Google is turning the popular Samsung Galaxy S4 into its latest Nexus phone, running the “pure” Android experience.
But at $650 per device, some users question how much that pure Google experience is really worth.
On Wednesday, Google announced that a version of the hot, new Galaxy S4 would be added to its lineup of Nexus devices. Google has worked with device makers over the past few years to sell its own Nexus-branded devices that don’t include any extra software other than the Android operating system.
These “pure” Google devices are sold by Google and they’re meant for developers, so they can get quick access to Android software updates. But the devices also appeal to consumers who don’t want to wait for device updates from their wireless operators and who want an unlocked phone to take to other GSM carriers throughout the world.
Unlike most of the major wireless carriers in the U.S. market, Google doesn’t subsidize the cost of its Nexus devices. As a result, consumers must pay full retail price for its devices. While the company was able to keep the cost of the Nexus 4 down to as low as $299 for an 8GB smartphone, the cost of the Nexus version of the Galaxy S4 is sky-high at $650. Is the hefty price tag on this smartphone worth it?
What’s it mean to have an unlocked smartphone? An unlocked phone means that it doesn’t have the software “lock” put on it by a wireless carrier. Generally, these unlocked phones support GSM technology, which means that they you can switch carriers simply by swapping out the SIM card and replacing it with another carrier’s SIM. If you travel overseas and you expect to use local phone service when you do, then having an unlocked phone is a good idea. Also, if you think you want the flexibility to change wireless carriers without being forced to buy a new device, then an unlocked phone is a good idea.
But keep in mind, you will be limited to using the Samsung Galaxy S4 with GSM carriers only. So in the U.S., that means AT&T, T-Mobile, or any prepaid carrier that uses either of these networks.
For the vast majority of consumers in the U.S., having a locked cell phone doesn’t really affect them much, because they don’t plan on switching wireless carriers anyway and they have no plans on using their devices internationally. If that’s the case for you, then getting an unlocked device isn’t a major advantage.
What’s it mean to have a phone that is “bootloader” unlocked and supports the “pure” Google Android experience? A device that is “bootloader” unlocked means that you can put any custom ROM or version of Android software on your device that you like. This is not true of Android devices sold through wireless operators. Not only do those devices have the carrier software lock on them so they can’t be used on other networks, but they also lock the device so that updates can only be added to the phone when they’re issued by the carrier.
These devices can be “jailbroken,” which will allow users to update it with any software they like. But doing this may void the device warranty.
The Nexus version of the Galaxy S4 offers the “pure” Google Android experience, and it does not have this restriction. As a result, it means that the device will be able to get any software update that Google issues as soon as it’s available. And the device warranty won’t be affected.
In other words, people with the Nexus version of the Galaxy S4 will not have to wait when the next version of Android, 5.0 Key Lime Pie, is released. Meanwhile, wireless subscribers who buy a Galaxy S4 from a carrier must wait until Samsung and the wireless carriers have tested the new version of Android before they push the update to customers. The process often takes several months. And some Android devices never get the update.
Why are the updates so slow to roll out on the devices available through the carriers, and not for Google Nexus phones sporting the “pure” Android software? The main reason is that Samsung and other device makers like HTC have created their own software “skins” that are layered on top of whatever version of Google Android is running on the device. In the case of the Samsung Galaxy S4, it uses Samsung’s TouchWiz software.
What this means is that when you buy a Galaxy S4 from a carrier, whether it’s AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint, it will run the current version of Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. But it will also have Samsung’s TouchWiz user interface on top.
TouchWiz not only changes the user experience of the device from what you’d see if only Android 4.2.2 was running on the device. TouchWiz also adds lots of new functionality.
Some of the Samsung-only features are gratuitous, and you likely wouldn’t miss them if you didn’t have them anyway. But some are pretty useful. For example, Air View allows you to hover your finger over something and it will display information. The Smart Screen functions are also pretty cool. It keeps the screen on as long as it can detect your eyes looking at it. And you can even scroll down the screen by moving your eyes. Of course, these TouchWiz features only work within Samsung’s own applications, such as the device browser. This means that if you loaded a mobile Chrome browser on your device, it wouldn’t work the same way.
By contrast, the new unlocked Nexus version of the Galaxy S4 will not be running TouchWiz, and will therefore not have these added features. It will also sport the same user interface that other “pure” Google devices have. The Nexus 4, made by LG and introduced by Google in the fall, is a good example of what this “pure” Google experience looks like.
The bottom line
So let’s get back to your original question: Is the Nexus version of the Galaxy S4 really worth it? If you’re planning to use AT&T’s network for your new device, then I’d say it’s not worth spending an additional $450 to get an unlocked phone that will get the latest OS updates from Google.
But if you’re planning to use T-Mobile’s network and you can afford to buy the device without financing it, then I’d likely offer a different answer. In this case, the price difference is only about $20. At that price point, I think the added carrier flexibility and access to Google Android updates when they’re released is worth the added expense for the Nexus version of the Galaxy S4.
Of course, this means giving up some of those Samsung software features that are only available through its own TouchWiz software. But my guess is that Google will also be adding some interesting and useful software features via Android. And if you have a Nexus Galaxy S4, you’ll get that update much more quickly than if you had an AT&T version of the same product.