For better or worse, you've got official 'stock' Android on two of the hottest phones around
Forget, for the moment, the “why” of the “Google Play edition” HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4. That’s the official moniker given to the two stock(ish) phones available now, as the name suggests, through Google Play, alongside Google’s own Nexus line. While ours certainly is to question their existence, today we hold these phones in our hands and simply attempt to enjoy two of the best smartphones Android manufacturers have to offer, with some of the leanest software -- damn near Nexus-like Android -- that’s available.
But these are not Nexus phones. Pure Google they are not, though they’re damned close, and fact is that the differences probably won’t matter much to those who buy them.
Today you can order the Google Play edition of the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4. And today, we bring you our take on this new breed of phone.
Suffice it to say, we know the HTC One. We know the Samsung Galaxy S4 nearly as well, its time with us hampered only slightly by the fact that it came out a month or so after HTC’s flagship. These phones are not unfamiliar to us.
Neither, of course, is a “stock” Android experience. We’ve been using Android 4.2 since it was released with the Nexus 4 in November 2012, and the most up-to-date version -- Android 4.2.2, since February. We know “stock” Android.
And beyond that, we’ve known “stock” Android on both the HTC One and Galaxy S4 thanks to custom ROMs. And we’re hardly alone in that.
Point is, we’re not really going into either of these “Google Play edition” devices blind, are we? In fact, quite the opposite. Not only do we know what we’re getting -- we know what we’re losing. Knew a lot of it before ever turning on the devices, actually. If you’re going to spend $599 today on the HTC One, or $649 on the Galaxy S4, chances are you, dear Android Central reader, know what you’re getting yourself into as well. The devil is in the details, of course.
What it’s like ...
Out the outset we called this a “new breed of phone.” But that’s more a matter of Android politics and procedure than it is in the Google Play edition devices themselves. You buy them from Google. (We’ve bought phones from Google before, of course, but always Nexus devices.) They're running software we know, on hardware we know. We say “new breed” because they’re a mash-up of so many different things. “Stock” Android. Cutting the U.S. operators out of the loop, from purchase to OS updates. We’re in uncharted territory, in those respects.
But using the phones doesn’t give some revolutionary new experience. Using “stock” Android on either the HTC One or Galaxy S4 feels like using stock Android on the HTC One or Galaxy S4.
The big changes are obvious. The home screens and overall design differences. Wildly different camera apps. So many fewer apps and customizations. The 3,000 tweaks Samsung threw into its Galaxy S4. A cool new bootsplash.
So, yes. You lose a good bit of functionality, but you gain in other places. You lose the consumer-facing features that HTC and Samsung have baked into the phones. But you gain a few that are only in “stock” Android. (And a few features that have only been in Nexus devices.)
A few examples of what we’ve experienced:
The Samsung Galaxy S4, given that it’s running Android 4.2.2 already, has lock screen widgets, but the HTC One does not. If you’re into them, great. You’ve got ‘em now. You’ve also got Google’s implementation for quickly getting into the camera app, but I prefer having multiple shortcuts to multiple apps. (I’ve never been a fan of the lockscreen widgets implementation anyway.)
The one interesting thing here is that the Google Play edition Galaxy S4 retained the ability to work with the Samsung Flip Over — that the’s cover with the transparent window that gives a quick glance at the time and date and notification bar. Because of that, you get a thin-font clock, which we prefer over Google’s ever-odd bold-light clock. In fact, if you delete Samsung’s clock from the lock screen and replace it with Google’s, Samsung’s will return on its own. Strange, but not a huge deal.
I’ve never been a huge fan of most non-”stock” home screens, and it usually came down to a simple matter of spacing. Too much space between icons in the grid. Just wasted real-estate. For me, the “stock” spacing was best, though even it looks a bit off now that I’ve been using Action Launcher Pro and its adjustable margins.
There’s nothing really new about the home screens on these Google Play edition phones, and I’ll continue using Action Launcher anyway.
That said, they’re buttery smooth. (Pun intended.) Probably part placebo (fresh installs rock) and probably part truth, things are light as a feather, as we’d expect.
The new camera app
Fun fact: The pre-release Google Play edition phones we’re using have new camera and gallery apps (the former is actually part of the latter) that aren’t even available on the Nexus devices as of this writing. As we’ve previously noted, the options and settings menus have revamped into a half-moon instead of radial dial — a good change, by all accounts — and the animations have improved. The phone’s volume button also works as a shutter button.
Google’s camera app isn’t anywhere near as full-featured as Samsung’s or HTC’s (though it’s much cleaner; HTC’s is still a mess of menus). It’s nice to get Photospheres — those psuedo-360-degree panoramas — on more devices. But we’re not convinced that makes up for everything you lose. Zoes and Video Highlights — two standout features of the HTC One — are gone. Google’s camera doesn’t have burst mode, and, no, repeatedly pressing the shutter button doesn’t make up for that, either.
And Google’s camera still has that annoying orientation thing where the screen has to completely redraw itself when switching from portrait to landscape. (Or landscape to portrait.) We’re picking nits there, but it’s aesthetically unpleasing.
The simple fact remains that Google’s camera app, while improved in this iteration, just isn’t as full-featured as HTC’s or Samsung’s — or any number of third-party camera apps.
Notifications and menus
If we had to pick a single area the Google Play edition devices best their manufacturer-custom counterparts, this would be it. It’s not that Google’s done anything different here from what it's been doing. Android 4.2.2 notifications are still Android 4.2.2 notifications. It’s just that Samsung’s made such a mess out of them in Touchwiz, with its 300 quick settings. And HTC, for whatever reason, chose to collapse all single notifications by default, forcing you to expand them — assuming you even know to do that.
HTC sort of gets a pass when it comes to its menus. They look a bit different, and that’s fine, but they still have the same scrolling list system we're used to. Different strokes and all that. Samsung on the other hand has made a right mess of the menus in Touchwiz on Android 4.2.2. “Stock” Android is so much cleaner, not forcing you to remember what’s under which tab. The more linear menu system remains easier to navigate.
The Galaxy S4 has buttons on the phone for home, menu and back. The HTC One has home and back buttons. Not that we didn’t really know what to expect here, but we were still curious about how they’d feel in real-world use with “stock” Android. And the truth is useage is nearly identical to the way HTC and Samsung first implemented things.
On the Galaxy S4, the menu button serves as the menu button. Status quo there. The back button is the back button. If you have Multi Window turned on on Samsung’s GS4, you can long press it to toggle that feature. Long-pressing it does nothing in the Google Play edition. Things have changed a little with the home button in the Google Play edition. You long-press to get to Google Now, and double-press for recent apps. The home button also can be used to wake both devices.
The HTC One is more consistent between its two versions. There’s still no menu button — and no option to map any of the buttons to serve as a menu button — so the dreaded black bar remains. (Seriously, app devs: Fix your stuff.) The home button works the same on the two versions. Long-press for Google Now, double-tap for multitasking.
Another question mark surrounded audio — particularly on the HTC One, which in its original version has “BoomSound,” which is the umbrella branding given to the software and hardware combination. Google’s also managed to keep the Beats Audio option around. Either you’re a fan of that, or you’re not. The end result — slightly louder volume, with more highs coming through — is the same in both versions, and you still have the option to turn off Beats in the system settings. The only real difference is you don’t get the Beats logo in the notification bar, though it’s still on the rear of the phone.
So how’s the HTC One sound in the Google Play edition? As far as we can tell, exactly the same as HTC first implemented it. The front-facing speakers are just as loud. (It’s been odd hearing a different sound set blaring at us.) Sound quality with headphones is equal between the two versions of the phone.
Same goes for the Galaxy S4. It’s a different sort of sound from the HTC One — again, those front-facing speakers are sick — but it’s still pretty loud and still pretty clear. No difference with headphones, either.
Is it possible a trained audiophile will spot something out of sorts? Possible. But we’re “normal” users here. To us, they sound exactly the same.
Performance and battery life
Again, the internals on these phones haven’t really changed. Same Snapdragon 600 processors. Same 2GB of RAM. We’re actually looking at the same SKUs as devices we’re already seen. The HTC One is based off the AT&T SKU (same as the “unlocked” and “developer” versions that HTC itself has been selling), and the Galaxy S4 is based off the T-Mobile version. The long and short of it is you can get T-Mobile and AT&T LTE on either of them.
|Samsung GS4||Google GS4||HTC One||Google HTC One|
We’re generally not fans of benchmarks around here, especially when comparing the apples of one manufacturer to the oranges of another. But in this case we’ll make an exception, seeing as how we’re dealing with two different software packages on the same hardware, at least as far as the Galaxy S4 is concerned. The HTC One has the issue of HTC's version running Android 4.1.2 and not Android 4.2.1. But what did we find? Not a whole hell of a lot. The numbers are generally close enough for our purposes.
In real-world performance, there’s not a lot to write home about either. We’ve seen the occasional UI hiccup on the Google Play edition phones — annoying cries of “dat lag” should be smothered with a dirty pillow, as we’ve seen nothing of the sort. And certainly nothing as apparent is in the early versions Samsung’s Galaxy S4. The bottom line is that the “stock” Android user interface is still about as lean as it gets.
We know everyone’s been hoping for some sort of seismic shift in battery life, given that all the manufacturer and carrier customizations have been stripped away. But here’s the thing. We’ve set up these phones just like we would our daily drivers and used them as our daily drivers. Same apps. Same layouts. Same usage patterns. Where we’ve been getting 12 to 14 hours out of both of them in their manufacturer/carrier-customized versions, we’re getting about the same from the Google Play editions. Goes to show that the UI customizations folks like to think are battery hogs maybe don’t suck quite that much juice after all. (And conversely, maybe the tweaks the manufacturers like to tout don’t make that much of a difference, either.)
Where we are seeing a bit of a difference in is Bluetooth. The broad strokes: The HTC One has Internet tethering via Bluetooth. The Galaxy S4 Google Play edition (and our T-Mobile version as well) does not. On the micro level, the Google Play phones are lacking Bluetooth 4.0 LE — that’s low energy — features. From a leaked Android 4.3 ROM it looks like that might be added later, but for now, nada.
Image quality ...
And this is where we get down to brass tacks. For a lot of us, everything else is window dressing. Things we can live with, or work around. Cameras are tougher. We’ve already talked about some of the features we lose and gain with the different camera apps. Let’s take a look at image quality. These sample pictures — all of which open in a new window when clicked — were shot with the default settings, save for the HDR samples. No macro modes or anything.
HTC One (left) versus the Google Play edition HTC One (right)
HDR from the HTC One (left) and Google Play edition HTC One (right)
Samsung Galaxy S4 (left) versus Google Play edition Galaxy S4 (right)
This should go without saying, but we're gonna say it anyway — unlike the HTC One, the two versions of the Galaxy S4 shoot, by default, at different resolutions. Samsung's Galaxy S4 with Touchwiz shoots at 4128 by 2322 to fill up the whole screen. The Google Play edition Galaxy S4 shoots at 4128 by 3096. The Google Play edition had a much harder time focusing on the Cheerios.
HDR from the Samsung Galaxy S4 (left) and Google Play edition GS4 (right)
If you've not used panorama features on the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4, you'll need to know that these guys will do a full 360-degrees now. That's different than Photosphere, which adds in frames above and below for a true spherical effect. That's why There's much more in frame on HTC's and Samsung's panoramas here versus the Google Play editions.
Again, these open in full resolution in new windows when clicked.
Panorama on the HTC One
Panorama on the Google Play edition HTC One
Panorama on the Samsung Galaxy S4
Panorama on the Google Play edition Galaxy S4
We're throwing in the Nexus 4 for this comparison because it also can do Photospheres out of the box. (Yes, the Optimus G Pro has its own version, but for our purposes we're sticking with Google's implementation.)
Photosphere on the Nexus 4
Photosphere on the Google Play edition Galaxy S4
Photosphere on the Google Play edition HTC One
Other things you'll not have ...
Look, we could write 2,000 more words on all the features HTC and Samsung have baked into their phones that you'll miss in these Google Play editions. But let's just pick 10 more.
- Like FM radio on the HTC One? Cause it's history.
- Samsung's S-Beam file transfer? Hope you weren't too attached to that.
- Or all that baked-in S-Health fitness stuff, that was pretty handy if it was your sort of thing.
- All of Samsung's group music and photos sharing features.
- HTC's kick-ass weather app. (Though we'd argue Yahoo! Weather is a good replacement.)
- HTC's decent content transfer system, Get Started.
- Infrared support. As of this writing, it's not officially built into the Google Play editions.
- Samsung AllShare and HTC MediaLink functionality. You're back to Miracast on the GS4, at least.
- Enterprise support. Both Samsung and HTC have better built-in corporate e-mail (non-Google Apps, that is) than "stock" Android, and Samsung's leading the way in BYOD with its SAFE program.
- Manufacturer/operator customer service. Say what you want about dealing with operators and manufacturers when something goes wrong, but you're trading two devils you know for one that's still getting used to the whole "sell phones to people — and then support them" thing.
There's been a lot of hay made about updates, and whether they'll come directly from Google or from the manufacturers, and how quickly they'll make their way to the devices.
Two simple facts: First, these aren't Nexus devices. There's necessary code that's not part of "stock" Android needed to get all the hardware working, and the manufacturers will need to ensure it works with any updates from Google. Plus, we've got the complication (as of this writing, anyway) that these phones have one or two features not yet seen on Nexus devices, and we know Android 4.3 is imminent. That's ... interesting.
Second: We just don't know until we know. Maybe these will be updated in line with the Nexus devices. Maybe shortly thereafter. Or maybe anyone who's buying one is rooting and ROMing it anyway.
We're curious to see how it plays out, but we're going to withhold any judgment until we actually see an update.
Other odds and ends ...
- We've mentioned this before, but it's worth repeating: This is the 32GB HTC One, with about 24.5GB of space available to the user. The 16GB Galaxy S4 has about 11.3GB available.
- As you'd expect, no problems with phone calls. Because, yes, these are still phones.
- No problems with GPS, either.
- The Google Play edition Galaxy S4 connected to our Netgear PTV3000 Miracast adapter without issue. The HTC One, not so much. For what it's worth, Samsung phones have been supported by the PTV series for a little while now.
- By the way, yes. These phones are SIM-unlocked, and can easily have their bootloaders unlocked.
- Keyboards are still very much a matter of personal preference. If you dig Google's keyboard, cool. It hasn't changed here. But there remain some really good third-party options out there.
The bottom line ...
Look, we're fully aware that the Google Play edition HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 aren't mainstream devices. They're simply not going to sell as many as the Galaxy S4 and HTC One that are in operator's stores. And chances are if you're going to buy one, you made up your mind long before now. And chances are if you have one one the way, you're going to hack it to hell and back. Nothing wrong with that.
And we know that you know the major differences between Sense and Touchwiz and "stock" Android. As we said a couple thousand words ago, we all know what we're getting into here.
What we have here is choice. In fact, it's very much the same sort of choice we have with the "unlocked" and "developer edition" of the HTC One, and the "developer edition" of the Galaxy S4 — all of which are being sold by their respective manufacturers. Now Google's offering its version. If we're learned anything here, it's that while stripping out all of the Sense and Touchwiz customizations gives you a different sort of phone, it doesn't cripple it. Nor does it really add anything.
What you get is a lean, extremely useable version of Android (the most recent one at that) on some of the best hardware available, but at a premium price. If cost is a concern, we'd opt for the cheapest means available — begged, borrowed or
stolen subsidized — and then hack it on there via unofficial means, or otherwise.