As you'll recall from our hands-on, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 Google Play edition is a dead ringer for its skinned relatives. Unfortunately, this means you're dealing with the same boring design and dreadful materials. Cosmetically, it only differs from T-Mobile's model in one way: there's no carrier branding on the back. It's identical under the hood, and features a Qualcomm 1.9GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 SoC (APQ8064AB) with 2GB RAM, 16GB of built-in flash with microSD expansion, a gorgeous 5-inch 1,920 x 1,080 (441 ppi) Super AMOLED display, an excellent 13-megapixel camera with LED flash and a removable 2,600mAh Li-polymer battery.
It also boasts the same radios as T-Mobile's handset (unlocked here, obviously) with quad-band GSM / EDGE, quad-band UMTS / HSPA+ up to 42 Mbps (850 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100) and multi-band LTE (700 / 850 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100 / 2600). These bands are compatible with AT&T, and having AWS support for HSPA+ is pretty important if you're a T-Mobile customer in the US (especially in non-LTE markets). In terms of additional connectivity, there's dual-band 802.11a/ac/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, NFC, IR and GPS / A-GPS. Despite being based on T-Mobile's version, this Google Play edition includes the chip needed for Google Wallet, which is great news (the carrier usually blocks the app).
When it comes to performance, the Google Play edition definitely feels snappier than its TouchWiz-equipped counterparts. Clearly, that's subjective since the benchmarks we gathered in the table below almost match what we observed on the skinned models with the same processor. GFXBench scores are slightly higher and the results for Antutu and CF-Bench are marginally lower, but that's about it. Battery life is what really blew us away -- our default rundown test (which involves playing an HD video in a loop with the brightness and volume set to 50 percent; social networks and email checking in over LTE; WiFi and GPS turned on, but disconnected; and Bluetooth disabled) the phone kept on ticking for 11 hours and one minute. That's a significant improvement over T-Mobile's Galaxy S 4, which logged nine hours and 15 minutes. Sound quality was fine during calls and data speeds reached up to 23.5 Mbps down and 21 Mbps up during our network performance tests on both AT&T and T-Mobile in San Francisco and beyond.
||Samsung Galaxy S 4 Google Play edition
||Samsung Galaxy S 4 for T-Mobile
||Samsung Galaxy S 4 (Exynos 5)
||HTC One Google Play edition
||LG Nexus 4
|SunSpider 1.0 (ms)
|GFXBench 2.5 Egypt HD Offscreen (fps)
|SunSpider: lower scores are better
The one thing that's always been half-baked with stock Android vs. skinned builds is the default camera app, primarily because of its incredibly basic UI and lackluster image processing. Luckily, things have changed with the Google Play edition handsets, which boast an improved app (1.1.40012 vs. 1.1.40001 on Nexus devices) with visibly better camera performance. Images speak louder than words, and this Galaxy S 4 takes pictures that are just as beautiful as the ones we captured with its TouchWiz-equipped siblings. It's the same story for video recording, with results (1080p / 30 fps / 17 Mbps) matching the skinned versions, complete with stereo sound. The photos we snapped exhibited accurate color balance and exposure, with tons of detail (thanks to the sensor's high resolution) and decent dynamic range. While low-light performance is solid (noise isn't much of an issue), the lack of OIS often results in blurry shots, even with steady hands.
Despite the improvement in imaging quality, the camera UI still suffers from some quirks; the main culprit being the cropped viewfinder, which makes it impossible to frame shots properly regardless of the aspect ratio selected in the settings. It's particularly annoying here because of the sensor's 4:3 aspect ratio. Strangely, the front-facing shooter lacks an HDR mode and the focus reticle only appears when using touch-to-focus or tapping the on-screen shutter button (it normally pops up automatically when the content of the viewfinder changes measurably). The updated camera app now draws the settings menu in an arc instead of a circle, making it easier to operate with one hand. Of course, no TouchWiz means no more Dual Shot, Eraser, Sound and Shot, Drama Shot, Animated Photo and whatever other (arguably forgettable) shooting modes are normally present on the Galaxy S 4. That's all right -- you'll have a blast using Google's cool Photo Sphere instead.
What really sets the Samsung Galaxy S 4 Google Play edition apart from the TouchWiz-equipped models is stock Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean). There's no carrier or manufacturer contamination to worry about here, just a simple, clean and fast user experience devoid of the plethora of (mostly useless) S-branded features -- it's truly a breath of fresh air. Best of all, everything still works, including the infrared transmitter. Of course, it's important to note that Google Play edition phones will be receiving updates from their respective manufacturers instead of getting them directly from Google, like Nexus devices do. Another difference is how the three physical keys are mapped to replace stock Android's three on-screen buttons. With a capacitive menu key, but no dedicated recent apps button, the Galaxy S 4's key layout was changed to give the home button extra functionality: double-tapping displays the apps list and long-pressing brings up Google Now. That's quite different from the way TouchWiz behaves, and took some getting used to.
There's absolutely no doubt that the Galaxy S 4 is a better handset with stock Android -- a powerhouse unleashed by superior software. While you give up some functionality (especially with the camera), you gain storage space (12GB free instead of 7GB on the skinned versions), a much-improved user experience and the satisfaction that you're taking part in something uniquely Google. Is that warm, fuzzy feeling enough to justify plunking down $649 for this Google Play edition when you can purchase a Nexus 4 for just $299? That really depends on your priorities. If you want the absolute best specs and can muster the cheap looks, choose this Galaxy S 4. If Google Wallet is essential, but your funds are limited, pick the Nexus 4. If you must have LTE, a better camera and stunning hardware, go with the HTC One running stock Android ($599). We're pretty sure the Samsung Galaxy S 4 Google Play edition is the most rewarding Android device we've ever used -- we'll just have to get over that uninspired design.