Feature Article

February 22, 2013

Did You Know? Samsung's TouchWiz Smartphone/Tablet Interface Can Really Crash Your Device

Here is an interesting little factoid about a nasty little Samsung smartphone bug that has been floating around for a while but has never really caught the light of day: If a user utilizes the copy and paste feature of Samsung's TouchWiz user interface an "uncertain" number of times without turning off and restarting the phone, the smartphone or tablet completely crashes or develops a mind of its own with random restarts and misbehavior - none of which fix or reset the device. Once the use threshold is exceeded and the bug kicks in the only way to get the device operational again is through a hard factory reset of the device - hardly a pleasant thing to have to deal with or do.

There are no actual number of times copy/paste is used, though roughly 20 uses has popped up - it's most accurate to say "if it's used too frequently" prior to a user turning the device off before the bug kicks in, the phone or tablet crashes. It appears to be the case that tablets and smartphones running Android versions 3.0 - 4.1 are at the bug's mercy, though not all Samsung devices are equally affected. The one thing that "appears" to be clear is that the bug is related to the TouchWiz interface - which Samsung has updated many times. And yet the bug remains.

The bug was first reported by Veeti Paananen on October, 22, 2012 on Samsung's own developer website messaging board. The message reads as follows:


Please pass this information on to the appropriate development team.

Samsung devices running TouchWiz and Android 3.0 or higher have a fatal clipboard bug that can cause it to become permanently unusable until a factory reset. It seems to occur randomly. Whenever a user tries to copy something, this error occurs in the system ClipboardManager class:

java.lang.NullPointerException at android.content.ClipboardManager.setPrimaryClip(ClipboardManager.java:146)

And the application that the user is using crashes. The only fix for this is to perform a factory reset or to clear the contents of /data/clipboard as a rooted user. Since this directory does not exist in stock Android, the fault is clearly with the Samsung software.

Another detailed message board thread on the issue can be found on Phandroid, an Android forum. Lots of interesting tidbits are available on both boards.

Although copy/paste is the most prevalent means to the bug manifesting itself, in truth any app that uses the clipboard can cause the bug. Copying photos for example, which requires using the clipboard, is also known to crash devices. As Veeti Paananen makes clear, the issue is not an Android problem, but specifically a Samsung problem.

That said, Samsung itself has never, as far as we are able to tell, officially recognized the problem, and Samsung certainly hasn't fixed the problem. As the message boards show, the problem is still being reported. Paananen's board message was merely the beginning of the issue.

There are also a number of YouTube videos that show the bug in action. One video in particular posted by Samsung user Terence Eden does a good job of demonstrating the bug. There are over 8,750 comments to sift through as well. Eden mentions that Samsung's Note suffers from the issue, though we haven't been able to duplicate it on our original Note.

Why Samsung remains quiet on the issue is a bit of a mystery - though perhaps the randomness of the occurrences has led Samsung to believe it is better not to publically make note of it. Apple could make a little noise perhaps with a "The Next Big Bug is Already Here" commercial.

Why hasn't Samsung fixed the problem? Well, perhaps the company believes Jelly Bean 4.2 - the latest and greatest version of Android will solve the problem, though Android users do not rush to update their operating system versions. It is estimated that less than 10 percent of all users who can upgrade to later versions of Android actually do - unlike with iOS, where the numbers are reversed and 85 to 90 percent upgrade to the latest available release relatively quickly.

It's also possible that the way Android software fixes are propagated requires that the carriers and manufacturers work together to deliver on the updates. Such an endeavor would require the carriers to go back and retest the devices - and no carrier really wants to do that. Keeping in mind that there would be multiple carriers involved having to test multiple devices, the fix - even if it turns out to be a simple fix - may simply be too onerous to deliver on.

Does Jelly Bean 4.2 solve the issue for Samsung? We do not know. But we can be fairly certain that Samsung mobile device users running Android 4.1 and older stand a chance - albeit a random chance - that their devices will fail at some point because of the bug. And no doubt it will occur at the absolutely worst possible moment.

Edited by Brooke Neuman

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