The Galaxy S6 active matches the standard GS6 in many ways, and even bests it in some crucial areas.
The quick take
The Galaxy S6 active takes a proven great device in the Galaxy S6 and beefs it up just a tad. Metal and glass are replaced by rubber and plastic, giving the GS6 active water, dust and shock resistance while only adding minimal thickness and weight. The extra space also gives the active a dramatically larger battery, which fixes one of the main issues with the original. You'll lose a fingerprint sensor and some of the sex appeal of the GS6 if you choose to buy an active, but the only real downside to be found here is that the phone is exclusive to AT&T.
- Long battery life
- Water, dust and shockproof
- Great camera
- Wonderful display
- No fingerprint scanner
- Bulkier than the regular GS6
- No large storage options
- Exclusive to AT&T in the U.S.
Galaxy S6 active Full Review
Samsung choosing to release an "active" version of its flagship Galaxy S device of the year isn't really new. We saw both a Galaxy S4 Active and Galaxy S5 Active in the last two years, and when leaks first appeared of a purported Galaxy S6 variant we weren't surprised. Nor were we astounded when the device was exclusive to AT&T or we saw that it's basically just a Galaxy S6 with a tougher case around it.
But that's not a bad mark against the Galaxy S6 active — the Galaxy S6 itself is a pretty great device, so when you add a few extra features it makes the active version just as appealing to a certain type of potential phone buyer. Not everyone wants a sleek, slim and slippery phone that sacrifices battery capacity for looks.
Of course no phone is without a compromise or two, and the Galaxy S6 active isn't perfect. It lacks the great fingerprint sensor of the Galaxy S6, and not everyone will be happy with the looks of the device or its exclusivity to just one carrier. Read on with our full review of the Galaxy S6 active to see how it all comes together.
About this review
We're writing this review after just over a week using a gray Galaxy S6 active on the AT&T network in areas with good cellular coverage. The software version of the device was G890AUCU1AOE9 (Android 5.0.2) and wasn't updated during the review period.
Galaxy S6 active Video review
Like some moving pictures to accompany our complete written review? We have you covered right here. Be sure to watch our video then read the rest of the review for full impressions of the Galaxy S6 active.
Added protection, and a few subtle changes
Galaxy S6 active Hardware
There isn't a ton about the Galaxy S6 active that sets it apart from the flagship Galaxy S6, but the big difference is of course the external hardware of the phone. Gone is the sleek, slim and rounded exterior made up of glass and metal, replaced instead by a far more active-looking exterior.
It's like a Galaxy S6, but with a protective case glued on it.
A super hard plastic piece surrounds the edges of the phone, with inserts of grippy rubber making it easier to hold the phone and larger textured buttons for volume and power that are simple to press. The back of the Galaxy S6 active is a textured hard plastic plate, with exposed rivets and a metal ring surrounding the camera lens. The edges of the device create a small lip around a familiar 5.1-inch QHD screen that should protect the display if it's placed face-down on a table, and larger bezels all around should save it from unfortunate drops.
The standard Samsung setup of a large physical home button flanked by two capacitive keys is gone, replaced with a triumvirate of textured buttons with chrome logos that almost perfectly match the buttons of the previous generation Active. The buttons are a little on the mushy side and unfortunately don't light up, but perhaps the biggest issue with them is that the home button no longer doubles as a fingerprint sensor. That's a shame because Samsung finally has that hardware component figured out in the Galaxy S6, and it's a great feature (and security enhancement).
The casing of course gives the Galaxy S6 active better protection from the world around you, as it's water, dust and shockproof (within reason). That's all without annoying flaps over the headphone jack and USB port, and the SIM tray can even be easily removed with just a fingernail. You don't need to be an extreme sports athlete or construction worker to see the benefits, either — I'm sure many reading this have had a spilled drink in a restaurant or an unexpected drop to the sidewalk ruin a phone. Those aren't issues here.
You don't have to be an extreme sports star to want the protection — we've all seen a phone destroyed by accident.
The GS6 active is notably — but not severely — thicker, wider, taller and heavier than the standard Galaxy S6, but the added grip of the sides and back actually make it easier to hold and use (particularly one-handed). You can easily argue that the Galaxy S6 active is a bit too tough, rugged or cumbersome looking, but you can also say the same about some of the thicker and protective cases on offer for any other phone you buy. Think of this phone as coming with a pre-installed protective case — it'll bother some people, but most won't have an issue with it. (Just maybe shy away from the blue and white versions of the phone with the camouflage backs.)
I personally don't have any issues with the physical design of the phone as much as I'm just a bit annoyed by the move to all physical buttons below the display. Without a fingerprint scanner embedded in the home button there's not much reason to have that home button at all, and now it's joined by two more buttons that have no need to be physical. High-sensitivity modes make the touchscreen usable even with gloves on, and the physical buttons at this point are just taking up space unnecessarily.
A familiar spec sheet
Galaxy S6 active Specs
The Galaxy S6 active just about matches the regular Galaxy S6 in specs down to the number, but has a few subtle changes under the hood.
|Operating System||Android 5.0.2 Lollipop with TouchWiz|
|Display||5.1-inch QHD (2560x1440) 577ppi Super AMOLED|
|Processor||Octa-core 4x2.1GHz + 4x1.5GHz 64-bit 14nm Samsung Exynos processor|
|Rear Camera||16MP, OIS, ƒ/1.9, auto real-time HDR, low-light video, high clear zoom, IR detect white balance, virtual shot, slow motion, fast motion, pro mode, selective focus|
|Front Camera||5MP, ƒ/1.9, auto real-time HDR, low-light video|
|Network||LTE Category 6 (300/50Mbps)|
|Connectivity||802.11a/b/g/n/ac (2.4/5GHz), HT80 MIMO(2x2), 620Mbps, dual-band, Wi-Fi Direct, Mobile hotspot
Bluetooth 4.1 LE, A2DP, atp-X, ANT+
GPS, GLONASS, NFC, IR remote, USB 2.0
|Sensors||Accelerometer, ambient light, barometer, compass, gyroscope, hall, heart rate monitor, HRM, proximity|
|Charging||USB 2.0 (Adaptive Fast Charging), Qi wireless (WPC 1.1, 4.6W output)|
|Battery||3500 mAh (non-removable)|
|Dimensions||146.81 x 73.41 x 8.64 mm / 5.78 x 2.89 x 0.34-inches|
|Weight||150g / 5.291 oz|
|Video||Formats: MP4, M4V, 3GP, 3G2, WMV, ASF, AVI, FLV, MKV, WEBM, VP9|
|Audio||Codecs: MP3, AMR-NB, AMR-WB, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, WMA, Vorbis, FLAC, OPUS
Formats: MP3, M4A, 3GA, AAC, OGG, OGA, WAV, WMA, AMR, AWB, FLAC, MID, MIDI, XMF, MXMF, IMY, RTTTL, RTX, OTA
|Samsung software features||Active Zone, Download Booster, OneNote, Private Mode, Quick Connect, S Health 4.0, S Finder, S Voice, Samsung Pay, Smart Manager, Sound Alive+, Themes|
|Google Mobile Services||Chrome, Drive, Gmail, Google Settings, Google+, Hangouts, Maps, Photos, Play Books, Play Games, Play Movies and TV, Play Newsstand, Play Store, Voice Search, YouTube|
|Colors||White, blue, gray|
Of course the aforementioned size differences are notable, but it's also worth pointing out that you can only get the Galaxy S6 active with 32GB of storage — there aren't 64 and 128GB options. The battery has also been bumped in size considerably, to 3500 mAh compared to 2550 in the standard version. The Galaxy S6 active also supports Qi and Powermat wireless charging, just like other GS6 models. (A previous version of this review stated that Powermat charging was not included — we regret the error and have fixed it above.)
Again a great display, mediocre speaker
Galaxy S6 active Display and Speakers
This (along with the camera) is going to be a short section of the review, and that's not surprising. The Galaxy S6 active has the same QHD Super AMOLED display that you'll find on the Galaxy S6, and it has all of the same great qualities. Brightness, contrast and viewing angles are great, as is the outdoor visibility when it pumps up the brightness in direct sunlight. Samsung is an industry leader in displays right now, and thankfully there weren't any corners cut on the active model of the GS6. There really isn't anything bad you can say about this display, whether it's being evaluated on its own or next to any of the competition.
The display is leading the industry; the speaker isn't worth writing home about.
As for the speaker, it has changed locations on the Galaxy S6 active, moving from the bottom of the phone to the back (where it was on the Galaxy S5) — but because the back of the phone isn't perfectly flat there's a little bit of room for the noise to get out when it's sitting on a table. The speaker still isn't very big and doesn't sound that great — as we expect in a Galaxy S6 — but when you have a waterproof phone it's tough to have a larger speaker. The speaker still gets the job done for speakerphone calls and YouTube videos, but still isn't on par with the leading front-facing and dual speaker setups you'll find elsewhere.
Interestingly Samsung has stuck with the same ported grille style earphone speaker above the display for calls, whereas many other rugged devices go with a bone conducting speaker setup to limit the number of places water and dust can enter the device.
One of the best, and that's unchanged
Galaxy S6 active Camera
One of the best features of the Galaxy S6 is its camera, and it has come over in full force to the active version of the device. The same 16MP sensor supported by OIS and newly-simplified software takes excellent photos in a variety of lighting conditions. Even a full two months after the launch of the original Galaxy S6 and S6 edge, we're really still in love with this camera.
Samsung's auto HDR mode makes it extremely easy to capture the right photo without any fiddling, but if you want to mess with settings you can hop into the Pro mode and tweak. Whether it's in crisp daylight, indoor scenes or night shots, there's really not much that stumps the GS6 active's camera.
The software you know, with more AT&T bloat
Galaxy S6 active Software and Performance
The Galaxy S6 active has yet to update to the latest Android 5.1.1 that's available on some variants of the Galaxy S6, but considering it's nearly identical to the other models we wouldn't expect updates to be too delayed.
Samsung and AT&T didn't go all-out making the software look as 'active' as the hardware.
Until that update hits, we're looking at Android 5.0.2 with the Samsung customization you've come to know, for better or worse, on its other devices. Aside from a few subtle changes, everything here works as it does on any other Galaxy S6 — Samsung and AT&T didn't go all-out making the software look as "active" as the hardware, and I'm thankful for that.
The main interface change you'll notice on the GS6 active is that the settings are put into a tabbed view rather than a scrolling list, but depending on what version of Samsung phone you used last this may actually seem like the "right" way to do things. There's no way to switch back to a list view if you prefer that, though, so you'll have to learn to love it.
Of course you can't get through the review of an AT&T phone without talking about its pre-installed apps, and the Galaxy S6 active has a full set. AT&T has 26 apps pre-installed on the phone that you wouldn't find otherwise, most of which being AT&T's own apps with a few being partner additions from Amazon, Microsoft, Lookout, Uber and others. You can disable all but one — a built-in Usage Manager app — but can't actually uninstall any of them. The Galaxy S6 active has 24.47GB of storage free of the 32GB installed, which is right in the range of what you get from other models.
Activity Zone may be useful, but the rest of the pre-installed apps really aren't.
The one potentially useful extra app is the "Activity Zone," which is launched with a press of the "Active key" that sits above the volume rocker on the left side of the GS6 active. Activity Zone acts as a dashboard with small widgets that launch into full apps, including the weather, barometer, S Health, compass, flashlight, stopwatch and some Milk Music exercise integration. The app can be launched through a regular app icon as well, and you can also re-map the Active key to launch any other app of your choice with either a short or long press.
AT&T also does a few annoying things in the software, including putting the carrier's name in the status bar when you don't have notifications, giving you a permanent notification any time you're connected to Wifi, and having little bits of software to auto-connect you to certified AT&T Wifi hotspots. You'll get that on any AT&T phone you choose, though, so it's hard to complain too terribly much. I just wish AT&T didn't make so many seemingly-random software changes that all detract from the experience of using the phone.
Little quibbles about apps and software tweaks aside, the Galaxy S6 active performs just like a Galaxy S6 should. It offers a generally snappy and responsive experience, with little bouts of curious lag that few Android phones seem to be able to escape. Looking at the Galaxy S6 active side-by-side with another GS6, the experience in terms of performance is identical.
More than what you need for a day
Galaxy S6 active Battery life
You can't get through a discussion about the Galaxy S6 without mentioning its battery life ... situation. While most of the concerns over the GS6's longevity have been exaggerated, it's hardly a secret that people are having troubles getting through a day on the phone when they use it to its full capabilities. The 2550 mAh battery is somewhat to blame there, but so are the extra-powerful internals and brilliant display.
The Galaxy S6 active keeps the same specs and display, but fixes the battery woes by increasing the battery size by over 35 percent to 3500 mAh. And while the battery still isn't removable, it honestly doesn't matter anymore now that it has reached a size that can get you through even a tough day of use. After over a week using the GS6 active, I ended every day with considerable battery (20 percent or more) left, even if I spent time streaming music, watching videos, using the hotspot, navigating in Google Maps or taking tons of pictures.
I wish every Galaxy S6 had this battery — it's the right size for the job.
That's something I could only accomplish on the Galaxy S6 with lighter use, with any of the mentioned activities putting a big dent in the battery and forcing a charge. Considering how identical the phones are you can look at it purely by the numbers: A 35 percent bump in battery means 35 percent longer battery life in this case. That means the difference between charging during the day and not worrying about it, and it's one of the Galaxy S6 active's strongest selling points.
Of course Samsung's Adaptive Fast Charging (which is compatible with Quick Charge 2.0 accessories) is still included, as is Qi wireless charging, and because the GS6 active has a textured back it's far more stable on a wider range of wireless charging pads. Though because of the greater battery life, I didn't find myself using wireless charging throughout the day as I do on the Galaxy S6 and really only used it for overnight charging.
A simple choice to make
Galaxy S6 active Bottom line
In some ways the Galaxy S6 active is actually a better phone than the standard version that was released over two months earlier. It has a tougher exterior that can stand up to more punishment, and has a dramatically larger battery that can get you through both average and hard-working days. It also has those features with few compromises — the extra size and weight aren't an issue, and the only other major shortcoming is the lack of a fingerprint scanner.
Aside from those changes, the GS6 active also carries all of the great traits that make the regular GS6 worth recommending. A brilliant QHD display is top in its class, while the 16MP camera still takes wonderful pictures in a variety of situations.
Should you buy the Galaxy S6 Active? It's a simple decision
For most people, the question being asked is whether they should buy the regular Galaxy S6 or the Galaxy S6 active. Well, making that decision is a pretty simple equation. Either you like the metal and glass construction, slim profile and fingerprint scanner of the regular GS6, or you'd prefer the protection from the elements, substantially longer battery life and rugged construction of the GS6 active.
More often than with previous versions, I'd say the Galaxy S6 active may be the right device to choose in that situation. It offers a great overall package with very few downsides, whether you're comparing to another GS6 or any other device out there for the same price.