Believe it or not, Samsung has done something many of us didn’t think was possible: it has made great software. Tomorrow, it will unveil a pile of new phones — the thoroughly leaked Galaxy S10 lineup — and all them should be running the new “One UI” software, which is built on top of Android 9 Pie.
I’ve been testing One UI on a Galaxy S9 for the past week or so and thus far I really like it. In some ways, I like it better than what Google itself is shipping on the Pixel 3. If it weren’t for the fact that I don’t yet trust Samsung to deliver major software updates quickly, I would be shouting about One UI from the rooftops. As it is, I just want to point out that it’s time for us to stop instinctively turning our noses up at Samsung’s version of Android.
There are still some annoying parts of One UI, but they don’t ruin what is otherwise a full-featured, coherent, and (dare I say) thoughtful version of Android. This is not the conventional wisdom about Samsung software.
If you haven’t been paying close attention to the world of Android in the past few years you might have missed something: we don’t talk about “skins” much anymore. We used to think that there was such a thing as “pure” Android, which was then sullied by unnecessary and annoying layers of software slathered on top of it.
Nowadays, “pure” Android does much less than it used to. The basic Android Open Source Project (AOSP) version of it is not something you’d really want to use on its own anymore — too many important pieces have been pulled out of open source and are now distributed by either Google or the manufacturer instead.
So to talk about “pure” Android and “skins” is sort of to miss the point. Most phones built on Android have custom software that goes way deeper than the skin, whether they’re made by Samsung, by Xiaomi or — yes — even by Google.
All of which is context I feel like I need to lay down because Samsung’s software customizations have a long and well-earned reputation for being buggy, garish, and laden with gimmicks.
I’m talking about TouchWiz, of course. It was necessary in the early days when Android (and Windows Mobile, where TouchWiz was born) wasn’t really good enough for the average user. But Samsung couldn’t help itself, it combined extra features with its attempt to make the UI more iPhone-like. All those features were confusing and bogged everything down.
On top of everything else, TouchWiz just lacked taste. A version of TouchWiz made a water-droplet noise every time you touched the phone. By default, it went “bloop” with every tap. Eventually, Samsung realized that the brand was tainted and renamed it the “Samsung Experience.” When it did, as Vlad Savov pointed out, it was probably because Samsung was already beginning to really improve the software experience. But I think it didn’t go quite far enough — a deeper redesign was needed.
Now, we have One UI. I can’t go quite so far as to say that everything has changed forever when it comes to Samsung’s customizations. There are still multiple versions of some apps because both Google and Samsung insist on having their software present. Samsung phones also have a reputation for getting a little laggy (the technical term is cruft) over time, and I don’t know yet whether One UI and Android 9 will suffer the same fate. But I do know that one week in, this OS actually feels intentional and designed instead of just having a bunch of features tacked on.
Historically, we’ve thought of all those customizations as unnecessary add-ons. But that’s not quite right anymore — customizing AOSP is necessary these days. Instead, we should judge a Samsung phone on its own merits as a phone, not as stuff bolted on to some idealized “pure” version of the phone that can’t really exist anymore.
One UI consists of four key parts. One is the basic update to Android 9 Pie, which means you’ll get a ton of small features for free. Second, there is a generalized update to the look and feel — everything is just a little cleaner and more tasteful than before. Samsung has realized that neon is only cool in small doses.
Third, because this is Samsung, there are just a million features hidden in every corner of the OS. Some of them — like a dark mode — are genuinely useful. Others will remind people of the bad old days of TouchWiz. But overall Samsung is doing a better job of surfacing them progressively as you use the phone, instead of asking you to wade though arcane and opaquely named settings screens in the first 15 minutes of using the phone.
The last big feature to talk about in One UI is the first one most people will notice: big, giant header text inside apps. When you open up an app like Messages or Settings you’ll see the name of the app in a field of white (or black, in dark mode) that takes up the entire top half of the screen. When you scroll, though, the giant header shrinks down and you have a full screen of content.
The idea is that it makes it easier for your thumb to actually reach the thing you want, because it’s pushed down to the bottom half of the screen. Our phones are so big, the thinking goes, that it’s better to toss away half the screen to a header and let us reach something quickly.
There’s a difference between a gimmick and a feature. And when you see this big header thing, at first it definitely feels like a gimmick. But then you use it and it feels natural and normal. That’s the difference. A gimmick says “Hey, look at me, look at me!” A feature just makes your phone better without you having to think about it. (Bixby, Samsung’s assistant software, still feels like it’s in the gimmick category.)
But there’s still a problem, and it’s a big one: software updates. It took Samsung four or five months to get Android 9 Pie on the S9. That’s bad, really bad. Google’s new Project Treble system was supposed to modularize the OS to make it easier for manufacturers like Samsung to deliver updates more quickly. But for whatever reason, that system hasn’t led to Samsung shipping major software updates quickly. And I don’t know if it ever will.
I don’t think that’s necessarily a huge problem for security so long as it ships monthly security updates. But when the next big version of Android comes around, you’re much less likely to get it on the S10 being announced tomorrow than you are on a Google Pixel phone.
That’s not necessarily a reason to dismiss either the S10 or Samsung’s One UI. A lot of assumptions about Samsung software just don’t hold true anymore. One UI is much more elegant than most people are likely to give Samsung credit for. But the conventional wisdom about software updates is probably still accurate — I just hope Samsung is as aggressive at fixing that as it has been at fixing TouchWiz.