It wasn’t long ago that purchasing a Samsung phone meant foregoing timely upgrades. Thankfully, on recent Samsung devices, Galaxy updates have started arriving faster and for a longer period of time. Samsung has demonstrated that phones don’t have to be stuck on old versions of Android for months on end with the One UI 4 update. Samsung has released One UI 4 for the Galaxy S21 series, based on Android 12, almost a month after the introduction of Android 12. Samsung’s renewed commitment to update support is a feature—one of the most significant on a high-end smartphone. Because Samsung doesn’t like to upset the apple cart, the rest of the features will be less significant than you may expect.
This is the UI you’re used to.
Even with a substantial update to Android 12, I didn’t anticipate Samsung to drastically change the aesthetic of One UI on the S21 series. People won’t be confused if their phone reboots after the upgrade because it still operates the same. Nonetheless, given Google’s several updates, I had hoped for a little more. There are a few stylistic tweaks to notifications, quick settings, and other far-flung portions of the OS, but if you were hoping for a complete Material You implementation, you might be disappointed. While several of Samsung’s widgets have been changed to match the rounded Android 12 appearance, none of them are compatible with Material You device themes. Themes are available, however they’re more more limited than they were on the Pixels.
Color palettes are extracted from wallpaper photos by Samsung, although they’re bolder than Google’s desaturated tones (and there aren’t as many selections). I loved it at first, but some of the combinations, particularly those drawn from more bright backgrounds, can come across as a little too much. It would be wonderful if there was a happy medium between Google’s subtlety and Samsung’s assertiveness. The same as with the Pixels, icon theming is deactivated by default. Activating icon themes, on the other hand, only affects Samsung’s own apps. In One UI 4, even Google apps that enable theming on Pixels will be unthemed, however Google’s widgets will operate with the theme. The color palettes of One UI 4 are supported by the apps themselves, but Samsung’s apps don’t make as much use of the theme as Google’s.
Samsung colors the lock screen clock and notifications dependent on the lock screen background, which is a unique feature. This is distinct from the rest of the system theme, which I prefer to Google’s way of changing the entire theme anytime the lock screen or home screen wallpaper is changed.
Overall, the theming implementation in One UI 4 is a bit uneven. As you can see in the screenshot below, Google’s widgets are styled, but the icons aren’t. In the meantime, Samsung’s icons (typically) employ theme colors, but its widgets do not. The variations could be due to the fact that Google’s “Monet” mechanism is not currently available to other OEMs. This, like the shift to the original Material Design or navigation gestures, seems like it will take a few iterations to get right. Some OEMs will do a better job than others, but we’ve only seen Samsung’s approach so far.
You’ll probably be happier with One UI 4 than most if you’ve been a long-time Samsung user who uses the company’s bundled apps. Those apps have received a slew of minor but meaningful enhancements. For example, the Messages app can search for media, and the browser defaults to private mode. Samsung’s health app now features more gender-inclusive options and a more user-friendly interface. Here’s one for everyone: instead of wireframe plants, the camera app now displays zoom levels as numbers, which makes a lot more sense.
Samsung introduced RAM Plus a few months back, which allows phones to set aside 4GB of internal storage as virtual RAM. Despite the fact that the S21 family has 8 to 12GB of RAM, RAM Plus is enabled by default and cannot be turned off in Android 12. I’m not sure why Samsung would squander capacity on something with such a low return on investment when it won’t even set aside space for smooth upgrades. I’m hoping that Android 12L has a RAM Plus setting. All in all, I’ve observed that performance hasn’t improved much since Android 11. The S21+ is still a quick phone, and I haven’t noticed any issues with scrolling latency.
It is, however, Android 12.
Although I’m disappointed that Samsung didn’t do more with Material You, things are still changing. OEMs may be able to get greater theming functionality in future Android 12 upgrades. Not only are there cosmetic changes to look forward to, but Android 12 also removed a feature I use frequently. The S21 on Android 12 has lost the option to manage Cast volume through the phone’s buttons, just as Google’s Pixels. This is due to a legal disagreement (probably the Sonos debacle), and an update for Android 12L should be ready soon. It’s still a pain to lose a feature like this in the guise of a “improvement.”
Because One UI 4 is built on Android 12, it includes all of the new Pixels’ deep-down system upgrades. Many of these changes are related to privacy and security, which are always welcome in today’s world. However, Samsung does not get all of the credit; similar features may be found on other Android 12 phones. Features like the new privacy dashboard and sensor alerts have been modified to look and work like they’re part of One UI. Samsung, on the other hand, did a good job with the battery management tools. While Google limited the battery menu in Android 12 to the previous 24 hours, Samsung kept the “since last charge” view as well as trends over the previous seven days. A new emoji has been added to the Device Care menu to express how pleased your phone is. So there you have it, Samsung.
I’ve been using One UI 4 on a Galaxy S21+, which I believe is the S21 family’s most undervalued member. I chose this phone because One UI 4 isn’t yet available on the Z Fold3, which I’m looking forward to. I really like how versatile the Z Fold3’s multi-window mode is, and One UI 4 should improve it even more. Samsung’s multi-window capability on the S21 now appears to be more fluid. It’s easier to resize programs, and some formerly crash-prone features have been improved. I’ve even been able to resize windows that are playing video without causing any issues.
Also, bonus points for quickness.
Only a few years ago, Samsung was lucky to complete an Android update in six months, but times have changed dramatically. Samsung has OTAs for its most popular phones of the year just a few weeks after Google released Android 12, and the rest of its high-end handsets will follow soon.
I’m glad to see OEMs (including but not limited to Samsung) promising to keep phones updated for longer periods of time. In this day and age, I would never advise someone to keep using a smartphone that does not receive security updates. As far as I’m concerned, a phone’s expiration date coincides with the end of a manufacturer’s update guarantee. Samsung costs a lot for its devices, and it isn’t exactly cramming in huge feature upgrades, but it has demonstrated that it can give an update experience that is very similar to Google’s.
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