One of the most fun times of the year is the beta period before the new version of Android. The Android 12 beta is one of the buggiest betas we've seen in years, likely due to the major UI overhaul that is Material You. We weren't sure how much of Material You was actually going to show up in One UI this year, but Samsung has indeed taken many of Google's cues and tried to blend it into a consistent One UI 4.
We also weren't expecting to see this beta until after the stable release of Android 12, but Samsung pushed ahead with it on Tuesday morning. Like thousands of fellow Samsung users, I was up bright and early, closing and reopening the Samsung Members app until it showed me the registration banner. My coworkers Jerry Hildenbrand, Alex Dobie, and I all managed to get the One UI 4 beta installed on our S21s.
We've now spent two days with it, and this is definitely an unfinished build that you should not flash on your S21 unless you have a backup phone lying around. However, Samsung actually did parts of Material You better than Google did, making one of the best Android phones even better — if luck is with you.
Samsung One UI 4 Beta What's new and great
One UI has always stood distinctly apart from Google's vision for Android, but with One UI 4, Samsung borrows more heavily as it incorporates Material You. Some of these cues match up perfectly with Material You, such as the wider brightness sliders and some of the submenus that are near-identical to the Android 12 beta on my Pixel 5a.
Other cues, however, have just as much Apple influence as Material You; the One UI 4 widgets look excellent, but they look more like iOS 14 than Android 12. That said, they're actually here and working well, which is more than we can say on the Pixel beta right now. As a matter of fact, Google Keep, Google Calendar, and Digital Wellbeing should be taking notes from the Samsung widgets.
I wish these widgets would take colors from the system theme the way Material You's widgets are supposed to — even if we'd have to go through Good Lock or Theme Park — but maybe it will show up in an update. At least we can now set third-party icon packs from Google Play and other sources rather than just those in the Galaxy Store, even if we have to do it through Theme Park.
We aren't seeing many other Material You tweaks in One UI 4 (yet), but the notifications panel gives us the best of both worlds: the notifications form a more consistent block, the brightness slider is thicker, and we still get the six Quick Settings shortcut circles instead of the four bigger buttons the Pixels are stuck with. There's also an Extra Dim quick setting that has arrived alongside the Camera and Mic access shortcuts. As a final note on notifications, I found the condensed notifications a bit harder to read, so I turned on bolding in the system font settings to help offset it.
The status bar does show the dots for when mics or cameras are in use, and if you want to look at the history of access, you'll do so through the Privacy section of the Settings app. If you want a timeline view, you need to tap Privacy > Show all > Camera/Mic/Location, so yes, it's here; it's just not very intuitive.
Speaking of Settings, there haven't been many visual changes there yet, either. Some submenus are identical to the Pixel beta, but it's a patchwork right now, so it's hard to tell if Samsung hasn't finished theming all of these new menus or just hasn't updated all of the old menus to the new style.
While Android 12's volume slider has gotten quite a bit of attention during the beta, Samsung is sticking to its current design there. This means you'll have to head to Quick Settings if you want to swap between Sound/Vibrate/Mute quickly.
There are several minor additions to the Settings app, from being able to set charge limits to prolong the lifespan of the battery to eSIM finally being enabled on American S21s. eSim is the Privacy center where you can monitor and manage the camera, mic, location, and clipboard access, device-wide or on a per-app basis.
But how does One UI 4 actually run on a Galaxy S21? Well, it's been smooth and actually a tiny bit faster than it was a month ago. Things seem zippier, and I'm really digging the extra dim mode. Battery life seems about the same as before, but that'll take weeks to be sure of.
Thankfully, I haven't had any major crashes or connectivity issues, but I appear to be the outlier, as beta software means an abundance of beta bugs.
Samsung One UI 4 Beta What still needs fixing
This was the first Samsung beta not to break SafetyNet in a while, but unfortunately, Google Pay still sees it as a rooted device and disables GPay on One UI 4 Beta. Samsung is aware of the issue and trying to remedy it. This will be a major turnoff for some users, so I'm going to get it out of the way if it's a dealbreaker for you.
Turning to system stability, the One UI 4 Beta is about as buggy as Android 12 Beta 3 was this summer, if not a little more. While we've got some tastes of the new UI, most of it's not really here yet. The new security settings are nice but can also leave you totally isolated until you realize that you have to re-enable notifications for every single app you use.
For a few hours, I wondered why my S21 wasn't going off every five minutes with some inane notification. Then I realized that I wasn't getting notifications from Gmail, Twitter, Reddit, Slack, or anything else. Some users have even reported not getting notifications for text messages until they went into the app once and saw the unread messages just stacking up while notifications were disabled.
Things got even worse for some users: after the beta, their phone wouldn't get any signal at all until they stuck in a SIM card from a different carrier, rebooted to conform to that carrier, and then swapped their SIM back in. This happened to Jerry, too; he ended up factory resetting his phone without the SIM card in, then stuck the SIM in once the initial setup was over.
I haven't really had any apps crashing on my S21, which is in sharp contrast to Jerry and Alex, who saw apps crashing left and right until they performed a factory reset. It's the luck of the draw, but the odds of a bad beta bug striking your phone are much higher than in years past.
Samsung is also still in the process of updating and upgrading its own apps and features to support Android 12, which caused problems in Samsung Health and other first-party apps. My only major glitch came from Theme Park; I had to build entirely new themes to have them work properly on One UI 4, and if you try to change the color or shape of your icon pack, the app will crash 100% of the time. At least you can set a third-party icon pack to avoid looking at those stupid squircles all the time.
I encountered one bug a few times on day one, though it's yet to pop up since: the gesture navigation would become unresponsive. No going back, no going home, nothing. All I could do was open the notification shade, enter Settings, and then swap back to a three-button bar and then gesture nav again to reboot it. If this happens to you, the setting is in Display > Navigation Bar.
Samsung One UI 4 Beta What comes next
Samsung hasn't given us a concrete timeline for updates to the beta, but they said they intend to release One UI 4 for the Galaxy S21 series before the end of the year. We don't know how updates the beta will get between now and then, as users report problems and Samsung continues to finalize the new UI and features.
Hopefully, the beta will also expand to other devices as it goes on; the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Z Flip 3 could especially benefit from an open beta where Samsung could try some tweaks in how multi-window, app scaling, and moving from the cover screen to the inner screen work.
Starting with the S21 series was absolutely the right call; it's been out long enough for there to be a nice, deep pool of users who are willing to try a beta on an $800-$1,200 phone. For those of us who aren't seeing the severe bugs that others are — sorry, Alex and Jerry — this actually made my S21 feel smoother and faster than it did a month ago.
If you were hoping to join the beta, it's been closed to new members. Hopefully, it will reopen the next time we get a beta update, or as users withdraw from the beta and revert to more stable software. Between Google Pay being broken and severe bugs being more plentiful than previous betas, more users than normal are likely to abandon ship. Keep an eye on Samsung's One UI 4 Beta Thread for when registration opens again.
For now, both my S21 and my Pixel 5a are both on beta software, so I'm going to bounce between them as I look for rough edges that need smoothing. I'll also try to see how pretty I can make One UI 4 look with Theme Park, since it looks like we're not getting the dynamic color system Pixels will.
Test drive Android 12
Get One UI 4 months ahead of schedule.
The Galaxy S21 is still the best Android phone you can buy today. With the launch of the One UI 4, the S21 gets a sneak peek at Samsung's next UI shift and the latest security upgrades like system-wide toggles for camera and microphone access and the new Privacy permissions menu.
Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.