By Nate Humphries | Tech/Science Editor Published: 07/01/2013 11:19 am EST
Image From Samsung
One of the reasons I absolutely love Android is because of the developer community. They’re creating and editing custom ROMs and apps all the time, and the update rate is pretty frequent.
As I mentioned previously, my first entrance into the custom ROM world was with Peter Alfonso’s Bugless Beast, after which I switched to CyanogenMod. I loved it, not just because it got me to the latest Android release (4.2.2, Jelly Bean) on my Samsung Galaxy Nexus, but because they added some nifty features and it was constantly being updated. Plus it had this simple, clean look to it.
Fast-forward to my recent smartphone upgrade situation when I switched to the Samsung Galaxy Note II and the question invariably comes up: why? Why did I switch from something developer-driven that I loved to a company-driven UI model? Add to that the fact that I have no plans to flash CyanogenMod to my Note II and this becomes an even deeper question. I’d say there are five reasons why I switched.
Reason #1: Manageability
Honestly, I got tired of managing the OS. I’m trying to simplify my digital life (only one step left!), and it takes at least a little extra time to manage a custom ROM. At the very least, you have to spend time at the beginning to flash your phone (~2-6 hours depending on experience), then you have to set up all your apps and settings again (~2-8 hours depending on the amount; unless you use TitaniumBackup, then it’s ~1 hour or less), and then if you want to be up-to-date on the nightlies or even stable releases you have to set that up and then flash the updates. It’s not the most time consuming thing in the world, but it does take a little extra effort.
Contrast that with Samsung’s TouchWiz (their UI overlay), where I don’t have to do jack squat except install the updates every so often. It had an update ready when I first turned on the phone and connected it to Wi-Fi, and the next one’s hopefully coming in the next month or two.
Of course, there’s a downside to this: more than ever my OS updates are tied to the manufacturer and carrier, something that invariably causes delays in comparison to the developer community. I gain time but lose early access to features.
Reason #2: Look and feel
I’m a fan of both the CyanogenMod and TouchWiz UIs, for different reasons. CyanogenMod is much simpler and cleaner, but TouchWiz is more interesting and engaging. In my experience, when you use the stock Android build (which CyanogenMod is pretty close to) for long periods of time, eventually the UI begins to feel uninviting. It never looks “bad” per say, but TouchWiz looks much more inviting by comparison.
Then we have the argument that TouchWiz looks childish and outdated compared to CyanogenMod. I understand where that’s coming from, but I would (mostly) disagree. Yes, TouchWiz uses bright colors slightly too much (specifically mentioned the settings in the notification panel in my review), but it’s definitely not childish looking. I could see one of two arguments being true: either it’s a different take on a modern UI, or it’s not quite as blocky and simplified as most modern UIs. I think either would be a valid point.
Whichever it is, I’ve landed on it, and I’ve enjoyed it so far. I’m not sure what TouchWiz enhancements will come with Android 4.2, but I’m mostly satisfied with the look and feel so far.
Reason #3: Features
CyanogenMod relies on developer-driven features for their releases, and it’s worked out great for them so far. You have built-in rooting, tethering, and more.
However, TouchWiz-enabled devices have built-in features as well – the difference is that they’re company-driven. That’s not an inherently bad thing, it’s just a different mode of development. While a look at my review of the Note II will be the best way to check out the features I enjoy, here’s a quick summary of my favorite TouchWiz features:
Gesture and motion controls: While some don’t work very well (swipe screen to take a screenshot), others have been a lot of fun. Tilt to zoom, pan to move icon, pan to browse images, and double-tap to move to the top of lists have worked very well for me.
S Pen: While the idea of a stylus is not new, using the Note II’s stylus has been nothing short of innovative for me. From handwriting recognition to drawing out article ideas, it’s been my favorite feature, hands-down.
Built-in apps: I hate bloatware with a passion – it’s essentially the main reason I got into rooting and custom ROMs in the first place. However, I liked TouchWiz and enough of the built-in apps to keep them around (I did root the Note II to get rid of some; couldn’t help it!). Specifically, I like Kies Air, S Note, S Voice, Samsung Link, and Samsung’s Keyboard:
Kies Air allows you to almost completely manage your phone from a web browser. Haven’t found anything like it with CyanogenMod, at least built-in.
S Note is a little superfluous in that you don’t have to use it for handwriting recognition. However, it does have a few different modes that are useful, including Idea Note for drawing ideas.
S Voice has been fun to play around with and compare to Google Voice Search. There are a few additional features it has that Google Voice doesn’t, including saying “Cheese” to make the Camera app take a picture.
While I haven’t used Samsung Link a lot, the concept is nice – sharing content between your devices (including between your phone and the computer). Again, haven’t seen anything similar in CyanogenMod that’s built-in.
The Samsung Keyboard is becoming my favorite keyboard. While some features are pretty generic across keyboard apps (swiping), the extra number row is nice, and the option to switch to handwriting recognition mode with the stylus is extremely useful.
Reason #4: Cost
If I were to buy a Nexus-style device – say the Google Editions of the Samsung Galaxy S4 or the HTC One (Huawei phone soon to be added to the mix) – I would have to buy it outright (especially since I’m on Verizon). The HTC One is $599, and the Samsung Galaxy S4 is $649. The only other option would be the LG Nexus 4, selling for $299 on the Google Play Store. Compare any of those to the price at Best Buy for the Note II ($199.99). Plus, I was able to price match it for $169.99 from a Dell site, then trade in my Galaxy Nexus for credit, bringing it down to ~$120 (would have been ~$40 if it was in slightly better condition). For a guy who can’t spend $500-600 all at once, that’s a pretty great deal. And I tend to upgrade pretty regularly, so I’m not losing as much from the carrier subsidies (plus, Samsung devices require more subsidies than most).
Reason #5: Availability
Both Google Edition phones show the next ship date as July 9, and the Nexus 4 ships in ~1-2 business days. I was able to walk into a Best Buy Mobile store and walk out that same day with a phone. This isn’t as big a deal to me because I can wait a few weeks for a phone, but it’s still something worth noting.
I have absolutely nothing against Google Edition or Nexus-style phones. I used one for over a year and loved it. But then it came time to switch, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the TouchWiz experience. I don’t think TouchWiz is for everyone, but at this point in my smartphone timeline it’s definitely for me.
If you’re in the market for a new phone, I’d encourage you to at least consider it.
My two personal passions in life are technology and theology. If you sneaked a peek at my life you'd see me hanging out with my wife, our Dachshund Bella, and our snake Phoenix; playing Skyrim/F3/FNV/Rage/GW2/SR3/Civ5/CS:GO/L4D2; watching movies; reading on my Kindle Keyboard (sci-fi or theology research); or playing on my rooted Samsung Galaxy Note II.