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Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition review: Powerhouse Android gets elegantly purified

For $649, Google's unlocked variant of the wildly popular Samsung Galaxy S4 keeps all the juicy hardware, but strips away that TouchWiz software for Android purists.

Lynn La
Lynn La Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones
Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.
9 min read

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.


Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition

The Good

The <b>Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition</b> offers users the most powerful hardware specs of any Android phone without any carrier bloatware, and with an elegantly simple Jelly Bean UI.

The Bad

Google's Galaxy S4 variant strips away a lot of Samsung's neat software and photo features, and it comes with a steep price tag.

The Bottom Line

Unless you're an Android enthusiast or demand total freedom from carriers, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition isn't worth the hefty price.

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.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition
If you're all about the label, good news: Google's variant sports a subtle 'Distributed by Google' listing on its FCC sticker. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Samsung Galaxy S4 strips off its TouchWiz for Google (pictures)

See all photos

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.

Google GS4 (available space)
Out of the box, the device offers 12.65GB of available space. Lynn La/CNET

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.

Google GS4 (lock screen and notifcations)
The handset's simplified lock screen (left) and notifications shade. Lynn La/CNET

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.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition
No bloatware here, just your Google necessities. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

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

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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.


Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 9
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