What the Galaxy S4 and HTC One Google Play Editions are actually like to use

Galaxy S4 HTC One Google Play Editions

For years, Android enthusiasts (myself included) have been dreaming of the day when manufacturers would stop making silly software changes and give us devices with pure Google Android UIs. Today, my friends, that day has arrived.

Well, sort of.

Google's new stock Android versions of the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 -- the Google Play Editions, as they're officially being called -- are now available for purchase in the U.S. The HTC One Google Play Edition goes for $600 while the GS4 Google Play Edition runs $650.

Make no mistake about it, though: These aren't Nexus devices; they're the original HTC One and Galaxy S4 phones with stock Android software loaded onto them. Google says the devices will receive future upgrades "quickly" but hasn't gone into detail about how exactly that process will be handled.

So given the unusual arrangement, what are the phones actually like to use? Here are some thoughts based on my time with the devices so far:

Galaxy S4 HTC One Google Play Editions Android

• In terms of interface alone, it's a breath of fresh air to power up the devices and get pure Google Android software. With each device, it feels like a better version of the original -- the phone the way it could have been if the manufacturers didn't insist on making arbitrary UI changes and larding the products up with needless bloat and complication. Compared to the originals, both phones really are a pleasure to use.

• That's looking at the interface, though -- and these days, there's far more to an Android phone than that. By getting the stock Android UI, you're also giving up manufacturer-added features like Samsung's Multi-Window and Air Gestures and HTC's Zoes and Video Highlights. How much that matters is up to you and your own personal priorities; for me, it's a tradeoff worth making.

• Performance on both phones is fantastic. That's no surprise on the One, which was outstanding to begin with, but on the Galaxy S4, the lag that I continue to experience on the regular Samsung model is completely gone in the Google Play Edition. This reaffirms the fact that it's almost certainly Sammy's software -- and nothing about the hardware -- that bogs that device down.

Galaxy S4 HTC One Google Play Editions Camera

• Also on the subject of software, camera performance is an interesting area to consider with these phones. The devices -- the One in particular -- demonstrate that sensors and lenses are only half the story; the software that controls the camera also plays a significant role in determining image quality. Not just in the various shooting modes and options that the devices offer (on the Play Edition models, you lose most of the goodies HTC and Samsung added into the Camera app and gain the Photosphere feature built into stock Google Android), but also in the base process of how images are captured.

I'll do a detailed phone-to-phone photo comparison soon, but for now, I'll say this: I'm finding that photos taken on the original devices and the Google Play Edition models do not always look the same. The difference is particularly pronounced with the One -- and particularly with images taken with the two models in low-light conditions (an area where the original One excels).

UPDATE: The detailed side-by-side comparisons are now online; see the HTC One camera shootout and Galaxy S4 camera shootout for a closer look at each phone's camera performance compared to its original model.

HTC One Google Play Edition Beats Audio

• Beyond the camera, some areas where it seemed like the Google Play Edition phones could have faltered are actually not issues at all. The HTC One Play Edition, for instance, includes Beats Audio support just like the original One does; it even has an option added into the main system settings that lets you toggle Beats mode on or off. I listened to music from both the original One and the Play Edition One and couldn't detect any difference in their sound quality when using headphones or the phones' superb front-facing speakers.

The two devices' IR blasters, meanwhile, don't work out of the box without the manufacturer-added controls for that hardware -- but, much to my surprise, I've had some luck getting the function up and running via third-party apps. So far, I've been able to get IR functionality working on the GS4 using an app called Smart IR Remote for Galaxy S4; I haven't had any luck doing the same with the One just yet.  

• The software on both phones is Android 4.2.2; aside from a handful of subtle UI changes, it's more or less exactly what you'd see on the Nexus 4 or any other pure Google Android device. Since I've covered that software exhaustively before, I'm not going to spend much time getting into its nuances here.

• One thing worth mentioning: The HTC One Google Play Edition doesn't come with Google Wallet -- and the app also isn't available for installation on the device via the Play Store. (Wallet is installed on the GS4 Play Edition.) A Google spokesperson tells me this is due to the One's hardware lacking an embedded secure element that Wallet requires in order to run.

Galaxy S4 HTC One Google Play Editions

• Generally speaking, the hardware is the exact same hardware you'd get on the regular Galaxy S4 or HTC One devices, so I'm not going to spend much time talking about the pros and cons of that, either. You can click back to my HTC One review and revisitation and my Galaxy S4 review and revisitation for detailed thoughts on each phone's hardware-based strengths and weaknesses; all that same stuff applies to these devices.

(The Google Play Edition Galaxy S4 is a 16GB version, by the way, while the HTC One has 32GB of internal storage. Like the original phones, the GS4 offers expandable storage via an SD card slot while the One does not.)

• One thing I do want to mention about hardware is the devices' button configurations, because they have 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). If you've followed me for long, you probably know how I feel about the use of physical and capacitive buttons in an OS that was designed to use virtual keys. With pure Google Android software, the awkwardness of each manufacturer's setup is only amplified.

The worst offender here is undoubtedly the Galaxy S4; Samsung's bizarre and dated physical-capacitive setup, with its inclusion of the long-ago-deprecated Menu key, takes a serious toll on the user experience of this device.

When you use apps properly designed for Android 4.x on the GS4, the on-screen overflow menu icon -- which is typically built into the app's action bar -- is randomly missing (even though the action bar itself and all of its other icons are there). Instead, you have to press the phone's capacitive Menu button to find any additional options, and there's no visual cue to let you know when that possibility is available.

Galaxy S4 HTC One Google Play Editions Buttons

That type of unintuitive hidden functionality is exactly what Google was trying to get away from when it axed the Menu button way back at the end of the Gingerbread days, but Samsung has hung onto the old setup -- and its disadvantages are more apparent than ever in the pure Android environment.

Galaxy S4 HTC One Google Play Editions Button (2)

HTC's two-button capacitive setup is less bad but not still not ideal. The fact that the buttons are built into the device instead of being virtual means you occasionally get that obnoxious black bar at the bottom of the screen when a legacy Menu icon needs to appear. It only happens when an app is poorly designed or not updated to meet current Android design guidelines (cough, cough, Facebook), but it happens enough to be annoying. There's also no app-switching key -- for no apparent reason -- which makes it unnecessarily cumbersome to access that core Android function.

On both Google Play Edition devices, you have to double-tap the Home button -- the physical button in the case of the GS4 and the right-justified capacitive button in the case of the One -- to get to the app-switching command. Long-pressing the Home button, meanwhile, loads Google Now on both devices.

Android Power Twitter

So there you have it, gang: a preliminary hands-on look at what it's actually like to use the new Google Play Edition Galaxy S4 and HTC One phones. I'll be spending a lot more time with the devices over the next several days and -- trust me -- will have many more thoughts to share with you soon.

UPDATE: The verdict: Should you buy the GS4 and/or HTC One Google Play Edition?

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon