Before we begin, I’d just like to thank the technology world -Google and Samsung in particular- for bizarre or mysterious product names that make headlines like the one above possible. Ten years ago, I never thought I’d spend the daylight hours writing stories about how the impending arrival of a confectionary delight might affect one’s attitude toward a spinning cloud of stars. Turns out the future is pretty awesome, though.
But put those smiles away; this issue, like the internet, is serious business. As part of its annual I/O developers conference, Google earlier today announced Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. We’ve been
patiently anticipating Jelly Bean for quite some time, and the new version brings with it some significant improvements. Chief among those are a Siri-esque voice search, enhanced notifications, a retooled text search experience called Google Now, and GUI enhancements to make the touch-control and animation experience smoother- the product of the aptly-named Project Butter. Despite the incremental point bump, Jelly Bean is bringing some serious heat with all these improvements, some of which we’ve been waiting years for.
The problem: it’s not yet time for new flagship Nexus hardware from Google. Sure, the Nexus 7 debuted today, but that’s a tablet. If you want to rock the new Jelly Bean hotness on your phone as soon as it drops next month, you’re going to need either a Nexus S or a Galaxy Nexus to get the OTA update from Google.
But what if you’re one of the ones who’s caved to the pressure from the immense buzz surrounding the Samsung Galaxy S III? What if you’re one of the current or future owners -estimated to reach ten million next month alone- of Samsung’s most advanced Android smartphone? People are saying this is bound to be the most successful Android phone ever; surely Google will be bringing Jelly Bean to the new flagship phone from South Korea on the same day, right?
Enough of the rhetorical nonsense. The answer, as most of you know, is no. The Galaxy S III ships with TouchWiz, a user-interface enhancement whose tentacles reach deep into Android, touching nearly every corner of the phone’s OS. TouchWiz is embedded so deeply into the Galaxy S III’s DNA that the phone seems, as I wrote earlier this month, less like an Android device, and more like a “Samsung smartphone.” Usually, the result of such in-depth integration is an enhanced feature set … and more often than not, a huge delay in upgrading such skinned devices to the newest version of the OS. We don’t know when the Galaxy S III will get its official update to Jelly Bean, but you can bet it won’t be anywhere near as quickly as the Nexus devices do.
So the question struck me as important when a fellow editor posed it this afternoon: given all the improvements coming with Jelly Bean, should you wait to buy a Galaxy S III?
The answer, as I see it, is an unqualified “no.” Here’s a few reasons why.
Samsung Thought Of This Already
This reason is the latest-breaking one, but it also applies only to some SGS3 owners, so let’s get it out of the way first. Just a couple hours ago, The Verge’s Chris Ziegler posted a news piece about a conversation he’d had with a source at Samsung (link at bottom). This source indicated that the extra gigabyte of RAM Samsung shoehorned in to some variants of the Galaxy S III was intended as a means to ensure the devices were “future-proofed” and ready to run Jelly Bean.
That’s not to say that Jelly Bean will require 2GB of RAM, of course; neither of the older Nexus phones boast this impressive metric, nor does the international version of the Galaxy S III. Rather, this is an indication that Samsung has at least given thought to upgrading the SGS3 to Jelly Bean, and has taken some steps to make it go more smoothly- at least, for some of the SGS3 stable.
Your Alternative Is Old-School Hardware
This isn’t a dig at owners of the Nexus S or the Galaxy Nexus – indeed, I use the Verizon variant of the latter as my daily driver. But this is the world of mobile technology; devices get old fast, and these are no exception. The Nexus S was released on December 16, 2010, and the Galaxy Nexus dropped just under a year later. That means that Nexus owners today are carrying either a 16-month-old device (in the case of the Nexus S) or a 7-month-old device (Galaxy Nexus). The latter is certainly preferable to the former, but neither is a spring chicken.
Does that say horrible things about the state of the wireless industry? Yes. It’s not at all an indictment of current owners of those devices, locked in as they are by contracts and the unwillingness to drop thousands of dollars a year just to stay at the bleeding edge of technology. I’m mainly thinking about first-time purchasers of a smartphone, or those coming to Android from another platform. Will they flock to an older device (even if it’s offered at a new discounted rate) just to get the Jelly Bean update faster when it rolls out? Some will, but most will opt for the flagship, the buzzworthy new-hotness. And that’s fine, because …
TouchWiz 5.0 Is Actually Pretty Awesome
As a tech community, we’ve expounded time and time again on the evils of skins, and how an OEM’s right to differentiate via a skin shouldn’t infringe on a user’s right to timely OS updates. I still stand behind those beliefs, and pine for a world in which manufacturers work with Google to deliver timely updates despite UI skins, or offer users a simple toggle to load stock Android if they so choose. Sadly, that’s not the world we live in yet. But if you’re going to be stuck with a skin, there’s never been a better time for it.
I already linked to my TouchWiz editorial above, where you can read my thoughts on the fifth iteration of Samsung’s custom Android skin. But the core of my argument bears repeating: Samsung, following in the footsteps of HTC, has taken a skin that was almost universally reviled by the tech-savvy among us, and converted it into something with real value. Something that, while it can’t really be called “subtle,” is at least less intrusive than before. A skin that offers useful, convenient customizations that I find myself missing when returning to the stock experience on my Galaxy Nexus. For the first time in my smartphone experience, I can say this: from a software standpoint, I’d seriously consider choosing Galaxy S III as my daily driver even with the knowledge I’d be waiting longer for Android updates.
Engendering that kind of faith in a skinned build of Android is no small feat, and it’s something that the designers of the TouchWiz 5.0 “Nature UX” deserve a lot of credit for.
The Homebrew Community Will Have A ROM For You
Finally -and this is something I find to be true very often- if you can’t do what you want with your device, the Android hacking community will come to your aid. The folks behind CyanogenMod, along with the people at XDA-Developers and all the other sites dedicated to unlocking the potential of Android, are constantly cooking up new ROMs, patches, and exploits designed to give you the experience OEMs often won’t – and in a timely fashion, too. Early versions of CyanogenMod 9, essentially a stock ICS build with improvements, are already available for the Galaxy S III -check out Brandon Miniman’s excellent walkthrough video on that- and Jelly Bean builds are bound to follow quickly once it’s officially launched.
Is it risky? Sometimes. Is it warranty-voiding? Often. Is it worth it? Almost always.
So don’t be scared. Sure, here in the Android world, we’re all shell-shocked about fragmentation, and gun-shy about pulling the trigger on a new piece of hardware from an OEM that forces a skin on us. The past has taught us to fear the non-stock experience. But like I said before, this world of mobile technology moves fast, and the current crop of changes in the Android ecosystem makes this the best time ever to shackle yourself to a skinned experience. You’ll like it better than before, and if you don’t, escape hatches abound.
SGS3 future-proofing story source: The Verge