No more TouchWiz jokes: Samsung’s software has caught up to its hardware

I challenge anyone to receive a notification on Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and not be charmed by the elegant blue pulse of light that traces the contours of the phone’s gorgeous screen. This sort of subtlety, this sort of organic, emotive, instant appeal is not something I ever expected Samsung would be capable of. But the company once judged to have cynically copied Apple’s iPhone design has exceeded all expectations this year: the 2017 version of Samsung’s TouchWiz brings its software design right up to the high standard of its hardware.

Good design is hard, and few companies know that better than Samsung

This manufacturing juggernaut spent most of its early days in the mobile industry just trying to keep up with innovation leaders like Nokia, BlackBerry, and, later, Apple. But in 2014 Samsung turned a major corner when it introduced the Galaxy Alpha, a lovely slab of electronics that was the harbinger of a grand renaissance in Samsung hardware design. In its wake, cheap plastic was pushed aside for solid metal frames, polished glass surfaces, and a tasteful aesthetic that could stand right alongside the iPhone without feeling any shame about copying it.

It just never seemed plausible that Samsung would be able to replicate the same upswing on the software side of things. No hardware manufacturer of its ilk has previously been able to pull off the trick. Software companies are much more likely to figure out how to build nice things — such as Snap’s Spectacles, Google’s Pixel, or Microsoft’s Xbox family — than hardware companies are to suddenly discover the secrets of crafting a good user interface. And yet here I am, fresh off a solid week of constantly using the Galaxy S8 Plus, ready to commend Samsung’s TouchWiz variation of Android for actually being better than Google’s own Android in some respects.

TOUCHWIZ USED TO (DESERVEDLY) BE THE PUNCHLINE TO EVERY JOKE ABOUT BAD ANDROID UI, BUT NO LONGER

To properly set the stage, let’s remember what TouchWiz used to be like. The cluttered notifications menu would take up half the screen even when you had no notifications to see, the app icons were ugly copies of iOS apps, the settings were arcane and disorganized, and every Galaxy phone came loaded with crappy duplicates of Google’s mobile apps and services. Oh, and let’s not forget about that infuriating water droplet sound that Samsung made its signature with the Galaxy S III launch.

Around the same time, in early 2012, we had this priceless moment in Vergecast history, when the world’s only TouchWiz fan called in to defend Samsung’s software:

                           

Now there’s at least two of us. The first thing I like about the 2017 iteration of Samsung’s UI is that it was evidently designed by someone with both taste and authority. I’ve no doubt that Samsung has talented and creative designers on its staff, but until now I’ve always felt the final software product from the company was determined by accountants or misguided focus group assessors. What I see now is the invisible hand of a great designer, or at least a great design team that’s been given the freedom to do its job.

THE SUBTLE TOUCH OF SKILLED DESIGNERS IS EVIDENT THROUGHOUT THE NEW SOFTWARE

There’s a cohesiveness to the Galaxy S8 user experience that’s unprecedented among previous Samsung, LG, Sony, and even HTC phones. No major phone manufacturer has skinned Android this well or this skillfully. The glyphs for the Android navigation keys have the same style as the outline shapes used in Samsung’s app icons, all of them refreshingly unique, distinctly colored, and striking the right balance between abstraction and specificity. The font of the digital clock on the lock screen complements this look, and the redesigned settings menu extends the simplified, functional theme further. It’s very hard to get lost in these settings, because Samsung has introduced a new “were you looking for” module at the bottom of each sub-menu that is actually helpful. Google’s own Android does a good job of keeping the abundance of phone settings organized, and now so does Samsung. The same is true of the icons: good on stock Android, and now also good, but distinctly Samsung, on the new TouchWiz.

Looking at all the rounded squares in Samsung’s updated TouchWiz, I can’t help but be reminded of Nokia’s Harmattan UI on the Nokia N9. That’s a high compliment, as the N9’s interface was one of the most delightful and endearing experiences of my mobile-reviewing career, and it’s great to see some similar ideas reemerging now — especially when their new purveyor is the world’s biggest smartphone maker. That subtle drop-down notification I mentioned earlier (Samsung’s name for the notification pulse is Edge Lighting) is delivered in a slick pill-shaped box and would have looked perfectly at home on an N9. And yes, the rounded corners of the Galaxy S8’s display definitely synergize nicely with Samsung’s predilection for rounded shapes on the screen.

BUILDING ATOP ANDROID WITHOUT SPOILING IT HAS BEEN AN IMPOSSIBLE TASK UNTIL NOW, BUT SAMSUNG HAS FINALLY FIGURED IT OUT

It’s also great to see Samsung’s software coming closer in line with Google’s default Android behavior. I can now finally switch my Android navigation keys so the back button is on the left rather than the right. The S8’s Infinity Display has also pushed the home button off the front of the phone, so Samsung’s new camera shortcut is a double press of the power key, just like Google’s. Double-tapping the recent apps button on the Galaxy S8 also does the same thing as it would on a Google Pixel, switching me back to the last previously used app. As a big fan of Google’s original flavor of Android, I’m delighted to see all these basic behaviors carried over in the latest Samsung flagship. For the first time ever, owning a TouchWiz phone doesn’t mean having to adapt to a whole new set of altered basic interactions.

But Samsung hasn’t just neutered TouchWiz and given it a set of fresh app icons. The company’s new notifications tray is well thought out and, frankly, handsome just to look at. I’ve set the Galaxy S8’s display and font scaling to be smaller on my review device, and that translates into a frightfully efficient notifications menu. It’s like Android, only with a Samsung twist that might just be better than the default. It’s certainly not worse, and with a “block notifications” shortcut always available, I can go directly to muting an app that gets too frivolous with its notification privileges.

Other neat Samsung things on the Galaxy S8 include a full-featured photo editor built into the gallery app, a secure folder for both apps and files, and a new audio-splitting function that allows me to sync one Bluetooth device for calls and another for media playback. But I had a weird bug with the latter feature during my testing period, losing outgoing call audio until I rebooted the phone. And Samsung is still duplicating Google functionality, especially with the addition of Bixby, its so-far-useless personal assistant that wants to rival Google Assistant. Bloatware is still an issue too: not on my carrier-agnostic review device in Europe, but definitely so on the T-Mobile version in the US. So no, Samsung hasn’t rectified all wrongs and I’m not blind to the faults that still remain.

FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER, SAMSUNG’S SOFTWARE IS HELPING RATHER THAN HINDERING THE APPEAL OF ITS PHONES

Even with some vestigial shortcomings, TouchWiz 2017 is a major leap forward. I find all the small design touches in this new software coalesce into a unified user experience that lives up to the high standards of, and synergizes with, Samsung’s great hardware. Take the S8’s iris scanner as an instructive example: it requires both great hardware and software to work correctly, and I’m astounded by its accuracy on Samsung’s new phone. It has detected my half-closed eyes in total darkness and even just one eye when I was trying to unlock the phone while sipping a drink. The ease of unlocking using this method mostly makes up for the appallingly misplaced fingerprint sensor on the back of the S8.

I like that I’m concluding this article by hitting on a bit of hardware-software synergy with the iris scanner. That’s the future of awesome Samsung design that is yet to come. Not just brilliantly attractive devices, not just cleverly designed interfaces, but a combination and integration of the two that makes for a device that’s more than the sum of its parts. That’s been the iPhone’s open secret right from its inception, and Samsung’s pursuit of Apple is leading it down the same path.