Editors' note: For this review, I focused on how the Samsung Galaxy S4 Play Edition differs from the carrier-branded version of the handset. For our complete assessment of the original Galaxy S4's design, features, and performance, please see our full review.
High-end, powerful, and completely Google-fied, the unlocked variant of the popular Samsung Galaxy S4 is now available from Google Play.
Announced during Google I/O in May and shipping out to customers beginning July 9, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition remains largely the same as the original S4. It still sports a quad-core processor and a 5-inch 1080p screen, features 4G LTE, and includes 16GB of storage space.
However, this handset offers a skinless Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean Nexus experience (a win for those who aren't fans of Samsung's oft-criticized TouchWiz interface), comes with its bootloader already unlocked, and will receive system updates as they come in.
But like all good things, it don't come cheap. Google's version of the S4 costs $649, and while that price makes sense for a high-end, unlocked device, it's still a pretty penny to pay. (Alternatively, if you're an HTC fan, note that Google today also released a stock Android version of the HTC One for $599.) Frankly, unless either you're an Android purist or you hate carrier contracts with a passion, I think it's best to opt for a less expensive S4 that's under a two-year agreement.
As expected, Google's Samsung Galaxy S4 is physically the same as the original. It still has the same crisp and bright 5-inch, 1080p touch screen, the cool metallic edges, and what we previously dubbed a "pinprick design" on the battery door of the white frost version. It will also still be compatible with Samsung's colorful Flip Covers.
Given that the device doesn't include Samsung's customizable features, you won't be able to change the screen's mode, which adjusts how it displays color contrast and optimizes the screen for photographs and movies. This isn't a huge issue, but you will have to occasionally live with the oversaturated green and blue hues.
In addition, the handset still has the IR blaster, located on the top edge near the headphone jack. This originally enabled you to turn your S4 into a remote using Samsung's free Watch On app. In this edition, however, while the IR blaster is enabled, no public API is available for now.
One minor physical difference, which would only be noticed by a keen eye, is the lack of either a carrier logo or the words "Galaxy S4" emblazoned on the battery door. This absence is the only quick indicator that you're carrying Google's variant. And if you want to dig even deeper, the usual FCC label that sits underneath the battery will say "Distributed by Google."
For more on the smartphone's design, including its build and screen quality, be sure to read our review of the first Galaxy S4.
OS and interface
Once you purchase a device, you're usually bombarded with preloaded software, carrier "app packages" that initiate download before you even have a chance to open your app drawer for the first time, and a less-than-desirable UI. Google's S4, on the other hand, offers a whole lot of nothing -- and that can be a very good thing.
Case in point: Samsung has attracted criticism from some users who find they don't quite get all of that 16GB of internal memory, despite the listing on the box. Indeed, when I booted up a freshly wiped Galaxy S4 from Sprint (with no Google account signed in to to avoid porting over additional data or media files), it showed just 9.10GB of available space, and our Verizon unit had 9.09GB off the bat.
Google's S4, however, starts you off with 12.65GB of glorious space that you can fill with your stuff. True, no gadget will ever give you its full listed capacity, and you can always uninstall a handset's preloaded apps to regain some more space, but it's great that this smartphone gives you so much space from the start. And when you add in a microSD card slot, you can add an extra 64GB.
Moving on, the device runs on the same Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean OS as all the others. And while it's not officially a Nexus by name, Google has confirmed that it will receive updates as quickly as any other Google Edition handset.
This S4 won't feature Samsung's TouchWiz user interface. That means you won't see all of the 16 system icons available on your notifications shade. Instead, only eight shortcuts for actions such as adjusting brightness and turning on and off Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Airplane mode will be shown.
You'll also get the standard Google virtual keyboard (with Gesture Typing), not Samsung's. The latter lets you insert images or trace out letters with your fingers for text input. As our first review stated already, however, it's hard imagining someone using these features regularly, and there are many third-party keyboards you can always download.
Similarly, you won't be able to use Samsung's new options for the lock screen, which include flashy graphics, a customizable and colorful message, and app icons. What you will have is an elegantly minimalist lock screen, with options for a small, scrolling personal message, and the ability to access the camera and other apps (like your Gmail and calendar) by swiping left and right.
Lastly, Samsung loads an Easy Mode option in its S4 to help clean up TouchWiz for those who want a more simplified UI. Google's version won't have this, but given that its UI is pretty streamlined already, you won't need it.
Apps and features: What you'll get
Let's start off with the basics (which is nearly everything for this device). Namely, the handset comes loaded with your standard Google apps: Chrome, Currents, Earth, Gmail, Search, Plus, Hangouts (which is the rebranded Google Talk), Keep, Local, Maps with Navigation, Messenger, Wallet, YouTube, and access to Play store portals, including Play Books, Magazines, Movies and TV, and Music.
And as with other S4 editions, hold down the Home button and you'll launch Google Now, which integrates Google Search and Voice Search to provide assistant-style abilities like finding local restaurants and calculating commute times.
Basic task management apps include a calculator, calendar, a clock with alarm and stopwatch functions, an alternative e-mail client, a movie-editing app, and a news and weather app.
Daydreams, which is nestled in the Settings menu, is also included. It works as a screensaver feature while your handset is docked or charging. You can choose to have it display colors, a clock, a collage of Google Currents headlines, or photos from your gallery.
...And what you don't get
Considering the fact that the original S4 came packed with a plethora of software goodies, which Google had to strip away, this list does add up quickly:
- Air View: Displays useful information when you hover your finger over the screen.
- Air Gesture: Enables you to control your smartphone (such as answering a call or scrolling through music titles) with hand gestures.
- Smart Stay: Keeps the display lit when it senses your eyes looking at it.
- Smart Pause: Pauses video when it senses you're looking away from the display.
- Smart Scroll: Scrolls up or down when you tilt the phone.
- S Voice, S Voice Drive, S Health, and S Translator: Samsung-branded voice-activated assistant, car mode option, calorie and overall health tracker, and language translator, respectively.
- Story Mode: Organizes photos from your gallery into albums, which you can then send off to print as hard copies.
- Samsung Hub: The manufacturer's media hub, where you can purchase music, videos, books, and games.
For some, it's easy not to care about these functions that may rarely, if ever, be used. However, I still had to knock off one point off in our Features category, given that this bounty of features contributed to the S4's initial draw.
Personally, I, too, won't miss any of these features (though, I can understand the usefulness of Smart Pause and Smart Stay, in terms of movie watching). However, there are two features I would have loved for this version of the phone to have kept: the option to view more than one app (even if it's just a select few) at the same time, as in Samsung's multiwindow function, and the ultrasensitive touch-screen option. This enables you to use the screen with gloves on, which is particularly useful in the winter. Unfortunately, Google's S4 doesn't have this functionality.
Camera and video
Again, let's begin with what you get from the 13-megapixel shooter. Compared with Samsung's S4, you'll see a very simple camera interface, with just three icons displayed on the screen (shooting mode, the shutter button, and camera options), and a circle graphic that shows up whenever you pinch-zoom.
Like the LG Nexus 4, this version of the S4 has two shooting modes, panoramic and Photo Sphere. Photo Sphere stitches together pictures taken from every angle at a single point, to create expansive and engrossing 3D-esque photos. Though it takes time to finish taking all needed photos, and some areas can still come off looking "patchy," the finished product is neat and renders quickly. And unlike the time I tested it out on the Nexus 4, the very bottom and top of spheres did render, and I didn't have a problem with black blind spots in the final image.