God damn gimmicks

Aug 30, 2013

About three years ago, I bought my first smartphone, an HTC Desire. At first, it was great. However, as with any system where the hardware is fixed and the software keeps evolving, the phone’s limitations with regards to speed and storage space became more and more apparent with each app version. What it did do well was pack in the bullshit.

A month ago, after cursing those limitations for months, I ended up buying a Samsung Galaxy S4. It’s a great phone once you look past all the shitty gimmicks, as Samsung’s strategy apparently is to cram as many features into their phone as they can, whether they make sense or not. In this post, I will describe some of them and why they are terrible.

  • Smart stay/scroll/pause This is a concept that started earlier on in the Galaxy product line. Basically, the front-facing camera constantly checks whether your face is looking at the phone and uses that to provide some nice usability features: smart stay keeps the screen on as long as you are looking at it, smart scroll lets you scroll up and down by moving your head or phone, and smart pause pauses videos as soon as you look away. While scroll seems fairly pointless when you presumably have the much more reliable system known as fingers (which you need for every app smart scroll doesn’t support anyway), stay and pause are brilliant ideas. Unfortunately, that’s all they are, as they seemingly require very specific lighting conditions and face positions to work.

  • Air view The Galaxy S4 can fairly accurately detect fingers hovering several millimeters above the screen surface, and as such the phone features air view, which lets you preview information and zoom in on web pages by hovering a finger over an area. Sounds like a good idea, but what kills it – and as you’ll notice this is a running theme in Samsung’s apps – is that it only works with a few custom Samsung apps, which makes the feature inconsistent at best and useless at worst.

  • Air gesture The phone’s motion sensor can detect hand gestures in front of the phone. It’s used for things like navigating between items in the gallery or music player, and for something called quick glance. Much like air view, it’s usefulness is limited by the number of apps it supports. Are you ready? Here they are: Internet, Email, Gallery, Music, S Memo and S Planner. What a list. So if you, like me, use Google Chrome instead of the generic Samsung-customized browser and Gmail instead of Samsung’s Email (both of which came pre-installed on the phone, by the way), air gesture is a no-go. Awesome. Quick glance shows information like missed calls, unread messages and battery status when the screen is off and you put your hand in front of the sensor. I like the idea, but in its current state it’s absolutely useless. Sure, it shows the information, but there’s nowhere to go from there. You can’t unlock the phone with another gesture or even a button from this screen, so you still have to press the lock button, unlock your phone and find the relevant app anyway. Basically, you can see what’s happening, but you can’t do anything about it. What’s the point?

  • Dual shot Dual shot is one of those things I can’t imagine anyone using. It’s a camera mode with a twist: both cameras take a picture simultaneously and the front camera image is then pasted into the back camera image with some out-of-place border effect. Samsung’s reasoning is that the photographer is never in the shot, and that’s a fair point, but their solution to the problem looks like this:

I think I'll pass, Samsung. I think I’ll pass, Samsung.

  • Sound & shot … aka the “why not just use the video recorder, you do know this phone can record in 1080p right?” camera mode. It takes a regular photo. Then it records up to 9 seconds of audio. Then, when you open the photo in the Gallery app, the audio is played as well. Where is the audio stored? No idea. Can I play it anywhere other than on the phone? Probably not. Should I just record a video instead? Yes.

  • Group Play Connect several phones together to play games and share music. Sounds alright to me! Oh right, it only works between Galaxy S4’s. I think you’re overestimating the popularity of a single phone model, Samsung.

  • Samsung Hub Yet another non-standard marketplace, but this time from Samsung, so you also need to create a Samsung account. Great!

  • ChatON Oh hey, it’s yet another chat app. But I already have all my friends on Skype. Except some of them are only on Windows Live. And some are on Steam. Also Google Talk, and IRC, and Facebook. I don’t need another chat network. The best part about ChatON is the unintentionally creepy image of it on Samsung’s website.

Let's chat! I WILL EAT YOUR S … I mean, let’s chat!

  • WatchON The single positive thing on this list, WatchON seems to work well enough. The S4 is equipped with an IR transmitter, and this app lets you check what’s on TV, and then switch the channel on your TV by emulating the IR signal from a regular remote control. Contrary to what one might suspect, it’s not just for Samsung TVs. Nice touch, Samsung. Now get rid of all the other things.

I know Android phone brands need to stand out from their competitors in some way or another to attract customers, and I guess lots of unique features are a pretty straightforward way to do that, but when those features then turn out to be much less useful than anticipated, you might suddenly have customers whining about them, just like I did for the last 800 words.

I guess the lesson here is choose a phone for its hardware and operating system, not its bundled apps. On a related note, I’m still waiting for a stable port of CyanogenMod for the S4 so I can escape all the Samsung apps it won’t let me uninstall.