Google left Android open to modifciation by OEMs by design, and that led to fragmenting the platform. New Android devices are as likely to be running old versions of the OS, and operation varies based on modifications by the OEMs to the base OS.
Samsung was frequently blasted in early Android days for bloated customization. Its TouchWiz interface was not as capable as that of stock Android, and it was often slow performing.
That's a thing of the past as Samsung has developed its own "version" of Android into a solid OS delivering a good UX. The latest version of Samsung Android shipping on the Galaxy Note 2 and S3 is better than Google's stock Jelly Bean currently shipping, in this writer's opinion.
The TouchWiz launcher is still the backbone of Samsung's version of Android, but it is better designed and performing than the TouchWiz of old. When the launcher is added to the many little features that Samsung has implemented throughout the operation it is an outstanding mobile platform.
The improvements Samsung has ingrained in its version of Android can be broken down into several key areas. Some of the features take advantage of special hardware in particular Samsung devices while others make common hardware components work better. The focus has obviously been to make the user experience (UX) better than that of the competition.
Samsung is always pushing the envelope by building both tablets and phones with different screen sizes. The Galaxy Note 2 I use is a good example of this with its 5.5-inch display.
Screen hardware aside, where Samsung's Android is better than other company's is in lots of little features baked into its UX that takes advantage of those big screens. Together these features work to make Samsung devices more useful than the competition.
One such feature that makes Samsung devices so good to use is the Smart Rotation feature. Most Android devices feature a display that auto-rotates between portrait and landscape orientation. Sometimes this rotation is jarring if it happens when the user is moving around and the phone is inadvertently tilted to the side. The display rotates even though the user didn't intend for it to do so, and then it must be tilted back to reorient the screen which brings a small delay in operation.
Smart Rotation uses the front camera now found on most devices to prevent this accidental rotation. When the phone is tilted sideways it "looks" at the user's face to see if it indicates an accidental tilting. If so it prevents the display from rotating, keeping it the way the user wants it even though tilted.
This feature is one of the most useful on any mobile phone. Displays have a screen timeout setting to save the battery. If nothing happens on the touchscreen for a set time the display turns off.
Unfortunately, many activities commonly done on a phone, like reading a long web page in the browser, don't trigger activity that prevents the screen from turning off. It's common for the user to be reading something and have the display turn off, interrupting the reading and forcing the need to turn it back on
Smart Stay uses the front camera to determine if the user is looking at the screen. Before turning the display off it looks for the user's face and eyes and if he/she is looking at the screen it won't turn off the display.
This is such a simple feature but it is fantastic. Never again will a user activity get interrupted by the unwanted turning off of the screen.
The Page Buddy feature is activated (if configured to do so) when certain hardware features of the Samsung device are triggered. While the standard Android home screens are there for user customization, the Page Buddy opens specific pages to augment user customization based on a user action.
There are four special pages that make up Page Buddy: one that opens when you remove the S Pen from those devices that have one; one that opens when you plug in headphones; one when you drop your phone in a dock; and another that opens when you are roaming outside your home area. These pages are special home screens and the user can swipe to standard home scxreens.
The S Pen Page Buddy pops open when you take the pen out of the silo in a Galaxy Note device. It provides access to Samsung pen utilities at the top and puts common apps that use a pen in the dock. They only appear on a special home page indicated in the home screen indicator by a pen icon. When you put the pen back in the silo the special page goes away.
The headphones Page Buddy is another useful feature. Plug headphones in the jack and a page opens up with controls on the upper screen for both music and video players. Apps commonly used with headphones appear in the dock at the bottom. When you remove the headphones this page disappears.
The roaming Page Buddy pops up automatically when the phone detects you are out of your home network. It displays a dual clock, one showing current location time and the other your time back home. There's also a data counter to make you aware how much data you are using while roaming which is expensive on some data plans. As with all Page Buddy screens, when you are no longer roaming the page goes away.
The docked Page Buddy is activated when using a Samsung dock with your device. It shows your appointments for the day, a music player since you can plug speakers into the dock, and some apps commonly used while docked.
What makes Page Buddy so useful is how they automatically appear when you need them. They make particular activities easier to do and then get out of your way when you are done. The improved UX is a common theme across all the features covered in this article.
Pop up apps
Several apps Samsung has included in its version of Android include windowed versions that pop up when desired. These include the web browser, video player, and the S Note app. They take advantage of the larger displays on many Samsung devices by using a floating window that is visible while using other apps.
The ability to work with two apps side-by-side is wonderful and the multi-view is heavily used on my Note 2 phone. The two displayed apps often work together, such as hitting a link in one windows opens the web page in the other if the browser is running there.
Next page: Using motion to improve UX; Putting users first