Samsung's TouchWiz software enhancements catch a lot of heat for being something other than Google's vision for Android. It's not perfect by any stretch, but Samsung has made significant strides over the last year to ensure new features don't exist simply to compete with default features on Android. While it's easy to get sucked in to the weird claims that TouchWiz has gotten lighter or more like Google's Android by some random percentage, standing back and appreciating the features that make this version more useful than "pure" Android also needs to happen.
Over the last two years, Samsung has been adding features to their "edge" displays. It has taken them a little while, but with the release of TouchWiz Marshmallow it finally feels like Samsung has taken these ideas and assembled a complete thought worth taking advantage of.
In many ways, the first two attempts at edge features weren't aiming high enough. Samsung's first effort on the Galaxy Note Edge made it easy to think about quickly accessing standalone apps that ran only on the edge. It was a cool idea, but the separation between the edge and the rest of the phone was naturally limiting and few apps ever really took advantage of the experience. We won't even talk about left-hand support. The idea never really got the polish it deserved, and the space those features occupied limited the ideas that could be deployed there.
Things got a little better with the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge. These phones didn't have two separate displays, and so the edge features could come out as far as Samsung wanted them to. This meant more room to play, but instead of moving everything over from the Note Edge to take advantage of the increase in real estate the features were toned down considerably. Samsung's quick contacts launcher and color coding for your favorite people wound up being the only thing the feature was good for when the screen was on. The ability to check things by touching the edge display when not awake was cool, but weirdly limited to the one side of the phone and sometimes didn't work as well as it should.
Enter the Galaxy S7. Samsung has moved the "always-on" features to the center of the display and improved them dramatically. Edge features have been extended well beyond the tiny corner of the display, and now include apps and widgets that can be quickly summoned for a glance from the side. We've seen other companies mess with the idea of tucking widgets away until you need them, and it's the kind of the that usually works well as long as you can train your mind to use them with your personal workflow. Overall, however, the idea is solid. Swipe in from the edge to quickly gain access to these things you regularly use, decreasing the total number of taps as you go about your daily activities.
It's hard to justify looking at TouchWiz as somehow less than other versions of Android.
Naturally, the edge features won't be for everyone. Like many TouchWiz features, you can turn this off and never think about it again. What makes this generation of edge features worth considering is the level of polish seen in their execution. These aren't features that were tacked on to address a hardware feature anymore, they're an integral part of the way Samsung thinks users want to interact with their phones. It's a complete thought because it has to be, and frankly it's a fantastic way to interact with the apps and services Samsung has made available at launch.
Samsung's edge features finally feel like something that competes with Moto, BlackBerry, and others when it comes to addressing a need on top of Android that Google hasn't quite figured out yet for "pure Android". When you add that to the other features Samsung has polished over the last couple of years, like multi-window and safer side-loading options, it's hard to justify looking at TouchWiz as somehow less than other versions of Android.