If there's one picture that sums up the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active for AT&T, this is it. Drops of water, artistically (more or less) sitting atop the Android smartphone. It cares not that several hundred dollars worth of electronics are flirting with a phone's worst enemy. In fact, the Active seems to welcome it.
Samsung has taken what arguably is its best Galaxy S yet — that'd be the proper Galaxy S4 — and in nearly the same breath, announced a more robust version. These are fraternal twins. Same overall look and feel, but with a few important differences that also ensure you won't mistake one for the other.
In the United States, the Active is an AT&T exclusive, sold alongside it's ever-so-slightly older brother. So is one a better buy than the other?
- Samsung's best phone just got (mostly) better, with the ability to withstand a swim. Actually, the Active welcomes time in the water and has a dedicated "Aqua" mode for underwater pics and video. More interesting industrial design, including physical buttons.
- You get a slightly worse display (TFT LCD versus AMOLED), lower-resolution camera (8MP versus 13MP) and lose out on a couple other minor features. The door over the USB port is annoying, but necessary. Only available on AT&T in the U.S.
The Bottom Line
Never mind the trade-offs. This phone simply is more fun to use than the original Galaxy S4. You can use it as an (expensive) underwater camera, or simply use the waterproofing as insurance against an untimely death. You've got most of the bells and whistles that are in the proper Galaxy S4, all in a more survivable package.
Inside this review
Summing up the Active is a pretty easy proposition. Take the original Galaxy S4, and beef it up just a bit. The Active, at 5.51 by 2.80 by 0.35 inches, is .13 inches taller, 0.06 inches wider and .04 inches thicker than its counterpart. Side by side you'll notice the difference, but probably not when it stands alone. Not that you'll notice, but it gains an extra 0.8 ounces in weight, too. We've said for some time that the race to a thinner phone hasn't necessarily made a better phone, and the beefier Active is a testament to that.
All the usual parts are in the same places. Volume rocker, headphone jack, power button, earpiece, speaker, camera housing — all look on the Active as they do on the GS4 proper.
The biggest difference, of course, is the inclusion of three physical buttons — the menu and back buttons get this new treatment — instead of just a physical home button. One could make a decent argument for the physical buttons being better than the capacitive sort for a phone this size. They give you tactile feedback, which means you don't have to look down to make sure you're hitting the right spot.
The other idea, of course, is that they behave better than capacitive buttons when wet. Samsung's done a nice job here. They have just enough click to them, as well as just the right amount of texture. They've also got a nice, understated design that keeps the look interesting without getting in the way.
Flip the phone over and you'll see the other major physical difference. The design is a little more industrial than the original Galaxy S4 — we dare say we like it better. Exposed screws and a little texture at the top and bottom give the Active some personality that the GS4 proper lacks. Also note the door that fits into and over the microUSB port, to keep out the elements.
Remove the battery cover and you'll find the same internals as on the GS4 proper. SIM card, microSD card slot (it takes up to a 64GB card for expanded storage, which you'll probably need with only about 10GB of available storage on board) and the 2,600 mAh battery.
Also note the rubber gasket that fits into the recess around the phone's important bits. This is a feature of great importance if you want to keep moisture — or the contents of a swimming pool — out of those sensitive areas. The Active is rated for IP67, which means it's dustproof and can hang out underwater as deep as 1 meter for as long as 30 minutes. That leads us to ...
... the sticker that warns you to pay particular attention to seating the battery cover. "For maximum protection against humidity and water, firmly seal battery cover and USB cover before use," it reads. Indeed, it's easy to correctly position the battery cover but not necessarily have it completely seated. (You can see that in a couple of our pictures here if you look close, actually.) The sticker reminds you to press just below the camera's flash.
We'd recommend patience. Take your time and make sure everything's properly seated and sealed. And it's ugly, but maybe leave that sticker there as a reminder.
One other major difference from the S4 proper is the display. Both are 5 inches in the diagonal, with 1080 by 1920 resolution. But the Active is using a TFT LCD panel instead of the AMOLED on the GS4 proper. It's by no means a bad display to use, but it definitely affects colors a bit. Blacks aren't as black, giving everything muted feel. The Active loses the "Professional Photo" display mode, for what that's worth. We've usually just stuck with "Standard" in the display options and called it a day.
Otherwise, in terms of hardware, there's not a lot more to say. Internally it's got the same specs as the GS4. The IR functionality made it in as well. But we're digging the overall look and feel more than the GS4 proper. It's more interesting. It's more usable. And it's got the added bonus of not being as sensitive to the elements.
Things are pretty familiar on the software front as well. The Active is running Android 4.2.2 with Touchwiz, with the same overall experience as the Galaxy S4 proper. Home screens are the same. All of the 3,000 bells and whistles are there to use if you want to, including Air View and Air Gesture, Smart Stay and Smart Scroll. S Health is on board as well, though you lose the humidity sensor for obvious reasons.
By the way, you'll still want to silence that torturous plop-drop sound.
One welcome change is with Driving Mode. It's available as part of S Voice on the Galaxy S4 proper, but it's gained more granular controls on the Active, with options in the settings menu. (We'd hope to see that added to the GS4 proper in a future software update.) You can still toggle Driving mode in the quick settings.
AT&T's usual suite of apps are on board, of course. That includes AT&T's own driving mode, which duplicates a bit of Samsung's. Hardly the worst offender when it comes to duplicated features, though. That honor goes to ...
Annoying fun fact: There are three "messaging" apps on the Active out of the box — "Messages," which is an AT&T joint, "Messaging," from Samsung, and "Messenger," which is a by-product of Google+ and has since been replaced by Hangouts. But it's still baked into this ROM. Never mind the reason — that's just poor user experience one way or another.
The long and short of the software is that not much has changed. It's still loaded with features — overloaded, perhaps — and remains as usable here as on the GS4 proper.
Guess what: The Active has mostly the same camera as the GS4 proper, though at a lower top-en resolution. By default it shoots at a 16:9 wide-screen 6 megapixels — 3264 by 1836. You can bump that up to a full 8 megapixels if you want, changing to a 4:3 aspect ratio (3264 by 2448 resolution) in the process.
The Active still has a great all-around camera, but it does struggle a bit in low light compared to other recent phones.
You lose out on the dual-camera feature that the GS4 proper sports — hardly the end of the world — but you gain a dedicated "Continuous shot" mode that shoots off four frames per second.
The fun feature, of course, is that the Active has a special underwater "Aqua" mode. While it's safe to get water on the display, the touchscreen gets pretty wonky when that happens. So Aqua mode moves the shutter controls to either the volume buttons. You can choose to have it take a still picture, or start recording video. (You also get a reminder to check the cover on the USB port. Good idea.)
And you know what? It works extremely well. Our only complaint is that it's still possible to accidently zoom in by pinching on the display — and then it's damned near impossible to zoom back out because the screen is all wonky when wet. Otherwise, it's a lot of fun. (It's also worth noting that the phone quickly becomes the tool of an underwater creepshot artist. Mind your butts, ladies and gents. And apologies to my wife, but someone had to test it!)
Galaxy S4 Active camera samples
Galaxy S4 Active rear camera
Galaxy S4 Active front camera
Other odds and ends
- No problems on our end for either voice or data.
- Same for GPS or Bluetooth.
- NFC is still on board. No, we didn't test it underwater.
- The Active doesn't make you swim better or hike longer. It just handles it better than you might in the long run.
- The rear speaker is loud and high and tinny, normal for Samsung phones, even with the extra waterproofing. Still sounds fine after coming out of the water and drying off.
- Samsung has thrown in a flashlight app! Go to Settings>My Device to find "Torch light." You can then set a shortcut to activate it by pressing and holding volume-up when the display is off. You also can set a timeout. Hitting any other buttons turns off the flashlight.
The bottom line
At the time of this writing, the Galaxy S4 Active is only available in the U.S. on AT&T. It'll run you $199 with a two-year contract or about $600 at full price. And that exclusivity is a shame, as we'd probably come really close to recommending the Active over the Galaxy S4 proper outright. We're certainly ready to do that for AT&T.
For one, it's got a more interesting design. Maybe we're just looking for something new and different from the flagship Galaxy, but there's nothing wrong with that, and that's what we've got in the Active. While it's not a "rugged" phone, the additional protection against water and dust is a welcomed safety net. And, frankly, it's just fun. While we'll still question the logic of taking a $600 smartphone into any body of water, you can't deny the results. You lose out a little bit in camera resolution and in display color quality, but both remain more than acceptable.
The bottom line is that the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is a fun, robust Android smartphone that is a serious contender for anyone looking for a high-end phone on AT&T.