Heads-up, gang: This is not your typical smartphone review.
When I first got my hands on the new stock Android Galaxy S4 and HTC One Google Play Edition phones, I decided a formal review didn't make much sense. With each phone, after all, we're looking at the same exact hardware we've covered in depth before (see my original HTC One review and revisitation and GS4 review and revisitation). And aside from some subtle UI changes, we're talking about the same "pure" Android 4.2 software we've been poring over for months.
Combining some of the hottest Android hardware with the cleanest Android software should be a no-brainer, then, right -- an easy win? Unfortunately, it's not so simple.
As I've discovered in the days I've been using the Google Play Edition Galaxy S4 and HTC One, many of my initial concerns about the devices have proven to be valid. Most of them revolve around the fact that GS4 and HTC One aren't custom Nexus devices built to run pure Google software; rather, they're phones that were designed explicitly to run custom manufacturer code and are now being resold with a different setup in place.
So all considered, what's the verdict? I'll be blunt: While the idea of manufacturers offering stock Android versions of their devices is fantastic in theory, I don't think the reality of the Galaxy S4 or HTC One Google Play Edition makes much sense for most people.
With either phone, you do get desirable hardware and an outstanding user interface. And there's definitely something to be said for that.
But that combination comes with an awful lot of caveats -- important things that can't be ignored. Things like:
• An awkward physical/capacitive button configuration (the GS4 is the worse offender in this regard but the One is also not ideal). See my hands-on analysis for the full scoop, but long story short, this is something that has a profound effect on what it's like to use the phones with a stock Android 4.2 setup -- particularly compared to the full Nexus experience.
• Different and generally less impressive camera performance than what the regular versions of the devices deliver. This is evident particularly on the One, though also somewhat noticeable on the GS4.
• A limited range of GSM network compatibility. This one's specific to the One, which -- due to the radios present in the model of the device Google decided to use -- will get barely-there data speeds if connected to T-Mobile in many parts of the country.
• A decidedly vague upgrade promise. Part of the allure of the Google Play Edition phones was the Nexus-esque guarantee of fast ongoing future OS upgrades, but as it turns out, the phones won't be updated in a Nexus-like fashion -- and it's unclear precisely how "quick" their upgrades will be compared to the Nexus line.
Then you have to factor in the price -- $650 for the Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition (16GB) and $600 for the HTC One Google Play Edition (32GB). That's twice the starting price of Google's unlocked Nexus 4, which offers pure Android on a device built around that experience. The Nexus 4 also comes with a formal guarantee of ongoing instant upgrades directly from Google -- without the ambiguity.
Now, do the One and GS4 offer some compelling hardware advantages over the Nexus 4? Absolutely (though some of them, like the One's outstanding camera, as described above, and the GS4's SD card support, which stock Android software is not designed to take full advantage of, are diminished in this scenario). I'm just not convinced they offer enough of a meaningful advantage to be worth twice the price for most folks -- especially considering the caveats.
Here's what it comes down to: The Google Play Edition devices are trying to be the best of both worlds but ultimately failing to excel in either of them. You're getting the HTC One or Galaxy S4 without all the benefits of the HTC One or Galaxy S4 -- and you're getting a pseudo-Nexus phone without all the benefits of a true Nexus phone.
Don't get me wrong: The HTC One and GS4 Google Play Editions have a lot of good things going for 'em. In many ways, the combination of their hardware and a stock Android UI is actually quite nice to use. It's just that in the grand scheme of things, the phones feel more like hastily assembled experiments than carefully thought out and cohesive devices.
Choice and diversity is always a good thing, and on the conceptual level, it's encouraging to see Google and manufacturers starting to think about more stock Android options. If you want a stock Google Android experience, strongly prefer the hardware of the One or GS4 and are okay with all the drawbacks we've discussed, the new Google Play Experience devices could be interesting new options for you.
For most users, though, the Nexus 4 continues to offer the best overall user experience -- and best value -- available on Android today. Beyond that, the regular GS4 and One, even with their poky upgrades and problematic software interfaces, are more sensible recommendations in the majority of cases (especially if you throw a custom Android launcher into the equation).
Still not sure if the Google Play Edition devices are right for you? Check out my in-depth coverage for a detailed look at the experience:
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