The Great Galaxy Experiment: Conclusion

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The more time I spend with the S7 Edge, the more I notice the trend toward convergence in mobile ecosystems.

As each company builds out its own ecosystem of hardware and software, they’re also inching closer to each other in terms of what those ecosystems offer. And it makes choosing one both easier and more difficult.

As my Galaxy experiment winds to a close, I wanted to talk about a few remaining elements of the experience that I didn’t touch on in previous articles, and of course share my conclusion.

 TouchWiz

For many years, Samsung has gotten a bad rap for its software design, especially its Android skin.

The TouchWiz of today bears little resemblance to its original versions. It’s leaner on system resources, it looks less garish, it’s customizable, and for the most part it’s ditched the kitchen sink of questionable features in favour of a refined selection of improvements.

Subtle things like raising the phone to your ear to initiate a call when looking at a contact, or identifying potential spam callers automatically make a good impression. Samsung is listening to its users, and prioritizing their development accordingly.

I still think the default icons and launcher look awful, but it’s nothing Nova, Backdrops, and some icon packs can’t solve.

As for the performance angle, Samsung has thrown enough horsepower into this machine that any negative TouchWiz influence is hidden by sheer computing force. Of course, if you start benchmarking things you’ll still see the impact, but in day-to-day use it’s not noticeable.

 Samsung Apps

Bundled with the phone are a number of Samsung apps, not all of which are useless duplicates of stock counterparts.

The camera app, for example, is terrific (setting aside the quirks we’ve already discussed). There’s also a notes app called Memo, a health app called S Health, a voice assistant called S Voice, and a calendar app called S Planner.

Of those, I find myself using S Health and S Planner the most. S Planner in particular is a brilliant scheduling app, beating out the stock app and rivalling the best of the third-party options in my estimation. Adding and modifying events is quick and intuitive, information is presented in easily digestible ways, and there’s a lot of flexibility in how your schedule is displayed.

It’s not as characterful as the new Google Calendar app, with its cute event tiles, but it’s more powerful.

 Files & Friction

For all the talk about iOS being less capable and flexible than Android, there are some instances where it becomes clear why Apple made the decisions it did.

For example, I’d gotten used to native ad blocking in iOS, so opening up pages in “Internet” (Samsung’s native browser, which I like better than Chrome) on the S7 Edge was a bit of an unpleasant shock. Thankfully, a kind reader pointed out that ad blocking (for Samsung’s browser at least) works the same way it does on iOS, via plugins.

While I’m testing the S7 Edge, Shannon is also trying out an Android phone. In her case, it’s the Nexus 5x. For the agency’s Instagram account, we have a folder in Dropbox where we put shots from our cameras we’d like to post.

On an iPhone, getting one of these shots onto Instagram is as easy as opening the photo in the Dropbox app and sharing to Instagram. On Android, this doesn’t work for some reason (on either the N5X or my S7). Instead, we have to open the photo, download it to the phone manually, and then open Instagram and post it.

Part of that downloading process involves choosing where the photo is saved because—rejoice!—Android gives you access to the filesystem! Isn’t that great?

It means that when you’re trying to quickly post an Instagram photo, you can take a few moments to decide whether you want to save the shot into your Pictures folder, or perhaps the DCIM folder? Or maybe it makes more sense to make an Instagram subfolder to put it into…but should that go into Downloads instead to keep it separate from what was already posted? Gotta keep things organized, after all.

What were we doing again? Oh right, posting a photo to Instagram.
In theory, it’s easy enough to see why people used to managing files on their computers want the same ability on their phones. And for some uses, that’s a very powerful ability indeed. But in practise it’s not difficult to see why Apple opted to abstract away some of these technicalities.

Part of this is habit, as using one operating system for years will make it easier to navigate its quirks, but there are still fundamental design decisions that we can question.

An ideal mobile operating system should do its best to reduce friction in normal tasks, and I often feel like Android loses sight of this in an effort to appease everyone. Or perhaps it’s just that Android is less willing to ditch the baggage of previous computing environments than iOS.

Either way, the end user impact of maintaining a certain element of computer familiarity isn’t always positive.

 Samsung Pay

I live in Canada, so Samsung Pay is little more than a mythical unicorn, frolicking in a field down south with its cousin Apple Pay and Android Pay.

Maybe someone should pay attention to the country with the most contactless payment support in the world.

Just saying.

 Gear VR

As a pre-order bonus, Samsung sent one of their virtual reality headsets to every customer who bought an S7 or S7 Edge. Mine arrived in the mail last week.

Gear VR is an awesome piece of technology, in a literal sense: it causes awe. For me, watching my friends and family experience it was significantly more exciting than the experience itself. Seeing their jaws drop, hearing actual squeals of delight and surprise…this is the first piece of technology I’ve ever brought into the house that’s had that effect.

The potential is tremendous.

From my perspective, Gear VR and Samsung’s inclusion of it as a pre-order bonus is part of their strategy to cement this as the Everyman VR option. At a retail price of under $200, it’s the most accessible by a fair margin, especially since it’s powered by your phone (assuming your phone is a Galaxy phone of course).

As more and more VR options hit the market, Samsung is positioning itself intelligently: give people easy access to VR, make it easy for them to create (with the new camera) and share (with the Facebook partnership) VR content, and they’ll choose your option. Even if the others are technically better.

And to be clear: the others are better. Gear VR is a bit laggy, noticeably low resolution, and kind of uncomfortable. But it works, it’s cheap, and it’s going to take the world by storm.

 Final Hardware Thoughts

Midway through this comparison, it occurred to me that it’s very similar to the Kindle vs. Kobo situation I covered a while back. In both cases, one contender seems to be technically superior, but what works on paper isn’t always better in the real world.

It was the waterproofing that reminded me. The Kobo I reviewed had waterproofing as a headline hardware feature, and the same is true for the Galaxy S7 phones. It got me thinking about the kinds of trade-offs we see in phone hardware and what aspects are actually important to me.

As I said before, I think the S7 Edge is a nearly perfect smartphone design, but as I spend more time with it, I realize that some of what tech blogs tout as an advantage, I’m actually finding to be a problem over time.

Let’s take the fingerprint sensor as an example. It’s built into the home button on both phones, but on the S7 Edge the button is flat and raised, whereas on the iPhone it’s round and concave. This tiny detail makes a difference in use, at least to me, because I find it much easier to align my finger correctly with the iPhone’s home button.

The bowl shape helps guide my print into the correct position, and the fact that it’s round gives it a larger area to scan, which I assume contributes to the increased accuracy and reliability I noticed on the iPhone Touch ID sensor versus the S7 Edge’s version.

The thinner button shape on the Samsung phone is also partly the result of the thinner bezels around the screen, which is definitely nicer from an aesthetic perspective. But…the S7’s accidental touch rejection is pretty much non-existent, meaning that I very often found myself opening apps accidentally or triggering the back and multitasking buttons simply by holding the phone.

This issue is exacerbated by the Edge screen, which requires holding the phone in weird, cautious grips. I couldn’t have asked for a clearer example of form over function, and for all the hate you see online about the iPhone’s bezels, they absolutely prevent these problems.

Toward the end of my experiment, I took stock of what hardware features meaningfully impacted my usage. Waterproofing didn’t. Of course, waterproofing (like privacy and good backups) isn’t a problem until it is, but the iPhone 6s is waterproof enough to survive an accidental drop into the toilet or sink, and that’s realistically all I care about. I’m not going to use it underwater.

The better screen is something I expected to miss more as I switched back and forth between them to test things. The S7 Edge is definitely better, but not so much better that it changes the way I use the device.

And I’m not okay with the battery life trade-off that comes from powering the S7’s display. Battery life is significantly, undeniably worse on the S7 Edge than the iPhone 6s Plus in my usage.

It’s funny how things that initially seemed amazing about the S7 Edge gradually lose their lustre when confronted with real world usage, and plainer aspects of the iPhone suddenly reveal their thoughtfulness.

 Gravity

Reaching a conclusion about which phone to keep—the iPhone 6s Plus or the Galaxy S7 Edge—has taken less time than I thought. And less time than I hoped it would, honestly.

The S7 Edge ticks all the flagship boxes: it’s gorgeous to look at, comfortable to hold, fast, responsive, extensible, and part of a diverse and healthy ecosystem of apps, accessories, and peripheral hardware. And yet…I found myself inexorably drawn back to my iPhone.

Initially, I was having the same thought that you’re probably having right now: we tend to stick to the platform that we’re most familiar with. And that’s certainly a factor. But it’s not the full picture.

There’s little doubt in my mind that the S7 Edge is the best phone on the market right now, but it’s not the best phone for me, and the reason boils down to ambition.

The S7 Edge is for the power users of today. I say that as a bit of a backhanded compliment, because I couldn’t shake the feeling that this entire device is built on a software platform with a rapidly impending expiry date.

By focusing on the power users of today, Android isn’t really accounting for the power users of tomorrow and the very different computing needs and interaction expectations they will have.

Apple’s choices in software design often leave us feeling uncomfortable at first, but their willingness to tear down the status quo to explore a new direction is the kind of thinking that actually leads to innovation. Unfortunately, it also leaves a bit of a vacuum as developers are forced to come up with thoughtful new solutions.

But it isn’t arbitrary, and it isn’t about simplicity. Apple doesn’t abstract away the file system on iOS because it thinks its users are stupid. It does it because the future of computing can’t be rooted in old metaphors forever. They’re trying to push for the car while everyone else is making faster horses. And whether or not today’s iOS is a successful stepping stone toward that future is almost beside the point.

What’s important is that they’re asking the question, pushing developers and the public to think outside the mouse and keyboard.

 Wrapping Up

Contrary to popular opinion, I think Android is the easier operating system to work with in many respects.

It’s the closest to the traditional computing platforms many of us grew up using, meaning that most of those computing skills are directly transferable. The same isn’t true for iOS, which is exactly why I prefer it. I want what’s next, and I’m willing to entertain the possibility that my beloved desktop workflows are not the most effective way to accomplish tasks. Today’s iOS may not have a better solution, but it has the foundations on which those solutions will be built, and I’m watching the construction process day by day.

The convergence of mobile ecosystem capabilities means that you’re not missing much in the way of functionality no matter which phone you buy. For every AirPlay, there’s a Chromecast. For every iMessage, a Hangouts. The sum of those parts is where ecosystems differ. Do you prefer openness or stability, power or potential, transparency or privacy?

Living with Android for the past few weeks has helped me understand what my own feelings are on the subject, and it’s made me more appreciative than ever of Apple’s efforts with iOS.

To my fellow iOS users who have followed along, wondering if now is the time to switch to Android, I hope my experiment has shed some light on what it’s like across the fence.

The grass may be greener on the other side, but we have flowers here.

 
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