The conventional thinking on Android version anxiety used to be simple: just get a Nexus device and you’ll never have to worry about being behind the times. Google has dashed that simple axiom to bits in recent weeks by announcing that not one, but two flagship Android phones will be coming to Google Play as unlocked pure Google experience devices.
The Google Edition HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 are going to be completely new animals in the Android ecosystem. They will offer not only a desirable software experience for discerning Android purists, but killer hardware with a few minor sacrifices. Beyond that, there are implications for the modding community and future phone releases. Let’s go over everything you should know before you rush to buy one on June 26th.
The Truth About Hardware Features
The Google Edition (GE) HTC One and Galaxy S4 are going to be based on the US carrier variants, but will be completely unlocked. That means 3G and 4G LTE connectivity on AT&T and T-Mobile. Sprint and Verizon customers are out of luck as CDMA doesn’t accept unlocked phones in any meaningful way.
On the inside, these devices are both running on Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chips with 2GB of RAM backing it up. The GS4 has a slightly faster version of the chip clocked at 1.9GHz, while the HTC One comes in at 1.7GHz. The GS4 has a 1080p Super AMOLED panel, and the One comes with a 1080p IPS LCD. Both these devices should have more than enough muscle to push Android 4.2 Jelly Bean and look good doing it.
When it comes to cameras, we see the first tradeoff. For all the great things stock Android does, taking pictures isn’t one of them. The camera app is one of those places OEMs dominate Google by licensing proprietary technology and developing new features. The Galaxy S4 is still going to take amazing photos with its high-end 13MP sensor. This camera is amazing in good light. You’re just going to miss some of the post-processing effects and cool burst features.
HTC made a bet on software when it went with the so-called Ultrapixel 4MP image sensor. The pixels on this sensor are larger to take in more light, but there are fewer of them. The software is able to adjust exposures in such a way that very low light situations will come out looking more than passable -- it’s startling how well the Sense-ified One does in dim light. With stock Android, there is no guarantee the phone will know what to do with that custom sensor. You might end up taking some very poor pictures. 4 megapixels simply don't leave a lot of room for error.
Stock Android supports all the generic hardware you’ll find in the GS4 and HTC One. But in the case of one blast-from-the-past feature, stock Android is lacking. The IR blasters on both devices will be disabled by default as there is no support in Android for this technology. The APIs to operate them simply won’t be present, so developers will have to start from scratch to make the GE devices able to control your TV. HTC’s FM radio will also be dormant in the GE HTC One.
In a similar vein, Samsung’s various “smart” features will not work on the GE edition. All the head and finger tracking magic relies on an additional IR sensor on the face of the phone. Like the IR blaster, stock Android doesn’t have support for this.
Sadly, the Galaxy S4 will lose the screen adjustments that made the new Super AMOLED panel so much nicer. AMOLED tends to blow out colors quite a bit. Things look super-vibrant and somewhat unnatural in some circumstances. TouchWiz on the GS4 offers settings to tweak the color temperature to make the screen more true to life. This won’t be in stock Android, so you’re stuck with the blazing-bright, iridescent colors.
This will be the first time since the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G that Google has directly updated a smartphone that isn’t a Nexus. Mountain View will handle all the software and development work to make pure Android run on these Google Experience devices. That means you’ll get updates, though I don’t think buyers should expect Nexus levels of speed.
Android is still developed and tested on the Nexus hardware, and I doubt that’s going to change. From what I can gather, the GE devices will be at least a few weeks behind in the update queue. That’s still much faster than carrier-branded devices, which often wait for a year or more for an update.
There will be a few foibles in the way stock Android accommodates these non-Nexus phones. The HTC One, for example, has only a home and back button. Because there are no on-screen buttons, Google’s preferred Google Now shortcut isn’t available. So a long-press on home? That’s how the Sense version does it, but it’s not ideal. Likewise, multitasking gets its own button on Nexus phones, but on the One it’s a double-tap on home. This is actually the most awkward part of the button layout, and I wouldn't be surprised if Google has to work out a different approach. A software legacy menu button will also have to be rigged up.
The Galaxy S4, on the other hand, has a home, back, and menu button. The hardware menu button will remove the on-screen action bar menu system, which will be confusing for some users. Remember the days when on-screen buttons were going to save us from the mixed up controls? Yeah, that didn’t work out so well.
Because these software versions will be completely stock from Google, none of the carrier blocks on tethering will be present. So even if you’re on a plan that isn’t authorized for tethering, you can fire up the native WiFi hotspot and get to work without being hassled.
More ROMs for Everyone Else
Even for Android fans that don’t pony up $600+ for one of the new GE devices, the future of stock Android just got that much brighter. These devices will be built on Android using open source components. Since they won’t be locked down in any way, it’s going to be trivial for modders to get a close look at the software. In fact, many of the drivers and software libraries needed to run Android on the HTC One and Galaxy S4 could end up in the Android Open Source Project (AOSP).
There are already various Android ROMs that replicate, and even improve on the stock experience. Most of them use AOSP as a base to get started, but a ton of work goes into supporting multiple devices. Sometimes drivers and other important components simply aren’t generally available. Even if the ROM makers could get the necessary code, distributing it may technically be illegal. The workarounds are often messy and cause crashes or poor battery performance until a ROM is very mature.
Having the ROMs from these Google Experience devices in the wild will accelerate development massively. They will be like templates for supporting the OEM versions of the GS4 and HTC One, but also for bringing more optimized ROMs to other devices.
Is This the Future?
This is a crazy experiment -- make no mistake about it. Samsung and HTC see their software experiences as the way to capture users long-term. Case in point, the Galaxy S4 was all about developing new software features not available anywhere else. And even as HTC stumbles, it refuses to give up on Sense. In fact, it’s doubled down and actually made it much better with version 5.
Samsung and HTC have everything to lose by doing this. These OEMs are basically trusting there is a constituency of dedicated Android users who would love to use their products, but want a more open experience without all the software tweaks. If this proves a success, we may see future devices from these OEMs and others add stock devices to Google Play. If not, this will be the last we see of Google Edition devices.
Imagine if Google Edition phones were released in the Play Store each time a new killer device was announced for carriers. That would be a marvelous future, wouldn’t it?
The only catch is the high price. The Google Edition HTC One will cost $599, and the Google Edition Samsung Galaxy S4 will run you $649.The price of admission is steep, but it might earn us a better, more Google-y Android future.
Correction: An image used in this story originated at Androidcentral, and has since been swapped out for an official HTC photo. We regret the error.