For years, I've struggled to put my finger on what's amiss with Samsung's mobile devices -- what broad issue continually holds the products back from being as great as they could be.
In the past, I've referred to it as a "design disconnect": a series of baffling decisions that places asterisks on otherwise promising devices. As I've been getting to know the Galaxy S5, though, it hit me: The real problem is a consistent underlying lack of focus, taste, and restraint.
When you stop and think about it, those three absent elements explain a lot. From the gaudy and inconsistent user interface to the "jam every feature imaginable into the phone" mentality, everything Samsung does revolves around a mindset of MORE, MORE, MORE. More colors, more options, more everything.
In terms of both design and functionality, the end result is a product where it feels like engineers threw everything they could think of against a wall to see what would stick, with no rhyme or reason behind any of it. What's missing is the person who looks at the big picture and thinks about user experience -- about what all those elements accomplish, how they fit together, and how their presence impacts the experience of using the device.
The issue is evident even in the company's hardware design: Samsung says the Galaxy S5 boasts a new "modern glam" look, for instance -- but "modern glam" just means the same chintzy faux-metal trim and thin plastic backing we've seen before, only now with dots on it. Plastic doesn't have to seem cheap and tacky, as the Moto X has demonstrated, but Samsung has yet to produce a phone with a thoughtful and tasteful implementation.
I could go on, but you get the point. From the barrage of bleeps and bloops programmed into every device to the series of over-the-top launch events, focus, taste, and restraint just don't seem to be in Samsung's DNA.
Curiously enough, the company appears to be aware of this perception. It came up with a new "back to the basics" tagline for the Galaxy S5 that attempts to address it -- but like the "modern glam" declaration, it's actually little more than empty marketing speak. The GS5 is just as busy and bloated as its predecessors and still larded up with oodles of superfluous add-ons. Sure, Samsung didn't tack on too many new circus tricks this go-round, but it also didn't do much to create a simpler or more refined user experience (have you seen the new settings UI?!).
The bigger issue is one of relativity: Plain and simple, other Android phone manufacturers have grown up and evolved. Thoughtful design has become commonplace and expected in hardware and software alike. What used to be begrudgingly acceptable now feels behind the curve -- and while the billions of dollars spent on marketing may guarantee good sales, those of us who spend time using a variety of Android devices know that commercial success and optimal user experience don't automatically go hand in hand.
Until Samsung develops a sense of focus, taste, and restraint, its devices will continue to fall further and further behind in overall user experience. They'll continue to be "good enough" instead of "great." And that's a shame, because the company has the resources to do truly great things -- if only it'd get out of its own way.