I don’t tend to keep it a secret that I am a fan of Samsung phones. I wrote about how I felt the Note7 was a “Remarkable Phone for Life”, meaning that it was suited for everything life throws at it, and I could probably rewrite that article substituting every Note7 reference for the Galaxy S8. Ever since Samsung’s renaissance with the Galaxy S6, I have been hooked.
Ultra premium designs have become more orchestrated and perfected with every generation sandwiching glass, aluminum, and more glass into a what I feel are the best built phones on the market, period. Samsung’s AMOLED displays had a really rough start but the last few years have been dominated by Samsung’s brainchild and are now delivering the most versatile, accurate, and pleasing displays that money can buy. It doesn’t stop there either: the camera is a constant top-tier contender even if it trades its accuracy for amazing focus abilities, and Samsung has led the way in mainstream water resistance. While the whole industry has moved forward from the fantastic plastic flagship era, it is hard to deny that Samsung feels and looks like it is moving at a totally different pace and momentum. All of that comes to a crashing halt though, the moment you actually have to use a Samsung phone, and in this aspect I feel that Samsung is quickly losing ground.
Back in the day there was a real need for UI and UX improvements on Android. HTC’s Sense software, in my opinion, helped move Android from what felt like a nerd’s playground – that looked the part – into a professional and aesthetically-pleasing OS. Samsung’s TouchWiz software no doubt was the starting point for what is finally becoming a fully-fledged multi-window-supporting AOSP, and Motorola innovated in hands-free intelligence, always listening microphones, and screen-off notification displays. Google has taken these features along with their basic implementation and added them to what we typically refer to as Stock Android, and in doing so has managed to keep it streamlined, responsive, and most importantly it feels bloat-free. Samsung though, must have missed that particular memo and in doing so still delivers a bloated experience that suffers due to their insistence of adding more and more “features”, and I use that term loosely, to their phones. This isn’t to say that Google does everything properly, or that every OEM should implement stock Android with merely a boot animation distinguishing them, instead, heavy-handed experiences like Samsung’s need to be cut back, optimized, streamlined and offer the user more choice.
While everyone’s baseline for what is acceptable is different, it is hard to deny that bloated options like the Samsung Experience have a detrimental effect on device performance. I am jealous every time I watch a video showing off the HTC U11 or Google Pixel; they are just so instantaneously responsive, something my S8+ cannot match even on its best days.
It’s not just the amount of added applications and services, it is also the optimization of them that matters. On your Galaxy S8 right now, there are dozens of services running that simply do not need to be there for most users, that are taking up valuable system resources, and even if the impact of them is low it is still something running that simply does not perceptibly or substantially add to our experience. These running services take up your available RAM, but more importantly are using valuable CPU time and attention. Have you ever used the the Samsung DeX system? Well, its software is running on your S8. Ever used Samsung’s woefully broken and useless “Connect” or “Bixby” services? Well, those services are running right now on your S8. Even if you have never applied a theme to your phone, there are at least 2 themes services that are running that have no need to be, because if disabled, your phone works exactly as it did prior to disabling them; I know, I have them disabled. If you have ever used GearVR, the Oculus suite is installed and stays running at all times, even if you haven’t used your headset in days or weeks or since a reboot. Normally most users won’t even notice one or two of these services running in the background, but when those services add up to dozens of unneeded running tasks, it quickly becomes a problem.
Samsung’s insistence on adding a growing amount of limited use and poorly-optimized software adds little more than a bullet point during an announcement and some usefulness to a small subset of users. Inversely, its negative impact affects all users of the device even if they never use the services or even know it exists. There is a reason why one of the most common comments in Galaxy S8 reviews was the skepticism over if the device will remain responsive, because the Galaxy S6 and S7 have not aged as gracefully as their less-bloated brothers from other manufacturers, and it’s not because the S7’s Snapdragon 820 magically got slower over time. Personally, I have used a package disabler to remove over 180 services and packages I simply do not need on my phone, and that is with keeping the stock camera, dialer, and calendar. The funny thing is that with all of these services and applications disabled, my phone feels more responsive, less unpredictable, and offered better battery life than before. Perhaps not substantially, but demonstrably — and I’ll back that up in an upcoming article as well.
Without the missing “Device Maintenance” tab in settings you would be hard-pressed to even know so much is disabled. I also do not get endless runs of force closures and broken features, because the phone was built to run this way, without all of the crap and bloat Samsung markets. I don’t need eyeball aware screen timeout (it’s still there by the way), or to have the phone tell me that it can clean 700mb of perceived useless files. I don’t intend on turning my phone into a PC or unlocking it with my eyes, and I certainly never plan on using the Bixby button for more than an accidental power key when my phone is upside down. What is ironic is that the Bixby key is the physical representation of all of Samsung’s software; useful for a few but is just a useless add-on for others taking up valuable space or resources that could have been spent elsewhere or used for a different purpose. Samsung’s software, aesthetically, is the best it has looked in years and deserves the praise it has received lately; but it is just as bloated and janky as ever, which is the complete opposite of its hardware which is simply unrivaled.
But these are also some of the same things that set Samsung apart from the competition; as I mentioned earlier their multi-window was and is still years ahead of Android’s stock implementation and they are the only company right now reliably using alternative biometric unlock methods. But we need a change that can be narrowed down to two things: the first is an opt-in or even a fully disabled opt-out methodology. If I do not want edge features, Iris unlock, and the like; I as the user should have the ability to remove them without resorting to third party solutions that sometimes do not even work, and might have uninformed users misconfigure their phone yielding adverse effects. Secondly, those services I do opt-into need to be optimized so they are not needlessly running. I don’t mind waiting an extra 2 seconds for Oculus to open up if it means its service is not running in the background for the week that I never used the service.
The main issue isn’t necessarily the gambles they are taking with new and innovative features, but that they are taking them in a way that is poorly optimized which significantly hinders the experience. General performance and efficiently handling services aren’t sexy things you can slap on a keynote, but they are much more important to our day-to-day experiences, and Samsung needs to take this into consideration when prioritizing their efforts. Android no longer needs an OEM’s customization’s to make it run better, more aesthetically pleasing, or more feature rich by default. While themes and extra features are niceties to have they shouldn’t be forced on users who simply want an uncluttered experience.
I love my Galaxy S8+ and often times I will hold it just to admire the craftsmanship, because it is a beautiful piece of hardware. However, the moment I ignite that display I am reminded of just how much I give up for that experience and at some point it just isn’t going to be worth it anymore.