Using the Samsung Galaxy S4 with stock Android

After two months with TouchWiz, what's it like to go 'stock' on Samsung's latest smartphone?

The running joke whenever we discuss the Google Play edition Galaxy S4 is that you can sum things up in just one sentence — it’s the Galaxy S4, with stock Android. Really, if you understand the vanilla “Nexus” UI, as it exists on the Nexus 4, and you understand the Galaxy S4’s hardware, as it exists on the Samsung version, then you already know everything you need to about this product. There are no real surprises lurking. What you see is what you get. It’s the Galaxy S4, with stock Android.

I’ve been using the GS4 in some form or another since I reviewed the Sprint version in New York City in April. Back then the device had some serious software issues, not least of which was the persistent, maddening lag that plagued the Samsung UI. Since picking up the European version I’ve watched things improve with successive software updates, and Samsung’s flavor of Android is now as speedy as I’d expect it to be — almost as fast as stock, in fact. So how does that compare to the vanilla, unblemished Google experience? Read on to find out.

But now we have the Google Play edition — a new software experience on familiar GS4 hardware. The phone’s physical form hasn’t changed at all, and for better or worse you’ve got high-end internals and a great-looking screen, wrapped in a shiny — arguably slimy — plastic chassis, along with a button setup that flies in the face of Google’s Android design guidelines.

When you pick up stock Android on the GS4, you’re using hardware and software that weren’t designed for one another, and there are numerous places where this becomes clear to see. In some bundled apps the menu button, used extensively in TouchWiz, does absolutely nothing. There’s nothing preloaded to take advantage of the top-mounted IR blaster, nor the humidity sensor, nor the ambient temperature sensor, nor the in-built pedometer, nor hover-touch. Out of the box, you’ve got a lot of dormant hardware, and because of that your feature set is that much smaller than on the Samsung version of the phone.

By the same token, vanilla Android works best with on-screen keys, and on the GS4 you lose out on the easy swipe-up action for Google Now, as well as a dedicated task-switching key. (Instead a less elegant long press or double-tap of the home key activates those features.) There’s also very little use for the microSD slot. The Gallery app will see and display content on the storage card, as will Google Play Music and any other app that’s properly configured. But the camera app has no way of saving to the SD card, nor is there any way to move apps there, like there is in the latest Samsung firmware.

In spite of this dissonance between hardware and software, the Galaxy S4 with stock Android might just be my new favorite phone. For me, the vanilla “Google experience” look is hard to beat, and the GS4’s bright, punchy SuperAMOLED display makes the “Holo” UI look more vibrant than it ever did on the Nexus 4. It’s also faster than the just about any Android phone out there, moreso now that the bone stock OS leaves it relatively unencumbered by background tasks. It’s also refreshing to be able to use a vanilla Android device with a decent camera, even if the bundled camera app is somewhat diminished compared to Samsung’s offering. LTE support is an important factor, too.

The balance between vanilla Android and the Galaxy S4’s hardware is far from perfect, and it’s easy to see the “Google Play edition” GS4 as a shotgun marriage of two very different design philosophies. But the end product is an enticing combination of beautiful, simple software on fast, modern hardware that’s perhaps more coherent than the user experience offered by Samsung.

For the way I use smartphones, the feature set of stock Android is enough, and any gaps can be plugged through the Google Play Store. That is to say I'm not particularly missing any TouchWiz features. There's also the lure of “timely” updates, though as we’ve pointed out in the weeks since Google I/O, your definition of “timely” might not necessarily match with Google and Samsung’s.

It’s not quite a Nexus, and it doesn’t benefit from the bewildering array of TouchWiz features, but Google’s Galaxy S4 is a better fit for my needs than Samsung’s. The same won’t necessarily be true for the average consumer, but the Google Play edition phones aren’t for normal people — after all, they cost $600-650 and are only available unsubsidized in one country. Instead, what Google and Samsung have here is a great phone for enthusiasts — people who'll naturally gravitate towards the Google Play Store, not their local carrier store, for their next phone purchase. 

Alex Dobie
Executive Editor

Alex was with Android Central for over a decade, producing written and video content for the site, and served as global Executive Editor from 2016 to 2022.

  • the hardware/software UI incongruence would drive me crazy. no thanks i'll stick with Nexus.
  • Yeah. You said "When you pick up stock Android on the GS4, you’re using hardware and software that weren’t designed for one another, and there are numerous places where this becomes clear to see." And then I completely failed to gain any understanding from the rest of what you wrote of how it could be true when you said this "the end product is ... perhaps more coherent than the user experience offered by Samsung". It kind of makes me feel like you must hate TouchWiz so much that you're blinded by it and willing to say just about anything non-TW is better.
  • ? Posted via Android Central App
  • What would be nice, and smart IMO, is if OEM's ditched their skinned software overlays on android and just ran Stock/ Vanilla android. THEN Take all the Additional software from the skinned version and made them into exclusive apps for their devices. Then if the app gets popular the OEM's could sell that app in the app store for money and make even more money off of their software. Basically giving the Best of Both worlds, stock android, proprietary software designs for devices, and a way to make more money off that software by making them apps and selling them for other devices that comes out after the mid range Xfon, plus you would get faster updates that are built for the stock/ vanilla android experience. I like the S4 and want a Nexus edition but not at the expense of losing the camera software. Same as the One, I like the One nexus edition, but you will lose the music software that works with the Boom Sound speakers. But I'm on Verizon and if the New Motorola Flagship device is a bust in October, i will get a Dev edition of GS4 or One on vzw to replace my GNex
  • The problem is lots of manufacturers tweak the OS to a level that can't be achieved with a simply app install, such as AirView, moving apps to SD, etc.
  • It's really immature to say if someone prefers something else they must "hate" the other thing. It's the kind of thing children say.
  • I'm thinking about getting the phone but have a question. If I'm not satisfied with Stock Android is there a way for me to flash TouchWIz in the phone?? So that I can compare both software.
  • Nope. Different partition structure and bootloader would make that very difficult — plus most people making ROMs will be cooking the GE firmware for the TouchWiz device, not vice-versa. If you want to use both ROMs, the TW version is a better starting point.
  • Thanks for the answer!
  • You can also buy the 199.99 Touchwiz version, root it and flash the vanilla ROM. I did that with my note 2 but went back because the pen is useless in Stock Android.
  • I was planning to get the tmobile Version and root it etc. My only concern was the tethering, I know that getting the Tmobile version will prevent me to use it heavily. I'm not sure if rooting will help me concerning the Tethering
  • I have the AT&T version and I've already seen roms with modified tethering apps, most likely from carriers without tethering restrictions like those T-mobile has on it's unlimited plan. I'm pretty sure you'll be able to find what you want in touchwiz, and absolutely if you flash the Google Experience rom, their should be no tethering restrictions.
  • Thnks for the Tip :)
  • The unlocked version with TW might also be an option - there tethering should work for sure. Although I'm not aware of the situation in the US, at least here in Europe it works fine. And I agree, I'm also a person who likes some (not all) parts of touchwiz that much that I would prefer it. So getting the TW Version and flashing GE if you don't like it might really be the best way.
  • That's what I'm planning to do. Thanks!
  • The s pen is not useless with stock android. They have apps that enable s pen function. Posted via Android Central App
  • Let's not call it the "199.99"
  • Spending the money on this phone to flash TouchWiz on it seems very backwards to me.
  • It costs the same as any other S4.
  • That doesn't change the fact that flashing TW on it would be a bit backwards... correct?
  • Depends, there are some parts I really like. - the clipboard manager in the keyboard is very nice
    - split view can be handy
    - the accessiblity options are way better on TW, it's like day and night compared to Gooogle. Also the easy mode can be handy. Most of us won't need it, but if you get a new phone after 1 or 2 years and give the old ones to your parents for example this can be really great to have
    - contacts app allows me to hide contacts without a number. This missing feature drives me nuts in googles version
    - the option to adjust the auto-brightness by a fixed value
    - I like s-memo And there are many more points. While I don't like some of the features Samsung is runninng commercials for there are many small things I really prefer. But tastes are different, I just wouldn't say that one is better than the other for everyone
  • 1 tip, You can hide contacts from the dialer that don't have a number, I have my nexus 4 set that way
  • the point is not the cost. the point is touchwiz is bloat
  • bloat has no worth
    TW has worth
    TW ≠ bloat
  • Some of TW has worth but not much.
  • that's going backward!!
    pure vanilla S4 has about 12 GB free memory
    touchwiz S4 has 9 GB free memory. so basically 3 Gb of bloat on touchwiz
  • If you're flashing a Touchwiz Rom, you're probably going to find one that isn't as... bloaty. I have an S4, and I'll probably go for a Touchwiz Rom that is super clean and fast.
  • Like Clean ROM.
  • A friend of mine just got an S4, and he's using a Touchwiz rom that he calls the BLADE rom... all of TW's strengths, and none of its weaknesses :) Haven't had a chance to talk to him about specifics, but I assume it's leaner.
  • For me the only Google Experience phone that could really provide the Nexus experience would be the Xperia Z. Virtual keys and all that make a difference, and I've always thought that if I had to replace my N4 with something not-Nexus it would be the Xperia Z.
  • sony phones are close to vanilla just like motorola phones(since recent update)
  • I feel the same way, and plan to pick one up if they don't drag their feet much longer on releasing it. I haven't seen an update to Alex's original announcement that it was coming soon.
  • Where to get the wallpaper of the first shot? I want it for my S4.
  • yea i really like that wallpaper... can we get a link?
  • Try it here: Downloading right now and I'll let everyone know if it's in there.
  • I didn't see it in the zip, but there are still some really nice ones.
  • :D
  • winner winner!!! funny its a link to ipad wallpapers lol
  • In my opinion its no point. Samsung packs its software features in its Touchwiz UI so why waste all that money when you can get a Nexus for 1/2 that price and get the updates, stock feel, etc. People buy Galaxy brand because of the features or gimmicks as people call them. Not gimmicks to me personally though.
  • The features are nice but I like tradeoffs. Although I am missing Samsung features the rom I currently have definitely more than makes up for the loss. It's all in how you use your phone. Posted via Android Central App
  • If you really don't see the point, here goes: Bigger, higher resolution AMOLED display
    Much better camera
    Bigger, removable battery
    MicroSD slot for up to 64GB extra storage for videos and music
    Faster processor
    LTE The Nexus 4 is still the best value phone and those things might not be worth paying an extra $300 for, but if you want the absolute best hardware and a Nexus-like experience, you'll want the Galaxy S4 (or maybe the One).
  • I currently own both a nexus 4 and a GS4, which I just got from AT&T via work for $100.
    I have to say this phone is damn impressive running touchwiz or Google Experience.
    the bigger higher res screen (which I didn't expect to have a much of an impact as it does)
    the much better camera and LTE all make the GS4 a winner, I haven't decided on Touchwiz vs Google Experience yet, but whichever I choose, I'll be using the GS4 more than my nexus 4. Only thing I have to agree with after over a year spent with nexus devices is that the physical buttons vs on screen keys is not the same experience on a Google Experience/Nexus device, it's better with the on screen keys of the nexus 4. Using the home 2 shortcut to open google now, instead of S-voice and physical/capacitive keys however is a worthwhile compromise for all of the extras you get with the GS4.
    hey you should try this app. It allows you to swipe up from the bottom bezel to go home but you can set it up to swipe to Google now.
  • LTE, More than 16GB of storage, decent camera. The three reason I had to cut my Nexus 4 loose. I would gladly pay for those things. Price was never a consideration on why I got a Nexus 4.
  • Then they find out many of the gimmicks don't work. cause lag, and take up space...
  • Oh! These were made for users who have a hard time rooting their device? I enjoy touch wiz but bone stock vanilla android is preferred. If I need the Samsung features I'll flash back. Posted via Android Central App
  • Where can I download the wallpaper?? Would like to use it for my phone
  • Posted via Android Central App
  • On paper this does appear to be a mismatch of software and hardware but in motion it's amazing. I ran the GE rom on my ONE and it was really good however the camera quality suffered. When I loaded it up on my S4 I was blown away. the layout on the AMOLED screen is amazing as is the physical home button. Many people like to talk about how terrible and ugly the home button is but it simply cannot be matched as far as ease of use goes. The phone is lightning fast running stock android and battery life is near perfection for me so far.
  • Thank for this feedback. Since I have an S4 I was thinking of trying the HTC One, but it has been so silent about that device and the boards on AC are dead. I am liking what I am hearing and it would make sense to get the S4 GE since I have several cases etc. I can't order yet due to vacation plans for when these would be delivered. Might have to go with the S4. Is it my imagination or is the S4 model getting a lot more press?
  • Just root and install the GE rom, rebuying an S4 seems like an awful waste of money to me. Which devices gets more press is a horrible way to decide which device to get, for what it's worth news of HTC One Google experience device came before the Samsung S4. I love my S4, going to put GE on it, HTC One really excels over GS4 in two ways, Native UI Sense is better than Touchwiz imho and Build materials, if your the type that loves aluminum and hates plastic. UI will be the same on GE devices, S4 is faster with a bigger screen, so to me it's the better device to run Stock Android on, unless you really hate plastic, Which I think is way overstated, the build quality of the S4 excellent imho, not creaky like the S3 at all, it just happens to have a plastic back, if you use a case it's not important at all.
  • Rooting and flashing again and again seems like an awful waste of time to me. I like both and want two devices and just want to swap my SIM. Time is money to me so saving me time is worth it. I didn't say I would pick based on press of the devices but with the OS being exactly the same, I will wager the S4 will continue to outsell the HTC One in touchwiz and GE models. I have heard more than once the HTC One GE camera takes a bigger hit going to vanilla android. That was a major reason for kicking my Nexus 4 to the curb. The camera was sub par in my opinion.
    Google Wallet is another feature. Still have not heard if it works on the HTC One I assume it will work on the S4 since it is preinstalled but I will wait for confirmation.
  • Then I'd go with the S4 the camera will definitely take less of a hit in Stock Android than the HTC one. Also check out camera apps, in my experience for example LG Camera (in the app store) greatly improved the nexus 4 camera and may I say, I wish I had the income that an hours worth of time max was worth $650 dollars lol, Just joking, if you can afford to own both more power to you, I was just trying to save you some coin.
  • I would gladly pick this phone up is the SD card integrated? Does Google wallet work? I loved my Nexus 4 but three things made me move to the S4. Lack of more than 16GB Storage, LTE and Camera. Those things may all be addressed withe the Google Edition. ALso if I spend 700 on a phone I want google wallet to be working! Alex?
  • I haven't tried to set up Google Wallet but the app is on there. I have heard that AT&T blocks it through the sim if that is even possible but I will play with it and get back to you. I am guessing that if it will work running the GE Rom it would also work on the actual GE edition S4 and vise versa? As far as the SD card goes, there is NOT an option to save pictures/videos to the sd card by default. It doesn't bother me as I just move them over via Root explorer or my pc but for some that may be a deal breaker.
  • Thanks Ben! I used Google Wallet with an ATT SIM on my Nexus 4. (I loved it!) That would be big for me to be able to use it! Yes, I thought you would have to move pics and videos from internal to SD card using a utility. Maybe someone will come up with an app that streamlines the process. I appreciate your insights!
  • Not a problem:) I loved the idea of having a all metal Nexus if you will with the ONE but the camera was the deal breaker. Some people say the camera did not suffer and in daylight it was close to the same but the low light suffered quite a bit. Much happier running the GE rom on my S4.
  • I'm curious; ignoring the more rapid software updates, is there that much difference between a stock SG4 with a third party launcher, like Nova instead of Touchwiz versus having the Google Play edition?
  • Yes theres a difference! Im not a fan of TW and was dreading it when i left my gnex for s4, i installed nova and all i can say is wow. amazing. i get all the samsung features with the beauty of nova.
  • Maybe I'm just picky, but for something that is suppose to have options, Android phones don't give me much these days. My two requirements: Nexus, Verizon. (Or as close to Nexus at a reasonable price as possible). I guess I'm "stuck" with my GNex. In all reality, the phone is perfectly fine. It's set like I like. CM runs awesome on it and I like most everything about it. At the same time I was really looking forward to most likely the HTC One or possibly the S4. In the end, the money doesn't seem to be worth the S4 Developer Edition, much less the Google Edition and swapping to GSM (I need coverage and HATE AT&T). And, I'm not sure If I can do the HTC Sense thing or not. Not that I dislike Sense, but I just really, really like a stock-like experience with CM's added features.
  • Don't blame Android for Verizon's issues. I love Verizon coverage speed and support but I've pretty much given up on another Nexus device. Posted via Android Central App
  • Agreed, Verizon and Verizon alone is to blame for their lack of nexus devices, Google tried and Verizon showed that they don't know how to handle a nexus device. Maybe when they roll out VoLTE and LTE-only phones you may get a nexus that can run on Verizon and even then it's iffy.
  • I dunno... Apple seems to have no issues getting stock phones on Verizon, so maybe Google should ask them how they do it.
  • The iPhone and stock Android are completely different, Google doesn't promote Stock Android or sell it the way Apple sells iPhones, Google prefers to allow hardware manufacturers to create most Android devices, Nexus devices have a much smaller audience, the fact that they don't have the huge audience is the reason Verizon doesn't bother to support Nexus to the level they support the iPhone. Samsung and their Galaxy phones where the first Android phones to break Verizon's unwillingness to allow devices that are available on all networks on Verizon in the same form.
    Verizon accepted this begrudgingly the same way they eventually accepted the iPhone, because of the popularity of the phone, before the iPhone, Verizon devices were usually custom built for Verizon and didn't sell the phones other carrier's. If Verizon could have it their way, they still would only offer phones that were custom built for Verizon and only available on Verizon.
  • I don't blame Android at all. That would be silly. I didn't really clarify. My point was simply that despite there being several good choices for Android, when you're carrier locked, you're carrier locked and at the mercy of your provider. Getting off of Verizon is not an option. Sprint and T-Mobile are a joke for coverage and speed, especially when you travel 3,000-4,000 miles a month. I miss having T-Mobile here in town but they just can't cut it for my needs. I swore off AT&T 3 years ago. I hate, and I mean HATE them after numerous billing errors with two mobile lines and constant DSL issues that I dealt with for over a year. My experience with them was unnecessarily horrible and my dealings with Verizon have been simply awesome over the past nearly two years. I would shove a grounding rod into a live powerline before I would voluntarily give AT&T another dime of my money in any form or fashion, It's a principle I've chosen to stand by. With Google's new handling of API's I feel a little better about buying something non-Nexus but I've been dealing with either Stock or CM for 3 years and I'm an old geezer stuck in his ways. It's slightly frustrating, but I've roped myself into having to take what Verizon offers.
  • Android is a product. You mean Google.
  • Blame Verizon (and Sprint) they can offer something with stock if they really wanted to. Posted via Android Central App
  • get off Verizon
  • I would if I could get the same coverage from another carrier. I can't.
  • What is the clock app on the home screen? Posted via Android Central App
  • DashClock
  • Thank you sir! =) Posted via Android Central App
  • Such an article will only be written/read in a die-hard android blog. It has no meaning for common masses. Stock is overrated. Period. I use N4, and people who claim that stock/AOSP is lag-free are simply in denial. People talk as if stock android is the cure for cancer.
  • I have 2 nexus phones. Sprint galaxy nexus and the nexus 4 on T-Mobile. The gnex lags like crazy with chrome and some other things. My nexus 4 runs perfect (to me). I personally like all the phones and UI's the phone makers come up with. There is some cool stuff out there. At the end of the day for me I just like the way stock works. I do really like that new HTC phone the butterfly s but guessing it won't come to the states on T-Mobile. I'm also interested in the made in USA Motorola phone that's coming out. Also love the new Sony phones. Options are great. Posted via Android Central App
  • There is no phone in the world that you can't force by sheer will to lag for a fraction of a second at some point (so let's forget the pointless lag-free arguments), but I will say this, comparing my nexus4 to my GS4 running touchwiz, there is noticeably less lag on the nexus4, put stock Google Experience rom on the GS4 and voila GS4 beats the nexus4. Stock Android lags less even on slower hardware. Maybe you don't like stock/AOSP and that's fine, stick with touchwiz or sense. But pretending like stock Android is some incomplete unfinished OS that the common masses cannot appreciate is simply untrue, my gf uses my nexus4 now and loves it, these days it's actually easier and more intuitive than touchwiz, which is suffering from frivolous half baked feature ideas and bloat.
  • I agree. For me, it's not even really about lag. Any phone can lag. My Galaxy Nexus is lag free and snappy until I turn on navigation while streaming Tune In and tethering. Well, yeah, that's a lot to handle. Stock Android is a preference for me. TouchWiz reminds me of an iPhone, previous incarnations of Sense were over done and literally hurt my eyes. Motoblur never grabbed my eye. Stock has always been how I like it. Simple, straightforward, and I can make Android how I want to use it, period.
  • I can't really comment for stock as my N4 has been custom out of the box, but I assue you their is ZERO lag on my setup (aokp pub w/ franco M3). Makes the Touchwiz GS4 feel like a turd. Seriously.
  • You mean in your opinion right...because you are aware that not everyone is exactly like you?
  • i wont use total stock android, i need options like aokp offers. that's what im running now and they updated their base to the google one anyways.
  • Somewhat off topic, but are the original US S4 versions not getting the updates that you referred to for European devices? If those updates are eliminating lag, why aren't we getting them? Or are we and I missed this in my research? I'm buying the S4 in a few days, despite the reported lag issues, and I'm curious about this. Thanks!
  • European version uses Exynos chipset, American uses Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 plus additional rom updates delays that added by carriers in the US like AT&T and Verizon. Most likely US phones will get them eventually, but EU device updates tend to go out faster to Samsung phones as they don't have to go through carriers with delay updates like they do in the US.
  • Most of the European versions are Snapdragon 600.
  • Is there some patch to bring back the on-screen buttons (like in GS3 CM10 ROM)?
    That'd be the best config IMO
  • I had the same experience with the SuperAMOLED screen on the S4. I've being using the S4 about three weeks now as my primary phone and yesterday when I picked up my Nexus 4 the colors seemed really pale in comparison. Initially, I wasn't too fond of the punchy colors of the S4 but now I really like how vibrant they are.
  • Nice write up. More an opinion post than a true "review", but valuable insight none the less. I'm still waiting for a detailed camera comparison between the GE versions and their TouchWiz and Sense counterparts. (I'm SURE you guys already have that in the works.) :)
  • What about internal space? has incresed? LOL
  • Yep its 12gb now 3gb more than the tw s4
  • What about battery life? My GS4 lasts less than 6hrs.
  • Sounds like a partial wake lock issue to me. Change any app settings that update on a set time interval.
  • something is wrong obviously, I only charge my phone every 2 days and I still have 30-40% left most of the time.
  • Something, maybe app related is wrong. I get a full day of usage on mine with an 4 hours of screen time
  • Where can I find this wallpaper I see on the phone pictured above? I have searched all over the internet and it literally cannot be found! What gives? I really want to set it on my phone, anyone have any ideas??