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Buy this, not that!

What is a "stock" Android phone, and why should you buy one?

Recently, several manufacturers such as Samsung and HTC have released Google Play editions of their flagship phones the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4. And, last month, Motorola unveiled the Moto X, its first phone manufactured under the oversight of its new parent company, Google. The Moto X is described as a primarily "stock" Android device. Hardcore Android fans have for some time now exalted the virtues and advantages of stock, or "pure," Android devices in the critically-acclaimed (but not particularly successful) Nexus line of smartphones. So what exactly is "stock" Android, and why should you consider buying a phone with a "pure Android" experience?

The differences in hardware between the original and Google Play editions of the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4 are pretty negligible. For the most part, you get the same exact hardware regardless of which one you choose. Outside of possibly not having a particular choice in color, or having a device branded with a specific carrier's logo, you still get the same display, camera features, and build quality of the original devices.

The Moto X and Nexus devices like the Nexus 4 only come loaded with "stock" Android. Other than some carriers having exclusive colors and branding on their version of the phones and some pre-installed applications, the phones will be the same regardless of your carrier.

Software makes the biggest difference in these devices. From its inception, Google made the Android operating system open source. This means that any manufacturer that chooses to use Android on their devices can modify it as they see fit. Throughout the years, Samsung, HTC, and other manufacturers have enhanced the Android operating system with their own software changes and additions. With the "Google Play" editions of the One and the S4, HTC and Samsung are now releasing these devices with the purest install of the Android operating system, omitting their usual modifications. These versions, like the Moto X and the Nexus line, deliver the Android experience as Google intended it to be.

Standard versions of these phones released by a carrier come with many pre-installed applications that a stock Android phone would not normally have. For example, the standard S4 features several enhancements to the camera, such as being able to use both the forward and back-facing cameras at the same time, allowing the person taking a picture to insert themselves into the shot being taken. The standard HTC One includes a camera feature which creates short films automatically from a series of consecutive images. These changes to the standard camera software were added by the manufacturers to the Android operating system, and are not available in a stock Android phone.

For some consumers, these and many other enhancements added by manufacturers are welcome features. To others, they may be seen as unnecessary gimmicks that have little to no practical use, and for which one could download equivalent applications in the Google Play store if desired. Modifications such as these also take up valuable memory space and do not have the option of being removed without some serious skills and patience.

Stock Android devices tend to get operating system upgrades a lot faster than modified devices. When Google updates Android, it pushes the changes out directly to stock Android devices without having to worry about compatibility issues. On the other hand, Samsung, HTC, and other manufacturers who customize their Android experience must make sure that their modifications will continue to work prior to pushing upgrades to their users. Having to go through this process typically delays upgrades to these handsets. Furthermore, the carriers may also have a say on the implementation and release of these updates, leading to additional delays.

Speaking of carriers, another big difference is carrier availability. The standard Galaxy S4 and HTC One are available in the United States for all major and several minor carriers, giving consumers a wide range of services and plans. The Google versions will only operate in the US on AT&T and T-Mobile. Google sells these phones directly without going through a carrier, which means that the hardware must be able to operate independently from a network. The only way to currently do this in the US is by selling a phone that uses a SIM card to connect to a cellular phone network. Since AT&T and T-Mobile are the only US carriers that use SIM cards, the Google versions are limited to use on these carriers only. A consumer planning on using the Galaxy S4 or the HTC One on Verizon, Sprint, or another carrier will have to use the standard version of the phone.

Nexus devices, which are available only with "stock" Android, are usually sold direct by Google, though some have been made available by carriers as well. The Moto X is initially being released on AT&T, but will eventually be sold by all carriers and directly from Google through the Play Store.

The way in which consumers primarily purchase cellular phones in the US is through a subsidized contract via their carrier. The standard Galaxy S4 and the HTC One are available for $199 from multiple carriers for those willing and able to sign a contract that locks them into a monthly rate over a two year period. Even though the upfront cost for the subsidized phone is considerably less than its actual cost, consumers typically end up paying a higher price for the device over the span of its contract.

In contrast, the Google Play editions of these devices are sold at their full price through the Play Store. Google's version of the Galaxy S4 is available for $649; the HTC One goes for $599. Google separates the process of purchasing the phone from the process of purchasing a cellular plan from a carrier. In this scenario, you pay the full cost of the phone upfront and then select the carrier plan that best meets your needs. This allows you to choose a plan without tying yourself to a multi-year contract at a considerably lower cost. You also gain the ability to switch carriers at any time without paying early termination fees or other penalties imposed by the terms of a contract.

The Moto X is available from carriers starting at $200 on a two-year contract, and there is no information yet on what it will cost off-contract through the Google Play store. Google Play also sells the Nexus 4 for its full price, starting at $299.

If you are considering getting an Android phone you will have an additional variable to consider as more devices get released with the Android operating system running in its purest form. If AT&T or T-Mobile are not carrier options for you, the upfront cost of an unsubsidized phone is beyond your financial means, or if you prefer the software experiences enhanced by HTC, Samsung and other manufacturers, then consider sticking to the original carrier-subsidized versions of these phones. However, if what you are looking for is the freedom of not being tied to a contract or carrier, you want the "stock" Android experience and the benefit of timely software updates directly from Google, and price is not an issue, you may want to give a "Google Play Edition" or a "stock" Android device a look. Regardless of your decision, having these choices available could signal the beginning of an encouraging new trend, a hopeful sign of how manufacturers of Android handsets can address and meet the needs of of a wide and diverse variety of users.