touchwiz-nature

After two weeks’ worth of quality time with a Galaxy S4, we’ve spent a lot of time staring at TouchWiz. We mean a lot. Samsung’s custom skin overtop Android is everywhere in the system. The Korean manufacturer apparently does not believe in half-assing the job when it comes to designing its own flavor of Android. The result is a thorough reimagining of how you interact with your phone.

We’ve taken a good hard look at the latest version of TouchWiz (branded “Nature UX 2.0”) and judged its merits. Is this better than stock Android? Is it worth keeping? Did Samsung add anything worthwhile? After a lot of hands-on time with the S4, we have reached the answers to these questions. Remember that your mileage will vary, and you may find useful the things we dislike. With that grain of salt, here’s how TouchWiz holds up in 2013.

It’s worth keeping around

When you get your diploma as an official Android geek, you have to raise your hand and swear allegiance to three basic truths. First, stock Android is best Android. Second, manufacturer skins contribute nothing but bloat. Third, if it’s preinstalled, it’s terrible.

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After using the latest version of TouchWiz for a while, we can safely say that these three truths are downgraded to at least half truths. Sammy’s skin on the S4 is good. It’s got some flaws, but TouchWiz has reached the status of “legitimately worthwhile.”

Samsung’s goal seems to be to differentiate its devices as much as possible and to add whatever it can to create some distance between it and stock Android. The company emptied a bucket of features against the wall and is trying to see what sticks.

Some of these features slide right off, but dig into the stock apps and you’ll find a few surprises. After four editions of one of the most popular smartphone lines in the world, the Korean manufacturer knows what it’s doing.

Interface and aesthetics

TouchWiz has matured and grown in its second rendition of Nature UX. The garish tones of past versions have been toned down to simple colors and appealing blues.

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The skin makes extensive use of colors and shades, unlike stock Android, which tends to stick to black and holographic blue. Most of the time, the colors are muted within the bounds of good taste and quality design.

Everything from the lock screen to the blue-tinged menus is simple and appealing, skeuomorphism and all. TouchWiz has an openness to it that stock Android and Holo-themed design lacks. Those colors aren’t quite as intimidating.

The only real example of bad reskinning we could find was the notification drawer. A row of quick toggles at the top are redundant when there is another page of toggles (a lá stock 4.2). A misplaced brightness widget and a too-small clear button make handling notifications slightly unfriendly.

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To be clear, the notification drawer works fine. It just doesn’t hold up to the rest of TouchWiz’s quality. There are some other design-based issues with it if you’re interested.

A helping hand

Samsung included a whole mess of apps on the stock Galaxy S4. Some miss the mark (and we’ll get to those), but the majority of the bundled apps are genuinely useful.

We liked the revamped Calendar app. Google Calendar is the backbone of our workflow, and a good gCal app is essential. The TW Calendar has a good month view that lists your activities without digging through menus. Although it gets too skeuomorphic for our tastes, its strong interface and nifty full-screen reminders make it better than the stock Calendar app.

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There are a whole lot of gesture- and person-based methods of interaction with the phone. Samsung included smart stay, pause, scroll, rotation, and volume. They’re pointless albeit cool gimmicks. Swiping through pictures in the gallery with air gestures is cool. Sadly, we got these features to work only inside Samsung apps.

There was also a surprising amount of support for new users. Samsung built in an “easy mode” with a simplified launcher and streamlined user interface. There’s also a fantastic Help app that walks you through some of your built-in apps and shows you how to use them.

This is a phenomenal idea that should absolutely be standard in Android. Google’s OS can get complicated for new users. Anything to smooth that transition is a good thing.

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We’ll avoid digging through the other apps so as not to bore you. Suffice to say that the dialer, Messaging, Gallery, Music Player, S Voice, S Health, and S Memo are all worth at least trying. Samsung put a lot of work into these, and it shows. They’re decent apps.

Story Albums in particular turned out well. You organize your photos into virtual albums with pages and captions (written in S Memo). We know skeuomorphic design is supposed to be evil and all. Story Albums just look so appealing.

Lastly, Samsung deserves a medal for including contact-specific text tones. Once you get used to this feature, it’s hard to go back. Knowing who texted you from the ringtone is a godsend.

Bloated to the gills

And now for the not-so-nice part of the review. Samsung put a lot of apps onto the Galaxy S4’s flavor of TouchWiz, and some of them are unnecessary and irrelevant.

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The first victim of the disable function (built into Android 4.2, learn to use it) was SNS.apk, an app that insisted on giving us a popup notification to “sync” our Facebook account. When we’d already installed Facebook.

Next to go was Lookout Mobile Security. It left a charming persistent notification asking us to sign up. And here you’d thought we had left that level of spam behind in Gingerbread.

The rest of the bundled apps were quick behind it out the door. The GS4’s TouchWiz comes with Dropbox, Flipboard, Lumen Toolbar, Optical Reader, Polaris Office 5, TripAdvisor, VPN Client, WatchOn, Sprint TV & Movies, Sprint Music Plus, Sprint Zone, Sprint Worldwide, 1Weather, Scout, and CBS Sports.

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Out of those (and the other system APKs), Blurb Checkout, Com2uSPoker, Dropbox, Flipboard, Match3VS, Sprint Zone, TripAdvisor, VPN Client, Yahoo Finance and News cannot be removed, only disabled.

No doubt these apps are essential on some level, but that in itself is disappointing. Stock Android gets by fine without these. Their inclusion is disappointing to power users who’d like more control over their phone.

Between those apps and the other first-party Samsung services, there’s a lot less room on the phone than you think. An SD card would be a wise purchase for anyone looking for more than 14 GB of storage.

Final thoughts

While we used the Galaxy S4, one thought kept reoccurring. This is the first phone we’ve used where we don’t feel the overwhelming need to install a custom ROM.

TouchWiz is good. Unnecessary apps aside, it’s got some helpful apps and useful functions. Samsung has surpassed stock Android in enough places that if the S4 were our permanent phone (and not a review unit), we would have to think long and hard about switching from the stock ROM.

If you buy the S4 (or another modern Samsung device with TouchWiz), give it some time before flashing CyanogenMod 10.1 on it. You just might be surprised.