Why Yes, This Is A TouchWiz Rant!

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 fallacy, 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 and generally up to date I like to keep with technology. I make no qualms of the fact that I am a cautious adopter. I don’t look at a new gadget or techno-gimmick 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 moreso, 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 operating systems.

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 (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 things work. They already do. Companies like HTC and Samsung have become intimately familiar with the OS, particularly in adding to and changing things in it.

Samsung has taken this respite as an opportunity to start making Android its own, with various proprietary features. Things like S-Voice, Pop-Up Video, and various 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 non-glitchy, 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. I think I might have used S-Voice. I don’t actually remember. I definitely went into its settings to disable it coming on through a long-press of the home button. Anyway, here’s the thing: when I read about all these features (and trust me, I have), none of them actually struck me as “must-haves.” None of them jumped out at me and said “this is going to change the way you use your smartphone.”

And that’s because of one of two reasons, depending on the feature. Option 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. Option B – it isn’t actually useful. Here’s where I’d put things like 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 assistance platform, have at it. Just don’t take Google’s off the phone (read: they can’t). And don’t make these features interfere with the UX in an annoying way.

Option B items fall more in “gimmick for the sake of the gimmick” category. Analogous 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. It’s ludicrous overengineering, and even then, the idea doesn’t really work, because it won’t function when it’s dark out. 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? Fucking. Awesome.

Another one I’ve seen talked about is the text to call motion gesture. If you’re texting someone in the stock texting 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 3 minutes after, when they’re 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 the delay is substantial. I ended up taking the phone back off my ear to see if it was working, and I hadn’t waited long enough, so I was just tempted to use the menu option to call. It didn’t feel automatic.

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 (when Ron reviewed the GS3 for Android Police, he couldn’t, and most reviews I read experienced similar frustration). 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 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 stupidly limited, if you can even get it work.

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 worked 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? If your attention span is that short, you may need medication.

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.

Listen, the fact is, most of the stuff (note I didn’t say all) Samsung is adding in TouchWiz is there mostly for TV commercials and fancy announcements with orchestras. If you’re a “power user,” good on you, but by definition, you’re in a niche. Most people don’t use their smartphones for much else but browsing, texting, social networking, and playing an occasional round of Angry Birds. And not even all those things 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 smartphones still have some unresolved, very basic flaws.

  • Browsing the web on a smartphone is still 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 still blows. 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, but there’s still massive room for improvement.
  • Android specifically still has 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 fucking 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. Fix that.
  • Another Android specific: virtual buttons please.
  • Antennas are a crap shoot, especially on Samsung hardware. Oh, and Samsung GPS continues to suck, too.
  • Plastic is terrible. Where are the carbon fiber phones? Moto’s onto something with Kevlar.

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. Listen, 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.

Samsung’s “throw everything and see what sticks” strategy is exactly the sort of business model I hate in technology. I don’t want to be somebody’s guinea pig. That’s not to say I’m not 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 feature I’ll use once for the sake of novelty and then never again.

You know what innovative features 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).

The best innovations are the ones I don’t have to think about – they 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, if you have the same phone as the other person, and if you can get it to work, to share a file is not “just working.”

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