After Samsung, I crave Senselessness

Summary:Two years of suckling at the teat of TouchWiz has left a sour taste that only pure Android can purge.

As a Galaxy S II owner in Australia, last Friday was a day of sweet relief. After a year of waiting, Telstra finally pushed out Android 4.1 Jelly Bean to S2 owners on its network.

Reaching this point was quite an exercise in patience. Since Jelly Bean was announced by Google in late June 2012, there have been a number of false starts by Telstra on deploying the update to its S2 customers.

It would be easy, and incorrect, to lay the blame for the delay at the feet of Telstra. In those false starts, the update would be submitted by Samsung to the telco, only for Telstra to find a bug in testing, declare said bug to be a large enough problem to prevent a rollout, and thus starting the waiting game all over again.

This cycle of bug and delay would shortly follow each device update announcement, and the anticipation and hope would dissipate yet again. Each time my patience would begin to reach its end, and I would consider flashing the device with CyanogenMod or an overseas Jelly Bean variant, a pending release announcement would be made and the hope train would start anew. As a customer, it was a frustrating and tantalising game, and did force me to wonder whether I was actually a donkey having a carrot dangled in front of me.

But now that the process is over, it's not Telstra that I feel aggrieved at; it's Samsung.

As the company had previously updated its Galaxy S3 handsets to accommodate Jelly Bean, it should have been familiar with the update process to avoid the sort of problems that were encountered.

For reasons I do not expect to ever fully understand, the Jelly Bean variant released for the S2 in Australia arrived with a version of Samsung's TouchWiz launcher that does not allow changing of programs that are placed in the dock. You want to replace the Android browser in the dock with Chrome? Forget it. Remove the message app from the dock? Forget that, too. Add in your favourite social media app? You're out of luck.

As it is a problem experienced across S2s on multiple telcos in Australia, the blame for this ridiculous shortcoming must fall at the feet of Samsung.

This issue was the last straw for me, and upon realising the limitation, I installed an alternative launcher. Had this limitation been announced when Android Jelly Bean started rolling out in January earlier this year, I would have updated the phone immediately with an overseas Jelly Bean, and saved myself an extra five months of pain.

The problem with Samsung isn't solely the amount of time that it took the S2 to be updated. It's the fact that the TouchWiz launcher that was included in the Samsung's Ice Cream Sandwich release had a taste for crashing and rebooting the phone. At least once every couple of days or so, a dialog would appear, asking whether closing "TwLauncher" was a good idea — it always was.

Were the constant rebooting a hardware problem, I would have expected Jelly Bean, and the original Gingerbread operating system that the handset came with, to have been as reset happy as Ice Cream Sandwich — they were not and are not. There was something amiss with the Samsung ICS release.

Having been burnt twice by Samsung's software decisions, this is the end of the line for my relationship with Samsung.

Besides the restart-happy ICS, I am actually still impressed with the S2 as a piece of hardware, two years on. I prefer the S2's size to the slightly larger S3 and S4 successor handsets, and it still handles the load of an updated operating system and new applications well — by this stage in my iPhone 3G's life, it was struggling under the weight of iOS releases that were aimed at the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4.

The only feature that I wish my S2 handset possessed is long-term evolution (LTE) support.

So when the Google I/O developers conference rolled around again this year, I waited expectantly for a Nexus 4 LTE announcement. But instead, we got an S4 with stock Android.

It's not a bad combination of hardware and software. But with the sting of Samsung still fresh, I do not want to purchase a Samsung handset, even if it is running stock Android. To be honest, I don't want to encourage it. By adding to Samsung's S4 hardware sales, I'd be funding the geniuses who decided to remove the ability to change a phone's dock icons. Those people shouldn't be funded.

What I really want is a high-quality handset loaded with pure Android that removes the need to wait for manufacturers' modifications. And this is where a variant of the HTC One without its Sense UI is sweet relief.

The HTC One has received rave reviews for its hardware and presentation as a handset, but more than one review has warned that BlinkFeed is a gimmick, and a non-desirable one at that.

While others may suggest that a pure Android experience would be worse than the Sense experience, I am far from convinced.

For whatever gimmick that a manufacturer may preload onto a handset, there is almost always an equivalent app to be found in Google Play. Often, the two equivalent apps will coexist on the one device. For instance, when my S2 was new, a Navigon navigation app was included, as was the omnipresent Google Maps. As Google Maps improved, it quickly became the only app I used for navigation. Similarly, even though the S2 came with a Memo application, it was not as good as Evernote, and now Google has added its own option in Google Keep to the note-taking mix.

Therefore, losing a feature such as BlinkFeed or Zoes from an HTC One is a small price to pay for faster operating system updates. This is especially so, given that the HTC One with Sense arrives with Jelly Bean in its 4.1 guise, not the latest 4.2 version. Were I a standard HTC One user, I'd be playing the waiting game for 4.2 already.

Regardless of the banter between zealots of Android and iOS, the following is true: Android gives the user more flexibility, whereas Apple provides the best upgrade experience. The Nexus 4 has been so popular because not only is it cheap, but it also provides the flexibility of Android, with an upgrade that emulates Apple's experience.

If the HTC One is truly the best Android phone hardware to have, why not pair it with the best software available as well?

To do otherwise would be nonsensical.

Topics: Mobility, Australia, HTC, Samsung, Telstra

About

Chris started his journalistic adventure in 2006 as the Editor of Builder AU after originally joining CBS as a programmer. After a Canadian sojourn, he returned in 2011 as the Editor of TechRepublic Australia, and is now the Australian Editor of ZDNet.

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