Pure Android: Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One ‘Google Play editions’ review (from TheVerge)

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The Android device story has followed a predictable pattern for the past few years: Samsung, HTC, LG, and Sony release top-tier hardware to carriers the world over, with their own proprietary software layered over Android. Google, meanwhile, partners with one of those companies to release a Nexus phone running “pure” Android software, usually without carrier support and usually on hardware that doesn’t feel quite up to snuff.

 

 

This year, two flagship phones, the Galaxy S4 and the HTC One, represent the pinnacle of Android hardware. They seem to have everything you could ask for: fast processors, gigantic and beautiful screens, LTE, and (mostly) great hardware design. But like their predecessors, they also come with a lot of extra software you probably didn’t ask for.

 

 

But this year, Google found a way to get HTC and Samsung to offer those same phones without their so-called “skins.” Both the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One can now be purchased without their respective manufacturer customizations for $649 and $599, respectively. Offered unsubsidized, unbranded, and unbesmirched by carrier software directly from Google, together they represent something we haven’t seen in a very, very long time: the best available hardware paired with Google’s vision of Android.

 

 

On top of all that, for the first time we can compare a customized version of Android directly against stock software running on the same device with manufacturer support. Do Samsung’s TouchWiz and HTC’s Sense really detract from the “true” Google experience?

 

New software, old hardware


Since we’re already reviewed the hardware on the Galaxy S4 and the HTC One, let’s quickly list out the physical changes on the stock editions. On the Galaxy S4, the carrier logo and the “Galaxy S4” logo have been replaced by a simple, single “Samsung” logo on the back. HTC’s “beatsaudio” logo remains, as this stock edition supports it.

That’s it.

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INSIDE AND OUT, THESE PHONES ARE IDENTICAL TO THEIR PREDECESSORS

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Inside and out, these phones are identical to what we’ve already seen. They’ll do LTE on both AT&T and T-Mobile, but may not be able to utilize T-Mobile’s AWS HSPA networks at their maximum speeds. They use the same NFC, IR ports, cameras, processors, radios, speakers, screens, and all the rest. It’s worth noting that the HTC One’s storage is 32GB, double that of the Galaxy S4 — though the latter still has a microSD card slot for expansion.

Now that we’ve had several months to get to know these phones, the fact that they have identical hardware turns out to be a mixed blessing for both of them.

The HTC One is still the most beautiful and elegant Android phone by a very wide margin. The screen looks great, the speakers are crazy loud, and it simply feels more premium than any of its competitors. However, HTC’s obstinate refusal to bow to the design norms of the Android market hurts the stock One as much as it hurts the skinned model.

The power button, located at the top of the phone, is nigh-impossible to reach with one hand. Samsung, LG, Nokia, and many others put it on the side now, an infinitely more reasonable choice for large-screened phones. More annoyingly, HTC continues to participate in Google’s campaign to rid the world of a dedicated menu button. In a perfect world, developers would follow Google’s guidelines and update their apps with on-screen menu buttons. In the real world, Samsung still ships a menu button on the bestselling Galaxy line, meaning there’s simply not enough incentive to get developers to redesign their apps.

Arcane Android politics aside, the bottom line is that HTC only provides two buttons — home and back — with the home button awkwardly placed on the righthand side. This means that when you install an Android app that doesn’t follow Google’s Holo guidelines for on-screen menu buttons, you’re stuck with a gigantic black menu button at the bottom of your screen. Those apps are — thankfully — becoming increasingly rare, but they happen often enough to screw up whatever muscle memory you’ve built up with the keyboard whenever it gets shifted up.

The stock Galaxy S4 has the same slimy feeling back cover, faux-metal plastic rim, and overall midrange aesthetic. In our original S4 review, David Pierce wrote that the hardware “makes an awful first impression” and I can’t say that I disagree. But what the GS4 lacks in panache it makes up for in utility. That back cover comes off so you can replace the battery and add an SD card. It also has the traditional three-button menu/home/back button layout that works better with stock Android.

I was able to get some third-party apps to successfully work with the GS4’s IR blaster, though app selection in that regard is still quite limited. Google says that the IR blaster on the stock HTC One doesn’t work right now, but will with a future software release.

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Power vs. simplicity


Since the hardware and stock Android software are both known quantities, the biggest question surrounding these phones is how well the cameras would perform. Both Samsung and HTC put a lot of effort into their custom camera software and hardware, and more importantly they tout their improvements as essential facets of their custom software experiences. Samsung piled an absolutely gigantic set of (occasionally gimmicky) features onto an advanced 13-megapixel shooter, while HTC took the risky route of using fewer megapixels that could take in more light — the so-called “ultrapixel” camera.

 

 

The good news is that, for the most part, you can still get good photos from the stock versions of these phones. In many cases, I was unable to discern any difference between the skinned-version photos and the stock-version. Especially when you’re shooting with the default auto settings, photos from both the GS4 and the HTC One were nigh-indistinguishable from their skinned counterparts.

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There are exceptions, though. HTC’s camera in particular managed to get slightly sharper shots in extremely low-light settings with Sense than the stock version. On both the GS4 and the One I found that video was slightly better on the skinned versions as well, with richer colors and less “jellyvision.”

 

I can’t say how much effort these companies put into making sure their cameras worked well with the stock Android software, but it does seem clear that they spent at least a nominal amount of time tuning the image processing. Samsung should have probably spent a little more time doing so — the stock Galaxy S4 exhibited a noticeable and troubling shutter lag that isn’t present on the skinned version nor on either HTC One.

While just pointing the phone at a subject and clicking the shutter button doesn’t yield remarkably different results between skinned and stock, that’s far from the whole story.

Both Samsung and HTC offer a series of settings that can give you significantly more control over your camera. White balance, shutter speed, exposure, and countless simple modes all combine to give you power over how your image will look before you snap your photo. Given the amount of engineering and money that goes into the hardware behind these cameras, it only makes sense that the software should offer more utility.

In this regard, Google has a lot of catching up to do. The stock camera does offer some basic settings, but they’re hidden behind its poorly-thought-out radial menu. HTC Sense and Samsung TouchWiz treat their cameras like cameras, but stock Android still feels like it’s stuck in an old “cameraphone” world.

Equal power


Battery life was a little different. Surprisingly, the stock versions of both the Galaxy S4 and the HTC One well outperformed the skinned versions. In the Verge Battery Test (our standard test that cycles through a series of popular websites and high-res images with brightness set to 65 percent) each phone came in at about six hours. In HTC’s case, that’s a full hour longer than the Sense version managed to pull off.

PERFORMANCE COMPARISONS BETWEEN THE TWO ARE A STUDY IN TINY DIFFERENCES

Battery life was a little different. Surprisingly, the stock versions of both the Galaxy S4 and the HTC One well outperformed the skinned versions. In the Verge Battery Test (our standard test that cycles through a series of popular websites and high-res images with brightness set to 65 percent) each phone came in at about six hours. In HTC’s case, that’s a full hour longer than the Sense version managed to pull off.

I have more experience with the HTC One than the GS4, so I can say that in my day-to-day use the stock version definitely seemed to last longer into the evening. Sadly, it’s still an “into the evening” kind of situation — the Droid RAZR Maxx HD this is not, so be prepared to grab a charge in the late afternoon depending on your usage.

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The Google skin


If you haven’t used a Nexus device, I expect you’ll find stock Android 4.2.2 a refreshing, clean change from other Android devices. While TouchWiz and Sense have toned themselves down compared to years past, there’s still the nagging feeling that some “core” apps come from one place while others don’t. With stock, that dissonance is much reduced. More importantly, Google often just does a better job with things like Calendar and Messaging. They’re generally better designed in my taste, with a cleaner and flatter look that also happens to be much more functional.

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Even if you assume that HTC and Samsung could re-skin every single corner of Android with their respective look and feel (and you shouldn’t assume that at all), at the end of the day I just think their aesthetic sensibilities are off, and Google’s are better.

That said, Android’s design still suffers from nagging inconsistencies. Icons, including Google’s own, seem to be randomly sized based on whims and vagaries. The back button still will take you to strange places. The select/copy/paste icons that appear when selecting text are practically inscrutable the first time you see them. Some apps utilize edge-swipes to take you to a menu, but not all, and it’s hard to find rhyme or reason as to why.

There’s also sometimes radically different style even within Google’s own apps — the recent Gmail updateHangoutsand Google+ each seem to be tracking in almost wildly divergent directions. Android designer Matias Duarte said last September that “Personally I feel like I’ve gotten only about a third of the way to where I want to be with regards to consistency, responsiveness, and polish.” Sometimes Android design feels like it’s two steps forward and one shuffle-step sideways. Say what you will about where exactly the new design of iOS 7 is headed, but if nothing else it feels like there’s a firmer hand on the Apple rudder.

Of course, the software story on these two phones isn’t so much about what’s here as what isn’t here. There are no apps from HTC or Samsung, and there are no duplicate apps for things that Google already provides, like Music or Calendar. More importantly, there’s nothing from the carriers. You won’t have to wait for the Contacts app to unnecessarily call home to AT&T or Verizon anymore.

Strangely, there are a couple pieces of software the stock Galaxy S4 comes with that don’t appear on the stock HTC One: Google Earth and Google Wallet. The former you can install on the HTC One, but the latter doesn’t appear to be compatible. That’s unfortunate and frankly hard to understand, given that the HTC One has NFC. Then again, given Google Wallet’s recent troubles, it maybe isn’t a great idea to make that app an essential part of your life right now anyway.

Also, neither of these phones are technically “Bone Stock” Android. The Galaxy S4 comes with a “TouchWiz” feature: it works with Samsung’s S-View Flip Cover for displaying information when the screen is off. HTC’s One comes with Beats Audio hidden away in a checkbox within settings (but thankfully not in the notification bar). The skinned version of the One sounds much better with Beats than the stock version does, with less distortion. Turning on Beats Audio on the stock One seemed to dampen sound while adding only a small bit of bass.

Technically, the “stock” Android on these phones doesn’t come directly from Google (as with the Nexus line), but instead is built and maintained by Samsung and HTC. Google says that both phones will receive timely updates, but there could be an added wait from Samsung or HTC when the next version comes out. It certainly won’t take as long as it would if the carriers were involved, but there’s no guarantee that the stock GS4 and One will get same-day updates along with the Nexus line.

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