Jan 16 AT 8:03 PM Nick Sarafolean 51 Comments

Google Play edition devices are the best idea that won’t sell


Several times a year, we’re treated to the cream of the crop in phones from different manufacturers. It’s a cycle that generally repeats itself every year–sometimes even more than once in a year. Coming from the major manufacturers, most of these phones that run Android are outfitted with a custom skin that the respective company has deemed better than the stock Android software option. But we almost always hear the criticism arise that the phones would have been better with stock Android.

A month or two ago, we discussed the notion that stock Android might not be the best software for your phone. But let’s play Devil’s Advocate here. Just go ahead and forget all that.

The dream of many Android enthusiasts has always been to have a phone that can easily switch between stock Android and the manufacturers software. To date, we haven’t seen this implemented in a way that is intuitive and easy. That’s not to say that it isn’t possible; it’s just that it generally requires your phone to be rooted and for you to have a bit of technical knowledge.

Early in 2013, Google released what they most likely thought was a suitable solution to the problem. They released the first two devices into a new category called Google Play edition devices. Essentially, these were hardware counterparts of popular devices on the market that ran entirely stock Android. Not quite as elegant of a solution as the concept of a phone that could boot into stock or skinned software, but it was a solution.

These special Google Play edition devices were (and are) sold only through the Google Play store and at full retail price–not held captive by any sort of contract. Thus began the new series with the HTC One GPe and Samsung Galaxy S4 GPe on the front lines, showing off their stock Android glory.

But sales do not reflect that glory. Off the bat, selling exclusively from the Google Play store is a major problem. The sentiment that Google wants to keep it all integrated within their web can be understood, as can selling it within their own e-store. Such a plan isn’t practical though. Many consumers aren’t aware that the Google Play web store sells devices–or are completely sure what the Google Play store is.

The next trouble spot comes with the price. Google Play edition devices are sold entirely off-contract, which means that they’re marked at their full retail prices. For those of us who are in the habit of buying devices at full retail, that may not seem like an issue. However, the majority of consumers, at least in the US market, typically buy phones at discounted prices by signing into a contract. That full retail price of say, $600, is going to invoke some serious sticker shock.

Thrown into the melting pot, those two reasons are exactly why Google Play edition devices are the best idea that simply won’t sell. While offering top-end mainstream hardware with stock software, they do it in such a way that general consumers aren’t likely to buy them. For that matter, many Android enthusiasts won’t even feel enough inclination to pull the trigger on them. If Google really wants these devices to take off, then they need to do some serious tweaking to their business strategy.

Now that you’ve reached the end of this article, feel free to give your opinions on this subject in the comments. Are you in agreement that while they’re a good idea, GPe devices simply won’t sell? Or do you think that with as powerful of a combo as they offer, they’re set to skyrocket?

Here’s another question–are sales even the point of this device? Does this even factor in to Google’s profit margins, considering the size and depth of the Search Giant? Maybe this is something Google is doing just for those few who want it–because it’s Google, and Google can do that.

A nerd at heart, Nick is an average person who has a passion for all things electronic. When not spending his time writing about the latest gadgets, Nick enjoys reading, dabbling in photography, and experimenting with anything and everything coffee. Should you wish to know more about him, you can follow him on Twitter @nsarafolean.

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  • Dean Caldwell

    I already have a One. No not GPe. I only ever purchase outright. I will never have a carrier phone where they have control over you. International, unlocked is the only way to go.
    I understand that the GPe phones have the same hardware but I would never buy a GPe phone.
    Why? Well why would I? You only go amd install launches, camera apps, gallery apps on top of what is already provided which on stock is bare minimum so you may as well just purchase OEM software installed phone. if you don’t like it, flash it!
    Yes I understand that people want a clean slate to build from but with such a bare system, Eg the stock camera app, you need to find something decent anyway.
    And seriously, with the current processing power of smartphones, you really don’t notice a difference between stock and themed.

  • tyyong

    I love Gpe device very much. I own a samsung nexus 10 and a samsung galaxy s4.
    However,my samsung galaxy s4 is using samsung own android. Not stock os.
    Even if I want to buy phone or accessories from play store but I cannot. Google blocked it since im from asia region, Malaysia.
    I dont know why. Its unfair.

  • ibap

    Gee, that’s funny. There are a lot of Nexus 5 phones on Sprint and Ting, and I presume quite a few on the GSM carriers. The only reason for buying one of these from the carrier is if there is no other way for you to finance the phone, and need their payment options.

    Seriously, about the only thing you couldn’t get on an N5 on T-Mobile that was bought from Google would be wifi calling. Oh, wait, I don’t think you can get that on an N5 bought from T-Mobile.

    If people would do the math, especially for GSM, they’d never buy a phone from a carrier again.

    • Steven

      There’s a big difference between a 350 N5 and a 600-700 device. In this economy, many dont have that cash upfront. I’m lucky I could and in combo with a $45 AT&T Straight Talk plan, I’m saving over $1000 over the traditional 2 year contract period

  • Michael Collingwood

    According to Google employees these were never intended to sell in bulk but are intended for developers.

    If they were intended to sell in bulk then the respective manufacturers wouldn’t be part of it. They spend millions developing their own’skins’ be it Sense, Touchwiz or the other implementations and use these as a selling point and to promote their brand.

    • Guest

      Google doesn’t even promote the Nexus phones, which I think k is a bad idea. If you dont read blogs, you don’t even know they exist. Most would agree it’s the best value, especially if you combine it with a prepaid or no contract plans. When you think about it, it’s only &150 more than most contract phones and most people could save over $50 a month

  • roland

    The price is to high

    • hp420

      Then you haven’t looked at the Moto G GPe. It’s the exact same price in the Play store as it is on Motorola’s site unlocked. Also, look at the Nexus line. These are deeply discounted over what the manufacturers sell them directly for. Google always subsidizes its devices. I think of it as their way of thanking the development community for their hard work. Most people never get paid anything for the roms, mods, apps, bug fixes, etc. they make for android, so this is a little pat on the back from Google, I think.

  • John in Brisbane

    Well the answer is obvious – carriers need to offer these versions. It’s the only way to know for sure. I’ve got an HTC One with the HTC and Aussie carrier BS. Having had a 1st gen n7 since they came out, I would have jumped at the GPE option for the HTC had it been out then and available through my carrier. It aint gonna happen though so next time round I’ll be looking closely at the nexus phone options. They’re the only reasonably priced phones this side of the knock-offs (which are surprisingly good nowadays). If enough people feel the same way and the major manufacturers start feeling the heat, they’ll be the ones to lean on the carriers to come to the party. As it is, the carrier can message each new phone and encourage them to install a package of apps – some are probably worth it, especially data/bill monitoring apps.

  • Chris

    I have mixed feelings about outright buying the phone. Yes, it’s great that you don’t have any type of contract…. BUT… the way the carriers have everything set up… you are pretty much paying the them the SAME AMOUNT whether your phone is subsidized or not. So why pay $600-700 for a phone and $100/month for voice and data when you’ll be paying the same $100/month regardless of whether it’s subsidized or not.

    Carriers should separate the cost of subsidies out of your plan so when it’s supposedly paid off you no longer have to pay that extra amount… but they won’t…

    • Herb Eaversmells

      Actually this is a misconception, you end up paying more for a subsidised phone when everything is added up. It is most certainly is not the same.

      • jake

        His point wasn’t that you pay less on the subsidized system, it’s that you are going to pay the extra contract cost whether you buy the subsidized phone or not. I have unlimited data on Verizon, which means they won’t let me buy their subsidized phones. Yet my monthly bill is the same whether I get the subsidized phone, buy an $800 phone for full price, or buy a $50 crap phone off of ebay. THAT’S what he was saying. So for us US customers who don’t go prepaid, it only makes sense to get the subsidized phone.

        • Wesley

          This is what T-Mobile is trying to change in the wireless market. I really hope they can expand their network fast and put a lot of pressure on the other carriers. Their success would be a win for all of us.

          • Richard Yarrell

            Plain and simple nothing beats Tmobile period.

          • squiddy20

            Plain and simple you’re a pimp slapping delusional fanboy period.

    • James Washington

      Straight talk is $45 a month.

      • Richard Yarrell

        Squiddy20 is a poor unfortunate fool who never purchases anything he just leaves comments on androidandme as well as the Internet.

        He’s so pitiful and basically poor and unemployable we all must feel sorry him.

        Sprint Galaxy Nexus a basic 3g phone on crappy Sprint from 2011 can’t get any more pitiful than that.

        • squiddy20

          1. So apparently your fingers are so fat and grubby, you couldn’t zoom in enough (even on your “pimp slapping” Note 3) to reply to the correct person.
          2. You know I have a Galaxy Nexus on Sprint. That phone wasn’t released on that carrier till April of 2012. There goes your claim that I haven’t bought anything since 2011. Idiot.
          3. If I “never purchase anything” and am “so pitiful and basically poor”, then how did I get the $200 Galaxy Nexus on Sprint when it was first made available? Riddle me that one, Dick.

          Seriously, do you even think before posting such utter nonsense?

        • redraider133

          How do you know he doesn’t “purchase” anything like you claim? Because he doesn’t boast all over the internet like you do? Also you do realize some people are on those things called contracts and don’t feel the need to upgrade every year because wait for it……Their phone still works fine??

    • hp420

      Tmobile can be had for $30/month on prepaid service. You can’t get that plan if you buy a phone subsidized on-contract. Here’s a little math for you…I used to pay $80/month to sprint. Over a 2 year contract, that is $1920. I bought a N4 and switched to Tmo’s $30 plan, simultaneously. The service costs $720 across 2 years, which is what my sprint contract was for. Add the $350 I spent on the N4, and the total cost for 2 years is $1070. I save $850 over 2 years. The only difference between the plan I used to have and my current one is I’m now limited to 5gb/mo mobile data, instead of unlimited with sprint. But let me ask you….is a bump to unlimited data worth $425/year to you? I won’t pay that!!

      Here’s another way to look at my situation: the monthly savings on service alone is $50. The N4 I bought cost me $350. After 6 months in the Tmo plan, instead of the sprint one, I saved enough money to pay for the N4. Every month after that is just more money in my pocket.

      I understand most people aren’t in a scenario like me where they will/can save that much money, but my point is this: there are always ways to cut spending so you can afford the toys which are most important to you. You just need to find yours.

      • John in Brisbane

        Good post. In Australia, where there are no unlimited data plans, the difference is even greater. I pay $130 a month for admittedly the best coverage carrier by far. (hence the over-a-barrel costs). I get a lot of calls (but not unlimited), 5gigs of data and an HTC One. So that’s $3120 over two years. If I didn’t need the extra coverage, I could buy a decent phone for $600 and then pay $40 a month prepaid for 24 months and gent unlimited calls and 5gigs /month … total $1560 … exactly half. But now, that carrier with the best coverage is wholesaling it to 3rd parties, so you can have the full coverage for half the cost, albeit without access to their 4g towers. Whoopy doo – 3g is fine.

        So, I urge people to do what I’m doing: Autosave the amount of money for an outright handset purchase between now and when the contract ends. I’ve got over a year. Then buy a handset (or not) and step into a prepaid deal.

    • Guest

      Thats what Tmobile has done in the US & AT&T has introduced a similar plan although not as much of a value. It does seem this is going to be the future trend. Subsidies will end; installment plans will be an option but carrier like VZ have no incentives to lower prices when they keep growing subscribers

  • Kurt

    The thing with GPE devices is that probably 98% of phone users don’t care about Touchwiz/Sense/whatever vs AOSP. For the 2% who do, flashing CM (or the AOSP ROM) of your choice is easy enough.

    • Ryan

      No, the reason we buy GPE devices is because it’s smart financial consumerism. Example: The Nexus 5 straight from Google is $350. From TMobile, it’s $450. Yes, I understand we are a now-society and will pay interest to have it now, but for the smart people out there, Google offers the phone for cheaper (buying from carriers at a higher premium for monthly payments is essentially buying with interest).

      There are many more reasons than just getting a pure, stock Android experience… although it is a very nice treat right out of the box. And the warranty is still valid.

      • Guest

        Those aren’t a Google Play devices. Theyre talking about HTC & Samsung selling for 500-600$ that provide no financial advantage. Google does nothing to promote any of these devices to the general public. Ive never seen one commercial or ad for the N5. With its reasonable price, it should attract a lot more attention from average consumers. But Nexus 5 isn’t a GPE as there’s no non-stock Android of it

  • Adrian

    I don’t know why manufacturers feel the need to change the skin. Why not keep the skin mostly stock but just add the software features? Take the G2 for example. Imagine that phone with the stock look but with the knock on and slide aside stuff. That would be awesome. That’s why I personally prefer Sony’s UI. It looks like an elegant version of stock Android. It’s not overly intrusive. I personally believe that stock Android is very boring. What’s the point of having all this amazing hardware in a phone if the software doesn’t utilize it? That’s just my take on the matter though :P

    • masterpfa

      I agree, but I would go as far to say have TW and Sense etc as launchers and the added features as locked in apps only available for that device. This way users could choose to launch stock OS or OEM’s launcher. THe early HTC phones had this feature and I loved it on my HTC Hero

      An example Zoe would be a HTC exclusive app, which they could update in the market and not wait for the next version of sense for any updates. The same would apply for all OEM’s

      The majority of people I would imagine would stick with the phone in stock, but for those who choose to choose.

  • martinkem

    Why i wouldn’t be buying a GPe device is just the plain is fact that the Google Android is just boring, i like having the options that Samsung includes in their devices even if i might not need them but i just want them there. I once flashed my old S2 with cyanogen and within two weeks i was back to running Touchwiz as their where some features on it that was sorely lacking on the cyanogen ROM and now with my Newer Note 3 i won’t even bother flashing or rooting it, just disable the features that i don’t need and install Nova launcher

    • SGB101

      Fist thing I done with my note2 (first sammy) was blitz TW, horrid interface, and all the bloat, sorry services Samsung put on, can be replicated better, by 3rd parties that specialise in individual service.

      Samsung is like the Jack of all trades master of non.

      HTC are similar, but sense always had really good add ons, most of which get rolled into Android. Samsung recent stuff is gimmicky.

      I’m not a fan of stock though CM has a good middle ground, basically stock with more flexibility, but they to are now passing it a bit far with the CM services and back up, but at least it doesn’t get in the way and can be removed easily. O and CM is worth it just for privacy guard, which sadly will never get rolled into Android as it would/does break the app store model.

  • domi1k

    You forgot the most important fact: even google editions contain software from the manufacturer.
    Like the GS4 still relies on the touchwiz framework.
    Id rather use a real AOSP like the rom from Broodplank.

  • Mike C.

    Another reason is that google doesn’t sell devices in a lot of countries. Countries where carriers are not as strong as in the US or even UK.

    • monk

      Yes. They need to sell the phones in countries where the subsidy model is forbidden or not so strong as in US. In those countries they could sell a lot more phones because their cost would be the same or lower than the carriers.

  • Hugh Isaacs II

    “Maybe this is something Google is doing just for those few who want it—because it’s Google, and Google can do that.”

    I think that’s exactly what this is.

  • Dash Raven

    My first Android was an HTC Magic. I liked it so much that I bought an HTC Desire – in Portugal you couldn’t by the Nexus One. I hated Sense. It was awfull. Since then I’ve had a Nexus S and a Nexus 4. Also I have a Nexus 10. For me these are the real deal!
    I love AOSP but it’s because I have the Nexus. Sure, I install some apps to get more features, but I could care less for Blinkfeed or S-Voice.But I read about the GPe and they aren’t the same as their counterpats. The cameras lack optimization and so on. And for most people this makes a diference. And we have to ask ourselves: Would android get this far if they you only get Nexus and GPe devices? Isn’t Samsung the major Android manufactorer and isn’t TouchWiz reponsible for us having Android today? These are really good ideas, but come to think of it, I take a Nexus 5 over an LG G2 GPe any day.

  • Dash Raven

    My first Android was an HTC Magic. I liked it so much that I bought an HTC Desire – in Portugal you couldn’t buy the Nexus One. I hated Sense. It was awfull. Since then I’ve had a Nexus S and a Nexus 4. Also I have a Nexus 10. For me these are the real deal!
    I love AOSP but it’s because I have the Nexus. Sure, I install some apps to get more features, but I could care less for Blinkfeed or S-Voice.But I read about the GPe and they aren’t the same as their counterpats. The cameras lack optimization and so on. And for most people this makes a diference. And we have to ask ourselves: Would android get this far if they you only get Nexus and GPe devices? Isn’t Samsung the major Android manufactorer and isn’t TouchWiz reponsible for us having Android today? These are really good ideas, but come to think of it, I take a Nexus 5 over an LG G2 GPe any day.

  • Broseph Stalin

    Google should expand the selling of devices in the Play Store to more European countries, where buying unlocked phones is more common.


    I think the better strategy for Google is breaking out the pieces of stock Android as apps or launchers a la Google Home. I have a One and like BlinkFeed and some other features, but when I switched to Home, the phone suddenly became more usable and intuitive (I came from a Nexus before the One). I think if Google offered a full-on launcher that changes most aspects of the manufacturer “skins”, camera app (probably not a great example given the reputation of Nexus cameras), etc., would further the AOSP cause. Plus people can do this on carrier-subsidized handsets. My 2 cents.

  • jake

    People don’t care if their phone is stock, they care if their phone LOOKS stock. Android’s stock UI is just more attractive than any and every skinned UI out there. I have a Galaxy S3 running pretty much the Touchwiz that comes out of the box, except I’m on a rom that debloated and themed everything to make it look like stock holo android. That is what people really want.

  • westy

    People bitched and moaned about not getting a pure google experience on great hardware like the s4 and htc one. Google works with manufactures to give them what they want and boom the sales arent great. People are morons, first thing people say is hmmmm the skins arent so bad i like the features.

  • Zach G

    I find the point of the GPe phones is not so much to buy it myself, but that there is a fully operational AOSP image for devs to work from. I’ve been using android since the G1, and i’ve always like AOSP better, but for most phones, it’s a battle every new version. The devs have to reverse engineer everything just to get the new version running, and there’s often glaring bugs that are seemingly impossible to get rid of.

    I’ve had: G1 (AOSP), MyTouch 3g (AOSP), MyTouch 3g slide (sense), MyTouch 4G (sense), HTC One S (sense), Note II (TouchWiz), and now Nexus 5 (AOSP).

    With all of the phones that weren’t AOSP it was a constant struggle to keep a fully working recent version of AOSP working fully. It was either camera problems, or in the case of the One S, Random reboots no one can explain or fix. If a device has a GPe release, that means that there will be a build of AOSP for the devs to start from and they can focus on developing features, and not making the camera work by rebuilding the drivers from scratch.

    While Sense, TouchWiz and the other versions have nice features, I find i like the asthetics much better with AOSP. Especially a fully featured custom rom like PacMan (JB 4.3). My wife has my old One S, and she couldn’t handle the random reboots/bootloops, so i put a custom version of Sense 5 (version on HTC One). She HATES it. There’s about 10 things that are just automatic on AOSP based roms, that are way different or non existent on Sense. But it’s the only thing that will run stably for her, so she has to put up with it. I’m able to solve some of them with xposed modules, but there’s still a few things that she just has to put up with.

    Sorry i’m so long winded, i guess i have a lot to say :P

    TL:DR – GPe editions ensure that stable builds of recent versions of android are available for the hardware without bugs like camera issues.

  • Brando56894

    You hit the nail on the head with the price point. I switched to T-Mobile right when the GPE and carrier versions of the S4 were available and was debating on which one to get because I was going to run stock Android anyway. The question was do I drop $600 on a phone and bring it to T-Mobile or do I drop $200 and then pay $20 a month. I went with the latter option since I didn’t really have $600 to drop in one shot. Now if T-Mobile sold the GPE FOR Google then I would have definitely gotten it.

  • donger

    GPE devices needs to be able for purchase at AT&T and T Mobile.

  • mohican2013

    Sticker shock should not surprise anyone when it comes to phones. What I find when I evaluate is that no matter which way I go (because I want data on my phone) it seems to work out that I pay additional to have it unlocked. Costing me more.
    Take an Iphone.. Some places may offer take up to 700 off on a plan. Remember this iphone is not unlocked. Cost extra is 75 bucks. Cost of an Iphone is 229. Retail cost 719. So they will give me 480 off on a two year data contract. That’s like 20 a month extra. My min plan is 70 bucks and that’s with 250 megs data if I want that price. If I pay for my phone I could get any other plan
    Such as 60 dollars. All call no long distance in Canada and 2 gigs data. And then If I don’t care that much on calling I could do 50 bucks 1 gig data 100 min anytime free evening and weekends. You get the point
    You really need to do the math to see what’s best for you over the two years. The bait is the phone and the catch is you pay higher for plans . In some cases a lot higher.

  • RushAOZ

    Stock Android 4.3 and 4.4 GE roms are the best thing that’s ever happened to my GS4. TW is a piece of crap. With GPe roms my phone is ridiculously smooth and snappy with amazing battery life too. I average between 20-26 hours with 4-5 hours screen on time consistenty. Google, if your reading this, please do not stop making GPe phones. As the article said, retweak your business strategy.

  • Alex

    Nothing beats stock android. I am rocking a blu 5.5 near stock jb. Next month I am moving onto the 6.4 in screen of the sony ultra Z I believe is the name? I will never touch aom ui overlays. Out of all the manufacturers, htc is the most decent followed by sony. Stock 4 life!!

  • Donnieace

    The price of a Z Ultra keeps me from buying one. Now that the Z2 will be released, I’m beginning to thi

    • Donnieace

      I’m beginning to think a newer version will come out.

    • Shawn

      The Z Ultra GPE is amazing. I use it as a daily driver and can’t recommend it enough. Yeah, it’s $649, but that money is buying you a nice phone than the Nexus 5 could dream of being.

  • John

    I’d love to buy a GPE edition but they always hold such a hefty price tag. Better off grabbing a Nexus 5 or Moto X

  • Snaake

    Further, apparently the only devices available on the Google Play store for non-US customers are the Nexus 5 and 7 (at the time of writing this… presumably Nexus 6 and 8 will eventually join them).

    Android dominates smartphone market shares outside the US, and at least in my country, on-contract discounts have all but vanished: I got my Galaxy S1 at 150€ off the (500€, I think) retail price with a 2-year contract, but currently the Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8 are priced identically to each other both on- and off-contract.

    In other words, it does feel like Google are shooting themselves in the leg sales-wise with a US-only offering of GPe devices? Are they bound to that limit by their licensing agreements with HTC, Samsung? What gives, Google?

  • HorryMiner

    Believe it or not, it is incredibly easy to get personal information from an old phone even you have reset all settings to manufacturer default settings.

    So before selling your old phone, the first thing you shoud do is to erase everything on it permanently and keep your personal data safety.