Samsung Galaxy S 4 Google Play edition hands-on (video)

It's probably not a huge stretch to say that Samsung's Galaxy S 4 running stock Android was the biggest surprise to come out of Google I/O last month. The handset -- officially called Samsung Galaxy S 4 Google Play edition -- is now on sale in the Play store for $649 alongside a special version of the HTC One. Spec-wise, the phone is identical to AT&T's 16GB model and supports the same bands (including LTE). It's powered by Qualcomm's 1.9GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor with 2GB or RAM and features a 5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED display, 13-megapixel camera with flash, removable 2600mAh Li-ion battery and microSD expansion. While we briefly handled the phone at I/O, it wasn't until yesterday that we got to spend some quality time with it. Hit the break for our first impressions and hands-on video. %Gallery-192351%

In terms of hardware, you're looking at a standard-issue Galaxy S 4 -- complete with the same uninspired design and cheap materials as its TouchWiz-equipped siblings. Obviously, there's no carrier branding to be found anywhere. Samsung's logo appears below the earpiece in front and underneath the flash in the back -- that's it. The radios are fully unlocked and support EDGE, HSPA+ and LTE (bands 4 and 17 for T-Mobile and AT&T in the US). Of course, what matter most here is the software -- a completely stock build of Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean) that's devoid of any carrier or manufacturer apps and services. Yes, this Galaxy S 4 lacks Samsung's S-branded features and other such nonsense. Hurray!

One area where the Galaxy S 4 running stock Android is different from its Nexus cousins is button management. Physical keys have replaced the usual on-screen buttons, which means there's no dedicated recent apps key. That's where the home button comes in: just double-click it for the apps list and long press it for Google Now -- it's the exact same behavior as on the HTC First. As for the physical menu key, it replaces the on-screen menu icon (three stacked dots) in most apps. We only wish the back button was on the left instead of the right, but that's a long-time gripe of ours with Samsung's handsets.

The drawback with phones running stock Android is Google's lackluster camera app. We're happy to report that this build of Jelly Bean includes a slightly different camera UI and (possibly) improved image processing. Pictures taken with this Galaxy S 4 look just as impressive as those snapped with the skinned models. Some niggles remain with the app's UI: the viewfinder still displays a cropped view, making it extremely difficult to compose shots properly. Yes, with this handset you're giving up on Dual Shot, Eraser, Sound and Shot, Drama Shot, Animated Photo and a few more Samsung-specific (and arguably useless) shooting modes. Then again, you're gaining Google's awesome Photo Sphere.

We'll be putting the Samsung Galaxy S 4 Google Play edition though our full battery of tests and benchmarks in our upcoming review, but one thing's immediately clear: stock Android turns this phone into a lean and mean pocket machine. It feels zippy and light weight -- in fact, there's 12GB of storage available vs. 7GB on units skinned with TouchWiz. As such, this Galaxy S 4 provides the best user experience of any Samsung handset since the unlocked Galaxy Nexus.