Nobody beats the TouchWiz?
The Galaxy S III will purportedly get its Jelly Bean update soon. Since Samsung layers its own TouchWiz software and UI tweaks on top of Android, time is needed to test the new OS and make sure everything works as it should. Some of the TouchWiz enhancements are better than others, and a few really stand out.
Take something as simple as the battery life indicator in the status bar. Stock Android implementations show just an icon, but TouchWiz adds a numerical percentage that's much easier to read. Pulling down the notification area reveals loads of handy shortcuts for things like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and different operating modes. Too bad the notification area lacks control over the screen brightness.
Instead of the usual five home pages, the TouchWiz UI serves up seven. The ability to flip through these pages continuously should be very handy for people with lots of widgets and shortcuts. By default, Android doesn't let users jump from the far-right to far-left pages without swiping through everything in between. The S III's page looping capability does restrict the background wallpaper to a single portrait image, though. Getting the usual panning background to play nicely with the wrap-around looping would probably prove tricky.
Likely because I have XL-sized mitts, I found the Galaxy S III to be relatively easy to use with one hand—slick exterior aside. My thumb reaches the bottom three quarters of the screen without having to stretch, which is more than enough coverage for the pop-up keyboard. Of course, I also have big thumbs, which makes the touchscreen keyboard a little frustrating to use in portrait mode. Typos were much less frequent when tapping the larger keys offered by the landscape orientation.
The keyboard features multiple modes and includes support for Swype-style continuous input. For me, the most useful feature is the swipe gesture that flips the keyboard between the alpha keys and the first set of numbers and symbols. In both portrait and landscape modes, this gesture proved quicker to activate than the on-screen key assigned to the same task.
As far as additional gestures go, keyboard swipes are just the tip of the iceberg. The Galaxy is packed with extra control options, most of which rely on manipulating the handset's body rather tracing one's fingers across the screen. Media playback can be paused by placing the Galaxy face down on a surface, and icons can be moved between pages by tilting the device left and right. Want to scroll to the top of your contacts list? Simply tap the top edge of the case.
Apart from the keyboard swipes, I rarely used any of the S III's advanced gestures. They feel more cumbersome than doing things the old-fashioned way, a sense compounded by the fact that some gestures don't register reliably. That said, the tilt-enhanced zooming and panning controls are pretty sweet, especially since they offer adjustable sensitivity. It's nice to see Samsung exploring alternative gestures and input methods, even if some of them are a little gimmicky.
Speaking of gimmicks, the Galaxy S III's video player has a pop-out function that puts content in a floating window that can be dragged around the screen. The idea is that users can keep watching video while performing other tasks, like reading email, surfing the web, and incessantly tweeting plot details. There's just one problem: the pop-out window is tiny. If you think watching video spanning a 4.8" screen is painful, try squinting at a window measuring less than 2" diagonally. No thanks.
Another questionable feature is S Voice, a Siri knock-off that proved too frustrating to use with any regularity. The speech translation engine built into Jelly Bean seems to do a better job of decoding my voice than either Siri or Samsung's software. Voice control does have potential. However, the only thing more obnoxious than loudly talking to someone on your smartphone is loudly talking to your smartphone.
Like most folks, my smartphone provides an all-important link to my personal and work calendars. Unfortunately, the Galaxy S III's default scheduling app is dreadfully ugly. The interface is dominated by a mix of brown and beige tones that in no way match the colors used elsewhere in the OS. Samsung is apparently going for a simulated leather look, as evidenced by the textured panel in the top-right corner of the screenshot above. S Planner is otherwise a nice improvement over Android's default Calendar app. Too bad the colors taint the experience.
As someone who has grown accustomed to largely stock Android implementations, I expected Samsung's TouchWiz tweaks to annoy me more than they did. There's more good than bad, I think, and potentially a lot more good with some refinement here and there. Some of the skinning seems entirely unnecessary, though. Do we really need different icons throughout the Android settings menu? I think not.