Smartphones

Galaxy S4 and HTC One Stock Android Versions Hands-On

Brent Rose, Gawker Media

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

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 you can buy them as of today, we've broken down how the two compare with each other, and with the skinned versions of themselves.

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 customization, for example, is much simpler.

You still get the same great phone on the hardware side. From a design standpoint it's still our favorite 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 worst news 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. This is the biggest disappointment of the stock version, and it should be something Google can correct with a software update, it's just a matter of will it, and how soon? 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.

Then there are other small things you took for granted. 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 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 preinstalled 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 would be coming, but we don't know when (we've reached out for more information).

There's also the rather steep sticker price of $600. That's not crazy for an unlocked, unsubsidized phone, 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.

There is, of course, on major advantage to the stock version we haven't mentioned 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, 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.

The stock HTC One runs on AT&T, T-Mobile, and other GSM carriers (i.e. not Verizon or Sprint), and yes, LTE works. We tested it on AT&T's network in NYC, and when we had four bars of LTE we averaged download speeds of over 20Mbps and upload speeds of over 12Mbps. We did have some problems with our radio, initially, but after talking with Google it appears that was unique to our particular test unit. And once we worked out the bug (it chose the wrong APN, for you geeks out there), it performed flawlessly. So, really, our only major gripe here is the camera. We've reached out to Google about it, and will update if we hear anything back.

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 menues 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 clusterintercourse 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 customization is way simpler. We were also able to install and use Google Wallet on it (not so on the HTC One), which typically blocked by AT&T, we though.

On the hardware side, thankfully, photos 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.

Again, people may not be used to the sticker price. At $650, it ain't exactly cheap, but again, that's not bad for a high-end, unlocked, unsubsidized phone. 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, if 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 it's build quality is unmatched. It was cut from a solid block of aluminum and it feels amazing. The Galaxy S4 is by no means bad, but with it's slippery plastic back, there's no comparison. The One is slightly narrower and is a bit easier to handle, too.

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.

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 color, 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.

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.

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 capitative and there's a home button in the center 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.

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.

Price

  • Last but not least, the price. The HTC One is $600, and the Galaxy S4 is $650.

So, there you have it. Our fast impressions of both. We'll be spending more time with these phones and will certainly update if we find anything noteworthy.

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