The Root of the Problem: Reminiscing How And Why Tinkerers used Samsung Phones
The Galaxy Note 7 is looking to continue the locked-down trend of recent Samsung flagships, and coupled with the fact that the relatively-unlocked variants come with Exynos processors, many of our users have been dreading the prospect.
We’ve seen this at the bottom of nearly every story surrounding the latest Galaxy phones — users leaving comments decrying the locked bootloader of U.S. variants, or the lack of documentation for Exynos processors, the KNOX counter and voided warranties. Recently, we also saw plenty of criticism surrounding Samsung’s decisions in our discussion on which OEMs lost users’ business. Needless to say, power user communities like XDA, that care about customization and device freedom, have flocked away from the Galaxy line that once caught the interest of the community — and more specifically, the Note line-up which had been long-regarded as the enthusiast’s ultimate choice.
This isn’t to say that Samsung phones were particularly amazing for tinkering, but they still had a nice community of people constantly trying to figure out a better UX. My now-lost love for the Note line began with the Galaxy Note 3, which in a rare and lucky moment in the ever-crumbling economy of Argentina, I could purchase for a bargain… that being the same price the phone was selling for in the US at the time. That was one of the best purchases I made, as It was through the Note 3 that my love for tweaking really picked up, and around the time when lurking XDA and flashing ROMs became more of an obsession for me. I felt my S3 had been losing some steam, I grew bored of what I felt was a capped potential, and the Note 3 was the perfect hardware base for a power user.
TouchWiz was a mess, and I saw this from the start. I was already used to flashing custom ROMs to escape from it and, eventually, the obnoxious ‘nature UX’ that Samsung unashamedly touted back then. XDA had made my previous Samsung phones much better, and the Note 3 would be no different. In great part, Samsung’s software was a reason many of us took to the forums, but not necessarily to get rid of TouchWiz. Because even back then, TouchWiz and the Note 3 in particular offered some truly useful features, many of which have been stripped away in future software and hardware releases. The Note 3 was chock-full of hidden abilities, with some that I wouldn’t discover until months had passed, such as math input recognition through the S Pen, which would convert your handwriting into Wolfram Alpha input. As impressive as such feature felt back then, the frustration of having it be so hidden (seriously, just watch this video) was equally frustrating.
And this was something common with Samsung’s software. Many of their apps had legitimately useful touches, such as the ability to snooze or stop alarms by voice. But most of these options were stashed away behind various submenus, sometimes nonsensically, and more often than not they’d be extremely poorly implemented. Things such as air command, or the eventual toolbox, and other features, were missing in potential or were simply not very practical due to issues with accessibility or needless setup rituals. An example would be the pen-app (mini-window) launching process.
This was one of the more interesting features of the Note 3, which could have taken the device closer to true multi-tasking, but it was extremely poorly-implemented: to launch a mini-app, you had to take out the pen (every time, it was only launched through the stylus), wait for the air command to pop up and tap the pen window, then draw something that loosely resembles a square. After that, the width and height of your shape are used to determine the size of the window, and a menu for you to pick the app is launched. Then you choose which app you want, and wait for it to load. This whole process took several seconds, and for no good reason.
Luckily, XDA modifications helped ease the process. For example, there was a way to launch the pen-apps straight through the multi-window side panel. If not, you had apps that would allow you to trigger the menu at any time (courtesy of Xperiacle, who made really useful tweaks for Samsung devices), and also set a default height and width for any window upon creation (they could be modified afterwards).
“Many mods and Xposed modules surfaced specifically to address TouchWiz shortcomings”
That was the kind of simple yet experience-changing modifications that came out of XDA for Samsung devices, as a way to tame the often-nonsensical TouchWiz and make it easier to use. Many mods and Xposed modules surfaced specifically to address Samsung’s design shortcomings, including Wanam’s excellent module which was a Gravity Box of sorts for TouchWiz ROMs. Through customization, you could turn off Samsung’s aggressive DFVS, get rid of the annoying “volume warning” pop-up, enable native call recording, hide useless status bar icons associated with Samsung features, use the camera on low battery, disabled the camera shutter sound (seriously), use any app on multi-window, and much more.
The community also had themers that sought to correct the awful color scheme TouchWiz was known for, and options abounded before the inclusion of a Theme Engine, including popular ones like dark themes and Material Design alternatives.
Many of Samsung’s ridiculous modifications to Android could then disappear or be reworked, making TouchWiz more useful or, at the very least, more bearable. And to all of those issues, also add all the regular Android annoyances that Samsung either ignored or made worse.
But this is, of course, without taking into account that you could get rid of TouchWiz altogether. If you had a Snapdragon variant, chances are you at least contemplated the possibility of loading up an AOSP-based ROM. The Snapdragon Note 3 still sees an active development forum today, with a first page that’s alive-and-kicking. The Note 4, too, was a fun device to flash ROMs onto, and both devices counted with plenty of options that only expanded their potential. They were no Nexus phones, one still had (and has) to do much of the dirty work through Odin, and of course KNOX meant your counter (and warranty) would be forever tarnished. But the sheer volume of Galaxy buyers and users meant that there were many people involved in the forums then, and there’s still activity to be had today. Snapdragon variants of the Note 3 and Note 4 truly enjoyed the best of both worlds, especially when using Multi-ROM or other dual-boot solutions to keep Samsung’s excellent camera quality one reboot away.
The S6 and S6 Edge changed much of this with their Exynos-only approach to processors, which meant AOSP-based ROMs would take a significant while to spring up (and even more so to become decently stable). The Note5, too, came with the Exynos 7420; the excellent performance was no replacement to the freedom that a Snapdragon chipset provides. I never flashed an AOSP ROM on the Note5 I had for a while, but I did try some ROMs from the developers whose work I flashed through years and Note generations. There were still some useful changes to be made to the Note5’s software, such as the memory management fix (an increasingly common issue nowadays, it seems…) but many fixes were left unaddressed by the shrunken community behind the device, especially after the line abandoned many of the features that power users were after.
In Samsung’s defense, TouchWiz had the kitchen-sink approach to features for too long, but has now gotten a lot cleaner. The company still makes some familiar mistakes, such as locking features like Scroll Capture to the S Pen’s air command and then having to incorporate them in a more accessible way. I’d say that their updates and software revisions ultimately do improve the experience in many areas, such as the Note5’s idle app optimizations. But as TouchWiz has matured, it has also further deviated from Stock Android and the kind of aesthetics and layouts that many enthusiasts love.
To us, finding solutions or trying out new software modifications is fun in itself
The Note 7 is looking to further change-up TouchWiz, and it’ll most likely be as locked down as some variants of the S7 and S7 Edge. Given that the phone is now fully targeting the mainstream and many enthusiasts have moved away from the line, I don’t expect development to flourish on such an expensive phone that’s also so difficult to work with. This is a pity, but it’s not something necessarily worth mourning. The Note 2, Note 3 and Note 4 offered really excellent and competitive hardware, with every feature a power user could need. But they were also very flawed devices in their software, prompting many of us to fixing it however we could. At XDA, figuring out how to come around issues or trying out new software modifications is fun in itself, and a big part of our hobby. There aren’t as many appalling issues in today’s TouchWiz, and Samsung further discourages modifications by consequentially locking you out of valuable selling points like Samsung Pay.
Excluding aesthetics, there’s less of a reason to modify TouchWiz than ever, and that’s a good thing. But the Note line is no longer a power user’s line-up, and it’s certainly not as dev-friendly a phone as it once was. We can speculate as to why that is – carriers, security – but unless you crave the absolute best hardware around, you’ll find competent alternatives for much lower prices. If you want a big and rich screen, top of the line specs, and the like, your options abound in today’s market.
I’ll certainly miss my days with the Note line-up, but I personally might give the Note 7 one last chance. I know that I won’t be able to tweak to my heart’s content, and that’s often the main reason I go back to the Nexus 6P (or currently, the OnePlus 3). The days of customizing Note – nay, Samsung devices – seem to be falling behind us, and thus the enthusiasm behind each Galaxy release among our circles has shrunk, but our options have only grown bigger. No matter your choice, XDA is about making the most out of your pick.
To all developers whose work I followed through Note generations, thank you for supporting the line-up and the community surrounding it!