You knew that those devices were coming: the Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition (GPE) was announced at Google I/O and the HTC One Google Play Edition followed shortly after that. There are even unconfirmed rumors of an XPERIA Z Google Edition (loaded with the stock Android OS, without modifications), but so far only two have finally landed in our offices: The S4 and the HTC One.
You may wonder why Google does sell those devices, and the reason is quite simple: Google wants the general public to be able to experience Android as it was originally developed, on the best possible hardware. In this review, we will focus on the Android aspect, and if you are not yet familiar with the industrial design, performance and other critical aspects of those phones, I recommend reading our in-depth Galaxy S4 Review and HTC One Review articles since they will provide a lot of details.
Why not hack a carrier device and flash it with a “stock” firmware?
This is a distinct possibility, and if you were to do that, you could benefit from a carrier subsidy on the device and still get a stock Android experience, so what’s wrong with it? First of all, most people are not comfortable with the idea, nor have the desire, to flash their phones and official carrier updates become an inconvenience after that.
Secondly, the default bootloader (the code executed just before the OS starts loading) is locked by default. Although some hacks do exist for the AT&T version of the Galaxy S4 for example, it has not been made public because the hackers fear that Verizon could block the hack if it was revealed too early. With a Google Play device, you get all the benefits of a pure Android device, and none of the hassle mentioned above – that is, if you are willing to forget about the subsidy. Tough choice.
Why want the Google Play Edition experience?"THE OS IS NOT BLOATED WITH CARRIER APPS"
There are very good reasons to want a “pure” Android experience: first, the overall OS is not bloated with carrier apps, it is free of customizations and if you have been using a stock Android device before, everything looks familiar right away as there is no design changes for the sake of “being different”. Secondly, the OS user interface tends to be a bit more responsive depending on the specific customizations from handset makers. For example, I find the virtual keyboard on the S4 GPE to be more responsive than Samsung’s stock keyboard.
Finally, you get the latest OS features (like the PhotoSphere 360-degree panorama photos) and faster firmware updates. It takes additional time for handset makers to integrate Google’s code changes to their own, and sometime this can be a difficult process if Google has made some deep changes. Additionally, handset makers may require approval from wireless carriers before the updated firmware is pushed to end-users devices. This is a step that Google may be able to bypass since their phones are not sold through a carrier.
So there are no downsides?
It depends. Although I tend to think that handset makers often overdo customizations (why change the icons?), they also add features that stock Android often didn’t support like multi-window, floating window, dual-camera, screen hover, pen etc… Samsung has recently been quite prolific when it comes to adding new features, and you may lose many of those by switching to a Google firmware. Other features like WatchOn (a TV Guide/Remote) are “apps”, so they can be downloaded from the Google Play store.
In theory, the camera app is potentially the biggest change that users may experience. Most people think that the sensor is doing all the work, but there is quite a lot of processing going on when taking pictures, and a different camera app could yield very different image quality because the app is responsible for the automatic ISO, focus, shutter speed and white balance settings. Any of these can greatly affect image quality for the better or worse. Fortunately, we have seen no particular difference between the regular phones and the Google Play Edition for both the S4 and the HTC one (tested in low-light).
Note that the Galaxy S4 display color saturation cannot be tweaked to look more “natural” (or less saturated) on the Google Play Edition. This does not bother me, but there is clearly a portion of the user population who like their images to look less saturated."THE NEXUS 4 MAY REMAIN THE FIRST PHONE TO GET OS UPDATES"
Finally, the Nexus 4 may remain the first phone to get OS updates. The reason is simple: Samsung and HTC actually integrate and maintain the firmware for those smartphones. As a result, they will need a bit of time to add the new changes. I expect the OS updates to come fairly quickly because most the changes are at the driver level, so most new OS features won’t require big changes there. Still, I’m not sure if that would be days or weeks of additional wait time.
Key HTC and Samsung customization remain
Obviously, Google is well aware of the possible downsides listed above and that’s why it has worked with both Samsung and HTC to make sure that some key customizations have been left intact so that users can benefit from the most important hardware features. This probably explains why the imaging performance is identical.
The HTC One gets to keep its HTC BoomSound and Beats Audio quality, which is one of the distinct advantage of its design. The camera app is also tapping into the HTC Ultrapixel Camera technology according to Google. If you are not familiar with it, HTC Ultrapixel uses large sensor pixels, which means that each of them can gather more light. However, to achieve larger pixels, HTC had to reduce the resolution of the sensor.
The theoretical trade off here is “light” versus “details”. When we reviewed both phones, we noticed they were very good mostly all the time, but the HTC One had the advantage of having a larger field of view, shooting a bit faster and behaving a bit better in low-light, while the Galaxy S4 could produce photo with higher details.
We really liked the HTC One camera app, but in this Google Play version, both phones essentially use the stock Android camera user interface, which is better for point and shoot, and offers a very fast review and delete options. However for more complex photography, the HTC one camera app is better.
The Nexus 4 remains a great choice for tight budgets
The Nexus 4 was originally designed to cost about half the price of the Galaxy S4 or the HTC One, so it is clear that a comparison based on “specs” would put it at a strong disadvantage. It uses a last-gen processor (Snapdragon S4 Pro) and doesn’t have a micro-SD slot, or a camera that can compete with these two more recent phones. However, if you don’t have much need for content this is ultimately one of the best Android smartphone for the price.
Whether you should go for a Goole Play Edition of the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 should be mainly driven by your own usage. First, ask yourself if there are key customizations that you absolutely want/need from the original devices. If the answer is no, and if you are willing to spend around $649, then you should be able to enjoy the latest Android updates and a leaner OS without any fluff from the carrier or handset maker. Also, if you want to flash another firmware, the bootloader is unlocked. I personally don’t care about the ability to flash my smartphone, but I have to say that the lack of “bloatware” and the faster response from the UI would be my main motivation. What would be yours?
Google says that both devices will ship of July 9th and can be ordered from the Google Play Store.