By BRIAN X. CHEN MARCH 16, 2016
Florence Ion, a writer for Greenbot, a website about Android-based products, at the IDG Podcast Studio in San Francisco. Ms. Ion helped assemble this guide to setting a Samsung smartphone straight. Credit Justin Kaneps for The New York Times
PITY the poor Samsung smartphone.
Since the company’s Galaxy smartphones were introduced seven years ago, Samsung has tried its mightiest to make the devices stand out. The company has invested an enormous amount to market the phones, and it has innovated on Google’s Android operating system used in the devices by adding quirky software features. Many Galaxy phones have sold briskly, catapulting Samsung to the top spot in the worldwide handset market.
But try as Samsung might, its smartphones always run into the same criticisms. The gadgets are inferior to Apple’s iPhones, which work seamlessly with the iOS mobile software, some critics say. And while the hardware design of the Galaxy phones — featuring large, vivid screens and high-quality cameras — wins plaudits, the devices keep getting thumbs down for some of their junky software.
With two new flagship phones — the Galaxy S7 and the Galaxy S7 Edge, which were released last week — Samsung is hoping to overcome those criticisms. The phones, which cost roughly $700 to $800, are water-resistant, equipped with fast cameras and capable of displaying virtual-reality apps and games through Samsung’s headset, the Gear VR. Samsung also loaded the new phones with about a third less software than previous versions.
“We know that one thing that our users want is a little bit less software, and we’ve made a serious effort with this device to include less,” said Philip Berne, a Samsung marketing manager.
I tested the new devices to come up with a few rules of thumb for how to get the most out of Samsung’s smartphones. In my tests, I still found the software on the S7 phones to be a negative to what is otherwise superb hardware.
To get the most out of these fancy phones, consider disabling most of the included software. Here are four easy steps for improving Samsung phones, which I put together with the help of Florence Ion, a writer for Greenbot, a website about Android-based products.
Disable Phone Carrier Apps
Probably the most annoying aspect of Samsung devices is their inclusion of inferior apps made by mobile carriers like Verizon Wireless and AT&T, known in tech industry parlance as carrier bloatware. These include apps like mapping or music services provided by the carriers, which are generally unpopular.
Replace carrier-installed software with free apps from the Google Play store like the Messenger app by Google and Spotify or Pandora for streaming music.
Fortunately, most of the carrier-installed apps on Samsung phones can be disabled. The apps included will differ from carrier to carrier, but generally bloatware can be turned off and better alternatives downloaded.
Using the Verizon version of the S7 as an example, open the Apps folder and then open the Verizon folder. Verizon apps one may want to disable include the football app NFL Mobile, the music app Slacker Radio, the mapping app Verizon Navigator and the messaging app Message+. Just press and hold down on these apps and drag them to the button labeled “Turn off.”
Ms. Ion said carrier-installed software was what annoyed her the most on the Samsung phones, because it detracts from the appeal of Android, an operating system made for customization.
“It’s all about the ability to have the choice to do whatever the heck you want with your phone,” she said of the Android system. “That’s why I get so angry about carrier bloat.”
After disabling those apps, replace them with better ones. In the Google Play store, download these superior free apps: for messaging, the Messenger app by Google; for mapping, the Waze app by Google; and for music, pick a favorite music service, like Spotify or Pandora.
Install a Launcher
On Android, the aesthetic of the interface — or the way the home screen, folders and apps look — is called a launcher. Samsung’s version is named TouchWiz, and while the S7’s version of TouchWiz looks a bit better than previous ones, there are plenty of more attractive launchers.
Getting a new launcher is just like downloading an app. In the Google Play app store, look up a launcher, download and install it. Ms. Ion named a few popular launchers including Action, which makes it easy to create shortcuts that activate different functions inside apps; Nova, which enables deeper customizations; and Google Now, which makes Android look the way Google intended.
In my testing, I preferred the Google Now launcher. It makes the app icons look clean and vibrant, and swiping to the left of the main screen displays a list of cards containing Google account information, including calendar, recent Amazon purchases and the weather. It’s a convenient way to take a quick peek at useful personalized data.
Replace Some Key Apps
Apart from apps included by carriers on the Galaxy phones, Samsung also loads some of its custom-made software, like its calendar, voice assistant and email app, on the devices. It also includes some software from partners like Amazon and Google. (Believe it or not, the Verizon version of the S7 includes four music apps, one each from Samsung, Google, Verizon and Amazon.)
The Samsung apps aren’t terrible, but because most Android users are tied to Google services, consumers would benefit from installing the superior Google-made alternatives for those apps: Google Calendar, Gmail and Google’s voice assistant.
For voice controls, Google’s excellent voice assistant is built into the Google app, which is included on the Samsung phones, and can be configured to respond to the command “O.K. Google” from any screen.
To use it, first disable Samsung’s voice assistant. Inside the Samsung apps folder, press and hold on the S Voice app, then select “turn off.” Inside the Google app, tap the rectangular tab in the upper-left corner, then Settings, then “O.K. Google” detection and swipe right on the option for “From any screen.” From here, users can say “O.K. Google” and speak a command, like “create a calendar event,” and the voice assistant will react.
For the email and calendar apps, simply download Google’s versions through its Play app store. They are far better designed and more tightly integrated with Google services than Samsung’s apps.
Swap Out the Keyboard
In my testing, I found Samsung’s digital keyboard to be imprecise and awkward for typing. There are plenty of better alternatives to download through the Google Play app store.
Here again I would recommend Google’s keyboard, which has auto-prediction, or the ability to quickly predict intended words after a few keystrokes. It also allows typing by swiping around the keyboard.
There’s a downside to de-Samsungifying the Samsung phones. While most of the included software from both Samsung and mobile carriers can be deactivated, some apps cannot be removed without taking extreme measures to wipe out all the software on the phone and replace it with a fresh install of Android, a method called rooting or flashing. That process is complicated, so it’s not for the faint of heart.
That means a lot of apps included on the Samsung phones will linger inside folders even after alternatives have been installed. Duplicates of some apps will probably remain.
But the Samsung software is easy enough to ignore by creating shortcuts to the ones you actually want. In the main apps folder, just drag and drop desired apps onto the home screen.
In the end, you will have a great Samsung phone with excellent software.