Way back at Google I/O 2013, it was announced that Samsung would be partnering with Google to release a Galaxy S4 variant running stock Android. Nearly two months later, the device is finally available to the masses and I’ve been using one as my daily driver for about a week now.
When the Google Play Edition Galaxy S4 was originally announced, I was really intrigued by the idea. Google has been releasing Nexus devices for the past few years, but I’ve never really fallen in love with one. They’ve all been good, but not great hardware. Nexus devices generally don’t feature top-of-the-line specs and are meant, in Google’s eyes, purely for developers to test apps their apps on.
Seeing how I had loved the original Galaxy S4, but couldn’t stand the bloated TouchWiz overlay, the Google Play Edition Galaxy S4 seemed like the perfect device for me. Near-stock Android paired with high-end, future-
proof ‘resistant’ specifications. A match made in heaven, so to speak.
The design on the Google Play Edition (GPe) Galaxy S4 is virtually identical to the carrier model released earlier this year. It’s an all plastic design with a slick feel to it and a removable back cover. I’ve never been a fan of the plastic design, as it is really slippery and easy to drop and even though it is relatively durable, the feel just can’t compare to what you’ll find on something like the iPhone or HTC One. Obviously, that slick feel is something that will go away should you put a case on it, but as someone who prefers to not use a case if at all possible, that’s not an enticing option for me. Just like most Samsung devices, the Galaxy S4 GPe is incredibly light and thin, coming in at just 4.59 ounces and 7.9mm respectively.
On the right hand side of the Galaxy S4 you’ll find a volume rocker, while the left is home to the power switch. Up top is a 3.5mm headphone jack and on the bottom is your normal microUSB charging port. Under the display is a physical home button and capacitive back and menu keys. Lift off the back cover to reveal the microSD card slot, microSIM tray, and 2600mAh battery.
In a world of phones like the iPhone 5 and HTC One, the Galaxy S4 feels a tad out-of-place. It doesn’t carry that premium feel to it that people expect from a $650 smartphone. Of course, it is very thin and light, but that doesn’t make it feel any less cheap.
The display on the Galaxy S4 is 5-inches, making it just a tad bigger than the 4.7-inch HTC One. The display tech is what we’ve come to know and love on the other Galaxy S4 variants offering up a 1080p resolution paired with a Super AMOLED panel. Colors look really nice, though a bit over-saturated at times. Text is crisp and easy to read.
Things get a bit more inconsistent when it comes to outdoor viewing, with the display basically being illegible in any sort of sunlight. That’s just a general problem with all AMOLED devices for the most part, and not necessarily specific to the Galaxy S4. Overall, however, the screen is wonderful and the AMOLED technology remains my favorite on the market.
Now let’s talk about the big factor that differentiates the Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition from the many other variants of the device. Since the original Galaxy S, Samsung has been shipping its devices with its own ‘TouchWiz’ overlay. And with every progressing generation, the software has gotten more and more cluttered with gimmicky sound effects and features, some of which are just too niche for mainstream consumers to even consider using. The Play Edition model ships with pure Android, it’s not totally stock like you’d find on a Nexus device, but it’s pretty darn close. The only changes are under the hood and added support for the Samsung S-View flip cover.
Booting up and using stock Android 4.2.2 is a totally different experience than almost every other Android device. Everything is clean and consistent. There aren’t pointless sound effects and animations. Everything’s simple, yet still very customizable. Contrary to what many people seem to think about stock Android, it’s not confusing at all. In fact, I’d go as far to say that stock Android is far more intuitive than TouchWiz.
I don’t really have many gripes about stock Android anymore. I do wish that, with the stock launcher, there was a way to add another row and column of apps, as things seem pretty spaced out by default. That, of course, is remedied by running a third-party launcher.
Whereas with a carrier Galaxy S4 you have to navigate through tons of bloatware and inconsistent app designs, the Google Play Edition model offers a clean bloat-free experience. Everything’s just like Google intended for it to be. Every app carries a consistent, Holo-inspired design. Basically, it creates an iPhone-like environment.
To put it bluntly, I’d take stock Android over TouchWiz any day of the week. The differences are incredible, and in a good way. The old adage of stock Android being hard to use no longer remains true, and in my opinion, has been reversed to most Android skins are hard to use. And of course, the performance benefits can’t be downplayed either…
I never thought much about the performance on the carrier Galaxy S4 variants. It was always good, but not necessarily as smooth as could be and there was always a hint of lag throughout the operating system. It turns out, the main culprit of the laggy performance was the infamous TouchWiz overlay. Its bloat and features are what slowed down the device, which you’d think Samsung would have noticed during testing of the phone, but I guess not.
On the GPe Galaxy S4, things are as smooth as can be. Scrolling between home pages is buttery smooth, just as Google intended in to be with Jelly Bean. Setting a live wallpaper of any kind doesn’t negatively affect performance, either. Launching an app is instantaneous and performance within apps is pleasantly consistent. Scrolling through webpages is nice, thanks to the default Chrome browser, which is much better than anything Samsung has to offer.
Battery life is yet another arena in which TouchWiz appears to hurt the Galaxy S4 more than it helps it. With the original Galaxy S4 model, I was barely able to make it through a day. Sometimes I would, and sometimes I wouldn’t. With the Google Play Edition variant, however, I have always been able to make it through a working day and much longer. Usually pulling the device off the charger at around 7:30AM, the battery indicator was generally at about 15-20 percent at about 10PM. That’s with moderate usage and three email accounts pulling data and a Pebble connected via Bluetooth.
One area where I prefer the TouchWiz Galaxy S4 over the Google Play Edition model, however, is the camera. I’m just not a fan of the stock Android camera app. To get any sort of controls up on the screen, you have to tap a circle next to the shutter button, and then the settings come up in a wheel like interface. To view the labels for each icon, because it’s not exactly clear what each icon is for, you have to gradually slide your finger over them all. Tap the settings icon in the initial wheel and you’re presented with even more obscure icons to try and decipher. I’m not really sure what Google was going for with the new camera app, but it just doesn’t feel intuitive at all, which is an a shame since everything else has become so easy to use.
Camera performance with the Galaxy S4 GPe, is quite good. In comparing to some shots taken with the carrier model of the device, there was hardly any difference. Auto-focus performance seemed more consistent with the TouchWiz device than the stock Android one, but not by much. Video quality was good, but I remain disappointed by the tinny audio that the device offers.
It’s really nice to have PhotoSphere on the Google Play Edition Galaxy S4, too. For those unaware, PhotoSphere lets you take a total 360 degree image from your perspective. It’s an incredibly cool feature and one that I wish other non-stock devices supported.
The Google Play Edition Galaxy S4 is very much a niche product. It’s meant for the Android enthusiasts who want a stock Android experience with a flagship device. The chances of a normal consumer going for the $650 Play Edition S4 over the subsidized model is incredibly slim. Google most likely partnered with Samsung and HTC for the stock Android devices purely to try to get the latest version of Android in my people’s hands.
Not taking price into the factor, the Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition is an incredible device. I’m still not sold on the all plastic design, but the performance and software experience is the best of any Android phone out there. There are tradeoffs with the stock Android Galaxy S4, however. For example, the camera app is pretty poor and some of the optimizations from Samsung aren’t there, but those downsides are well worth the upsides. Presumably, the Google Play edition devices will also get updates long before their carrier brethren, which is a nice upside.
If anything, the Google Play Edition Galaxy S4 should tell Samsung how bloated its TouchWiz user interface is. The overall user experience should be the biggest focus for Samsung when developing TouchWiz, not making sure there are enough pre-installed apps and sound effects. It’s pretty sad when your custom overlay negatively impacts the battery life and performance of a device.
You also have to remember that for just $300 you can get a pure Android Nexus 4. Sure it has a slightly older processor and less-impressive camera, but those are minuscule issues when it comes to a $350 price difference.
The Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition is the right device for Android enthusiasts and the few people who are willing to pay the incredibly high $650 unsubsidized price. For everyone else, it’s hard to recommend purely because of price. For the budget minded stock Android fans, the Nexus 4 is still a wonderful choice.