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Are the Google Play Edition smartphones worth it?

CNET's Marguerite Reardon helps a reader decide if the Google Play Edition of the Samsung Galaxy S4 or the HTC One is right for him. And she offers some advice about turning any Android phone into a "pure" Google phone.

There is something appealing about a Google Android smartphone running pure Android.

You don't have to deal with the added bloatware and unwanted apps from device makers and wireless operators, all of which can't be removed. And best of all you're guaranteed to get all of Google's Android software updates when they are released. There's no waiting months for an update or wondering if your smartphone will ever get the update.

So you'd think that the new Google Play editions of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One, which Google is now selling without the layered-on manufacturer software, will fly off the shelves. While the idea sounds great in theory, the reality is that consumers have to give up some nifty functionality and they'll have to pay a pretty penny for the Nexus "pure" Google experience.

In this edition of Ask Maggie I offer some thoughts on whether the hefty price tag and the sacrificed features are worth it. I also advise another reader who is looking to turn his Samsung smartphone into a Google "experience" device.

Should I get a Google Play Edition smartphone?

Dear Maggie,
I appreciate the input you give your readers so I wanted to pick your brain about something. I am interested in getting one of the new "pure" Google phones: Samsung Galaxy S4 or HTC One. I like the idea of being able to get the latest Android software updates as they come out.

I am currently in the market for a new smartphone as I am using the iPhone 4 since it was released on Verizon. I'm well aware that these "Google phones" are only for AT&T and T-Mobile. I'm ok with that and was thinking about switching carriers anyway as well as switching from the iPhone to an Android phone.

But I have some concerns, specifically about getting a pure Google phone. I was hoping you could help answer them for me.

1) How do you think the camera will function on the Google version of the GS4 and HTC One as compared to the devices that are sold by the carriers?

2) Is having the benefit of knowing that my phone will get every Google Android update when it's released really worth it? Or is that idea overrated?

Thank you for taking the time to read my email!
Crazy Indecisive JB

Dear Crazy Indecisive JB,
Let me start by saying that you are asking all the right questions. There are definitely some benefits to getting a pure Google experience phone, such as a guarantee that you'll get all the latest Android software updates. But it comes at price. Not only is the cost of the device a lot more, but you also have to sacrifice some key features of these devices.

The HTC One Google Play Edition has the same user interface and features as a Google Nexus device running Android 4.2.2.

A hefty price tag
The HTC One Google Play Edition and the Samsung Galaxy S4 One Google Edition are not sold through a wireless carrier, and therefore they aren't subsidized, which means they're expensive. The HTC One Google Edition sells for about $600 while the Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition goes for $650.

At such a hefty price tag, it's important to make sure, you're getting the right device for you.

Of course, at the unsubsidized price, it also means the device is unlocked and there is no carrier contract to worry about. That said, since these are GSM phones, they will only work on two of the four major U.S. carriers, AT&T and T-Mobile. But it sounds like you're all right with switching from Verizon anyway.

If you think about it, these prices aren't outrageous considering that the prices are comparable to what most smartphones cost without a service contract. But it's still quite a bit more than Google's most recent Nexus device, the Nexus 4, which Google sells for $300.

But with a contract or some kind of payment plan, carriers are selling these devices for between $100 and $200. The Galaxy S4 is available on AT&T and Verizon for $200, while Sprint is offering it for $150 and T-Mobile is offering it for $99 down and $20 a month for 24 months. The HTC One, which is available on all four major carriers, except Verizon, is also reasonably priced.

What's the big deal about "pure" Google devices?
The Google Android operating system is open-source software for mobile devices. And because it's open source, handset makers can develop their own software "skins" on top of the Android OS. Samsung's "skin" is called TouchWiz and HTC has one called Sense.

This software not only changes the user interface of these Android devices, but the manufacturers have also layered in additional software features. In the new Samsung GS4, that includes things like the Air Gesture feature that allows you to control your smartphone with hand gestures or the Smart Stay feature that keeps the display lit when it senses your eyes looking at it. It also happens to include a lot of the nifty camera features on the HTC One.

Google GS4 (lockscreen and notifcations)
The Samsung GS4 Google Play Edition has a simplified lock screen (left) and notifications shade. Lynn La/CNET

Some Google purists hate the manufacturer skins on their devices. And to be honest, sometimes the user interfaces can seem cluttered. Also it means that the user experience isn't always consistent across Android devices from different manufacturers. This might annoy people who want to stay within the Android ecosystem but don't always buy devices from the same device manufacturer. That said, it often means that the experience is very similar among devices made by a particular phone maker.

One of the downsides of devices with this layered software is that it's the main reason why it takes so long for new Android updates to propagate through existing products. Because the new releases of Android must be tested and tweaked to work on devices sporting Samsung TouchWiz and HTC Sense, it often means it can take months before devices already in the market get updates. And often, the updates are further delayed, because wireless operators must also test how the new software updates will work on their networks.

Another issue with these devices is that carriers also load up smartphones with their own "bloatware" apps that cannot be removed from the device.

To help alleviate this issue and to make sure that new Android updates are pushed out as soon as possible, Google started its Nexus program. These phones sport the pure Google Android software sans any additional software or apps from manufacturers or wireless operators. Google's Nexus devices are not built by Google per se, instead Google works with manufacturers to design products from the ground up.

In this sense, the Google Play Editions of the Galaxy S4 and HTC One are not pure Nexus devices. They were not designed with Google's input. But they are running the Nexus Google Android software. And as a result, the interface on these devices looks just like any other Nexus smartphone, such as the Nexus 4.

There are certainly benefits to getting the Google Play Edition of either the Samsung Galaxy S4 or the HTC One. And unlike the Nexus 4, these devices sport the line hardware and operate over 4G LTE wireless networks. Except for the software, these devices are exactly like the ones that the carriers are selling.

The HTC One has been praised for its all-aluminum casing and sleek design. The device also sports 32GB of onboard storage for apps, photos, videos, music and other media. It also has a 4.7-inch LCD screen that CNET Reviews editor Brian Bennett has described as "arresting" offering a sharp1080p resolution (468 ppi) along with vivid colors.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 also sports some terrific specifications too, including a quad-core processor and a 5-inch 1080p screen, and 16GB of storage space with a SD card slot for even more storage. Both devices operate on 4G LTE networks.

So first and foremost, you are getting topnotch hardware. And because it's pure Google, you'll get the new Android software updates without delay.

Another benefit, especially for GS4 users is that by ditching Samsung's TouchWiz software, you will actually be able to get use more of the device storage on your Google Edition GS4 as compared to the Samsung version.

When CNET Reviews editor Lynn La tested the Google Edition Samsung Galaxy S4, she found that instead of only having 9.10GB of available storage on the 16GB version of the Samsung GS4, you can get 12.65GB of storage space on the Google Edition model.

The reason is simple. All the bells and whistles that Samsung has packed into its TouchWiz based GS4 take up a lot of storage capacity on the phone, which means there is less available storage for your apps, music and photos. This has been a contentious issue for Samsung Galaxy customers, especially those on Verizon, who only have the option of buying the 16GB version of the device. AT&T sells the 32GB version.

The trade-off
But as you alluded to in your question, ditching the manufacturer software skins on these devices also means you have to give up some features. And the area where you will likely miss these features the most is on the camera.

For example, without HTC Sense software running on the HTC One, you'll forgo many of the slick camera features, such as Zoe Share, which allows you to file pictures and video based on dates in "events." This feature also lets you automatically stitch together video, images, and the short 3-second movie clips (called "Zoe shorts") into video highlights. And you're even able to set your video gallery to audio tracks. And it edits the movies to match the music.

Unfortunately, the camera features on the Google Play Edition don't offer similar functionality. That said, some features remain, such as the 4-megapixel Ultrapixel sensor and Image Sense imaging processor. That means the phone takes pictures just as quickly, practically instantly, and performs very well under low-light conditions.

Jelly Bean 4.2.2's camera software does provide a selection of shooting modes such as Party, Action, Sunset, and Night. You also get a horizontal panorama mode plus the new Sphere mode to combine photos together into 360-degree landscapes. There's also the option to edit images after they've been shot, such as cropping and adding color filters.

When it comes to the Galaxy S4, you will still get the 13-megapixel camera. But you'll miss out on many of Samsung's key creative camera controls. For instance, you won't be able to simultaneously capture images from both your front-facing camera as well as your regular camera. You will also miss out on Samsung's 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.

Some of the features on the Samsung Galaxy S4 with TouchWiz are not available in the Google Play Edition. CNET/Sarah Tew

You also won't get Animated Photo, a feature that lets you animate your still shots in a GIF-like loop.

That said, there are apps that you can download that may offer many of these features, so it's not a total loss if you go with the Google Play Edition devices. But just keep in mind that some of the fancier and more creative options won't be built into this device. That said, CNET Reviews Editor Lynn La said to also remember that the Samsung camera is still very good.

"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."

Is getting the "pure" Google experience worth it?
I think this is the most important question that you posed in your in note to me. For die-hard Android fans and developers who want to test out new apps, the Google Play Edition Galaxy S4 or HTC One are a good choice. And even though you'll have to sacrifice some features, these folks are likely savvy enough to find apps to augment what already exists in the pure Google Android experience.

But for the rest of us, which is to say the average consumer, I'd say you are better off just getting one of these phones from a carrier. First of all, you'll save yourself quite a bit of money since you won't be paying full price for the device. (I know people will argue that you pay for the device in your service contract, and that is true. But for most wireless operators, you pay the same each month for your service regardless of whether you take the subsidy or you buy the phone at full price. So that's why I think it's wise to just take the subsidy if you're going to sticking with a carrier for the full two years of your contract anyway.)

And the second reason is that you won't have to sacrifice all the bells and whistles that the manufacturers have added to their devices. While you may not use all of them, they can be nice additions.

In the end, you may not get the Android updates as quickly as you would if you had the pure Google Edition devices, but that might be the price you have to pay for more functionality and a lower cost to your device.

I hope this advice was helpful. Good luck!

Can I turn any Android phone into a "pure" Google Phone?

Dear Maggie,
Can I port the newly released Google edition software build for HTC One/Samsung Galaxy S4 to a different Android device, say Samsung Infuse? Can you please explain, if it is not possible?


Dear Siromani,
Yes, it is possible to get the pure Google Android experience on your Samsung Infuse. But it likely won't be easy. And I wouldn't recommend it for an average consumer. But if you're an Android die-hard with some technical know-how, you could give it a try.

In order to do this, you will have to gain root access to your device. And that brings certain risks. The biggest among them is that rooting your phone may void the device warranty. After you've rooted your device, you'll also have to find custom ROM that will give you the "pure" Google experience on your particular device. This might be tricky to do, and if you don't follow the steps carefully and you mess up, it could "brick" your device. This means it will become unusable.

CNET blogger and Android expert Scott Webster gives some good advice about how to root your device and get a pure Google experience on any Android phone. You can check out his post to get more details where he explains exactly what rooting a device is and the risks involved in doing it. He also explains what a ROM is, and he points to places where you can find custom ROMs for your device.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.