Galaxy S6 Active review: Samsung gets rugged right
Samsung’s Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge are absolutely beautiful smartphones … but they’re also absolutely impractical for anything resembling a sporty lifestyle. Enter the Galaxy S6 Active, a heavyweight version of the 2015 flagship built to take tougher treatment and last longer on a single charge. We covered the differences between them in a comparison last week; now, after seven days, it’s time to render our final verdict. Does the Galaxy S6 Active correct the problems faced by its two Active forebears? Is it worth considering over its well-regarded siblings in the S6 family – and if so, is it worth switching to AT&T to get it? The only way out is down, as they say, so scroll away and let’s get to finding out!
Galaxy S6 Active Review Video
Specs & Hardware
The Galaxy S6 Active looks a lot like a standard Galaxy S6 wrapped in a super-durable casing, and the reality isn’t far from that. In years past, “tough smartphones” tended to equal “underwhelming smartphones” on the spec sheet, but with each successive generation of its Active line, Samsung has brought its durable smartphones closer to parity with its standard offerings. Here, that means you’ll find the same brilliant display as on the regular S6 –a 5.1-inch Super AMOLED panel whose Quad HD resolution makes for a super-dense 577 pixels every inch– powered by the same Exynos 7420 processor backed up by the same 3GB of LPDDR4 RAM. As you may recall, we found the battery on the stock S6 pretty underwhelming, so we were pleased to see Samsung give the Active a 37% larger reservoir for longer endurance. Its power pack weighs in at a beefy 3500 mAh, making it one of the biggest batteries you can find in a mainstream smartphone (a good thing, since it’s sealed inside the casing and can’t be removed).
That non-removable nature actually works in the phone’s favor. Previous generations of Active suffered from water intrusion due to their battery doors not always sealing properly, so omitting that vulnerability makes the Galaxy S6 Active feel even more solid. Backing up that feeling is an alphabet soup of certifications: according to Samsung, the phone meets both IP68 and MIL-STD 810G standards for durability. The IP68 rating means the phone is fully dust-proof (that’s the 6 part) and capable of surviving immersion in freshwater (8) – up to a depth of 1.5 meters for up to 30 minutes. The MIL-STD certification adds resistance to humidity, vibration, high altitudes, temperature extremes, and impact damage: Samsung says you can drop it from up to 4 feet on a hard surface without wrecking it.
Manufacturers have historically played fast and loose with ruggedization certifications and it remains an open question just how accurate they actually are, but we’re happy to report that in this case the claims hold up very well. A half-hour in the kitchen freezer dropped the S6 Active from 80 degrees to 34 degrees Fahrenheit and the phone didn’t even seem to notice. A half hour in direct sunlight spiked the dark gray casing up to 120 degrees, but only by dropping the hot phone in cool water could we trip it up (and even then, the only sign of stress was a single reboot). Impact tests went just as well: while repeated drops on asphalt and concrete heavily scarred the phone’s polycarbonate chassis, there’s no lasting damage to speak of. That includes the Gorilla Glass 4 display cover, which is sunk slightly beneath the outer edges of the casing for further protection. Speaking of the display: it’s perfectly usable with thin gloves (though thicker material might lead to some challenges) and Samsung has continued the trend it kicked off two generations ago by eliminating the two capacitive keys alongside the home button and transforming all three into hard rubber buttons. While this means the excellent fingerprint scanner of the straight Galaxy S6 is nowhere to be seen, it makes the S6 Active easier to use with gloves and less likely to get tripped up by fat-finger mashing of the multitasking or back buttons.
Water testing went just as well during our week-long review period. Our S6 Active demo device has been splashed, sprayed, and submerged a half-meter deep in a bathtub for 30 minutes, with no damage whatsoever. But while the new flap-less USB port is very convenient for easy charging, it also doesn’t like getting wet. Take the phone out of the water and you’re bound to see a flickering notification at the top of the screen informing you that the “dock is connected” – an error that doesn’t seem confined to waterproof Samsungs. Considering how long this bug has been around, it’s disappointing that Samsung didn’t correct it before releasing such a supposedly rugged smartphone. Fortunately, the fix is relatively easy: just take a deep breath and blow some air into the USB port like it’s an old Nintendo cartridge, then leave it in front of a fan to dry. That fix doesn’t work quite as well for the speakerphone, which pitifully rattles and rasps the moment it gets even the slightest bit wet and takes forever to fully dry.
While those issues are annoying, they’re also commonplace for other water-resistant handhelds … and they’re a small price to pay for the broad feeling of imperviousness the Galaxy S6 Active inspires.
Aside from the typical truckload of AT&T bloatware, the software on the S6 Active is very nearly identical to that of the standard S6. (Head on over to our Galaxy S6 review for our full thoughts.) Fortunately, Samsung’s track record of updating Active phones is actually pretty good –OTAs for the S 4 Active and S5 Active typically trail the corresponding S 4 and S5 updates by only about a month– so hopefully some of the issues mentioned below will get relatively quick fixes.
Generally speaking, we’re looking at a slimmed-down version of Samsung’s TouchWiz user interface that’s much snappier and slightly sleeker than what’s come before, and we really like the ability to customize it with a growing number of available themes on Samsung’s app store. Not all of the AT&T bloat is bad, either: the company’s Usage Manager is a handy hub for keeping an eye on battery consumption, active background apps, radio connections and cellular data usage, while Caller Name ID ($2.99/mo. after free trial) is handy for helping identify mystery callers even if they’re not in your phone book.
On the low side, this is still TouchWiz, so some things that work very well in stock Android stumble a bit here. One example is sometimes-unresponsive apps; another is Samsung’s so-called “high-quality” Text-to-speech voice, which sounds more like someone having a digestive problem and trying her best to hide it. Also, the Active is still stuck on a version of Android (5.0.2) that brings out the worst in Lollipop’s memory management problems. Multitasking is inconsistent; app crashes happen far too often; and there’s a bug that causes some apps, like the game Ingress, to crash when launching them from the new Active Key (but not when launching them from the app drawer) which is bizarre.
That odd behavior aside, the Active Key is a really nice addition to this phone. It’s a textured blue button mounted on the side above the volume rocker, opposite the power/standby key. Click it and you’re catapulted into the Activity Zone, the predictably “outdoorsy” hub containing useful tools that have been somewhat uselessly clumped together. Still, it’s attractive in its simplicity: the rearrangeable tiles vaguely evoke the look of Windows Phone and provide access to Weather, Barometer, S Health, Flashlight, Stopwatch, Compass and Samsung’s Milk media player. The Galaxy S6 Active gave us our first chance to sample Milk; while we won’t be switching from Spotify anytime soon, its (Slacker-powered) music library is impressive and its interface is actually much cooler than its ridiculous brand name would suggest. Fortunately, Samsung saw the opportunity for added convenience here: if the Activity Zone’s not your thing, you can program the Active Key to launch any app you like with a short press, and a long-press will launch another. In an improvement over last year’s Active, this key can now bypass the lock screen if you choose, making it a great shortcut to whatever app you need to get to in a hurry.
Fortunately you don’t need to use up one of those shortcuts for the camera; because just like on the standard S6, you can double-click the home button to jump right into the viewfinder. The 16MP camera here also seems to be the same exact module as the one found in the stock S6, and the results bear that out: it’s one of the best cameras on Android, and on smartphones as a whole.
That means crisp, colorful photos in daylight with excellent sharpness and saturation. It means an HDR mode that brings out the highlights on darker objects without going so far as to create halos around lighter ones. It means brighter nighttime pictures that, while not without digital noise, are much better than most competition thanks to optical stabilization and an f/1.9 aperture.
It means selfies that, despite some distortion at the edges, more often than not come out the way you want them to regardless of light level:
And it means a host of manual controls that can make a photo like the one on the left into a photo like the one on the right, with just a few button presses:
Can the Galaxy S6 Active take an ugly picture? Sure. But is it likely to? Nope. This camera is awesome.
Oh and yes, it can take pictures underwater too, with the volume rocker or Active Key standing in for a shutter release:
While aspects like the camera and software reinforce this phone’s similarity to its less-active sibling, the differences shine brightly in other areas. Battery life is the biggest of these. With 3500 mAh of Lithium-polymer power, the S6 Active routinely delivers solid up-time: even with heavy use, we’ve twice been able to hit 5.5 hours of screen-on time between charges (once after 10.5 hours of use, another time after 13 hours). That makes this phone an endurance match for the Nexus 6 and Droid Turbo, and just like those devices it also offers both wireless (Qi/PMA) and wired charging options. Using the included Adaptive Fast Charger, replenishment time is a little better than 1% per minute, with zero-to-100% charge time of one hour and 45 minutes with the phone powered off.
On the down side, the battery life would probably be even better without Cell Standby eating so much of it – a problem we also saw on the Galaxy S6 for T-Mobile. Also, the storage options are … well, nonexistent. You’re limited to 32GB of internal storage and much of that is eaten up by the system image, with only 24GB available to the user out of the box (and no MicroSD card slot in sight). Like its predecessors, this phone has a tendency to turn its screen on for no reason when carried in a pocket. And while the speakerphone is pretty loud, placing it on the back of the casing makes no sense to us. This is a phone that obviously doesn’t worry much about its looks or its size, and some buyers will likely need to use it in loud environments like construction sites – so why not put the speaker up front, where it belongs?
On a more positive note, the S6 Active gave us our first chance to try out AT&T’s HD Voice. The voice-over-LTE offering comes with a boatload of qualifiers: it only works when the other caller is on a compatible phone (17 of which are offered by AT&T at press time) and even then, both callers need to be in markets where HD Voice has been rolled out. But line up those stars right and holy megahertz, what a difference. Calls over HD Voice are as clear and crisp as the best Skype or FaceTime Audio calls, with more fidelity than you’ll find on any standard cellular connection. Back on the conventional side of things, AT&T’s LTE speeds aren’t nearly as fast as they were a year ago (we averaged about 8Mbps down and 8Mbps up in Somerville) but Big Orange’s coverage still beats everyone else both on and below the streets in Greater Boston.
+ Durability lives up to rugged looks
+ Outstanding camera above and below the water
+ Beautiful display
+ Above-average endurance
– Software less “waterproof” than hardware
– Rear-firing speaker takes hours to dry after immersion
– Android 5.0.2 already feels clunky, dated
Pricing and Availability
For now, the Galaxy S6 is exclusive to AT&T in the U.S. – and if past experience is any indication it’s likely to stay that way. So you have to be cool with addressing your phone bills to the offices of the nation’s second-largest operator to consider this device. AT&T offers the Galaxy S6 Active in a choice of three colors (Gray, Camo Blue or Camo White) for $199.99 on a 2-year contract, or as low as $23.17/mo for 30 months on the AT&T Next installment plan.
For those who’d rather unlock the phone to test the waters on a smaller “Uncarrier” (or those seeking to avoid a contract), the S6 Active will run you a Hamilton more than the standard S6: $694.99 at full retail price. Annoyingly, the carrier doesn’t bundle earphones with this version, despite the minor price hike.
The Galaxy S6 Active is a more durable and more capable smartphone than any Galaxy S that’s come before. It goes much further on a single charge than the regular S6, keeping pace with some of the longest-lasting phones in its segment. Even better: it’s corrected most of the problems that have long plagued Samsung’s Active line, like leaky casings and inflated durability claims. And while it’s exclusive to the nation’s second-largest network, there are certainly worse carriers to be locked into than AT&T. If you’re in need of an Android phone that takes a beating without surrendering top-tier features, the S6 Active should be at or near the top of your list of contenders – assuming AT&T’s network in your area is up to snuff.