I’ve learned that there are two things about being a smartphone-and-tablet reviewer.

The first thing: you get to handle awesome gadgetry days or weeks ahead of its official release date, and you’re not just allowed to use the heck out of it; you need to, in order to do your job. That’s the awesome thing.

The other, less-awesome thing: you eventually have to give it all back.

Empty Nest is a recurring column discussing what I miss -and what I don’t- about the devices I’ve had to return.

I was chest-deep in Walden Pond, holding my Lumia 1020 above my head to capture a shot of my girlfriend swimming, when I realized it: I missed the Galaxy S 4 Active. Like, a lot.

In case you missed it, the Galaxy S 4 Active shed its veil of secrecy during Samsung’s Premiere 2013 event in London a few months back, one in a series of devices that ran the gamut from awesome to bizarre. The Active, a slightly ruggedized version of the Galaxy S 4 with a few tweaks to its spec sheet, fell on the “awesome” side of the spectrum for a few reasons: it didn’t “bulk up” too much in the quest for durability, it didn’t sacrifice many features over the stock Galaxy S 4, and it was waterproof. Not “it’ll be okay if it gets splashed”-type water resistance, mind you, but certified to IP67 for immersion in up to a meter of water for up to 30 minutes. (So long as you remembered to close the battery cover completely, anyway.)

For these reasons and some others, the Galaxy S 4 Active did very well in our full review, a video distillation of which is here for your viewing pleasure:


After having been without the Galaxy S 4 Active for a couple months, it’s not the feature set that I miss. Nor is it the aesthetic design, with its roguish exposed screws and brilliant “dive blue” paint job. It’s not even the big, bright display.

Instead, what I miss most is the feeling of invulnerability I got when carrying the phone. Not the superhero kind, but the feeling of security that comes with knowing you can carelessly toss your phone around without putting it in mortal peril. In my case, that usually doesn’t mean drop-kicking it across a construction site or running it over with a four-wheeler (a good thing, since the Active actually isn’t rated for impact resistance at all) … but it does mean being around water a lot. Lest you forget: pretty much every moment I’m not in the Pocketnow review booth or rehearsing a play, I’m on the beach, or on a boat.

... drinking only the finest of nautical refreshments.
… drinking only the finest of nautical refreshments.

That maritime existence means two things: one, I love my life; and two, I’m constantly introducing my mobile phones to moisture. Whether it’s wind-whipped salt spray, a rising beach tide, or the few inches of extra ballast sloshing around in a boat’s bilge, chances are my phone is going to end up getting a faceful of water at some point. Since most devices don’t take kindly to that kind of treatment, my only alternative to endless insurance claims for water damage has been an array of waterproof cases. But I hate cases.  So my phones often end up ignominiously shoved into a Ziploc bag to protect them from the elements – which makes them look ridiculous, and function terribly. It’s a tough life, this nautical adventuring.

Not so with the Galaxy S 4 Active. Granted, it’ll still sink like a stone if I drop it overboard, and it’s not rated for any excursions deeper than three feet, but its water-resistance means it’ll handle sea spray just fine. Back on shore, it’ll shrug off a surprise sprinkler assault or taxi-puddle splash with no problem, and it’ll (presumably) even live through an accidental encounter with a spilled can of Keystone Light. And when its screen is too covered in dried-beer fingerprints to read, a quick dunk in waist-high water is all it’ll need to return to usefulness. And if you want, it can take some slick photos of your friends in the process.

Even if it makes them look like they're swimming in Ecto Cooler.
Even if it makes them look like they’re swimming in Ecto Cooler.

If this reads like commercial copy pushing the Galaxy S 4 Active, it’s because sometimes I like to use Empty Nest to focus on the positive. Usually I have a whole section detailing what I don’t miss – and as I touched on before, there’s a lot of it: I still think the bulk of the Galaxy S 4’s feature set is half-baked, I don’t like that the Active’s camera took the downgrade to 8MP, and the phone’s battery door could really use a redesign to prevent the horrible drowning deaths some people are experiencing. This thing is by no means perfect.

But the Galaxy S 4 Active is a high-end smartphone packed into a “life-proof” (or at least life-resistant) container, and that’s what I miss the most. Because brazenly splashing into a lake with a case-less phone, or washing it off in the sink after accidentally dropping it in the mud, or taking stupid underwater photos of your face in the pool … all that is cool stuff. Way cooler than daintily tip-toeing around bodies of water or avoiding putting your phone on the table lest it suffer a spill. So it’s the feeling of invulnerability I miss most from my time with the Galaxy S 4 Active, and it’s one I look forward to (hopefully) experiencing on another “life-proof” smartphone soon.

Title image: The author, microseconds before total immersion in very cold water, early in the beach season. (Still frame from Galaxy S 4 Active video.)

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