Meet the Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition: Samsung's flagship smartphone without the bells and whistles of TouchWiz. Similar to Google's Nexus line of phones, the Google Edition S4 is an unlocked device running pure, unadulterated stock Android. You get the same 5-inch 1080p display, sharp 13-MP camera and speedy quad-core processor, plus the benefit of getting software straight from Google--no carrier intervention required. However, $649 is a lot of cash to pay up front for that kind of freedom. Read on to find out if the S4 Google Play Edition is as appealing as its skinned, subsidized counterpart.
Click to EnlargeOn the outside, this is the same Galaxy S4 millions have come to know and love. The phone is still super-light at 4.6 ounces, making it lighter than the 5.04-ounce HTC One Google Play Edition. The 5-inch display dominates the device with backlit capacitive back and menu buttons and a physical home button at the bottom. The volume rocker is on the left and the microUSB port sits on the bottom.
Although it's heavier, we prefer the HTC One's premium aluminum chassis to the S4's white polycarbonate shell.
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Despite its 5.31 x 2.69 x 0.25-inch dimensions, we had no problem wrapping our thumb around the S4 to reach the volume rocker. We also appreciate that the S4 is slightly slimmer than the 5.31 x 2.63 x 0.28-inch HTC One.
Click to EnlargeThe S4's 5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED display delivers bold, beautiful color. As we watched an HD trailer for "Machete Kills," we enjoyed bright greens and deep sepias. The explosions were a bounty of red, yellow and orange. In terms of sharpness, we could see every line, crook and cranny on Danny Trejo's face. However, colors on the Google Play Edition of the HTC One were warmer with more distinct detail. The devices were evenly matched on their impressively wide viewing angles.
When we measured the S4's display with our light meter, we got a reading of 461 lux, well above the 294 lux average. That rating is also on a par with the carrier-based versions of the S4 as well as the Google Play Edition HTC One (455 lux).
The Galaxy S4's pair of tiny speakers packs a punch. Robin Thicke's "Shooter" filled our small test room with passably loud, clear audio. The bass and sparse strums of the electric guitar were nice and distinct, as was the crooner's soulful tenor. The handset's speakers were no match for the HTC One's front-facing speakers, though, which are fuller and louder.
Click to EnlargeThe Google Edition S4 has only one keyboard--the default Google keyboard. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. The virtual keys on the stock Android edition device have generous spacing and are larger than Samsung's default keyboard. Both keyboards have trace typing and predictive text capability. Trace typing on the Google keyboard was fluid and responsive.
Operating System and UI
Click to EnlargeThe Google Play Edition of the Galaxy S4 has undergone a make-under, letting Android 4.2.2 (JellyBean) shine in its pure, unadulterated glory. Users can access three lockscreens at launch: The default screen features the familiar digital clock; the screen to the left is blank and can be configured with one of 10 Google widgets such as Keep, Now and Sound Search. The screen to the right gives users quick access to the camera. Switching lockscreens is as simple as swiping from either edge.
Once you unlock the screen, you're greeted by a virtually blank canvas. The regular S4 has a number of apps and several large widgets spread out across its seven home screens. The Google Play version runs a tight ship in terms of presentation, using five home screens instead of seven. The default home screen houses a numberless analog clock with a Google Play icon and a folder containing 12 Google apps, including Gmail, G+ and YouTube. Another screen has a Google Books widget, while another features a Google Play widget.
There are a few omnipresent features on the home screens, such as the Google Search bar at the top of the screen, a placeholder line and a set of apps (Camera, Chrome, Apps, Messaging and Phone) toward the bottom of the screen. Each of these apps (with the exception of the Apps icon,) can be swapped out in favor of another.
Click to EnlargePulling down the notifications shade displays your latest updates with the date and time in the upper left corner. The upper right corner holds two icons, one to clear notifications and the other for quick settings. Unlike the regular S4, which displays 19 buttons for quick settings, the Google version has eight (Google Account, Brightness, Settings, Wi-Fi, Signal Strength, Battery Life, Airplane Mode and Bluetooth Off).
The stock Android version of the Apps Menu displays icons on a 4 x 5 grid similar to the TouchWiz version. We found that the Android icons were slightly larger and more colorful than the skinned version.
This bare-bones edition of the S4 strips the device of all its flagship gestures and features. The absence of Direct Call, Air Hover and Smart Scroll wasn't that big a deal, but losing the multi-window feature was a bummer. We quickly missed the split-screen ability that allowed us to watch videos or surf the Web while jotting down notes or messaging a friend.
Click to EnlargeSince this is an unlocked, all-Google affair, we welcomed the absence of carrier-branded and third-party software. Google outfitted the device with the bare essentials: Gmail, Maps, YouTube, Chrome and Navigation. Google Currents is a solid news aggregator in the vein of Flipboard. Frequent note-takers will want to check out Google Keep, which can create notes using text, voice and images.
Those who want to get in on some of Samsung's branded apps can download WatchOn, Samsung's TV remote app, or ChatOn, the messaging app from the Play Store. The store doesn't have S Health or S Translate, but there are a number of options to fill the void.
Click to EnlargeThe software is very different on the Galaxy S4 Google Edition, but the 1.9-GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 CPU with 2GB of RAM remains the same. That means this handset has more than enough power to handle intensive tasks like playing "Super Monsters Ate My Condo" with four open tabs in the Chrome browser. In a side-by-side comparison with the HTC One (Google Play Edition), the S4 launched the game a split second faster. The game performed flawlessly, keeping pace with our frantic condo slinging and the monsters' spastic movements.
The S4 Google Play Edition delivered an impressive 12,490 on the Quadrant benchmark test. That's more than three times the 4,131 Android phone average. The Verizon version of the S4 notched 11,962. The HTC One Google Play Edition and its 1.7-GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 scored 11,783.
Click to EnlargeDuring the An3DBench graphics test, the Play Edition scored 7,600, enough to top the 7,257 average and the Verizon S4's 7,534. The HTC One Play Edition established a small lead with 7,690. The Google Play S4 rebounded on the ANTutu benchmark, notching 25,629, more than double the 11,637 category average. This score was more than enough to keep both the Verizon S4 (24,141) and the HTC One Google Play Edition (24,069) at bay.
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The Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition comes with 16GB of storage with 12.22GB available at launch. The Verizon S4 also features 16GB of storage but has only 9.09GB available.
Camera and Camcorder
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The rear-facing 13 megapixel camera on the Galaxy S4 delivers some of the more vibrant photos we've seen on a smartphone. We took a few rooftop test shots where the camera delivered accurate greens and reds set against a beautiful blue sky. The HTC One Google Edition offered better low-light performance, but some shots taken in bright sunlight got blown out in areas.
Click to EnlargeThe S4's camera also took solid indoor shots, capturing our dog Xerxes' light-brown-and-white fur. While we could clearly see the growth direction of the hairs, the details immediately became fuzzy when we zoomed in past 32 percent.
The rear camera on the Galaxy S4 can shoot 1080p video that's just as colorful as the photos. We took some video of a busy street in Manhattan and yellow cabs really popped. The S4 was also able to capture images fairly well even when they were engulfed in shadow.
The 2-MP front camera also captured high-quality images. We took a picture of ourselves and could easily make out the stitching of our denim jacket.
Click to EnlargeWithout the TouchWiz interface, shutterbugs will lose a number of features, including photo-editing Best Face Mode and Eraser Mode. You'll also lose out on some of the more fun features like the Drama Shot, Dual Camera Mode and the gif-friendly Animated Photo Mode.
That's not to say that the Google Play Edition S4 is totally without features. There's Sphere Shot that enables photographers to take a 360-degree panoramic shot of their surroundings. Google also has the traditional Panorama mode and HDR for more dynamic images.
It's time to put those TouchWiz-draining-the-battery theories to bed. The S4 Google Play Edition lasted 5 hours and 12 minutes on AT&T's network during the Laptop Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over 4G LTE). That's nearly an hour behind the 6:08 Android phone average. However, the AT&T version of the S4 lasted 5:13, while the HTC One clocked in at 5:59.
The unlocked Google Play Edition of the Galaxy S4 supports 4G LTE on both AT&T and T-Mobile. Calls placed to mobile phones and landlines were loud and clear on both ends. A few callers complained of the sound dropping out when we switched over to speakerphone.
Click to EnlargeSome say potato, while some say potah-to. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition combines stock Android with one of the hottest phones on the market. The handset retains the hardware's strengths (performance, graphics, a colorful display and a powerful camera) without weighing the experience down with a skinned interface. Early adopters will also appreciate being among the first to enjoy Android 4.3 (or whatever version of the OS comes next).
To us, though, paying $649 for an S4 without all of its features is like a bowl of Lucky Charms without the milk. From split-screen multitasking to Samsung's bevy of clever camera features, a lot of what makes the S4 so compelling just isn't here. We also missed having access to more quick settings from the notification area. Overall, Android purists will like this version of the S4, but they would be better served with the $599 HTC One Google Play Edition. While heavier, the One has a better design, audio and display.