I like things pure. I don't put sugar in my coffee, there are no bumper stickers on my car, and I typically don't put a case on any smartphone I own. Google's special Google Play Edition smartphones have always appealed to me: I can get the best hardware in the Android world, without any of the software garbage that manufacturers typically add to the platform. But that doesn't always make for the best option: in the case of the Sony Z Ultra, Sony's version proved to be a better smartphone than the one with strictly Google's software.
Like last year, Google is selling its own version of the new One, the clumsily named HTC One (M8) Google Play Edition for $699 unlocked. It's the same impressive hardware as the standard One, but it ditches HTC's software customizations for a stripped down version of Android 4.4 KitKat. It's pretty much the same software you find on Google's own Nexus 5, but this year's Google Play Edition One includes a few special tricks up its sleeve.
From the outside, the two Ones are exactly the same: same 5-inch, 1080p display, same unibody aluminum hardware, same front-facing BoomSound speakers, and same UltraPixel camera with secondary depth sensor. Inside they are identical too: fast quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and 2,600mAh battery.
With identical hardware, that makes all of the differences between the standard One and the Google Play Edition about software. The Google Play Edition will feel instantly familiar to anyone coming from a Nexus device (or even a Moto X), as it doesn't have any of HTC's interface customizations. It's standard Android through and through.
The differences between the standard One and the Google Play model are all about software
But unlike last year's model, which gave up a lot of features compared to the standard One (most notably the software that made use of the One's IR blaster for controlling your TV), this time around Google and HTC worked together to provide the Google Play Edition with support for all of the device's unique hardware features. You won't find HTC's BlinkFeed or Zoe apps (yet), or its custom email, calendar, camera, and messaging apps on the Google Play model. But it does support HTC's TV app for controlling your TV and entertainment system (via the Play Store), the various gestures to wake the phone up from sleep, and HTC's photo editor app that can do the same refocusing tricks as the standard model. The Google Play model also supports HTC's very cool DotView flip case, though it doesn't yet offer notifications through it (you can only view the current time and weather conditions).
I've been using the Google Play Edition alongside the standard One for about a week, and performance-wise, there's no tangible difference between the two. The standard One is a very fast and responsive phone, and the Google Play model is just as quick. Battery longevity is the same as well, though the Google Play Edition does not have access to HTC's special power-saving modes that can eke more life out of an almost empty battery. Google recently updated its stock camera app, which is a great improvement over the earlier version that came installed on the Google Play model. It's still not as good as HTC's custom camera app, but it is much faster and nicer to use than before.
It's tough to justify the cost of the Google Play One over the very capable Nexus 5
If you're debating between the two models, it's more of a toss-up between them than ever. Last year, I would have chosen the Google Play Edition without reservations, despite the limitations it had over the standard model. But this time around, HTC's custom software is more appealing and less of a nuisance than ever and HTC has proven itself committed to updating it regularly. It's also very easy to replace the parts I don't like in HTC's software with apps from the Play Store, such as Google's own keyboard and calendar.
The more difficult choice for the Google Play Edition shopper will be justifying the increased cost over the very capable Nexus 5. Since it's only sold unlocked and without a contract subsidy, the One is effectively twice as expensive as the $349, entry-level Nexus 5, which offers similar speed and camera capabilities (though with poorer battery life, not as nice a screen, and hardware that isn't nearly as nice as the HTC's).
The purpose of the Google Play Edition program has always been to give enthusiasts choice when it comes to the smartphones they purchase. And given the fact that the Google Play Edition of the HTC One is currently sold out, it seems that a lot of people are taking advantage of that choice. Fortunately, that choice doesn't involve nearly as many compromises as before.