Samsung's first step into the theming world is a lot of fun, but it needs to open up to the creators of the world ASAP.
Themes are apparently going to be a big deal this year, and with the popularity of the Galaxy lineup you can be sure Samsung's offerings are going to be a big part of that. The Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge launched with a new Theme engine and Theme Store baked right into TouchWiz, and with that comes the ability to make Samsung's frequently whined about UI look like just about anything. It's new, fun, and even though there are some issues with a couple of the themes the platform as a whole seems to work well.
Lets kick the tires together and see what your options are. Whether you're a theming pro or you've just stumbled across the setting on your phone for the first time, there's something here for everyone.
Before we go any further, lets talk briefly about getting to and using Themes on TouchWiz. Like so many other things in TouchWiz this year, Samsung baked the Theme engine into Settings. This makes it so you never have to mess with themes if you don't want to, and lets be honest it's nice to see Samsung making an effort to put fewer potentially unnecessary icons in your launcher. If you decide you'd prefer an icon, Samsung prompts you to create one the first time you open the Theme Store. It's a little confusing at first, but you probably only ever need to bother with this once.
Applying a theme to your phone
Android has always been all about customization, but for the most part the experience is manual. You can download an icon pack, set ringtones change wallpapers, and set up whatever widgets you want to make the phone truly yours. What Themes offer you is a nice way to bundle a lot of these customizations together, and in Samsung's Theme engine that includes the notification shade and settings panel as well. It's a total package, which also means it's all or nothing.
From the Theme section in Settings, you'll see the current theme you have installed and any other themes that you've either already installed or Samsung has suggested for you to download. The downward arrow on these themes mean it's not currently taking up space on your phone, but anything else is ready to be applied. If you tap on one of these downward arrows, or if you tap on the Store label at the top of the page, you'll be taken to the Theme Store. This page should look familiar to you if you've ever installed an app, and the rest of this experience falls right in like with that workflow. It's pretty simple stuff, but well worth exploring for yourself.
The Samsung Theme Store is broken out into basic sections in a scrolling list. Some of these sections let you slide through options like a moving gallery, while others offer a More button to explore the section in greater detail. Each theme includes preview screenshots and details about the creator and design of the theme, with a big download button at the bottom of the page. For the moment there are no paid themes in this store, but it's likely that will change with time. Once you have downloaded a theme, it gets added to your theme list in Settings and you can choose to either apply it now or access it later.
Because you're applying a theme that alters most of the TouchWiz UI, tapping the Apply button will generate a warning that instructs you to save any unfinished work before continuing. This warning mostly applies to forms you may be filling out in your browser or apps that don't save on their own, as the theme engine closes just about everything while applying whatever option you have chosen. If you do happen to be in the middle of something you can't save, you're better off tapping the cancel button and waiting.
It's pretty simple stuff, but well worth exploring for yourself.
None of the themes take particularly long to install, but your phone is a paperweight while it happens. The longest install time for any of the themes we've tested was 17 seconds, so you're not likely to miss much during the wait. You'll get a splash screen with a percentage bar letting you know how much of the install is finished, and when you're taken back to the home screen you'll have a sweet new theme.
For the most part, the themes Samsung offers in their store do the same thing. Wallpapers for the Lock Screen, home screen, Settings, notification drawer, and custom icon packs are the basis for all of them, with custom dialers, fonts, and at least one custom clock widget. You don't get much more complete than these, but that doesn't mean everything is always a complete thought.
Icon themes only apply to Samsung apps, and even then only most Samsung apps. The Theme app icon isn't even on that list right now. You get a generic circular design with the regular app icon for everything else, which usually just makes it harder to quickly spot the app you're looking for as you flip through the launcher. You also don't get a say in the matter, as the icons are a part of the theme and can't be changed or removed.
You'll also find the occasional theme where text color doesn't find its way everywhere, which causes problems. Dark themes can make it so unconverted text is nearly impossible to read, and the only way out is to revert theme. This doesn't happen with every dark theme, and it's something Samsung is likely to fix with time, but it's worth keeping an eye out for when applying new themes.
Brands, options, and community development
Samsung has a great framework here for giving users a lot of options, but they are far from the only fish in this particular pond. Successful theme platforms are all about choices, and Samsung has yet to open all of the doors necessary to create a healthy pool of theme options.
User-submitted or self-created themes aren't currently a part of Samsung's platform, which is one of the biggest ways this system differs from what we've seen with HTC, Cyanogen, and others. You have the same ability to change wallpapers and icons that you've always had, but no way to create templates for yourself or offer creations either for free or for money in the Samsung Theme Store. It would make sense for this to change in the not-so-distant future, but for now Samsung is a little behind. It's early days though, so not a huge deal.
One big thing Samsung has done instead through their Theme Store is demonstrate their partnerships with popular brands and characters. The Avengers, Hello Kitty, Lego, a Korean theme park called Everland, and even a furniture manufacturer named Hanssem are represented in the store at launch, several of which received promotional placement on top of well over a dozen other colorful and creative themes. Samsung's partnerships here are mutually beneficial, especially when free for users to enjoy, so you can expect this will be something that we see a whole lot more of as this platform picks up steam.
Like we said, it's pretty simple stuff. Samsung has taken a great first step towards a platform millions of users will take advantage of. It's not perfect, and there's a desperate need for more options from companies that aren't Samsung and their partners, but between the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge — not to mention whatever other devices Samsung adds to the mix in the future — things will hopefully get interesting fast.