Samsung One UI was unveiled at the Samsung Developer Conference back in November last year. The update, the company’s latest iteration of its Android skin, is based on Android 9.0 Pie and brings with it a visual overhaul of the OS while aiming to make the experience more user-friendly, fluid and intuitive. One UI succeeds Samsung Experience UI, which itself took some strides towards cutting down on the complexities that have plagued Samsung handsets in the past. Here’s our review of One UI, running on a Galaxy S9+.

One UI is indeed a major step ahead in terms of user experience. The interface comes with a fresh new coat of paint, carrying resemblances to Google’s Material Design, through the way of colorful new icons and a design that sheds gradients and drop shadows in favor of a more flat, rounded and consistent UI. The menus, settings, notifications, and other elements of interaction in the entire OS have been tasked with making it easier to use the phone, be it through new usability tricks or the system-wide dark mode. The update is not just aimed at the current crop of devices, as the upcoming Galaxy S10 series and the long-awaited foldable phone too will ship with a variant of this software.

Major Changes

Visual Overhaul:

The first thing that you'll notice is the familiar home screen, but with a new icon style. While they still retain the rounded square design, they look more colorful. Some may not like the overly colorful iconography, but hey, it’s Android, so it can easily be replaced with third-party icon packs. One change that I personally appreciate is the updated font. The default font earlier looked stretched vertically, which now is more proportionate and looks fantastic. However, it’s a minor personal gripe and something that not many users would’ve ever noticed. The entire UI looks extremely consistent, with the curved edge treatment going to almost all options and menus, that also match with Samsung’s hardware design.

In addition to the look and feel, the update also brings with it a bunch of smart elements to the UI. Samsung’s way of improving reachability and ease of use in the age of phones with ever-increasing screen sizes is, in a way, clever. The majority of the UI elements have been moved to the lower half of the phone. This is especially prominent in apps like Settings, Messages, Gallery, and Phone where the navigation pivots are situated at the bottom for easier reachability. The design is such that the screen is split into two distinct sections – The ‘Viewing Area’ and the ‘Interaction Area’ – which lets users access UI elements easily using one hand, with the app filling the screen up as you scroll down and returning to the split view once you scroll all the way back up.

Other smart elements that help de-clutter the UI include icons and options that appear only when required. For example, the bottom navigation on the Phone app vanishes when you begin typing a number. The backspace and video call options too only appear when you begin hitting numbers on the number pad. However, the absence of a visible cursor or text area might make it difficult for first-time users to paste in numbers from other locations since it takes a bit of guessing that long pressing on the area right above the keypad brings up the context menu. The lock-screen notifications also default to icons and expand only when tapped on, helping reduce clutter on the screen. They can, however, be tweaked through the settings to show entire banners by default.

Overall, the visual changes look refreshing and modern. Fluid animations complement the overhauled visuals and make for a pleasant experience.

Gesture Navigation and Task Switching:

Android Pie introduced full-screen gesture-based navigation, akin to what debuted with the iPhone X. There have been mixed views about the implementation of this system, as it takes getting used to, and cannot be disabled on devices like the Pixel line. Samsung’s implementation, however, has adopted a best-of-both-worlds paradigm. You can either go full screen and entirely hide the navigation buttons, or have the buttons appear permanently.

The full-screen mode also provides an option to turn on ‘Gesture Hints’, horizontal lines that assist with swiping from the bottom. The center hint line can be used to switch between apps by holding and dragging it to the right and then moving left or right, similar to what is possible on Pixel devices using the pill icon in the nav bar. This is present even if the navigation buttons are always visible. However, you will miss out on that feature if the gesture hints are turned off in the full-screen mode. Going back is as simple as swiping up from the left (or right, since the recents key and back buttons are swapable). A nifty quick action in the notification shade lets you turn off and on the navigation bar.

The pressure sensitive button where the home key resides can still be used, regardless of the navigation settings. The button works extremely well and can be pressed in any app to get back to the home screen, as before.

The task switching interface on One UI is extremely similar to the one found on Google’s phones. Hitting/Swiping the recents button now brings up horizontal cards. A swipe-up gesture closes the apps, and interestingly, you can also swipe down on the card, which mimics a pull gesture and switches to that app. The bottom of the screen is occupied by app suggestions that change based on usage. The task switcher automatically defaults focus to the previously opened app, making it easier to switch quickly between two apps. There ‘Close all’ button is retained, which is a neat inclusion.

Dark Theme:

Samsung has finally added a system-wide dark theme to the OS. The feature, dubbed ‘Night mode’ switches the entire system into an eye-friendly, AMOLED-friendly dark theme. The change applies to all UI elements across the OS and stock applications like Calculator, Messages, Phone, My Files, and more. This is a welcome addition and a personal preference. AMOLED screens benefit from a dark mode as the individual pixels can be switched off completely, making for deep, high-contrast blacks.

One UI also includes a redesign of the Camera UI. Like with other system apps, the company has moved the camera modes to the bottom of the screen. You can swipe left or right to switch between modes as before. Bixby Vision, AR Emoji and the crop of icons for flash control, aspect ratio and the like have been moved to the top. Samsung has also gotten rid of the smooth zoom effect using the shutter button. The wide-angle and telephoto icons can be used to zoom in and out and can be swiped left/right for gradual zoom. One feature that I found missing was the ability to hit the volume rocker to snap a quick picture while recording video. Though there are options to tweak the quick function, the ability to snap a quick picture seems to have been replaced with start/stop recording using the volume keys.

In addition to the change in UI, Samsung is also bringing the Scene Optimizer and Flaw Detection functions that debuted in the Note9, to other devices. A small on-screen icon can toggle Scene Optimizer on or off. Flaw Detection, as the name suggests, can detect image shake, closed eyes and other kinds of problems you might overlook, and can be turned off from the camera settings.

Minor Changes

One UI brings with it a whole host of minor changes to the OS along with the big bang UI improvements. Functionality like the quick settings access right from the notification shade makes it easy to manipulate settings without having to dive into the Settings app. An iPhone-like lift-to-wake feature initiates the face unlock when it detects that the phone has been picked up. The feature negates the necessity to wake the phone up or reach out to the back for the fingerprint sensor.

Bixby, Samsung’s digital assistant, also has received a lick of paint with a revamped home and makes use of the updated design language. However, the UI for Bixby does look overdone, since there are large blank spaces in the interface, creating an impression that space could have been utilized in a better way.

Samsung Keyboard was updated with improvements such as an adaptive theme that changes depending on the color of the surrounding app. Other improvements include the addition of detailed charging information right in the Always On Display (AOD) that shows charging speed (fast or slow) and time to full charge, the ability to use Samsung DeX without a DeX station directly through standard HDMI adapters, and other nifty little improvements such as the screen rotation toggle that appears at the corner of the display when you change the phone's orientation even when rotation is locked.

The entire experience feels snappier, and smooth animations make for a pleasing experience. The jitter when swiping left to access Bixby is finally gone. If you aren't a fan of the animations, a 'Reduce animations' setting can be turned on from the 'Advanced features' panel that tones down animations and improves response times.

The Hiccups

One UI introduces a whole host of new features and improvements to Samsung’s devices. However, it isn’t to say that everything is perfect.

The Android skin still carries baggage from Samsung’s software of years ago. The Settings app, despite the improved categorization, still contains extremely granular options that are difficult to find. Take for example the Edge lighting personalization or the battery usage settings that are dug into 'Device care'. While the level of customization and features are appreciated, the magnitude of settings sometimes makes it impossible to spot what you are looking for. The new accessibility paradigm of design too could see some improvements. While certain apps are now easier to use, some UI elements such as the music controls on the lock screen still feel like they could benefit from a better placement, such as at the bottom of the screen.

One UI still contains some bugs that have been plaguing other Android Pie devices. The adaptive brightness, for example, tends to turn the screen too dim or too bright and needs constant correction. There also exists some rare jitter when switching between apps.

Finally, Bixby is still is not at par with its rivals. There are a few useful features that Bixby brings to the table, such as quick commands and complex system commands, that other assistants cannot, but I still find it to be a cumbersome task getting Bixby to recognize the commands. It often needs more than one attempt, and the prompts to unlock the device for seemingly simple commands are counter-intuitive. Speaking of Bixby, the dedicated Bixby button cannot be disabled completely, like was the case on the Note9 when that device launched. The only way to prevent accidental launches is by switching the button to respond to double clicks instead of a single click.

Conclusion

Samsung’s One UI is a huge step in the right direction. The fresh, fluid UI makes it a joy to use, and the addition of smart UI elements, dark mode, and other nifty improvements make for a great experience. The navigation system combines the best of either world and in true Samsung fashion, provides users with an abundance of options. The company’s efforts to continually improve its software and strike a balance between excess customization and usability is evident. However, a lot of the remnants remain from the years that have passed, and it will be interesting to see how Samsung moves the design language forward.

In all, One UI is a fantastic update that Samsung fans will love, and others will appreciate. The update is out for a majority of unlocked Galaxy S9 and Note9 devices and is expected to roll out in the coming weeks to Galaxy S8 and Note8 devices. As for Samsung’s upcoming flagships and the company’s foldable phone foray, we are not too far away to see what advancements the OS is slated to receive in those iterations that will move the needle forward.

 

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