But they've changed again. For the better.
This summer, Google partnered with HTC and Samsung to make new "Google Play Editions" of those two flagship phones. The hardware and design on each is exactly the same, but instead of running Samsung/HTC's customized versions of Android, these phones run a "clean" version of the operating system that comes directly from Google.
There are a bunch of advantages to the Google Play Edition phones. Like Google's Nexus phones, the Google Play Editions of the HTC One and Galaxy S4 will receive software updates shortly after Google releases a new version of Android. Historically, both HTC and Samsung have been pretty bad at getting new software updates out to customers because it takes a lot of time for them to modify Android. Often, Samsung and HTC stop updating the software on their phones, even if they've only been out for just a year.
And overall, Google's clean version of Android is a lot better than the modifications you normally get from HTC and Samsung. There aren't any preinstalled apps from HTC, Samsung, or your carrier. There aren't any gimmicky features like Samsung's eye-tracking or HTC's Blinkfeed home screen.
It's just Android the way Google meant for you to experience it. It's nearly perfect.So why are these phones so expensive?
Instead of selling them through a wireless carrier, Google is selling the One and Galaxy S4 at full price, unsubsidized. Carriers are usually able to sell you phones for just $200 because they subsidize the other ~$400 through baked-in fees in your wireless plan over your two-year contract. In those situations, you're still paying the full ~$600 cost over the phone over two years.
There's another caveat: In the U.S., these phones will only work on T-Mobile or AT&T. Verizon and Sprint customers are out of luck.
So, you have a decision to make. You're paying a lot for these two phones up front, but you still have the freedom of not worrying about your carrier's contract and upgrade cycles. The phone is yours to do what you want with it. Plus you're getting the guarantee of timely software updates (which is rare for just about every Android phone) and the best overall Android experience, straight from Google.Which one should you buy?
Both the Galaxy S4 and HTC One are good phones, but I still think HTC has the best Android phone you can buy. The One is the most beautiful Android phone ever made, and it's arguably more attractive and fun to use than the iPhone. I've never seen an Android phone maker pay so much attention to design and build quality until I used the HTC One.
The Galaxy S4, on the other hand, is made out of cheap-feeling plastic and isn't nearly as eye-catching as the HTC One.
(Yes, some people love plastic phones. Samsung fans tell me all the time plastic is good because it doesn't scratch as easily. They say they like being able to remove the flimsy back cover and replace the battery. They say I put too much emphasis on design and build quality. They say I'm a moron for thinking plastic ruins a phone. Those are all fair assessments, I guess.)
On the plus side, the Galaxy S4 does have better internal specs than the One and I think the screen is a bit better. But I don't think those advantages are enough to justify spending an extra $50 for the Galaxy S4, at least for most people. I'd much rather have a phone that performs well and looks and feels good. The HTC One is perfect.Conclusion
At the end of the day, the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One Google Play Editions only appeal to a niche group of people. The high up-front price tag is likely to scare off a lot of people. These two phones are designed for people who don't want to be locked down by carrier contracts and care about having the best Android experience you can get, all wrapped in excellent hardware.
Between the cheaper price and the gorgeous design, I think the HTC One is a better buy. But you'll likely be happy with either phone.
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