If you pay even an ounce of attention to tech news, odds are you've heard that Samsung's planning to introduce its next flagship Galaxy phone -- the Galaxy S IV, presumably -- at an event this Thursday. You may have even heard a few predictions about the phone's form and features.
With Samsung's massive marketing efforts and near-universal availability, it's practically guaranteed that the Galaxy S IV will be another smash hit -- but that doesn't necessarily mean it'll outrank other devices when it comes to user experience. After all, commercial success and best-in-class quality don't automatically go hand in hand. (Just ask Justin Bieber. Or Apple.)
With that in mind, here are four things I'm hoping -- but not really expecting -- to see with Thursday's Samsung Galaxy S IV launch:
1. A toned down TouchWiz
I've been saying it for ages now: Samsung's design decisions detract from the user experience and hold its products back from their full potential. There's no better example than the company's over-the-top TouchWiz interface.
As I wrote in my review of the Galaxy Note II last fall:
The subdued and consistent visuals of Android 4.x are replaced by an overwhelming mess of colors, clashing icons and excessive elements. Intuitive processes like creating a home screen folder have been complicated for no apparent reason. All around, Samsung's interface feels like something a design instructor would use as an example of practices one should avoid.
Look -- the ability for a manufacturer to modify the OS is a core part of Android's open nature. But in the era of Android 4.x, the types of modifications many manufacturers are choosing to make are horribly misguided.
Man, it'd be a nice surprise if the Galaxy S IV marked the point where Samsung started to scale back its arbitrary UI meddling and focus instead on "differentiating" via things that actually added value to the product. With that approach, there'd be no telling what levels of greatness the company's devices could achieve.
And that brings us to wish #2:
2. More emphasis on meaningful software features
While many UI-oriented changes do little more than add unnecessary delays into the upgrade process, some types of software modifications can be meaningful.
The types of modifications I'm talking about are ones that are more feature-oriented -- things like the Smart Stay and Popup Play features Samsung introduced with last year's Galaxy line. These things arguably add real value to the product rather than merely providing change for the sake of change.
Samsung was on the right path with some of these features in the Galaxy S III. I'd love to see the company innovate more unique and interesting features with the GSIV (yes, like the heavily rumored futuristic eye-scrolling feature) and focus its software efforts on those items instead of the unneeded UI work.
3. A less plasticky construction
I get it: The plasticky build is basically a Samsung trademark at this point. But next to an all-aluminum phone like the HTC One, a glass-centric device like the Nexus 4, or a Kevlar-and-metal product like Motorola's Droid Razr HD, the Sammy-style casing is starting to look a little low-end.
Even if Samsung wants to use plastic for cost purposes, it'd be nice to see the company offer a higher-end design for its high-end flagship phone -- then, if need be, offer a slightly lower-end plastic-based alternative. (Hey, we know Sammy isn't averse to making a million different models of a device.)
If a nonplastic approach would mean the battery couldn't be removed, Samsung could counter that with -- oh, I don't know -- a powerful battery that you wouldn't have to worry about removing. Just imagine how amazing the GSIV could be with a killer all-day battery, a la the Droid Razr HD Maxx, and a premium-material build.
4. A move away from that dated physical button setup
This one's mildly controversial, I know, but I'm sorry: It's time for Samsung to say so-long to the Gingerbread-esque button setup. The odd mix of physical and capacitive navigation buttons just doesn't jibe with the direction Android has taken as of the 4.0 release.
As I noted when reviewing the Galaxy S III:
Having a menu button makes the phone feel dated and results in a far less fluid and intuitive user experience. Functions remain hidden and hard to find, and the menu button doesn't even work consistently throughout the system (in the Camera app, for example, there's an on-screen menu button; pressing the physical button does nothing).
Samsung also elected not to include an app-switching button of any sort -- something that's now standard in [Android 4.x] -- and instead requires users to long-press the physical home button in order to activate the multitasking tool. The multitasking tool is one of the high points of [Android 4.x] and something you'll likely want to access often; having it buried in a place that requires a two-second long-press is a serious downer and another ding that makes the phone feel dated.Sadly, the phone's button problems don't stop there: Philosophical approach aside, the mix of a hardware home button with capacitive back and menu buttons simply doesn't work. Once you get used to gently touching the capacitive buttons to activate them, having to forcefully press the adjacent physical home button is jarring and feels bizarre. I can't count the number of times I found myself touching the home button only to realize I had to press it firmly to make it work.
I understand the initial resistance to the virtual button approach, but at this point, the insistence on sticking with hardware buttons -- particularly with the hybrid, menu-button-including approach Samsung tends to favor -- is starting to look silly. It clashes with the standards most apps now employ and limits the level of intuitiveness the platform can provide.
A Galaxy far, far away...
Ultimately, it comes down to this: When a company does well, the natural inclination is to stay with the tried and true. After a while, though, the tried and true starts to feel stale -- particularly when other players are shaking things up and pushing things forward.
As the Android sales leader, I'm ready to see Samsung take a few risks. Sure, the Galaxy S IV will sell well regardless -- but that doesn't mean Samsung has to play it safe.
Let's see something fresh and exciting, something that pushes the boundaries and embraces modern Android standards. It'd require some bold moves, sure, but bold moves are what it takes to push an established product to impressive new heights.
If anyone has the resources to pull that off, it's Samsung. The question is whether it's willing to do it.