TouchWiz on Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 review: An unobtrusive update to Honeycomb

When news dropped of Samsung bringing its custom interface to Honeycomb, I rolled my eyes in disgust. Then with the snap of a finger, Samsung TouchWiz UX interface running on prototype units of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 and 10.1, were announced at CTIA 2011.

For the record, I am not a big fan of TouchWiz or any custom UI, for that matter; I feel that Honeycomb, like any other vanilla Android OS, is good as is. Visually, the TouchWiz UX interface shares many commonalities with its smartphone platform brethren, but it doesn’t exactly tilt my meter of excitement.

With that said, it’s been over a week since Samsung has pushed out its TouchWiz UX update to retail Galaxy Tab 10.1 units across the country, and having spent most of the week playing with it, I would love to share my thoughts on the Tab 10.1 with you guys.

Installation & Impressions

The actual installation process took about 20-25 minutes, most of which went at a fairly decent pace. I thought something went terribly wrong with my Tab once it stalled completely at 77% for several minutes, but once it hit 78% it was all good again. After the first update had completed, the reboot process had followed, taking a handful of minutes that seemed to take forever to pass by. (Be sure to have you Tab fully-charged before starting the update process.)

Once the installation process was complete, there was a noticeable aesthetic difference. When I navigated between home screens and switched pages within the app drawer the entire experience felt a lot smoother, with less lag. Now lets break down TouchWiz UX shall we?

This is the first major overlay to hit Honeycomb and I can honestly say its far from a hindrance or annoyance. The user interface reflects what the Samsung Galaxy S II is using with TouchWiz 4.0 with several enhancements that are unique to tablets. One of the first things that you’ll notice about TouchWiz UX is the updated navigation bar, but you’ll be happy to know that core functions still remain the same as it does on stock Honeycomb. This version of TouchWiz on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is nothing like its predecessor on the Galaxy phones.

Navigation bar, Quick Panel and Mini Apps Tray

In this update, a noticeable change happened within the notifications, which Samsung calls, the “Quick Panel.” The stock Honeycomb notifications tab has an unintuitive design. With TouchWiz UX, all of your toggle settings like Wi-Fi, Notifications, GPS, Sound, Auto rotation, are noticeable and a finger press away. But I must say I don’t care much about the lager font Samsung added; it’s just not necessary.

When it comes to the navigation bar, one of the coolest additions has to be the feature that wasn’t mentioned much before the update was released, which is native screenshots without root. It’s a simple process, to grab a pic of the screen, hit the icon right of the app chooser, and viola – your screenshot is saved.

In the middle of the navigation bar you’ll see an arrow pointing upward, which releases the mini-app tray, which is one of the most unique upgrades offered by TouchWiz UX. This was made for quick access to commonly used tools such as: Task Manager, Calendar, World Clock, Pen Memo, Calculator, and Music Player. The app tray is very useful when checking you’re Gmail and want to access the calendar or calculator for example, but don’t want to bounce out of Gmail by doing so. Mini Tray is like a picture-in-picture mode for select tasks. Another slightly but noticeable difference is the color scheme changing from black with neon, to dark gray with a lighter gray, accompanied by cyan and neon green accents (the color scheme reminds me of Tron the movie like stock Honeycomb does).

Applications and other updates

If you’re reading this and asking yourself for more customizations, then you need not worry; Sammy has you covered. Samsung threw in several more apps including Samsung Media, Music, and Social Hubs; and eBook, Memo, Pen Memo, Photo Editor, and My Files. With the eBook app, Samsung continues to give Apple the middle finger, because it looks eerily similar to iOS’s iBooks app. And I’m sure this will only fuel Apple’s appetite for further litigating the Korean electronics company. My Files is a very simple, yet functional file manager, offering most of the things that you need to explore and edit files on the built-in storage of the Tab. Pen Memo works pretty well, and is very responsive to the touch of any of your fingers. Here you’re able to write with your finger, paint, type, and in general make things easy on your day to day forgetfulness. It’s an instant hit for your wife or kid when they want to doodle on your Tab when you’re away from the room.

A few stock Honeycomb apps like Calendar, Email, and Browser all received little changes, but for the better. The new calendar is a slight tweak that to me makes the app seem a little more refined. When it comes to the Email app, I haven’t really noticed any big differences, but that could be due to the fact that I don’t use it often. The Browser, aside from a few color changes, remained mostly unchanged. You can now enable Google Instant for faster search loading, and much like the new tab page in Chrome, your homepage can be set to view your most visited pages. I find these changes to be a definite plus.

In terms of inputting text, the Swype keyboard comes along for the ride with the TouchWiz UX interface. Of course, the main Swype keyboard encompasses the entire width of the display, which can prove to be very helpful when accurately inputting text on the go. If you hate the width, you can minimize it so that the layout is shortened to make it easier on your fingers.

What you can also expect is the typical widget functionality that Samsung tends to offer with all of its Galaxy products. In what Samsung is calling the Live Panel (of widgets), you will find Accuweather, Agenda, AP Mobile, Yahoo! Finance, Bookmark, Program monitor, Gallery and two clock widgets — digital and analog. Why would Sammy name all of its widgets the “Live Panel” is anyone’s best guess. (It’s really nothing different — they’re widgets.)

The wrap-up

Okay, it’s time for me to give my mea culpa. TouchWiz UX was successful in changing my negative attitude toward custom UI’s, but the Android purist in me still finds them tedious and unnecessary for the most part. That said, the update hasn’t slowed down the tablet as many expected it would, in fact, performance has been spectacular and battery life seems to have slightly improved. TouchWiz UX has made the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 an even better tablet, and one of the best parts about this update is that it’s in no way obtrusive.

Let’s be honest, though: the TouchWiz update may not be received with opened arms from the entire Android ecosystem because of the bloatware and the changes to the look of stock Honeycomb. What I will say is, right now, TouchWiz UX is better than stock Honeycomb — this could of course change with the Android 3.2 update down the pipeline, which is another problem. Can we expect long waits for updates like people have seen on Samsung phones? Only time will tell, but a burning thought this may delay future updates, and I hope that will not be the case.

Author: Charles West

Charles West is a self-proclaimed music snob, sports junkie, party rager and cannibal of all things tech and gadgety. Born and bread in Hartford, CT, where he currently resides, is a life filled with great friends and family. As an early adapter to Android, he's tinkered and hacked a long list of phones; escaping the grips of carrier and manufacturing malpractice. Charles has covered the mobile industry for Examiner.com, Technology Marketing Corporation, and Androinica.

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  • http://twitter.com/rtimi timi

    For me everything that has been said is right apart from the 3.2 update coming late. I would say that the wifi version will receive the timely update faster than those tied down to the 4g lte version like verizon since they still haven’t receive an update to touchwiz or maybe they are staying vanilla, who knows.