best of all, ‘View type’, where you can choose between custom-sorted and alphabetical grids of apps. Or indeed have a long scrolling vertical list, Windows Phone-style. Topical, eh?
It’s also worth noting that Samsung’s retention of a physical menu key, along with ‘home’ and ‘back’, means that the Android 4 virtual control icons (elegant though they may be) aren’t needed, meaning significantly more display area for content. Hey, Google, maybe this way is better after all?
Samsung has done a good job enhancing the basic Android UI swipes, with a 3D effect for homescreens moving left and right, and with a terrific side-scrolling settings carousel on the drop down notifications pane (plus a larger, static settings panel on the S4 that’s available with one tap).
There’s also the much-hyped ‘nature’ theme, which really boils down to a dandelion and a watery lockscreen (or a kid and some balloons on the ‘life companion’ S4), which is fun and, it has to be said, convenient in that you can swipe in any direction, without having to be too precise.
As you’ll see in the rest of this article series, all manufacturers now add shortcut functionality to the lockscreen — in Samsung’s case, just swipe up from any icon and you’re there. With your three or four (depending on device) favourite app icons set up at the bottom of the lockscreen, it’s a very fast way into your phone.
Switch off, Save Processor Power and Time
As many readers may have seen from my Phones Show 197, despite all the positives just mentioned, there’s quite a bit that users may want to consider disabling too. Functionality which doesn’t get in the way can be tolerated, but in TouchWiz’s case there are sensor functions (especially on the S4) which actively swallow up processor power and slow the device down. It’s possible that users, sucked in by Samsung’s ads, may want to try the eye tracking, hand waving, tilt scrolling and finger hovering, but it’s also important that sites like this publicise some of the biggest resource culprits.
Top of my list for axing on the Galaxy S III mini, my personal Galaxy S III and (especially) the review Galaxy S4 were:
- Opening S Voice by double-pressing the home key — simply having this enabled results in a half second delay every time the home button gets pressed (the OS is waiting for a possible second press)
- Tilt to zoom — this is so much slower than just using the touchscreen gesture
- Shake to update — really, Samsung?
- Palm swipe to capture — nice when it works, but unreliable in my experience
- Smart stay — eye tracking from the front camera keeps the screen on while you’re looking at it. In practice, unreliable, especially when wearing glasses and in less than perfect light
- Smart scroll — trying to ‘drive’ web page scrolling with your eyeballs becomes incredibly tiring very quickly
- Air gestures — scrolling pages or switching images by airily waving your hand over the sensor makes for a very cool demo, but unless you’re prone to wanting to use your phone with wet nail varnish or greasy fingers then you’re far better off using the touchscreen
Appearing first for the Galaxy Note and now back ported to the Galaxy S III and S4, this is a gimmick which is impossible not to fall in love with. Activated through a check box in Settings and thereafter by long pressing the back key, most applications on the phone are compatible and can be run in a dual window form, as shown here. Even better, you can set the screen fraction to be used by simply dragging the dividing line.
I’ve a strong suspicion that few will use multi-window in real life — even the Galaxy S4’s 5” screen isn’t really big enough for running two full applications at once. But the one time you do find a use for this, you’ll break out into a huge smile, it’s just so… cool.
Finally, you’ll remember me referring to the Samsung keyboard somewhat disparagingly? Quite why manufacturers have to fiddle with this particular aspect of Android escapes me, since any functionality gains are going to be marginal at best. And in Samsung’s case, they made it worse since there’s now no auto-correction on the S III and S III mini. So type “teh” and it stays misspelt. Yes, suggested corrections are shown above the keyboard, but they’re left there unless you tap on them.
Clever users will seek out a replacement keyboard — Jelly Bean 4.2 Keyboard in the Play Store gets you the excellent version from the likes of the Google Nexus 4, plus there’s also the well respected SwiftKey.
For the Galaxy S4, Samsung did include the facility for auto-correction but, unbelievably, left it turned off by default, requiring every single user to scratch their head (a lot) and then start diving into Settings to turn this on.
The six million dollar question is, of course, are Samsung’s smartphones better off with TouchWiz than without? Surprisingly, I find myself answering with a qualified “yes”. A very qualified “yes”. There’s plenty mentioned above that’s genuinely useful, plus the bits that aren’t (useful) can usually be disabled or replaced, in some cases easily, in other cases by diving into a dozen arcane TouchWiz depths.
That a ‘stock Android’ fan such as myself can come to this (albeit qualified) conclusion is testament that TouchWiz isn’t just Samsung fiddling for the sake of fiddling or for the sake of differentiation — there’s a genuine desire, a genuine enthusiasm, to improve the interface for its users. The man in the street will be bowled over by the gimmicks, perfect for pub demos, and generally guided through the interface by Samsung’s handholding. While the geeks (that’s probably you, reading this) will be turning off much of TouchWiz’s wilder eccentricities and using just the core elements — the ones that actually do turn out to be useful in real life.
(Thanks to Clove for the loan of hardware used for the screenshots in this piece.)