Samsung: Give home-grown phone, tablet apps more love

Despite cool capabilities and the best of intentions, Samsung's recent software stumbles on its flagship devices.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
Split-screen multitasking is a great idea, but it only works with limited apps. Josh Miller/CNET

At an event in New York today, Samsung launched its new flagship tablet, the quad-core Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 with Android 4.0 and a stylus capable of performing a long list of tasks.

The Note 10.1 is Samsung's best tablet yet, and the S Pen stylus gives it a boost. There's just one problem: while the S Pen's touch-pad tricks look impressive on any canvas, once digital pen hits digital pad, the experience becomes riddled with an inflexible learning curve, logical skips, and interruptions in execution. Most of these accumulate around Samsung's home-grown S Note app, a catch-all productivity and creativity tool that Samsung created to showcase the S Pen stylus.

The selection of shortcomings are many, and both CNET editor Eric Franklin and I independently documented some of these in our respective reviews of the Galaxy Note 10.1 and the Galaxy Note smartphone .

For instance, the S Note handwriting-to-text tool requires you to leave the writing surface and tap the control bar in order to add a space between words, and it's hard to reposition the text box. In addition, the stylus' physical button tends to get underhand, which leads to accidental presses that interrupt the writing or drawing.

In another example, both Eric and I found ourselves wishing we could create a blank S Note document rather than a template, a basic and more easily fulfilled desire on Samsung's part compared with the more difficult task of converting pen marks into mathematical formulas.

Admittedly, what Samsung is attempting to do with the stylus is risky and bold, unique, and very much deserving of praise. The electronics giant had a vision to differentiate products by reinventing the stylus -- a symbol of pre-iPhone days when smartphones were literally organized like mini computers, and mastery of Palm's Graffiti shorthand separated the real technorati from the pretenders.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
The ridged stylus on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 may be designed to stave off accidental presses, but we made them anyway. Josh Miller/CNET

Samsung has understood that smartphones and tablets with a stylus must satisfy the needs of both art and business, offer hardware extras like a functional button, and be useful in almost every action. To that end, Samsung has built in stylus-friendly widgets, worked with publishers to make several apps compatible, like Adobe Photoshop (called Photoshop Touch,) and has painstakingly created tutorials that demonstrate how to use the premier S Note app.

Yet, for as many positive points as there are -- flexibility over color and pen type, for instance, and 1,024 levels of pressure with the Note 10.1 -- there are also missteps. Why does it take so long to figure out how to clear your memo canvas? Why when you jot something down, might a pen mark show up near your palm? Why is the handwriting option buried in the Note 10.1 keyboard? The examples abound.

Recent software stumbles
S Note isn't the only instance of a good Samsung app idea brought down by uneven execution. Samsung recently launched Samsung Music Hub here in the U.S. Again, CNET editor Lynn La and I both tested the app on our own before coming together in a joint review. We both liked the clean design, but the app lacked basics like artist bios, it lagged too much, and its personal radio feature never generated stations we actually wanted to hear.

mSpot, a Silicon Valley Internet music company that Samsung acquired, may drive the music app, but that's Samsung's name and brand promise that the company is using the sell subscriptions -- one that, for $9.99 a month, can't stand up to other free or similarly priced apps.

Samsung Music Hub, mSpot
Samsung's Music Hub app shows you latest songs, not author bios, and didn't generate playlists we actually liked. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Other instances of great expectations gone awry are found in the Samsung Galaxy S3, which introduced a host of new software features in the TouchWiz customization UI of Android 4.0. These include four sharing features that require a tutorial to learn how to use, not to mention the disaster that is S Voice , Samsung's voice assisted answer to Apple's Siri.

Raw ambition
Yes, I'm clearly picking on poor Samsung, whose software engineers doubtlessly put in countless hours of work brainstorming and coding. As I mentioned before, Samsung's also had some great successes adding software that no other phone-maker or OS has.

S Beam is one of my favorites , and it's too bad for Samsung (but good for consumers) that Google is folding the enhanced sharing capabilities into Android 4.1 Jelly Bean for competitors to access.

There's also Smart Stay, which keeps the screen from dipping into Sleep mode so long as you're looking at it from time to time. TouchWiz, Samsung's custom interface layer, gives direct access to system settings, and I also like some of the device's motion controls.

Yet even with the hits, the recent and high-profile misses point to a Samsung that needs help closing the software loop on intuitive and complete experiences.

S Beam on the Samsung Galaxy S3
S Beam is a terrific Samsung addition to Android, one that Google added to its Jelly Bean release. Josh Miller/CNET

What to do
Creating elegant, powerful, and user-friendly software is easier said than done, and in many cases, Samsung's apps come close. Yet, in the company's ambition to offer premier software and hardware, it also sins by trying to do too much without following through on the little stuff. Yes, deadlines to shipping dates play a large role in which features make it on the first release and which don't -- a struggle for any company.

Yet, I think Samsung can improve its software reputation by concentrating on a smaller number of marquee apps per product. Instead of four confusing content-sharing apps for the Galaxy S3, I'd prefer two that work really, really well before Samsung adds more in later updates.

The company should also make sure it's committing the resources necessary to get the software right. I have no crystal ball into Samsung's inner software workings, so "resources" in its case could mean a larger team of software engineers and designers, more usability testing, or simple more time for authors to puzzle out the best way to code and debug.

Samsung has shown that it has bright ideas to contribute to mobile development along with top-tier devices like the Galaxy Note, Note 10.1 tablet, and Galaxy S3 smartphone. I hope it heeds this message and becomes more deliberate in its choices, rather than tossing a bucket of features at the wall to see what sticks.

 

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