Yesterday, I recounted my experience re-adopting stock Android after an extended period using skinned builds of the platform. Since the vehicle for my reintroduction to the stock lifestyle was the Google-Edition HTC One, I spent the majority of my time in that editorial comparing the device with its skinned sibling, running the third-party UI called HTC Sense.
But Sense isn’t the only Android layer of note in the marketplace; quite the contrary, in fact. As of February, almost half of all Android smartphones shipped came from Samsung, and almost all of those ran a version of Samsung’s trademark “TouchWiz” UI.
TouchWiz is a massive force in mobile, dating from the days of Windows Mobile and even having made an appearance on the Symbian-powered i8910. Long denigrated as the most cartoonish of the world’s Android skins, it rose to prominence driving the software experience of the Galaxy S and Galaxy S II, but not until its “Nature UX” iteration launched on the Galaxy S III did TouchWiz earn the grudging acceptance of many tech bloggers (myself included). It did so mainly on the strengths of its responsiveness and its feature set.
But TouchWiz never really cemented its hold on the hearts of those truly invested in aesthetics. For all the abilities, visual touches, and smart customizations the “Nature UX” brought to the table when it debuted, it still bore the stigma of looking like it was pulled from a cartoon. A bright, colorful one, to be sure – but a cartoon nonetheless. The inefficient use of space, over-scale pop-up dialog boxes, and plain ugly color pairings in areas like the messaging app didn’t help TouchWiz last year, and with the increased heat brought by the competition in 2013, the skin hasn’t aged particularly well.
To be clear, we haven’t heard anything official from Samsung in terms of changing this situation, but it’s almost a given that an evolutionary step is coming. That’s not just because of the constantly-shifting state of mobile software design, or legal action; the great Apple-vs-Samsung war that drove some hasty rebuilds of Samsung hardware and software have settled somewhat. Rather, we’re seeing some sneak peeks of what might be the company’s next steps in UI design – and they’re hidden right in plain sight.
Don’t worry; the Easy UI pictured above isn’t where I think TouchWiz is headed. This mode, described in full in our Galaxy S 4 review, is instead intended for dumbphone converts or other folks who need an adaptation period when first adopting a Galaxy device. But while the oversized icons and acres of unused space aren’t indications of a possible future for TouchWiz, the brightened color palette may be. Not the saturated cartoonishness in the buttons, but the brighter, more welcoming tone overall, paired with clear, concise text where it’s needed.
Now imagine that design language pared down a little, and injected with a whole lot more style. Envision slimmer fonts and more distinguished graphics. Oh wait – you don’t have to envision it; you can just look to another section of the S 4′s software load:
What you see above is a set of screenshots from the Samsung Hub, the company’s content market and aggregation center. It makes up a very small portion of the overall Galaxy S 4 experience – and to be honest, its content catalog isn’t going to entice us away from the Google Play Store anytime soon. But its aesthetics are another story. Look at the tastefully slimmed-down fonts, overlaid on rich graphics and augmented by stylized iconography. Check out the subtle tab indicators up top, telling you which screen you’re on within the Hub. Take in the consistency of the search button, always hanging out in the upper right in case you need to find something. It’s a very well-designed app.
Is that the basis for an entire OS (or, in the case of TouchWiz, a third-party UI layer)? No – but it’s a great start, especially paired with the brightened palette of Easy Mode, which we also see in Samsung’s new dialer and many of Google’s latest offerings, from the Play Store to Hangouts to Google Now.
But the real deal-sealer for a stellar TouchWiz 6 experience has got to be solving Samsung’s feature-spam problem.
The toggles pictured above aren’t the problem, in and of themselves; sure, they’re numerous and they could probably be laid out in a prettier pattern, but it’s what they represent that gives me pause about picking up a Samsung flagship device these days. Namely: the mind-boggling explosion of features the company insists on blasting users with on every new device, from eyeball-watching screen minders to gesture-based status updates.
We’ve talked endlessly about the merits and pitfalls of offering this endless stack of features; see the full review for more. But at some point Samsung needs to make a decision: is it the company that keeps throwing huge clumps of spaghetti at the wall, or is it the company that brews a perfect -albeit smaller- pot of pasta in the first place? If is chooses the former path, people are eventually going to get tired of being promised the world, only to be given a device that only does half of its job well. If it chooses the latter one, though, honing the features it knows it can deliver while tossing the rest into the recycle bin, Samsung stands a solid chance of delivering real greatness with the next version of its third-party UI. Instead of just telling us how great it is with a massive ad blitz.
I don’t know about you, but I’m pulling for that latter choice.