Clint on Mobile

Verdict: Galaxy S4 and HTC One Google Play edition

There’s universal agreement that both the S4 and One are the epitome of Android. But all is not perfect. Google’s biggest problem: Nexus 4.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition

Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition: No doubt an excellent Android. But only in white, and for a PayPal account depleting $700+?!

The flagships have landed. Yesterday Google quietly added a new “Google Play edition” section to the Play Store.

As widely (and I mean widely) reported you’ll now find two familiar faces hanging out there: the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One. Prices are $649 and $599 respectively, more on that in a moment. Both phones are unlocked, free of bloatware, and run the latest and greatest rev of Android (Jelly Bean 4.2.2).

As I wrote last week this was to be a glorious occasion for carrier-avoiding Android fans like me. Google has given us a non-Nexus option for tapping into the bliss that is pure Android. There’s, thankfully, no TouchWiz or Sense. It was the perfect time to jump ship from the Nexus 4. In fact, I had so prepped for the event I had already justified the purchase to my wife using “Charlie Accounting.”

First, the verdict.

It seems mixed.

There’s universal agreement that both the S4 and One are the epitome of Android smartphones. Reviewers note HTC’s quality aluminum design, while others extol the virtues of Samsung’s battery life, removable memory card, and swanky Super AMOLED display. Clearly, these are two well made handsets. The Verge, whose scores are quickly becoming the industry benchmark, awarded both 8.6 (out of 10) - ranking them among the best, trailing only the iPhone 5 and 4S. CNET had similar praise, yet again stubbornly refused to award either more than it’s routine 4 stars (out of 5).

So I took a step back from the chalupa.

Among the Android faithful, however, little nits emerge.

— Neither the HTC One nor Galaxy S4 are optimized for the virtual on-screen keys used in Android. Consequently the user experience is less than ideal. Most notably the absence of a menu button makes for some confusing inconsistencies.

— Google will not be pushing updates to these devices. Hence, the value proposition of the “Nexus” brand remains. Still, I’d expect them to receive faster updates than the bloatware-laden carrier equivalents.

— Stock camera software is decidedly mediocre compared to the HTC Sense and Samsung TouchWhiz versions.

— Only white? Meh.

Then there’s the price.

When I loaded up an S4 into the Google Play cart, and proceeded to checkout there was this number staring back at me: $705.79. That is for a phone. Not a laptop. Not a case of premium Napa Cab. Not a weekend getaway to Vegas.

So I took a step back from the chalupa.

I get that this is the going rate for an unlocked, unsubsidized handset. Fair enough. But to think, for about the same amount I could buy a Nexus 4 (I already own one, so this is theoretical friends), a Nexus 7 and a Chromebook. Or how about a Nexus 4, and an iPad Mini (great tablet), with money left over to enjoy lunch with a friend at the Falafel Drive In on Stevens Creek Boulevard…

The biggest issue, though, was staring me in the face.

And that’s Google’s own Nexus 4. Yes, it’s a generation behind the S4 and One. But it’s pretty darn close. Plus it’ll get updates sooner, and it has the proper on-screen keys that play so well with stock Android. The icing on the cake is the price. It’s a steal – I wonder how much longer we’ll see phones priced so aggressively? I’m not a huge LG fan, but at half the price of it Google Play edition brethren it’s hard not to give it the benefit of the doubt.

I flip flopped. No question. I’m sticking it out, for now, with Nexus 4. Tough life I know. I’m hoping the Nexus 5 is made by HTC or Sony. Regarding the X-Phone, it’s appearing more likely that will me a mid-range play for Google, so that’s a no-go for me. Still, it’ll be very interesting to see where Google takes Nexus (awaiting Nexus 7 refresh and N5 handset), X-Phone (Moto’s made in the USA mainstream play?) and Android (Key Lime Pie!) during the back half of this year.

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Clinton Stark
Clint is based in Silicon Valley and co-founded Stark Insider. A new media venture, the goal was to fill the increasing gap in arts and food & wine coverage. This site has consumed his every fiber. Yet, he still has time to talk Android, praise Pebble, and shoot videos. More: Clint's story...
  • Paul Peterson

    Hi Clinton. Nice piece. I enjoy your reading and most often your point of view.

    I am driving a nexus s with Jellybean and unrooted and mostly Loving it. It’s a little slow and I was all gun-ho for the S4 at I/O announcement, but thought long and hard since about price and now the lag in updates. Hmmm. I’ve held off on buying the Nexus 4 cuz of the next best thing. But, I am more and more on getting the Nexus 4 now knowing all the above. My real biggest concern is it’s non-removable battery.
    Thanks again for your interests in the Nexus as I have been checking back often for your commentary!

    Sincerely Paul in San Diego :-)

    • http://www.starkinsider.com Clinton Stark

      Thanks Paul, appreciate it. I’m running an old Galaxy S2 unrooted w/ Jelly Bean as a playaround backup phone. Isn’t it great how newer revs of Android can beathe new life into older devices? I think the N4 is the best deal out there. And though I complain about the glass design, with a TPU case it’s perfectly fine. Battery life is not great. But then it’s a challenge on iPhone (my wife constantly runs out before my Nexus), the new S4 and HTC One as well. Meanwhile I think I’m going to stick with the Nexus 4 until I see what Google has in store for Q4 – I hope it’s a super-duper 5-inch N5 made by Sony… one can hope!