Google is now selling “Google Play Edition” devices alongside its Nexus devices on the Google Play Store website. These devices are versions of popular Android phones and tablets running different software. They seem primarily intended for Android enthusiasts and developers.

Unlike Nexus devices, these are currently only sold in the US. Outside the US, you’ll have to have a US-based friend order and ship one to you or buy from a reseller.

Google Play Edition vs. Standard Edition

Google Play Edition devices share the same hardware as the standard, retail edition of the device. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition has the same hardware as the standard Samsung Galaxy S4. They only differ in their software.

On most Android devices, the software is customized and controlled by the manufacturer. Samsung adds their TouchWiz skin and large suite of apps, HTC adds Sense, and LG adds their Optimus skin. Every manufacturer customizes their version of Android in an attempt to make it stand out and offer different features from their competitors.

Many Android geeks dislike these custom skins, believing they offer poor design and half-baked features. Android geeks often prefer “stock Android,” which is the cleaner Android experience Google’s Android developers intended.

You can’t simply switch back to stock Android if you prefer it. You’re forced to use the manufacturer’s customizations unless you want to install a custom ROM.

Google Play Edition devices offer a different path. Want a Samsung Galaxy S4 for the removable battery and well-reviewed camera, but don’t like Samsung’s software? You can get a Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition to have the best of both worlds.

Manufacturer customizations also slow down updates. Between manufacturers and carriers, it can take many months before new versions of Android roll out to current devices, if they roll out at all. Google handles updates for Google Play Edition devices, ensuring that they’ll be updated to new versions of Android as quickly as possible without any manufacturer or carrier interface. They seem to be updated about as fast as Nexus devices are.

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Google Play Editions vs. Nexus Device

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Before offering Google Play Edition devices, Google offered only its own Nexus devices. These devices are Android smartphones and tablets developed and sold by Google themselves. They’re made by other companies — for example, LG makes the Nexus 4 and 5 while Asus makes the Nexus 7. However, Google has input into designing the hardware.

Nexus devices and Google Play Editions share similar software. The difference is in the hardware. For example, Google’s Nexus devices all have on-screen buttons, no SD card, and no removable battery. Google Play Edition devices have the same hardware as the standard editions, so they have standard capacitive buttons and may have removable batteries and SD card slots. You don’t get an entire “designed by Google” hardware experience, but this gives you much more choice of hardware — especially if you think Google’s making a mistake by not offering SD card slots and removable batteries.

Nexus devices are also priced to sell. A Nexus 5 smartphone will cost you $349, while a Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition will cost you $649 — both off contract. Google Play Edition devices are designed to be equivalently priced to the unlocked, unsubsidized retail versions so they don’t cut into retail sales. Nexus devices are designed to be very attractively priced off contract.

Why Someone Would Buy a Google Play Edition Device

You’d buy a Google Play Edition device if you liked the hardware on a particular Android smartphone or tablet — currently the Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, Sony Z Ultra, or LG G Pad 8.3 — but would prefer to have more Nexus-like software that receives timely Android updates directly from Google.

You might also choose a Google Play Edition device because you like Nexus devices but want hardware you just can’t get on a Nexus device. Hardware features like a removable battery, SD card slot, a higher-quality camera, or a larger screen can all be had along with stock Android if you get a Google Play Edition device.

Why You Might Not Want to Buy a GPE Device

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There are reasons you might not want to buy a Google Play Edition device, too. They’re designed to be sold unlocked and off-contract, so they’re awfully expensive. Most people will get high-end smartphones on contract, and there’s no way to buy Google Play Edition devices on contract. You’ll have to pay the full, unsubsidized cost of the phone. If you’re on a contract, most cellular carriers will charge you the same amount of money per month anyway — so there’s no point on buying your own phone off contract.

Nexus devices are priced much more cheaply and are more budget-friendly to Android users who want to save money by buying phones off contract and using prepaid cellular services. Google Play Edition devices are priced to not upset the status quo of expensive, subsidized phones with long contracts.

Of course, you may also just prefer the manufacturer-customized software and additional features available on the normal retail versions of these Android smartphones. For example, the standard Galaxy S4 offers a split-screen feature that allows you to use multiple apps at once, while the Google Play Edition does not.

Using Google Play Edition ROMs on Standard Devices

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Even if you’re never going to buy a Google Play Edition device, they can help you. Because the hardware is identical, it’s possible to easily port ROMs from the GPE edition to the standard edition of a device. The mere existence of Google Play Edition ROMs gives you much more support when it comes to installing custom ROMs on the equivalent retail devices.

This means you can purchase a standard Samsung Galaxy S4 on contract from a carrier store and then install a Google Play Edition ROM on it to get a clean, unsullied Android experience if you’d like that sort of thing. This isn’t officially supported, but should work much more smoothly than using CyanogenMod or another third-party, completely unofficial ROM. Perform a Google search and you’ll find Google Play Edition ROMs intended for installation on standard retail devices.

Buying a Google Play Edition devices don’t really make sense for most people. If you’re tied to a cellular contract, you’ll probably want to buy a phone on contract instead of buying an expensive, unsubsidized phone. If you’re trying to save money by avoiding contracts and buying phones off contract, you’ll probably want to buy a Nexus phone and save hundreds of dollars.

On the other hand, if you really want a Galaxy S4 but wished it ran stock Android and received timely operating system updates directly from Google, well, you now have an option.

Image Credit: Kārlis Dambrāns on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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