Galaxy S4 and HTC One Google Edition Hands-On: The Best Got Better

By Brent Rose on at

For years, one of Android's biggest problems has been Android skins that weigh down the best hardware the platform has to offer. But now the two best Android phones in the world—the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4—come in pure, stock Google Editions. And after spending some time with both, we can confirm that ditching the skins has made them better than ever.

Since our American friends can buy them as of today, we've broken down how the two compare with each other, and with the skinned versions of themselves. It's worth noting that for previous One buyers, HTC has already said it's going to make its Google Edition firmware available.

 

HTC One: Stock Android vs. Sense

The One with Sense enabled was already pretty much the snappiest phone we've ever used. With stock Android, it's even faster. Apps open just a little bit quicker and swiping around the UI is just a little bit smoother. The biggest difference you'll notice, though, is that it's just cleaner. Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean) is a very minimal OS. Apps like the calendar, the clock, and even the apps drawer are more paired back and easier to use. Desktop customisation, for example, is much simpler.

You still get the same great phone on the hardware side. From a design standpoint it's still our favourite phone ever, and it's by far the most satisfying to hold. The screen is incredibly sharp and looks just as good as it did on the skinned version. The dual, front-facing speakers still sound incredible (best sounding phone ever), and when you have headphones in you have that same Beats by Dre EQ, which focuses on the bass a little more and sounds very good (the HTC One has a dedicated pre-amp to help with this). Unfortunately, it's not all good news.

The only significant drawback in the Google Edition unit we tested is that the camera doesn't work nearly as well anymore. You might recall how the HTC One's "ultrapixel" sensor took the win in our smartphone camera battle. Clearly, HTC's camera software had something to do with balancing that rather unique sensor, because the stock Android camera app doesn't do nearly as good of a job. Photos tend to be washed out, over-exposed, and under-saturated. Even in low light, it isn't as good.

The new camera app itself is very cleanly laid-out and easy to use, but you lose a lot of the advanced shooting features found in the Sense camera app (though many of these reappear in the editing menu in stock Android's Gallery app), in addition to the specialty modes, though you do gain Google's mega-panoramic PhotoSphere, which is fun but is ultimately a small consolation.

There's a chance, though, that the fault may lie in our unit. A Google spokesperson responded to our inquiries about it as follows:

"The camera hardware and underlying software (image processing, etc.) are the exact same between the Stock and Sense UX versions of HTC One, so there should not be any differences. Our camera tests show that the quality is consistent between the two."

That said, the Google engineers saw what we were talking about in our photos, and they are doing more testing, but they believe we have a faulty device. So who knows! Hopefully it's just a glitch with our One. We'll be getting a new one shortly and will update.

There are a few other quibbles, too, some small things you may have taken for granted with Sense that you don't get with stock. In HTC Sense's dialer app, you can start punching a friend's name into the number pad (using the superscript letters) and it will quickly pull up contacts. The stock dialer doesn't do this, so you have to scroll through your long list of contacts.

HTC Sense also offers built-in profiles—an easy way to switch between Normal, Vibrate, and Silent modes. Not so in stock. Also, the HTC One has a built-in IR blaster for using your phone as a remote control. Not only does the stock version not come with a pre-installed app that lets you use it, but as of right now there are no apps in the Play Store that can take advantage of it, either. We were told that capability would be coming in the next software build, though APIs will still have to be released, and someone will still have to make an app that uses them.

While this doesn't affect us Brits, for our American pals, there's also the rather steep sticker price of $600 (around £400) to contend with. That's not crazy for an unlocked, unsubsidised phone in the States, but people who are used to paying $200 for a high-end phone and have their wireless carrier take care of the rest (as a part of a two-year contract, typically) may experience some sticker-shock.

That might sound like it all adds up to a lot of negative, but it's really negligible, especially assuming we were dealing with an abnormal camera. And we haven't even mentioned the biggest advantage of a Google Edition phone yet: Updates. The stock version of the HTC One will all but certainly be upgraded to the newest version of Android right along with (or at least close to) the Nexus program. The One with Sense, by contrast, is still running Android version 4.1.2, which is now more than a year old. For people who want the latest and greatest coming out of Google HQ, this is huge. And trust us, you want the latest and greatest.

 

Galaxy S4: Stock vs. TouchWiz

In our initial review of the Galaxy S4, almost all of our complaints about it were software related. So you would think that replacing TouchWiz with stock Android would fix almost all of its problems, right?

Yep. That's pretty much true.

Samsung's TouchWiz is such a heavy skin that it slows things down despite the super-fast 1.9GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor in its belly. With the HTC One, stock Android made it kinda faster. With the Galaxy S4, it's definitely noticeable. Scrolling through menus and across screens is faster and smoother. Apps generally open faster, and most importantly, there is now almost zero shutter lag on the camera, whereas the TouchWiz version can lag behind by as much as a second.

TouchWiz is also just a clusterfrak of settings and bells and whistles, most of which sit there unused, clogging up menues. Stock Android is stark in its cleanly minimalism by comparison. The stock apps look better and are more intuitive to use almost without exception. Desktop customisation is way simpler.

On the hardware side, thankfully, photos from the 13MP camera look almost identical to those on the TouchWiz version. Again, the camera app is much simplified, and though you gain PhotoSphere and easier access to HDR, you lose a lot of the fun camera modes that Samsung came up with, like Drama Shot (which superimposes several images of a subject in motion into a single shot) and animated GIFs. As you know, the Galaxy S4 features a micro SD card slot, and while you can read files off of it (photos, etc.) you can't take full advantage of it. For example, there is no native way to move apps over to your SD card, as there is in the skinned versions of Android.

There are, of course, things you lose that you will miss. Again, TouchWiz's dialer lets you punch in numbers to get to your contacts quickly; stock Android's dialer doesn't (please fix this, guys!), and you lose TouchWiz's profiles feature as well. TouchWiz has some handy shortcuts to settings within the notification screen and some people may miss those, but for our money, the way stock Android handles it is better, and keeps your notification panel looking cleaner and easier to read. Also, while the IR blaster is technically ready to be used, the API hasn't been released yet, and so there are no downloadable apps that can take advantage of it yet.

Again, people may not be used to the sticker price. At $650 (£425), it ain't exactly cheap, but again, that's not bad for a high-end, unlocked, unsubsidised phone over in the US. As we suspected, putting stock Android on the Galaxy S4 made one of the very best smartphones even better.

 

Stock Galaxy S4 vs. Stock HTC One

So, you've decided you're going to go with one of these stock phones. Now that the software is essentially identical, here's how they compare.

Build
- The HTC One is still arguably the best-designed phone we've ever used and its build quality is unmatched. It was cut from a solid block of aluminium and feels amazing. The Galaxy S4 is by no means bad, but with its slippery plastic back, there's just no comparison. The One is slightly narrower and is a bit easier to handle, too.

Winner: HTC One

Screen
- The screens are definitely two different looks, as you can see in the video above. They're both 1080p. The S4 is a full 5 inches which gives you a little more real-estate, whereas the One's 4.7-inch screen means the pixel density is every so slightly higher, making it look very slightly sharper.
- In the whites HTC One skew a bit on the rosy side, whereas the whites on the Galaxy S4 skew blueish-green. Which is "better" is more a matter of personal preference, though we slightly prefer the One.
- In the blacks, there's no contest. The Galaxy S4 is like looking into the cold, black vacuum of space, even at full brightness. At full brightness, the HTC One's blacks are very slightly gray. It's still very good, but it's definitely not as good as the S4.

Winner: Tie

Camera
- As you can see in the video above, the stock HTC One locks focus and snaps shots faster than stock Galaxy S4. But, as we mentioned above, the camera on the stock HTC One was under-performing compared to the original. As a result, the camera on the Galaxy S4 is much sharper; has better colour, and better contrast. The One does, however, still stomp the S4 in low light. Hopefully the other stuff in the One's camera will be fixed in a software update (waiting to hear about that), but for now the Galaxy S4's camera is better.

Winner: Galaxy S4 (pending)

Audio
- The HTC One is the hands-down winner here. It's not even close. The stereo front-facing speakers are loud and clear. The S4's external speaker (on the back) is quiet and terrible by comparison. Also, the pre-amp in the HTC One makes listening to music through headphones noticeably better.

Winner: HTC One

User Interface
- Unlike full-on Nexus phones, the One and the S4 both have some hardware navigation buttons. The One has two capacitive buttons: one for Home, and one for Back. You double-tap home to bring up the task-switcher, and you long-press it to bring up Google Now.
- The Galaxy S4 on the other hand has three navigation buttons: Back and Menu are both capacitive and there's a home button in the centre which is press-able. You press it once to go home, twice quickly for multitasking, and long press for Google Now.
- The capacitive buttons on the HTC (for home and task switching) are simply faster and easier to use. Also, because there is no physical menu button, that puts the menu options on screen in apps, which we find to be more intuitive.

Winner: HTC One

Speed
- Navigating around the OS, the HTC One is just a hair quicker. Considering it has the same software and the same processor but it's clocked 0.2 GHz slower than the S4, that shouldn't be the case. But it is. Go figure. We're talking about a very small difference, though. In benchmarks the S4 wins, but that doesn't really matter unless you're playing a very serious game, and even then, you're probably not going to see the difference.

Winner: HTC One

Battery Life
- Too soon to tell. More testing required.

Winner: TBD

Options
- You want expandable storage? The S4's got it, the HTC One doesn't. Want a removable battery? Ditto. If you like to tinker, you're going to get frustrated fast with the HTC One's lack of fungibility.
- Similarly, while there are some accessories available for the One, Samsung has built itself a much more robust third-party ecosystem. If you want your phone with a side of stuff, the S4 is the way to go.

Winner: Galaxy S4

So, there you have it. Our fast impressions of both. We'll be spending more time with these phones and will certainly update you if we find anything noteworthy, and of course, when they're available in the UK.

To get on-the-spot news, app tips and the full lowdown on Samsung’s latest mobile announcements check out Samsung’s Your Mobile Life over here.