I’ve had a Galaxy Note 2 for about 6 months. I bought it because I got the itch to upgrade, and it was the best Android phone available at the time (caveat: on Verizon. I would have gladly gone with the HTC One, or Nexus 4, or any other flagship device that skipped Verizon for reasons I outlined a while back). Being a ROM aficionado, I knew hardware was the biggest factor for me. My loyal Galaxy Nexus was a solid phone, but with heavy use it would die by early afternoon without a charger nearby. Better processor and gigantic battery (and dearth of options) made the Note 2 a no-brainer. But I heard a panelist on a recent episode of This Week in Google (could have been All About Android too) talk about the zen of wanting the phone you have, or something like that. It is a noble concept, and I tried to live up to it with my previous phone (until I didn’t). But it is easy to do with a Nexus device, or an iPhone, because you are at ground zero of the operating system. So I dove down the rabbit hole that is Touchwiz, to look for enlightenment.
This was a formidable challenge, too. After spending my first 2 years of smartphone ownership in the hellscape of MotoBlur, my reluctance for anything but AOSP (or stock Android, to the uninitiated) cannot be overstated. My initial reaction to any overly skinned version of Android is usually minor wretching. The Verge put it well in their review of the new Note 3:
Pen Window is almost something you have to see in person to really grasp how silly it is.
This can be said for many features Samsung packs into these phones. I am supposed to live with this device for 2 years, according to my carrier. I am not looking for “silly.” That being said, there are some very useful features. Before, I would have to download Tasker, re-learn how to use it, and hack around to get settings automated on my phone. Samsung preempted this use case and launches menus automatically when I do things like plug in my headphones or pull out the S-pen stylus. It follows that if I do those things, I am going to do something with my phone. Touchwiz lubricates that interaction. The S-pen would probably increase smartphone adoption among the older demographic if it were packaged with more phones. There is something satisfying about pulling it out and launching the built-in note app and jotting things down. It is still not faster than typing; the last several years have conditioned me to type faster than I write. But I am still conditioned to remember things that I write down with a pen or pencil. The size is not that big of an issue, pun intended. You acclamate pretty quickly. I do miss being able to reach the opposite upper corner of the screen with my thumb, as Google has slowly moved Android design to use it more often for menu overflow. Other than that, though, I have no trouble operating the phone with one hand. Touchwiz (and now Swiftkey, actually) uses customizable keyboards for one-handed use on larger devices.
For all its usefulness, I keep pining for features that are native to newer versions of Android. Dash Clock has probably been the first app I install on every 4.2.x-and-up ROM I’ve used since it was released. Actionable notifications are fantastic, and I often use the abililty to expand and minimize them at will. And it pains me to use a phone with hardware buttons anymore after the GNexus proved them to be unnecessary. Samsung, though, has kept this phone running the software it was released with, nearly a year later. The only reason it will get a 4.3 update at all is Samsung’s ill conceived smartwatch that (as of right now) only works with the Note 3. But there is still that part of me, once I arrive back on AOSP, that misses the pen features and the other custom Samsung firmware. So I would switch back. I have been indulging this fickle dual-boot scenario for almost a month. I still haven’t landed on one or the other. Luckily, this first world problem has solved itself. My wife has an upgrade, but Verizon won’t let us keep our unlimited data if she uses it. I did some research and found that T-Mobile covers our area, has unlimited data, and will save us a bit over $500/year over the course of our next contract (In fairness, VZW would save us ~$300/year if it took away our unlimited data). We can stick it to Verizon, and I can finally hop to the flagship phone I was looking for 6 months ago. Hello Nexus 5!