If you tuned in to watch Samsung’s event that unveiled the new Samsung Galaxy S4 this past Thursday, you were treated to a very strange show filled with ballet dancing, tap dancing, and skits. That, on top of the fact that the Samsung Galaxy S4 turned out to be more of an evolutionary device from the S3 than something truly revolutionary as most expected, left me with one word to describe the show when everything was said and done – awkward.
The more I thought about the Samsung event, however, the more I began to think that the awkwardness of the event seems to match what I feel may be the awkwardness of the Samsung Galaxy S4 phone. Or maybe a better way to put it would be: I am concerned about how awkward using a Samsung phone may become as their phones become more and more cluttered with so many “bell and whistle” features.
Now, before I go any further, please keep in mind I am not someone who bows and worships at the altar of Apple. As an Apple blogger, I do obviously admire and have owned many of the products of Apple. However, I have also owned and used phones from other manufacturers. In fact, you may recall that I very recently wrote an article about how I tried out the Samsung Galaxy Note II. I liked this phone so much that I decided to use it as my every day phone instead of the iPhone 5. The Note II still is my every day phone and I have no intention of returning to the iPhone 5.
Having experience with an Android Samsung phone that already offers many unique “bell and whistle” features, I feel gives me a different perspective into this issue than someone who has only used the iPhone.
As I really think about the unique features offered by my Samsung Galaxy Note II that I use a lot, the list is very small. In fact, I have turned off many of the unique features that are many of the selling points of the phone because I just did not make use of them that often. I could not justify having these features running and wasting battery life or constantly getting in my way. These include features like Air View (which lets you preview pictures or emails when you hover your S-Pen stylus over the screen), the ability of the screen to stay awake when your eyes are looking at it (which seems to drain the battery faster when on), or the one-handed mode offered by the Note II (which moves the keyboard to one side of the huge screen to make one handed typing easier).
As I think about why I turned these features off, it really was for one of three reasons each time. The reasons were the battery life concerns of having them running all the time, the fact that they added unneeded clutter or choices to the phone when I just quickly needed to get something done, or out of frustration that they just didn’t work the way they were supposed to 100% of the time. I found myself accidentally activating or using many of these features more often then purposefully wanting to use them.
The Air View function is just one example of the “bells and whistles” I chose to eventually turn off. The Air View function of the S-Pen stylus would sometimes begin to open a preview of a photo or email when I really was just accidentally holding the stylus too close to the screen. This frustrated me when I really just wanted to quickly flip through some photos or emails. The times where I actually found it useful to open up preview with this function could be counted on one hand after owning the phone for a couple months. This ultimately led me to turn it off. The benefits did not outweigh the frustrations or errors caused by the feature.
More Clutter Features?
As I watched the Samsung Galaxy 4 event, I couldn’t help but think that almost every one of the new features being introduced were what I would call “clutter features.” I couldn’t envision myself using many of the new features more than a handful of times. It got me wondering how many of them I would quickly just turn off to get them out of the way or reduce clutter on my phone or out of frustration because they are activating when I don’t really want them to.
The following are just a few of the new features championed at the Galaxy S4 event that really made me think that the S4 is in danger of becoming a phone overly cluttered with features that are only useful once in a great while.
The idea sounds neat that hand gestures made over your phone can control certain apps or functions of the phone. How often will this really be useful, though? I can understand that if you are cooking or doing something else with dirty or wet hands this could occasionally be useful, but does it really justify having this feature always on and ready and therefore draining battery life or opening up the chance for it to pick up your movements as unintended gestures? How often are you really going to sit somewhere and wave and gesture at your phone?
As I mentioned before, I ended up turning off Air View on my phone as this feature would sometimes show previews when I didn’t really intend for the previews to show. Now that Air View will activate just by hovering your fingers over the display, I can’t help but wonder if this accidental previewing will happen far more often now that it doesn’t require a stylus to work.
This function allows the person taking the photo to insert their head into any photo by turning on both the front and back cameras of the phone when taking a picture. I couldn’t think of too many situations where I would want my close up mug shot floating in the middle of a nice family photo. I’d much rather have a friend or person nearby take the photo for me. I feel this just adds another cluttered option to the camera mode.
Samsung Smart Pause
Smart Pause gives your phone the ability to pause video when your eyes look away from the screen. Again, this sounds like a neat feature, but I have to wonder what the cost to battery life will be to have the camera constantly monitoring your eyes. I’m not sure I will find it useful to have my videos pause every time I glance away to see what is on the T.V. screen (I often use my smartphone in front of the T.V.), glance to see what my daughter is doing, or glance away from the screen for any other number of reasons. If I really want to pause a video, it doesn’t really take any effort to hit the pause button. Again, I see this feature kicking in more often when I don’t want it to than when it is truly useful for me to have it work.
This feature of the Samsung Galaxy S4 allows multiple users to have their phones play the same song while the phones act as surround sound speakers. This sounds neat in theory, but I have to honestly wonder how often this will really come into use. How often will I really find myself in a group of friends who just happen to own enough Samsung Galaxy phones to make this worthwhile? Why not just use my stereo system in the room for a better sound quality? This is definitely one of those features I see myself showing off to people once or twice if the situation arises and then never using again.
The Need for Android Phones to Stand Out
I get what Samsung is trying to do. They need to come up with ways for their feature phones to stand out from the Android crowd. It is too difficult for Android phones to stand out based on specs alone. The title of “Most Powerful Android Phone” typically only lasts for months at a time before something more powerful comes out. Samsung sees these unique features as one way for their Galaxy phones to stand out from the crowd of similar Android feature phones.
I just don’t think that cluttering the phone up with features that aren’t going to be used by most people on a daily basis is the way to positively stand out. I have to wonder if Samsung recognizes this, themselves, as they have started experimenting with the Tizen operating system and plan to release a feature phone later this year that runs Tizen. In addition, Samsung purposefully seemed to avoid any mention of Android at its big unveiling of the Galaxy S4. It is clear Samsung is looking for different ways for their phones to stand out.
Apple’s Conservative Approach to iOS
Though many like to label Apple’s approach as boring or say that Apple is too slow to adopt new features, I believe Apple’s measured approach is the correct one.
Apple does not have the pressure to stand out among many phones running the same operating system. Therefore, Apple typically waits to see what new features become big hits or become standard features that most people want before implementing them into iOS. While this does mean that iPhone users sometimes are slow to get features that clearly prove themselves useful on Android and other phone operating systems, what this also means is that the iOS does not become overly cluttered with functions that are not very useful.
Between iOS updates, Apple allows the “useful features gap” to be filled in fairly well by apps on the app store. If someone really wants the ability to play a song over multiple iPhones at once, translate speech from one language to another, or track their health and fitness, there are apps that are available or can be made to fit these needs. Apple doesn’t feel the need to force its users to wade through all the clutter of unneeded features. Rather, users are given more freedom to install or not install the “bell and whistle” features they want in the form of apps. If a feature truly seems to become mainstream, Apple then adds that feature in the next iOS update or creates its own app to handle that function.
I have occasionally found myself needing a very specific or unique function on my phone, such as translating something from one language to another. Usually I can find an app to whatever this unique function or need is. I often delete the app if it is not a function I plan on using again for a long time. I prefer this approach to my phone rather than being forced to carry these unneeded function as clutter all the time. Plus, the app can be downloaded and available again in less than a minute if I ever find myself needing the function again.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 Will be a Success
I have no doubts that the Samsung Galaxy will be a big success. The phone has some great specs, a beautiful screen, and Samsung has done a great job marketing their devices as cool and unique.
My concern is that Android phones will continue to fill up with more and more clutter in the form of “neat but not regularly useful” features in an effort to stand out from the crowd. I do feel this comes at the expense of usability and user experience. The less “techie” crowd may find using Android to be a more and more frustrating and confusing experience if features continue to be piled on. Samsung is marketing the Galaxy S4 as a “Life Companion” phone, but I feel the S4 may be too feature packed to be easy enough to use in every day life for those who are new to smartphones or not tech savvy.
For now Apple’s iPhone has the advantage of not having the pressure of needing to stand out from other phones using the same operating system. This, in turn, leads to a cleaner user interface, easier learning curve, and less frustration in every day use. Will this eventually lead companies like Samsung to abandon Android for operating systems like Tizen in an effort to stand out in other ways? Time will tell.
For now I will continue to stick with the Galaxy Note II. Due to not seeing the new features of the Galaxy S4 as features that will impact the every day usefulness of my phone, I don’t have the desire to upgrade to the S4. However, if Android continues to become more and more cluttered with unneeded features, I may find myself eventually gravitating back to iOS when it does come time to pick a new phone.