New software for my Samsung Note 3; user interface still painful

Having switched from an iPhone 4S to a Samsung Note 3, I am amazed almost every day at some of the user interface decisions made by Samsung. (Apple fans: please don’t post comments about how it wasn’t smart to switch; I needed the Note for a work project.) Today I installed an operating system upgrade and was hopeful that some of the most glaring problems had been fixed. Sadly, they hadn’t…

One of the most heavily used parts of the phone is the “Phone” app. This has a “Contacts” tab. If I search for a friend whose last name is “Bailey” I would think that the first result would be the single contact in the phone that has a phone number attached to a person with a last name of “Bailey”. Yet astonishingly the contact with the phone number is not even on the first page. The app, which the owner entered by touching the “Phone” icon (presumably indicating an intent to make a call) shows first three random people that I don’t know at all but perhaps at one time might have replied to an email from them from my Gmail account using a browser. Then I get eight email-only contacts that have the same first and last name as the contact with the phone number. Mr. Bailey is an entrepreneur who wears a hat at a lot of distinct small enterprises and consequently has many distinct email addresses. Google Contacts wasn’t smart enough to merge these when I instructed it to merge whatever it could. But why isn’t the phone smart enough, given a list of contacts with the same name, to show the one with the phone number first?

Another crazy bad interface is from the “Messages” app. It will show a notification of a new text message in red. If I touch the icon, though, it takes me to an unrelated text message conversation with someone who might not have sent me anything for several days, i.e., whatever the last conversation I was in.

The camera is simply unusable if the subjects are humans and moving. It seems that most of the sites that test mobile phone cameras do it with studio scenes. That capability has nothing to do with a mobile phone camera being a practical photographic tool. This seems like something that Google should take over as part of the core Android software. It is too important to leave to the handset manufacturers, particularly if the goal is competing with Apple, whose camera software seems to be the world’s best (Canon, Nikon, and Sony obviously make better cameras, but because they use huge sensors and heavy traditional optics).

I’m thinking the Samsung software for the Note 3 was developed by someone who did not use Google Contacts, did not have many friends, and never used text messaging…

[Separately the phone/contact software freezes frequently, e.g., after one has unsuccessfully tried to make a call to a person's office phone and then wants to navigate back to the contact and try a mobile number.]

23 Comments

  1. mtX

    December 11, 2013 @ 4:10 am

    1

    While I don’t agree with Apple having the best camera software*, I do agree Samsung seem to have taken usability lessons from a sociopath gibbon on crack. It’s not common to the Android platform though – HTC seems to have figured it out much better. My Phone app only shows contacts with phone numbers, the Messages icon takes me to the list of messages, where the unread ones are highlighted and listed first. While the camera doesn’t compare to the Lumia, it’s really good in bright light and next to unusable in low light.

    * the Nokia Camera app for the Lumia is really amazing, and you can switch with a single swipe between full auto and full manual – exposure compensation, iso, white balance, etc.

  2. Hossein

    December 11, 2013 @ 7:52 am

    2

    Does the work project require a Samsung phone or just any Android device? If that’s the case then just get a nexus and avoid all the issues listed above.

  3. John K

    December 11, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

    3

    Apple’s camera software is superb, but you really should give Nokia’s camera software (not to mention formidable hardware) a try.

  4. Ted

    December 11, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

    4

    I too “upgraded” from a iPhone 4s to the Note 3. I do love the big screen but that is where my love for the Note 3 stops. I use to curse at Siri, now I would give anything to have her back on a bigger screen. I am on my second Note 3, the phone can’t find the network the first or second time when I use Samsung’s S-Voice or Google Search, it still doesn’t work. I talked with Samsung’s support department, they basically told me tough luck, it must be a software problem so you will have to live with it until we get around to it, if ever. I also have noticed all the problems you listed, plus many more. Please Apple, make a 6 inch phone for those of us with “older” eyes.

  5. philg

    December 11, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

    5

    John: I was intrigued by Nokia’s camera hardware, but the reviews that I saw indicated that the responsiveness and picture-to-picture times were subpar. So I lumped it into the same “good instrument; bad practical camera” category as the Note 3′s photo system.

  6. Mable

    December 11, 2013 @ 2:26 pm

    6

    Samsung has a over complicated UI .. LG on the other hand a little complicated UI , but all your complaints is taken care of .. Use a G2 better battery life as well

  7. philg

    December 11, 2013 @ 2:33 pm

    7

    Ted: I am with you on screen size. Maybe the Note is over-the-top but the 5″ screens on standard Android phones seem like a reasonable minimum now. The iPhone 5S looks like something out of Zoolander when you pick it up after using a Note.

  8. David

    December 11, 2013 @ 2:37 pm

    8

    In the Dialer/Contacts app, go to Settings and select to only have contacts with Phone numbers displayed.

    Can’t recall the messaging issue as I get taken to the message that just arrived. I did switch recently to 8sms which I like better.

    While using non-stock apps can be seen as a negative of a platform, it’s the very strength of Android that you can replace nearly any function with an app that better fits your preferences. I use a non-stock email and messaging app not because I think the stock ones are bad, but there are apps that are better tailored to my needs.

  9. philg

    December 11, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

    9

    David: The “Only contacts with phones” option is checked. This affects browsing but it does not affect searching. As noted above, even if Samsung decided that search should show all possible results, including those without phone numbers, it does not seem like a reasonable decision to show contacts without phone numbers above and with greater priority than contacts with phone numbers.

  10. Rawan Zubaid

    December 11, 2013 @ 4:30 pm

    10

    Hi, I’ve been an iPhone user for a few years now and I really love it I know that everybody wants a phone with a bigger screen because that’s the trend right now but I have small hands and I love the iPhone 5S screen size because then I can use it with one hand plus the other issue that I have with android phones and their software is the lack of accessibility for people with disabilities like myself, you have to download the accessibility software separately unlike the iPhone which has the accessibility options available in settings automatically. Not to mention that android software is very complicated it gives you a lot of options to customize your settings but in some cases if you don’t know what you’re doing you could mess up your phone unlike the iPhone which does everything automatically without you having to worry about it and that’s another feature that I like. One of the most important things that Android phones do not offer is the availability of frequent software updates, unlike the iPhone, software updates are few and very scarce not to mention that some Android phones don’t have software updates because the phone is old or is a cheaper android model. Lastly what is the point of having the ability to install apps that do the same thing that the stock apps available in the phone are supposed to do, you’d just end up wasting your money and your storage space, instead of just putting apps that you really want your phone and not having double of everything because the preinstalled apps on the phone don’t work it the way they are supposed to.

    Anyway, I just hope that you will be able to buy an iPhone again soon if you don’t like the screen size try the HTC one I heard from various people that I know that it’s very good although you cannot turn off the blink-feed feature so that might be annoying.

  11. Finn

    December 11, 2013 @ 4:30 pm

    11

    Any comments on the news article, and reader comments thereof? (Realized you might not have the time for the blogs–congratulations on the newborn! And sleepless nights to come)

    http://news.yahoo.com/mit-professor-tears-samsung-painful-smartphone-software-160051131.html;_ylt=A2KLOzFQyqhS0nIAgJVEDex_

  12. Dillon S.

    December 11, 2013 @ 8:22 pm

    12

    That’s the beauty of the Android platform. Don’t like the Phone app? Download another

  13. adrian

    December 11, 2013 @ 8:59 pm

    13

    i have to agree with the contacts thing. i have on many occasions tried searching for a contact on my Note 2, with 0 results, even though the name is correctly indicated in the search. not sure if Google or Samsung is to blame for this ‘search’ issue. ended up, i had to browse instead of search.

    in terms of consistency… there’s the issue where the s-pen hovering function does not work on the calendar widget but works on email widget and s planner (calender apps). Then there’s also the inconsistency where some birthdays are not appearing in calendar…

    there are many other examples of things not working properly and not well integrated, but having used earlier generations of Samsung phones (S2 and also Note1), i have to say that Samsung is improving, but maybe not as fast as one would like them to.

  14. Peter L.

    December 12, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

    14

    Android fragmentation is a blessing and a curse – you’ve got lots of device choice but wide variation in OS updates and custom vendor software. The consequence is that you may have a very real problem but the community with that problem may be small and the fix may be difficult to get. The more popular Samsung devices are among the best supported Android devices. I use a mix of Android and iOS devices – I favor Nexus devices on Android as they are closer to the “trunk” of the tree and get reasonable support and updates even if they aren’t the most beautiful devices available.

    I think it is right to hold Samsung’s (and Google’s) feet to the fire on usability issues and agree that as much as possible of the common application experience should be core to Android. This is one area where Google can improve.

  15. Mike Caron

    December 12, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

    15

    I too am using the Note 3. My first thoughts with the new phone was that the icons for applications were scalable, as well as the text so I could squish a lot onto one screen, since the resolution is so much higher. Well, that capability is not there. Instead I have a high resolution screen with these giant icons, and just a few on each screen, totally obviating the benefits of higher resolution.

    Why would one not want to use high resolution to put more icons onto a single screen? I have really good eyesight and dexterity so that should be a configuration option. Also, I have not figured out where the scalable text comes into play as well.

  16. Ron

    December 12, 2013 @ 6:31 pm

    16

    Mike (above) – just install one of Holo/Nova/Apex launchers from the Play Store and config it to make the most of the detailed resolution.

  17. Bret

    December 13, 2013 @ 3:24 am

    17

    This critique is spot on. I have seen all these problems and assumed that I simply didn’t understand the phone well enough to configure it for proper functioning.

    The terrible camera is especially galling. Having a good camera with you at all times has become a major bonus of a smart phone. My iPhone camera was excellent. And the camera on the Note 2 was excellent as well. The Note 3 camera, by contrast, is awful–it has higher resolution (which is not needed, and very wasteful of storage, given the optics on a phone) but at the cost of shutter lag, processor lag and poor focus and low-light performance–all of which mean that if you have gotten used to using your phone as a pretty good camera, you will need to carry an actual camera along with the Note 3.

    All that said, there are many excellent things about the Note 3. The big screen is great, the IR blaster is quite good, user removable/replaceable battery and micro SD card slot are important features. The S-Pen is potentially very useful, though the implementation is a bit clumsy.

    Bottom line: great phone, with many needless software flaws, and a terrible camera.

  18. Hossein

    December 13, 2013 @ 4:21 pm

    18

    Why isn’t anyone addressing the Nexus option. Or a Moto X. These are obvious options with a superior user experience and perfect one handed operation.

  19. Roger Sipson

    December 14, 2013 @ 12:21 am

    19

    The advantage of Android is that you can replace even basic functions of the device using the Play Store. To make phone calls I use Google Gesture Search on my Note 3. I prefer Android ‘s do it the way you want to Apple’s do it the way we want you to.

  20. nick

    December 14, 2013 @ 4:10 am

    20

    ^Yeah. The whole point of switching from apple to android is to avail yourself to a bigger universe of 3rd party apps. many of which are free, many of which solve the problems you whine about. but surely as some tech start up guru/MIT professor you already knew that.

  21. Sergey Povzner

    December 14, 2013 @ 10:00 am

    21

    +10 on Google Gesture search tip. Will solve the contacts issue and is very useful on any Android device.

    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.google.android.apps.gesturesearch

  22. Patrick

    December 14, 2013 @ 6:48 pm

    22

    Well stated article!

    I’m also someone using an Note 3 after using an iPhone, and have found much of the UI to be not fully completed.

    I would add a few glaring issues to the list
    - Google voice search (a great feature) is not integrated into the home button, as Siri is on the iPhone. And there’s no way to customize it to have it be so
    - You cannot navigate to a contact’s address using Maps (this is an unbelievable omission)
    - The Samsung music player is poorly designed
    - There’s no built-in Notes app that syncs with Outlook (as there is on the iPhone)
    - The integration between apps is not very well designed. For example, I’ve had to frequently respond to dialog boxes asking me which app I want to use to open a link or a video.
    - Choosing airplane mode requires an additional dialog box confirmation. That’s clunky.

    All in all, the phone has great hardware and great promise, but the software needs a big round of polish to match the iPhone’s easy of use.

  23. philg

    December 14, 2013 @ 11:04 pm

    23

    Folks: Thanks for the suggestion regarding replacement apps for the core functions of the device. It does seem burdensome on the consumer to require a big reconfiguration of the device in order to do basic phone operations. But even if one were willing to assume that burden of research and system administration, can that really fix the camera issues? Isn’t all of the software that drives the camera, autofocuses, recognizes faces, converts images to JPEG, etc., pure Samsung? Can a downloaded app just take over the raw sensor?

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