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Is the unlocked Nexus Galaxy S4 worth the hefty price tag?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon offers a reader advice on whether the new "pure" Google Android version of the Galaxy S4 is worth the added price.

Google is turning the popular Samsung Galaxy S4 into its latest Nexus phone, running the "pure" Android experience.

But at $650 per device, some users question how much that pure Google experience is really worth.

On Wednesday, Google announced that a version of the hot, new Galaxy S4 would be added to its lineup of Nexus devices. Google has worked with device makers over the past few years to sell its own Nexus-branded devices that don't include any extra software other than the Android operating system.

These "pure" Google devices are sold by Google and they're meant for developers, so they can get quick access to Android software updates. But the devices also appeal to consumers who don't want to wait for device updates from their wireless operators and who want an unlocked phone to take to other GSM carriers throughout the world.

Unlike most of the major wireless carriers in the U.S. market, Google doesn't subsidize the cost of its Nexus devices. As a result, consumers must pay full retail price for its devices. While the company was able to keep the cost of the Nexus 4 down to as low as $299 for an 8GB smartphone, the cost of the Nexus version of the Galaxy S4 is sky-high at $650. Is the hefty price tag on this smartphone worth it?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I answer that very question.

Nexus Galaxy S4 vs. Samsung Galaxy S4

Dear Maggie,
I appreciate the input you give your readers so I wanted to pick your brain about the new development that came from the Google I/O developer conference earlier this week. As I'm sure you are already aware, Google has announced that it would release its own variant of the previously unveiled Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone. This variant will have the much desired stock Google OS, Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, installed.

I am currently in the market for a new phone as I have been using the iPhone 4 since it was released on Verizon Wireless. I'm well aware that this announced variant is only for AT&T and T-Mobile. But it has me intrigued as I somewhat enjoyed my Nexus 7 and am kind of thinking of jumping ship from my carrier and the iOS platform. Apple's iPhone 5 didn't impress me aside from the fact that it has 4G support.

But I am concerned about the $649 price tag, since I know I can get the same device for $200 if I sign another two-year contract. Is having the Google stock operating system worth the extra expense or is it overrated?

Gaaaaaah! It never fails. Whenever I am about to buy something on the pricey side, I constantly debate pros-cons in my head and usually talk myself out of it. So please help me!

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

Dear Crazy Indecisive JB,
This is a great question. But the answer depends on several factors, including on which carrier network you plan to use the new device and what features and flexibility you value most.

James Martin/CNET

For instance, do you need an unlocked device that gets all the latest software updates right when they're released? Or would you rather pay less upfront for the phone that locks you into a two-year contract with a carrier, but also gives you some nifty features only offered by Samsung even though you may not get timely Android updates?

In a nutshell that's what the decision comes down to. But before I get too deep into laying out the pros and cons, you first have to decide whether it's even possible to ditch Verizon Wireless for another carrier. And if you are able to leave Verizon, which of the two major GSM carriers will you choose for service: AT&T or T-Mobile?

Choosing a wireless provider
Switching wireless carriers is probably the biggest decision you have to make, because you really need to be certain that you can actually get decent service where you live and work on a new carrier. Since the new Google Nexus version of the Galaxy S4 only supports GSM networking technology, you can only choose service for this device in the U.S. from two major U.S. operators: AT&T or T-Mobile.

And if neither AT&T nor T-Mobile provide you adequate service where you live and work, then getting the unlocked Nexus-version of the Samsung Galaxy S4 isn't even an option for you. If that's the case, you could get the Verizon version of the Samsung Galaxy S4.

Let's assume you are able to get adequate service from both AT&T and T-Mobile. Then you have to decide which one you prefer. AT&T offers a larger nationwide network than T-Mobile, which typically has good coverage in urban areas, but spotty coverage in suburban and rural regions. T-Mobile, however, offers lower cost services.

Figuring out which of these two carriers you will use for your service is important. Why? The reason comes down to device cost. AT&T is offering the Samsung Galaxy S4 for $200 with a two-year contract. Google is offering the Nexus version of the Galaxy S4 for $650. That's a difference of $450.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile doesn't offer a device subsidy. All new subscribers must pay full price for their smartphones. The company does offer financing, and qualified subscribers can put a $150 down payment on the device and pay $20 a month for 24 months to pay off the cost of the device. In total, the T-Mobile version of the Galaxy S4 will cost $630.

In this scenario, the price difference between the T-Mobile version and the Google Nexus version is roughly about $20.

Personally, I'm a bit of a cheapskate. So I probably wouldn't even consider the Google version of the Galaxy S4 if I were an AT&T customer. But if I planned to use T-Mobile's service, then I might consider it.

Because AT&T charges the same monthly fee whether you buy a device subsidized or at full price, there is no incentive from a cost perspective to buy the device at full price.

By contrast, T-Mobile doesn't offer a subsidy at all, so there is a greater incentive to bring the lowest cost device you can get your hands on to the network. But because the cost difference between the Nexus version of the Galaxy S4 and the T-Mobile version are so close, it makes sense to look more closely at the pros and cons of each version of the device.

Galaxy S4 vs. Galaxy S4. so to speak
Let's start analyzing your options by answering a couple of basic questions. What does it mean to have an unlocked smartphone? And what is special about the "pure" Google experience for a smartphone?

What's it mean to have an unlocked smartphone? An unlocked phone means that it doesn't have the software "lock" put on it by a wireless carrier. Generally, these unlocked phones support GSM technology, which means that they you can switch carriers simply by swapping out the SIM card and replacing it with another carrier's SIM. If you travel overseas and you expect to use local phone service when you do, then having an unlocked phone is a good idea. Also, if you think you want the flexibility to change wireless carriers without being forced to buy a new device, then an unlocked phone is a good idea.

But keep in mind, you will be limited to using the Samsung Galaxy S4 with GSM carriers only. So in the U.S., that means AT&T, T-Mobile, or any prepaid carrier that uses either of these networks.

For the vast majority of consumers in the U.S., having a locked cell phone doesn't really affect them much, because they don't plan on switching wireless carriers anyway and they have no plans on using their devices internationally. If that's the case for you, then getting an unlocked device isn't a major advantage.

What's it mean to have a phone that is "bootloader" unlocked and supports the "pure" Google Android experience? A device that is "bootloader" unlocked means that you can put any custom ROM or version of Android software on your device that you like. This is not true of Android devices sold through wireless operators. Not only do those devices have the carrier software lock on them so they can't be used on other networks, but they also lock the device so that updates can only be added to the phone when they're issued by the carrier.

These devices can be "jailbroken," which will allow users to update it with any software they like. But doing this may void the device warranty.

The Nexus version of the Galaxy S4 offers the "pure" Google Android experience, and it does not have this restriction. As a result, it means that the device will be able to get any software update that Google issues as soon as it's available. And the device warranty won't be affected.

In other words, people with the Nexus version of the Galaxy S4 will not have to wait when the next version of Android, 5.0 Key Lime Pie, is released. Meanwhile, wireless subscribers who buy a Galaxy S4 from a carrier must wait until Samsung and the wireless carriers have tested the new version of Android before they push the update to customers. The process often takes several months. And some Android devices never get the update.

Why are the updates so slow to roll out on the devices available through the carriers, and not for Google Nexus phones sporting the "pure" Android software? The main reason is that Samsung and other device makers like HTC have created their own software "skins" that are layered on top of whatever version of Google Android is running on the device. In the case of the Samsung Galaxy S4, it uses Samsung's TouchWiz software.

What this means is that when you buy a Galaxy S4 from a carrier, whether it's AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint, it will run the current version of Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. But it will also have Samsung's TouchWiz user interface on top.

TouchWiz not only changes the user experience of the device from what you'd see if only Android 4.2.2 was running on the device. TouchWiz also adds lots of new functionality.

Some of the Samsung-only features are gratuitous, and you likely wouldn't miss them if you didn't have them anyway. But some are pretty useful. For example, Air View allows you to hover your finger over something and it will display information. The Smart Screen functions are also pretty cool. It keeps the screen on as long as it can detect your eyes looking at it. And you can even scroll down the screen by moving your eyes. Of course, these TouchWiz features only work within Samsung's own applications, such as the device browser. This means that if you loaded a mobile Chrome browser on your device, it wouldn't work the same way.

By contrast, the new unlocked Nexus version of the Galaxy S4 will not be running TouchWiz, and will therefore not have these added features. It will also sport the same user interface that other "pure" Google devices have. The Nexus 4, made by LG and introduced by Google in the fall, is a good example of what this "pure" Google experience looks like.

The bottom line
So let's get back to your original question: Is the Nexus version of the Galaxy S4 really worth it? If you're planning to use AT&T's network for your new device, then I'd say it's not worth spending an additional $450 to get an unlocked phone that will get the latest OS updates from Google.

But if you're planning to use T-Mobile's network and you can afford to buy the device without financing it, then I'd likely offer a different answer. In this case, the price difference is only about $20. At that price point, I think the added carrier flexibility and access to Google Android updates when they're released is worth the added expense for the Nexus version of the Galaxy S4.

Of course, this means giving up some of those Samsung software features that are only available through its own TouchWiz software. But my guess is that Google will also be adding some interesting and useful software features via Android. And if you have a Nexus Galaxy S4, you'll get that update much more quickly than if you had an AT&T version of the same product.

In other words, I think the benefits of the Nexus version of the Galaxy S4 are worth $20. But they aren't worth $450. I'm sure others would disagree with me. And I've love to hear their reasoning in the comments section. Good luck!

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.