Android Intelligence Analysis

Galaxy reality check: 4 big reasons to avoid Samsung's Android phones

Samsung's Galaxy phones may have the best-known brand within Android, but they come with some underemphasized downsides every serious user should consider.

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The biggest story in the Android universe this week is the pending arrival of Samsung's latest and greatest Galaxy flagships — the Galaxy S21 and its various cousins, expected to be unveiled at a virtual event later this morning. The phones will almost certainly be the de facto standard bearers of the high-end Android experience for the months ahead, and they're all but certain to be among the top-selling premium Android devices of 2021.

In many ways, it's not surprising. When it comes to high-end Android phones, Samsung does a lot of things right — from its sleek, eye-catching hardware designs to its exceptional build quality and frequently top-of-the-line components. And that's to say nothing of the equally or perhaps even more important no-holds-barred marketing strategy that's helped Samsung gain and maintain its dominant position within the Android ranks.

And yet, as someone who closely studies the Android ecosystem and aims to offer advice about the most advisable experiences available within it, I find myself struggling to wholeheartedly recommend Samsung's Android products — especially for serious business users — more so with every passing year. And it's not because of any manner of subjective assessment; it's because of some glaring, foundational flaws with the real-world experience Samsung provides on its Android-based Galaxy devices.

They're issues that not only impact what it's like to use Samsung's phones over the entire time that you own 'em but also impact the all-important areas of privacy and security as it pertains to your personal and/or company-connected data. And while I'm all too aware that I'm likely to get a fair amount of pushback for focusing on these typically underemphasized areas — hey, brand loyalty is a powerful thing these days! — now in particular, this stuff desperately needs to be brought to the forefront.

Here, specifically, are four reasons I'd encourage anyone to think twice before committing to a Samsung Android phone.

1. The out-of-place advertising

Ads are a mostly unavoidable part of contemporary life, especially when technology is involved. But while Google implements ads into otherwise free online services — an arrangement that's well publicized and that allows those services to remain free for general use — Samsung goes a step further and actually puts ads into the heart of its high-cost mobile products. And it does so in a way that's over the top and unacceptably invasive.

It's something we've talked about before — from the ads prominently built into Samsung's system-level Phone app to the endless in-your-face notification nudges pushing everything from new Samsung devices to fee-requiring Samsung apps and services — and it's an issue that only continues to expand and grow ever more troubling over time.

Samsung Galaxy Android Phones - Ads JR

Ads built into Samsung's Phone app, at left, and pushed out via system-level notifications, at right.

Just last week, Samsung reportedly started to send automated background updates to its U.S. Galaxy devices with the apparent sole purpose of monitoring phone-owners' location, sensing when they're in a store that sells Samsung products, and then using their notifications to push them ads for those items. As I wrote in my newsletter on Friday, it's tacky, it's abusive, and it's obnoxious — and it makes for an unpleasant and frankly unacceptable user experience, whether we're talking about a $2,000 phone or even a $200 one.

And that, unfortunately, is only the start.

2. The shady-seeming data selling

Here's where the really disconcerting part comes into play: In addition to baking those over-the-top advertising systems into its smartphone experience, Samsung also has mechanisms in place to share your data with external agencies — to double-dip, as I've put it before, and directly profit off the info you assume is protected.

We've seen this in the form of a tucked-away setting within the system-level Samsung Pay app that, unless dug up and disabled, allows your financial information to be shared with "Samsung Pay partners." That discovery last year shocked me enough that I decided to comb through Samsung's various privacy policies, where I found even more unsettling fine print. For instance:

  • As a Galaxy phone owner, Samsung may allow "certain third parties (such as advertising partners)" to "collect your personal information" in unspecified venues and ways.
  • Samsung "may have" previously sold a bunch of sensitive info to undisclosed third parties — everything ranging from "unique personal identifiers" associated with your device to "records of products or services purchased, obtained, or considered"; "other purchasing or consuming histories or tendencies"; "internet and other electronic network activity information, including, but not limited to, browsing history, search history, and information regarding your interaction with websites, applications, or advertisements"; and "inferences drawn from any of the information identified above to create a profile about you reflecting your preferences, characteristics, psychological trends, predispositions, behavior, attitudes, intelligence, abilities, and aptitudes" (!).
  • Samsung may have also "disclosed" even more personal info to "vendors" for "a business purpose." Uh, no biggie — just info like, y'know, your name, address, phone number, signature, bank account number, credit card number, purchase history, browsing history, search history, geolocation data, and once again that lovely-sounding collection of "inferences drawn" from all of that. Right.

And the list just keeps going. Another layer built into Samsung's core smartphone software collects the same sorts of sensitive information, as a separate privacy policy discloses, bringing in Samsung-made apps like the company's custom Calendar and Internet (browser) utilities to analyze your data from those domains as well — and then reserves the right to "collect, analyze, and share" all of that information in order to provide you with "advertising and direct marketing communications about products and services offered by Samsung and third parties that are tailored to your interests." Just what every IT manager dreams of!

Oh, and speaking of ads, that service built into the Phone app that we talked about a minute ago also has its own privacy policy — and that one notes that the company behind the effort is able to "collect search, location, and call log information automatically" from users' devices and then share such data with its "affiliates or subsidiaries" as well as with "third-party vendors, service providers, contractors, or agents who perform functions" on its behalf.

And even that is still just the start.

Critically, as I've pointed out previously, none of this is even close to what Google does with the advertising associated with its various free services. First and most significantly, Google never sells user data or shares it with any third parties, even when said info is used to help determine what ads you see around the web via Google's ad networks. And beyond that, Google's use of data for ad personalization is a well-known, core part of its business — one that exists to offset the free nature of services such as Search, Maps, and the non-Workspace versions of Gmail, Docs, and Drive.

A smartphone, suffice it to say, is not a free service. You're paying good money for the privilege to own such a product, with the expectation of a professional environment that's free from spammy distractions and questionable built-in connections.

And yet, here we are.

3. The subpar software support

If you've followed my musings for long, you know I'm adamant about the fact that Android upgrades absolutely matter — and for more than just the surface-level features and interface refinements. Operating system upgrades consistently provide consequential under-the-hood improvements in areas like performance, privacy, and security, as we've seen with the current Android 11 release as well as with other recent releases before it.

And Samsung has made it painfully clear, year after year, that providing those updates to its customers in a timely and reliable manner simply isn't a priority. My data-driven Android Upgrade Report Cards — such as the most recent one, in which Samsung got an embarrassing D+ score for its lackluster Android 10 upgrade efforts — tell you everything you need to know.

To Samsung's credit, the company has been getting better at upgrade deliveries over the past couple years — but when you actually look at the big-picture data, you realize its improvements aren't all that impressive. In the grand scheme of things, the company is still running close to a hundred days behind schedule, in a best-case scenario, and typically taking even longer when it comes to supporting its previous-gen, just one-year-old top-tier devices.

As a company of its size and with its vast array of resources, Samsung certainly could do better. It could get current software into the hands of its highest-paying customers within a matter of days of its release, if it really wanted to. It simply doesn't choose to treat that non-revenue-generating form of support as a priority. And for business users in particular, that's an increasingly tough asterisk to justify, especially when commendable near-instant-upgrade options are readily available elsewhere on the platform.

4. The not-so-optimal overall user experience

Last but not least is the most abstract reason for my Samsung recommendation hesitation, but it's an impossibly important part of the picture. It's the overall user experience — or what it's actually like to use a device in day-to-day life.

As someone who owns both a recent Google Pixel phone and a recent Samsung Galaxy phone, let me tell you: The difference in user experience between those branches of Android is astounding. It's a contrast I've heard reinforced by numerous people who have reached out to me after taking the Galaxy-to-Pixel plunge over the years.

One of my favorite analogies, offered up by my friend and fellow tech philosopher Jared Newman, is that using a Samsung phone is kind of like visiting Vegas: You’ve got lots of flashy lights, eye-catching bells and whistles, and things that lure people in off the street and make 'em want to come check it all out. After you've been in that environment for a while, though, you just start to feel just kind of…dirty. It's sensory overload and an awful lot of clutter that actively gets in the way of comfort and efficiency. Going to a Pixel-like setup, in contrast, feels like going back home — to a place that might be less exciting, on the outside, but that has all the stuff you actually need and an environment that's better suited for long-term habitation.

Interface issues aside, Samsung phones are just overflowing with confusingly competing elements and built-in bloatware. You've got things like the prominently featured Galaxy Store, which pings you endlessly and tries to get you to think of it as your primary app marketplace despite the fact that the Play Store is immeasurably more stocked and up to date with current, desirable titles. You've got Samsung's own Contacts app, which syncs with Samsung only by default and thus makes it difficult to access your info on other devices or transfer it to future phones not made by Samsung (a sharp contrast to Google's superior setup, which you'd have to know about and actively seek if you wanted to embrace it — something most average phone-owners wouldn't think to do). And don't even get me started on Bixby.

In addition to all the bloat, Samsung simultaneously omits valuable elements of the core Android operating system for no apparent reason. Galaxy phone owners won't get the incredibly useful (and impressively expandable) new connected-device command center that's built into the Android 11 power menu, for instance, nor can they take advantage of Android's privacy-enhancing Guest Mode or possibility-packed multiuser support system for phones. They can't even enjoy the seamless, interruption-free update process Google has offered within Android since 2016, since Samsung somehow still sticks with the antiquated, time-wasting system that preceded it.

Now, look: If you find yourself enamored with Samsung's approach and see all of this as much ado about nothing, that's perfectly fine! Android is all about choice, after all, and there's certainly nothing wrong with choosing whatever path and manner of product you prefer. But it's time we start talking about this stuff openly and as a prominent part of the Samsung device discussion. That way, anyone facing a purchasing choice can at least arm themselves with all of the facts and make a fully educated decision about what sort of setup makes the most sense for them.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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