The moment Google announced the Google Play edition of the Samsung Galaxy S4, you could almost hear the buyer's remorse from millions of people who had already picked up the regular version of the handset. Not only is the Google Play edition of the phone free from bloatware, but it also benefits from timely updates similar to Google's line of Nexus devices. Suddenly, that pricey new phone you signed a 2-year contract for isn't looking as lustrous as when you first got it.
I do have some good news, though: Thanks to Android's flexible nature, you too can get your regular Samsung Galaxy S4 looking like the Google Play edition--without voiding your warranty.
Getting things started
The first thing you're going to want to do is clean house: Look through the apps that came preinstalled on your phone and uninstall all of the ones you don't want. You can do this by pressing the Menu button while in the App Drawer and selecting Uninstall, or by going to the Application Manager in the Settings app. The number of apps you'll be able to uninstall will vary depending on which carrier you're on--Sprint generally lets you remove more pre-installed apps than Verizon, for instance.
If there's an app you can't uninstall, don't worry too much about it. Just make a note of it--we'll deal with it a little later on.
When you're done ousting any unwanted apps, head on over to the Settings and get ready to do the same to most of the Galaxy S4's marquee features. Under the My Device tab, tap on Motions and gestures and turn off all of the options inside. Do the same for Smart screen, Air view, and Voice Control. These last few steps are completely optional, though they will help in getting that authentic "Android feel" and could potentially help you conserve your battery.
New coat of paint
Now that you've freed up some space and turned off any annoying extra features, it's time to download the apps you'll need to make it look like your phone is running stock Android. Jump into the Google Play Store and download Nova Launcher (free), Google Calendar (free), Google Keyboard (free), and WidgetLocker Lockscreen ($3).
Nova Launcher is a launcher replacement app that lets you customize your home screen and app drawer. It gives you extra functionality not found in Samsung's TouchWiz launcher, such as the ability to personalize your app icons, and overall feels much faster than Samsung's offering.
WidgetLocker Lockscreen is like Nova Launcher, but for your lock screen: It lets you add custom shortcuts to your lock screen and allows you to choose how you phone behaves when you wake it up. It's the only paid app on this list, but it's well worth the $3 entry fee to remove the bland Samsung lock screen and its grating sound effects.
Although I have no real qualms with either the Samsung keyboard or calendar, you're going to want the Google Calendar and Google Keyboard apps to really complete the stock Android look. Neither of these apps have any real benefits over the ones included in the Galaxy S4, I'm just recommending them to be throrough.
Once those apps have finished downloading, press the Home button on your phone and select Nova Launcher from the prompt that pops up. Your home screen will resemble the stock Android home screen, albeit with a few extra animations for opening and closing apps.
Remember those apps you couldn't uninstall? The paid version of Nova Launcher offers the ability to hide those unwanted apps from appearing in your app drawer, and might be worth investing in if you're sick of seeing that NFL Mobile app on your phone. It's not the same thing as actually removing the apps, but it's out of sight, out of mind, right?
You'll need to setup Google Keyboard and WidgetLocker Lockscreen before you can use them, but the process is dead simple. Just follow the onscreen prompts. Google Calendar will display the calendar for whatever Google account is the default for your phone, so there's no setup required. If you prefer Samsung's keyboard or calendar, just uninstall Google's.
What we can't change
Even though your Galaxy S4 now looks like the one you can buy directly from Google, the changes we've made here are mostly cosmetic and don't extend much beyond the home screen and lock screen. The dialer, notification shade, messages, and many other parts of the operating system will look the same as when you first picked up the phone and they can't be changed without rooting the device--a somewhat complicated and warranty-voiding process.
Another downside of not owning the Google Play edition is that system updates are still handled by your carrier, so your Galaxy S4 might not always run the latest version of Android. This may open you up to security vulnerabilities and means you might miss out on cool new features down the line.
But a big advantage of not having a Google Play Edition Galaxy S4 is that you can always undo your changes and regain access to all of Samsung's extras and goodies. Samsung included a number of noteworthy additions to the Galaxy S4, none of which you get access to if you bought your phone directly from Google. You take the good with the bad when you buy a phone on contract, but at least this way you get to experience the best of both worlds.