Despite an early reputation as a routine update to the Galaxy line, Samsung did a lot of potentially interesting things with the Galaxy S4. There’s features available on this phone that aren’t available anywhere else, and even if people find themselves not using the features it is interesting that Samsung is willing to take these risks.
The sensors in the Galaxy S4 enabling extra screen sensitivity and eye tracking, the added camera features, multi-window support, and even the IR sensor at the top of the phone are all things that don’t exist in vanilla Android. If you are a fan of those features, you’ll find the Google Play edition of the Galaxy S4 to be lacking. Otherwise, there’s more than a few reasons to consider the Google Play version.
There are some not-so-subtle performance differences between the Google Play edition S4 and it’s TouchWiz flavored brother. While both versions of the phone are running Android 4.2.2, you can see just by flicking through the homescreens and the launcher tray that the Google Play S4 is a smoother experience. Despite that Quad Core Snapdragon 600 processor and 2GB of RAM, the TouchWiz UI stutters in places. It’s not a shock when you consider that the TouchWiz ROM with its 58 pre-installed apps and enormous feature set occupies 45% of the total storage in the 16GB model. Compare that to the 13.4GB free and 34 pre-installed apps that you get with the Google Play S4, and it’s not hard to imagine why one would look and feel faster than the other.
When directly comparing the launch speed and load times of apps, the Google Play S4 came out on top every time. These are the kinds of differences you’d only notice if you were holding one of each phone in your hand, but when you consider how most smartphones tend to slow down over time, these differences become significant.
These are phones that most people will own for at least two years, and in the case of the Google Play S4 is a phone that you have to shell out $650 up front just to get. Granted, if you’re able to stick it on a contract-free T-mobile plan, you end up saving quite a bit of money in the long run, but the bottom line is the same. If you’re comparing raw horsepower, Samsung has demonstrated here that their own software slows things down.
The next big compare point, one that wound up being something of a deal-breaker for the HTC One Google Play edition, is the camera. While Google has stripped away the dozens of features that came packed into the S4 camera, including the ability to use the front and rear camera simultaneously, there’s still a 13MP camera inside this phone.
The Google Play S4 camera software is pretty basic, and very simple to use. When comparing the auto shooting modes and the HDR shooting modes, there were very few differences between the photos. Samsung’s post processing handles colors slightly differently than Google, but not enough that you’d notice unless you were really looking at the two photos side by side. They both take great pictures, and there’s no appreciable difference in how long it takes one to focus over the other or how quickly the photos are stored. Even in HDR mode, it seemed to take the two cameras just about the same amount of time to process the images. The same goes for the front facing camera, which seemed just about identical.
Battery performance and radio performance are the other big points worth comparing between these two phones, especially considering Google and Samsung use completely different implementations for some of the wireless radios. Bluetooth is a big sore spot for the Google Play S4, since it lacks the Bluetooth 4.0 profiles that are included in the TouchWiz variant. We already know, however, that this is fixed in an upcoming update. WiFi is identical, even when connected to 802.11 ac equipment. When accessing T-Mobile’s LTE network, the Google Play S4 could routinely access between 12-14mb down while the TouchWiz version of the same phone on the same network would only be able to reach 10mb down in speed tests.
When comparing the battery life of these two devices, I found very little difference in most activities. When there were measurable differences, the TouchWiz version was slightly better with battery life. Both phones offer great battery life, easily 10 hours in most use cases, but Samsung is clearly using something that Google isn’t in order to improve battery life during resource heavy operations. The difference is roughly an hour in a whole day of performing the exact same tasks, which wouldn’t be noticeable in most use cases.
In many ways, the Google Play S4 is the proof Android fans have been looking for. When you remove the carrier bloat, the features that you were only going to use once, and the confusing modifications to the Android OS, you can still have a really great phone on great hardware. The Galaxy S4 trumps the Nexus 4 in every way, save for software. As it turns out, when you take that Nexus style software and apply it to flagship phones, you get exactly what users who know enough to ask have been asking for.