One of the up-sides to Samsung’s “try everything once” approach to doing business is that it lets the company nimbly and swiftly crank out variations on a theme. Want a Galaxy S 4, only smaller? You got it. Want a Galaxy Camera with a phone attached? Done. Want the world’s craziest tablet/notebook hybrid? If you say so.
What if your ambitions are tamer, though? What if all you want is an Android smartphone with flagship specs and an ability to withstand life’s little “oops” moments? Shouldn’t someone (besides Sony) be able to churn one of those out in, like, a jiffy?
Meet the Galaxy S 4 Active. A tangible, real-world rejection of the notion that durable phones must also be crappy phones. But how rugged is this device, really? How active is “Active?” How many sacrifices has Samsung made to earn that distinction, and is the end result worth a second glance on the shelf? We’ve spent a week with the AT&T-exclusive version finding out, so join us for our Quick Review.
Videos · Specs/Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance
Specs & Hardware
The “stock” Galaxy S 4 may not be perfect, but there’s no denying it’s a feature- and spec powerhouse. Now typically, this is the part of the review where we talk about all the sacrifices that have been made in the name of hardening, all the disappointments the durable device brings along with its rugged handsomeness. Refreshingly, though, the Galaxy S 4 Active does a pretty good job of staying true to its flagship roots.
Aside from the casing, the most visible shift in hardware is found in the Active’s display. Though the 5-inch panel retains its 1080p resolution and absurdly-high 441ppi pixel density, it trades the AMOLED construction of its predecessor for a TFT-LCD layout that will please outdoorsmen, but might disappoint those looking for the “pop” of the saturated colors and near-total blacks that AMOLED screens provide. Though LCD panels are widely considered to offer better visibility in bright daylight, we couldn’t see much difference between the S 4 and the S 4 Active in a sunlight test; throw enough light on any display, and it’ll wash out. In the end, whether the LCD-for-AMOLED substitution bothers you will come down to personal preference. It’s certainly one of the more beautiful displays you can find on a smartphone in either case, so this shouldn’t be a make-or-break decision.
Flipping the phone over shows us just how far Samsung has taken the Active from the traditional S 4 design lineage. There’s no true Hyperglaze here: the back of the Active features a removable battery door that’s smooth and satin-y to the touch, but it’s painted in a faux-mesh pattern that gives the illusion of texture. That’s bracketed by screw-studded bumpers at the top and bottom whose texture is authentically rough, but isn’t as rubbery as it looks. That holds true for the physical home, back, and menu buttons up front as well. The Active is less a total reinvention of the Galaxy S 4, and more a beefed-up version of the same device. If the Kyocera Torque is RoboCop, then the Galaxy S 4 Active is more like post-arc reactor Tony Stark. Not Iron Man, though, because it’s not that tough.
Despite its lofty title, Samsung’s latest isn’t so much “Active” as “accident-resistant.” Especially if that accident involves water or fine dust particles. That’s because, while the Active is rated to IP67 standards for ingress protection, it doesn’t carry any MIL-SPEC rating for resistance to impacts, extreme temperatures, or the like. So while you can slam-dunk it into a bowl of flour without bothering it too much, or leave it at the bottom of a meter-deep pool for up to 30 mintues without worrying, you shouldn’t expect it to survive being run over by a Hummer on the side of an erupting volcano during solar-flare season.
But really, that’s not the kind of “Active” Samsung means. And judging from AT&T’s ad push for the device, which features ordinary people in accidental or rare situations (getting splashed by puddles and lawn sprinklers, or being buried in sand or surprised by the tide at the beach), this device is targeted at those who don’t want to coddle their phone, but also don’t want to hide it behind a case. And though you won’t be able to use the phone while it’s soaked -the speakerphone, microphone, and screen all fail to operate properly when wet- at least you can rest easy knowing that once it dries off, it’ll be none the worse for wear … just as long as you’ve sealed the battery door properly. Seriously, that’s important. Check out the video review above if you don’t believe us.
With the exception of the camera, which we’ll get to below, the rest of the Active’s spec sheet remains largely identical to the S 4’s. We’re looking at the same 16GB of storage (expandable via MicroSD), the same 1.9GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 SoC backed up by 2GB of RAM, and the same 2600 mAh battery powering it all. Where the physical differences do manifest, they’re easily felt: at 9.1mm and 153g, the S 4 Active is thicker and heavier than the Galaxy S 4 it augments – but the added heft and bulk serve the device well. It’s slightly less pocketable than the S 4, but it feels much more substantial in the hand. As you might expect, it also looks and feels much less fragile, if slightly more cumbersome. That, plus the brilliant “Dive Blue” color of our review unit, more than makes up for any reduction in portability. (An “Orange Flare” color option is also available in international markets for you show-boaters, but those AT&T customers not feeling the blue will need to settle for the drab Urban Gray. You dullards, you.)
Love it or hate it, you have to give it this: Samsung’s TouchWiz interface is remarkably consistent, and that’s especially true here. By keeping the Galaxy S 4 Active’s specs so close to those of the more-sedentary flagship it complements, Samsung has been able to port the software experience almost completely from phone to phone. We’ll briefly touch on a few of the differences here, but for our full impressions on the Galaxy S 4’s software, please see our extensive Galaxy S 4 review.
Powering on the Active for the first time delivers the typical TouchWiz experience, with a lot of hand-holding on the part of the software and a pretty sizable load of AT&T bloatware. The latter is a fairly superfluous collection, as usual, but there are some nice touches from Samsung here. Probably our favorite surprise is the torch functionality, which when enabled allows a user to switch on the Active’s LED spotlight just by pressing and holding the up-volume key. That’s a smart move on a phone like this, and it’s a feature we found ourselves using almost constantly.
The rest of the Active’s software load is a bit of a mixed bag: we weren’t happy to see the supremely awkward and intrusive “Tag Buddy” in the Gallery again, but the preloaded S Health app makes so much sense on a device like this. So does S Translator, which will serve globe-trotting adventurers well. The audio-customization app “Adapt Sound” will make you feel as though the Active is really trying to get to know you, while the nanny-like “turn it down! You’ll hurt your ears!” warnings are just as stupid and overbearing as ever. Some of the gesture- and motion-based interactions are truly useful; others are senseless or executed haphazardly. Again, if you’ve used a Galaxy S 4, this experience will be very familiar.
The camera is another familiar point of the Active – but in a different way. The Active’s camera conjures memories not of the Galaxy S 4, but of last generation’s Galaxy S III. We’re not sure if Samsung just went ahead and used the same module for the Active, but it bears the same basic specs: an 8MP BSI sensor stands ready to grab conventional photos at a hair more than a moment’s notice, the heavy viewfinder software taking a few blinks of an eye to get shot-ready. It’s the same software as found on the rest of Samsung’s Galaxy S 4 lineup, with thirteen shooting modes and a bevy of customization options, most of it laid out logically. It’s a very fun camera to use.
Photos taken indoors aren’t always the best, with brightly-lit areas often coming out overexposed. Noise is also visible in some indoor shots, and low-light performance is underwhelming in normal shooting mode – passable performance for a 2012 smartphone, but something not as easy to forgive in our modern world of Nokia Lumias and HTC Ones. On the flip side, photos taken outdoors in proper lighting are excellent, with wonderful saturation, clarity and sharpness. We didn’t really miss the added resolution of the standard Galaxy S 4’s 13MP camera while taking photos out on the town, and given the Active’s target customer, it’s probably a safe bet most photos taken with this device will be snapped outdoors. Most folks will find it a perfectly serviceable shooter for conventional situations.
“But wait,” as they say in the fancy commercials, “there’s more.” Samsung really thought ahead in terms of camera use cases with this device: in exchange for the omission of the dubious Dual Shot feature, the company has included a new dedicated shooting mode for underwater photography: the aptly-named Aqua filter. Enabling it not only preps the camera for the challenging shooting conditions of the strange subsurface world; it also triggers a reminder to close the Active’s USB door, and allows the user to choose whether to use the volume rocker as a still shutter or a camcorder record button (a consequence of the touchscreen not working underwater). That’s smart design, and if you’re a fan of underwater photography, it more than makes up for the resolution hit that Active takes versus the S 4.
In terms of underwater photo quality, we’re not sure what to think. We don’t have a swimming pool in the Boston office (yet), and the Charles River is too murky this time of year to judge the camera quality adequately. Also, the mall cops at Copley Place look at you funny if you start taking underwater photos in the fountain. But we were able to glean from these few experiments that getting focus underwater with the Galaxy S 4 Active is a very tricky prospect indeed, even in Aqua mode. That issue can be seen in the shot above; even in a kitchen sink full of clear water, the world of the photo is a pretty hazy one. Still, the growing collection of underwater photos on Instagram with the #GalaxyS4Active tag is testament to the fact that taking passable subsurface photos with the Active is indeed possible – it’s just not that easy. Don’t throw out your GoPro just yet.
In terms of video, the S 4 does a nice job. Auto-exposure and white balance are zippy, and though the camera is a little sensitive with auto-focus, it eventually produces a nice, clear, well-saturated video. We challenged the Active in windy conditions on Boston’s Longfellow Bridge, and aside from the rushing-air noise that any phone would have had trouble suppressing, the video was a good one:
The Galaxy S 4 Active’s camera pairs the great parts of the S 4’s viewfinder with hardware capable of going underwater. Most flagship-class smartphones can’t match the latter claim, and most waterproof phones don’t feature the stellar camera software Samsung has written for the Galaxy S 4 series. On the whole, then, the Active features a camera Samsung should be proud of – and one that active, outdoorsy folks will enjoy using.
We’re not huge fans of synthetic benchmarks as a performance metric, but we understand they’re important to some folks. Since this is a Quick Review, we won’t post the full chart of benchmark scores, but we will say the device achieved similar scores to the Sprint Galaxy S 4 in Smartbench (7466), Quadrant Standard (12098), Geekbench 2 (2976), and 3D Mark (9977 standard/6138 extreme). Only in AnTuTu and Sunspider did the performance of the Active differ from that of its stock predecessor, the Active achieving lower scores (17936 and 1151ms, respectively).
Regardless of the benchmarks, we found the Galaxy S 4 Active behaved just like its less-active counterpart in day-to-day use. The heavy TouchWiz skin continues to impart just a touch of sluggishness to the Android UI here, creating a software experience that doesn’t quite reach the dreaded “laggy” threshold, but which certainly falls short of a buttery, one-to-one experience.
The device also kept pace with its forerunner in terms of battery life, scoring a 489 to the Galaxy S 4’s 470 in the AnTuTu Battery Test. In real-world terms, that means the Galaxy S 4 Active put up with over 15 hours’ worth of photo-taking, texting, talking, browsing, and constant S Health background activity before hitting the 10% mark, with a screen-on time of 1 hour and 20 minutes.
The only areas where the Active really stumbles in terms of performance are in comfort and voice calls. The “comfort issue” is a failing it shares with the stock S 4: during moderate use, the Active gets quite warm, almost hot, to the touch – so it’s fortunate you can literally throw it in a bucket of water to cool off. Sadly, that watery solution will only exacerbate the device’s calling problem: it just doesn’t make you sound terribly good on the other end. Callers said we sounded just average (as long as the mic was dry), and in a comparison between the Active and the five-year-old HTC Dream, one caller said we sounded clearer on the latter. That’s a pretty poor showing for a 2013 smartphone. And don’t blame it on the network – both test phones were on AT&T (which, incidentally, continues to deliver excellent data speeds and coverage in the Greater Boston area).
To its credit, the Active makes up some ground on the speakerphone front, where it produces loud, pronounced sound. Even when underwater in a bowl of water, we could hear the distinct tones of Daft Punk reverberating through the fluid, so those of you who enjoy underwater music parties should prepare to get down.
+ Lives up to water-resistance claims
+ Nicer hardware finish than stock S 4
+ Quick-access torch is handy
+ Dedicated underwater mode for camera
+ Respectable battery life
– Battery door seal too flimsy, easily overlooked
– Lower-resolution camera than flagship S 4
– Substandard outbound voice quality
Pricing and Availability
The Galaxy S 4 Active is available now from AT&T for a no-commitment price of $594.99. That’s cheaper than the Galaxy S 4’s $639.99 full-retail price, but throwing a 2-year contract into the mix knocks everything back down to saner levels: just like the S 4, the Active runs $199.99 with a 2-year commitment.
The Galaxy S 4 Active is a cool product. Samsung deserves credit for bucking the trend of saddling “life-proof” smartphones with sub-par specs, and AT&T deserves a pat on the back too, for targeting it at the right kind of consumer with its advertising.
Did Sony beat Samsung to the punch with the waterproof Xperia Z and ZL? Yes. Is the Galaxy S 4 Active truly a “rugged” phone? Not in a MIL-SPEC sense, no. But it is hardier than the too-shiny, too-soft stock S 4. Also, it brings capabilities that flagship doesn’t feature, and it sacrifices very little in order to do so. Taken together, all these attributes make this phone a very compelling offering indeed. If you’re looking for a top-shelf smartphone that can keep up with a more get-up-and-go lifestyle, the Galaxy S 4 Active should be at or near the top of your list.