Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition review:

Powerhouse Android gets elegantly purified

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.

Google GS4 (Photo Sphere)
Absent from the original S4 but included in this edition, Photo Sphere lets you stitch together a 360-degree scene. Lynn La/CNET

Another change is the radial dial that pops up when you tap for additional camera options; it's now a long arc. From here you can switch to the front-facing camera, turn on flash, and adjust exposure levels. You'll also be able to enable geotagging, set a timer, choose from five photo sizes (from VGA to 13-megapixels), adjust the white balance, and select different scene modes for action, night, sunset, and parties.

You'll also be able to use high-dynamic-range imaging. When this mode was activated in the Nexus 4, images in the viewfinder looked blurrier or appeared to have a lower resolution than the final picture captured. With the S4, however, the resulting photo I took looked similar to what I initially saw displayed on the screen. Unfortunately, there is still a lag issue when it comes to touch-focusing while HDR is enabled. With both the Nexus 4 and this phone, there'd be times when the focus wouldn't adjust properly, despite my tapping on the screen several times. Only until it finished taking an (out-of-focus) picture would the camera then start focusing correctly.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition
With TouchWiz gone, so are a lot of Samsung camera features. Josh Miller/CNET

Video options include continuous flash, tapping the display to take a photo while recording, geotagging, time lapse, three video qualities (from 480p to HD 1080p), and adjusting for white balance.

The front-facing 2-megapixel camera has mostly the same features except HDR imaging, flash, and pinch zooming. Your photo sizes increase to seven (ranging from QVGA to 2 megapixels) as well. Surprisingly, you'll have all the same recording options, too (even recording 1080p video), save for continuous flash, obviously.

Given all that, there will be an absence of Samsung's key creative camera controls. So the phone doesn't have the ability to simultaneously capture images from both cameras (known as dual-shot); Drama mode, which lets you shoot an action-sequence and compiles it into one photo; an editing feature called Eraser that compares several photos of the same scene and spits out an image with the least amount of changing variables (like removing a bunch of tourists from a picture of the Eiffel Tower); and Sound Shot, an S4-exclusive feature that lets you record and attach a short audio message when you share a photo.

In addition, you'll also have to do without Animated Photo. This takes certain moving parts in your picture, recording through video capture, and animates them in an animated GIF-like loop. Don't be too distraught over this, however, since apps like Cinemagram do the same thing.

In general, don't expect photo and video quality to change. This camera will still be able to take the same exceptional images we first saw from previous S4s, with objects being sharp and in focus, colors looking bright and true-to-life, and pictures looking greatly detailed when viewed at full resolution. Not to mention, pictures and videos were all captured swiftly and smoothly.

Google GS4 (indoor coffee table)
For this indoor shot, the plant is sharp and dark hues are distinguishable. Lynn La/CNET
Google GS4 (indoor chalkboard)
This dimly lit indoor photo still depicts accurate colors from the chalkboard. Lynn La/CNET
Google GS4 (outdoor zoom)
Though taken on a cloudy day, the flower petals are still vibrant and in focus. Lynn La/CNET
Google GS4 (SSI)
In our standard studio shot, objects are in focus despite the low lighting. Josh Miller/CNET

For more information about the Galaxy S4's camera and video quality, be sure to read our initial S4 review.

Google's unlocked S4 is optimized for GSM networks like T-Mobile and AT&T. I tested the handset using the latter's network. Call quality was good -- none of my calls dropped, I didn't hear any extraneous buzzing or noise, and audio didn't clip in and out. Voices could have been clearer, however, since I could pick up on a little muffled static every time my friend spoke. In addition, the max volume range is a bit low. Samsung has tried to fix this with a software audio booster, but this phone doesn't have that feature. Speakerphone was also adequate, though when volume was at its highest, voices sounded flat and tinny. I could hear what was being said just fine, but voices would often sound sharp.

As for the other end, I was told I could be heard perfectly well. When I took a call outside, my friend couldn't hear the background noises coming from the streets, and she said she couldn't tell the difference from my being inside a building. I was also told I sounded clear, with little to no static interfering.

Listen now: Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition (AT&T) call quality sample

On average, data speeds were lightning-fast and consistent. The phone loaded our CNET mobile site in 4.13 seconds and our full desktop site in 12.09 seconds. The New York Times mobile and desktop sites took 6.4 and 10.48 seconds to load, respectively. ESPN's mobile site downloaded in 3.86 seconds, and the phone took 8.03 seconds to load the full site. It took a blazing 19.74 seconds on average to download the 30.38MB game Temple Run 2. And the Ookla speed-test app showed me an average of 25.96Mbps down and 16.72Mbps up.

Performance: Google's Samsung Galaxy S4 (AT&T)
Average 4G LTE download speed 25.96Mpbs
Average 4G LTE upload speed 16.72Mbps
App download (Temple Run 2) 30.38MB in 19.74 seconds
CNET mobile site load 4.13 seconds
CNET desktop site load 12.09 seconds
Restart time 26.43 seconds
Camera boot time 2.2 seconds

During our battery-drain test for the 2,600mAh battery, the device lasted 8.7 hours for continuous video playback and an impressive 20.6 hours for talk-time. Several previous tests from other S4s yielded a talk time of about 19 hours and a continuous video run time of about 10 hours. According to FCC radiation standards, this handset has a digital SAR rating of 1.03W/kg.

Google GS4 (Quadrant results)
Google's S4's Quadrant score was 12,403. Lynn La/CNET

The 1.9GHz quad-core processor is still blazingly fast, and clocked a Quadrant result of 12,403. On average, it took 26.43 seconds for the phone to shut down and restart and 2.2 seconds for the camera to launch. For more information on the S4's CPU performance, including more Quadrant analysis, read our initial S4 review. If you want to know more about the S4 gaming experience specifically, check out this piece from CNET's Eric Franklin.

There's no question that the S4 is already one of the most powerful Android handsets available. And while it doesn't have as many features as the original, Google's variant of the S4 runs an unsullied form of Android that's more elegant and straightforward. Plus, you won't have to wait long to receive the latest installment of Android.

But is it worth $649?

For certain people, yes. If you need to be on the bleeding edge of Android software and are a huge fan of the pure Android UI, the answer is yes. If you can't stand being tied down to a carrier contract, then yes. And, obviously, if you can simply afford it, yes. But for everyone else, no.

For the average smartphone user, buying the carrier-branded S4 will save you several hundred dollars. That's a lot of money, and although you'll wind up with a locked, bloatware-laden device, and a service contract, those are tolerable trade-offs for such great hardware. And if you really can't stand the UI, there are free ways (ahem rooting) to get around it.

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