We need to re-evaluate what we mean by “stock Android” in light of this year’s crop of Samsung phones.
On most Android sites, when you read or hear someone referring to “stock” Android, it’s usually with Google’s idea of Android in mind: clean home screen, light color scheme, and the bare minimum of accoutrements. Stock Android is also considered by many in the know to be the Platonic ideal of what Android should be, and it’s the standard bearer for all comparisons to Android skins from third-party manufacturers.
In recent years, whether through an overt campaign by Google itself or just a flattening and maturing of Material Design guidelines, most manufacturers have come to terms with differentiation as a selling point; from Samsung to Huawei, distinctiveness is looking considerably more familiar these days.
That being said, when I and many of my colleagues review a device, such as the upcoming Galaxy Note 8, we often talk about how, while the default launcher is tolerable, it’s easy to change. And if you don’t like the keyboard, here’s an alternative. The default messaging app? It sucks, here’s another one. These tend to be throwaway comments from people who don’t tend to consider the other side of the coin — again, myself included — that the vast majority of Android phone buyers (the vast majority of whom are Samsung phone buyers) don’t change any of these settings.
Given that it’s the waning days of summer, I’ve been attending baseball games, fairs, and plenty of other gatherings where it’s easy to glance at a person’s phone and the way he or she uses it. When I see an Android user, I try to make time to ask what goes into that setup process; Android is, after all, a supremely customizable operating system. Almost all of them say a variation of the same thing: “I don’t touch it.”
That’s the real “stock” Android; if you’re looking at it from the perspective of the most common shared experience, we should be referring to stock Android as that of the default Samsung experience which, while it changes from year to year and generation to generation, is generally quite different from what you’d find on the Google Pixel or devices whose skins try to mimic it.
Samsung and many other companies have tried really hard to get on the right side of Android design.
When I received my demo Note 8, I decided to follow this idea to its logical conclusion. I resisted changing the launcher to my go-to alternative, Nova Launcher, and did not download Gboard as my keyboard or Android Messages as my SMS client. In other words, I kept Google’s influence over my Samsung experience as far away as possible while trying to respect and appreciate Samsung’s decisions as much as possible. I don’t purport to think this is any sort of drastic action, but it has helped, over the last few days, understand some of the ongoing criticisms and compliments Samsung has received on its way to the most successful and influential smartphone brand in the Android space.
What’s remarkable about Samsung in 2017 is the effort it has undertaken to simplify the user experience for even the most novice of users. From the first boot to the clear and concise explanations of how its launcher and various native apps work, Samsung has done a better job than perhaps any other company, even Google, in creating a consistent experience in its apps. Everything is swipeable, from contacts within the Phone and Messages apps to tabs within the Gallery and Internet apps.
The camera app, even on the Note 8 with its second lens and its varied abilities, has stayed relatively simple, with swipe-friendly gestures between front and back cameras and the various modes. Even the Note 8’s settings menu, while deep, is fairly easy to navigate.
This achievement took Samsung a long time; just think back to the horror show of superfluous and duplicative apps, camera modes and terrible design decisions that pervaded TouchWIZ in 2013 around the release of the Galaxy S4. (There was also the awful Broadway-themed announcement itself that today still stands as one of the most tone-deaf, sexist and generally unenjoyable launch events of all time. In contrast, the Note 8’s, while slightly too long, was tasteful and respectful.)
Talking specifics for a moment, I am thoroughly impressed with the improvements to Samsung’s keyboard which, after playing with a few settings, is just about as usable as any I’ve found. Some decisions, like disabling punctuation assist by default, are vexing, but after a few days I feel no need to crawl back to Gboard, and that’s not something I would have said even a year ago. Similarly, Samsung’s browser (which has gained well-deserved recognition in recent months) has some features that I wish Google Chrome would imitate, while its Gallery app reinforces why I believe Google should separate Google Photos the service from Google Photos the local phone gallery.
It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot closer to great than ever before.
Sure, are aspects of the “stock” experience that I dislike. I find Samsung’s launcher navigation — swipe vertically to enter the app drawer and horizontally to browse them — to be unintuitive at best, and its flagrant disregard for Google’s app shortcuts feature on Android 7.1 (which the Note 8 launches with) is a wasted opportunity. I also dislike how some preloaded apps, such as Facebook, are still updated through the Galaxy Apps store even when a newer version is likely available in Google Play.
But these are minor quibbles when in years past I wouldn’t even give Samsung the benefit of the doubt. I’m glad I did, because I can review this phone the way millions of Note 8 owners are going to use it, and wean myself off the notion that “stock” — that stock, not this new version — is always best.
In other news this week:
- IFA came and went, and there were plenty of interesting announcements. I am especially fond of the LG V30, which surprised me with its thoughtful design, excellent sound features, and forward-thinking camera settings. Since my initial hands-on, I have taken hundreds of low-light photos and am concerned, as are many others, that LG’s decision to use a comparatively small sensor to minimize the reviled “bump” will come back to haunt the company. It’s not bad in low light, but even its super-wide f/1.6 aperture can’t truly compensate for pixels on the sensor roughly 12% smaller than the one on the V20 (and 40% smaller than those of the Galaxy Note 8 and HTC U11).
- I am pretty pumped about the Huawei Mate 10. The Mate 9 still gets regular rotation in my phone lineup nearly a year after its release, and given how well the Kirin 960 has aged even next to newer solutions like the Snapdragon 835, I’m very curious to see what adding a dedicated AI chip to its newly-announced Kirin 970 will do for camera quality and battery performance, not to mention gaming.
- Given my affinity for Motorola’s software experiences, I am cautiously optimistic about the Moto X4. I have no doubt the phone will perform well, and it certainly looks good, but Motorola’s history with camera quality on the X line is spotted with misses, and I worry that by doubling down on dual cameras before shipping a phone with a great single-camera experience, the fundamentals will be sacrificed. All I want is a Motorola phone with a really reliable camera.
- Disney is run by a bunch of genius marketers. This Star Wars AR collab with Lenovo is going to sell in the trillions.
- I can’t say too much yet, but I’m using an upcoming Android Wear watch that I really like. Yeah, I’m just as surprised as you.
- The iPhone 8 event is set for September 12, which means that phone(s) will likely be out on the 22nd, a week after the Note 8 hits stores in the U.S. Suffice it to say, Samsung has its marketing work cut out for it this year.
- Fantastic IFA podcast with three of the OG hosts, Andrew, Alex and Phil. Great listen.
That’s enough from me this week. If you have it off, have a wonderful and safe Labor Day, and I’ll talk to you soon!