Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review: Rugged and ready for adventure
At a Glance
The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is a ruggedized version of the the company’s current flagship Android phone, the Galaxy S4. Where the S4 is a fine fit for cubicle drones and people who spend most of their time indoors, the Active is for those who crave a little more excitement in their lives—thrill seekers and adventurers. It’s the phone for people who want a high-end handset but don’t want it to get in the way of their active lifestyle.
Dashing and durable
While the Active is slightly larger and thicker than the standard S4, the two phones don’t look all that different from one another: Both feature 5-inch 1080p displays and a similar shape, but the Active has physical navigation buttons and feels weightier in your hand. Even with its added girth, the Active is comfortable to hold and you shouldn’t have any trouble getting it in or out of your pocket.
The phone is mostly constructed out of polycarbonate—a fancy word for plastic—but it doesn’t feel as plasticky as previous Samsung handsets. The top and bottom corners of the Active have a rubbery coating that makes it more resilient if it’s dropped, and the phone as a whole doesn’t seem as fragile as the S4. The physical navigation buttons are a little spongy, but they don’t feel loose and they seem like they can withstand some abuse.
Much like the Sony Xperia Z, the Active is certified water-resistant in up to 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes. The Micro-USB port on the Active has a small flap that you need to cover before taking the phone for a dip, but it’s pretty flimsy and seems like it’d be way too easy to damage through regular use. If you prefer land to sea, the Active is resistant to dust and the phone’s Gorilla Glass 2 display is slightly harder to scuff than screens on most other smartphones.
The Active has a removable battery and MicroSD card slot, and accessing them is fairly straightforward: You just pop the back casing off as you would on any other smartphone, no special tools required. Replacing the back cover is simple too, but you should take special care to make sure the waterproof seal is in place if you plan on using the phone around water. A sticker on the back of the phone tells you how to securely snap on the back cover; you can remove it once you feel you’ve gotten the hang of the operation.
Under the hood
The Active packs some impressive specs inside its water-resistant shell: A 1.9GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor gives the phone the power it needs to run pretty much any app or game you’d find in the Google Play Store, and the 2GB of RAM comes in handy when you’re running lots of apps at the same time. The phone has next to no lag, even when you are installing multiple applications at once, and games like Riptide GP 2 play beautifully on the Active’s large display.
Data speeds over AT&T’s 4G LTE network are quite good, with download speeds reaching up to 18 megabits per second here in our San Francisco office. Calls are loud and clear, though your mileage will vary depending on AT&T’s coverage in your area.
I got a full day of casual mixed use out of the phone (downloading apps, browsing the Web, playing games), and our official lab battery test rates the Active’s battery life at 8 hours, 1 minute. The Active lasted an hour longer than the Galaxy S4, but didn’t come close to achieving the same battery life we see in phones like the Samsung Galaxy Note II or Motorola Droid Razr HD.
Unlike the standard Galaxy S4, the Active doesn’t feature wireless charging, but several third-party accessories can easily add that functionality if you really want it. You can always buy a higher-capacity battery for the phone, but that might compromise its resiliency against dust and moisture.
Too much Samsung
Samsung has a tendency to cram its phones with as many features as it can dream up—and that’s not always a good thing. Just setting up the phone requires you to jump through dozens of menus and pop-ups asking you to enable various extras and settings. It can quickly get overwhelming, and most of these settings come off as gimmicky.
The Active comes with all the same Samsung apps as the standard S4, most of which attempt to replicate the functionality provided by the Google’s own suite of apps. Why Samsung feels the need to package its own Web browser when the Chrome browser comes preinstalled is beyond me, especially when Samsung’s software is not as slick or intuitive as Google’s offerings.
Though the Active ships running Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, it’s highly likely that Samsung will update the phone to Android 4.3 since it shares almost all of its specs with the company’s current flagship smartphone.
The 8-megapixel camera on the Active is a slight downgrade from the 12-megapixel shooter on the standard S4. Photos exhibit minor artifacting and the white balance is sometimes wonky when you’re taking pictures indoors. There are a variety of different shooting modes available including HDR, panorama, night, and best photo, but most of the time the auto mode will get the job done without much hassle.
The camera works underwater, and an aqua shooting mode lets you use the volume-up button to control the camera, since you won’t be able to use the touchscreen while the phone is submerged. (A problem we also ran into while using the Sony Xperia Z.)
Samsung has a winner on its hands with the Active: It’s sleek, powerful, and won’t fall apart the first time you drop it or get it dirty. The downgrade in camera quality is lamentable, and some will absolutely hate all of Samsung’s software extras, but those are small concessions to make for a phone that you can use in the shower or pool. If you need a phone that can survive the great outdoors, then the Active should be your first choice. If you value your photos and don’t really spend much time being active, then the regular Galaxy S4 will suit you just fine.