You could be forgiven for getting a little sick of hearing about Samsung’s new Galaxy S6 Active. By the time this piece hits the feeds, Samsung’s rugged superphone will have gotten unboxed, drop-tested, compared with its lighter-weight Galaxy S6 sibling and given the full review treatment. We tend to cover smartphones to death here at Pocketnow, and this mil-spec box of techno-toughness is certainly no exception.
But there’s more to say about the Galaxy S6 Active, and this time the story is a very specific one. If you’ve listened to the Pocketnow Weekly podcast or checked out our After The Buzz re-review series anytime during the past few weeks, you’re probably aware that I’ve recently become obsessed with a game that almost everyone else first discovered in 2012. It’s called Ingress, and to play it you need a smartphone to serve as your “Scanner.” To play it well requires a pretty solid device … and I think the Galaxy S6 Active just might be the best phone for Ingress in 2015.
What in blazes is Ingress?
For the uninitiated, Ingress is a mobile game for Android and iOS developed by Google’s Niantic Labs (the in-house startup also known for Google Earth, among other projects). Ingress has a complex backstory but a very simple premise: you walk around your neighborhood collecting “exotic matter” to power your Scanner (smartphone) and capture “portals” for your team. Portals are associated with real-world objects of historical or cultural value, and the more portals you claim the better you do. If you’re thinking, “gee, that sounds like an augmented reality game,” congratulations; you get it! I intentionally buried the lede there because “augmented reality game” sounds an awful lot like 2009-era futuretalk that has since become lame, and I didn’t want you to tune out. Sorry.
Ingress is more than just a game, though. Like geocaching, it requires you to physically visit the portals you want to capture, so it’s a great excuse to get off your couch and exercise. Also, because the portals are centered around points of interest, visiting them lets you discover interesting parts of a new neighborhood – or see your hometown in a whole new light. Waiting for the bus or walking into town gets a whole lot more interesting when you’ve got “work” to do along the way. And because you’re playing against other people in the real world, there are also many opportunities to make new friends (on allied and opposing sides alike).
So what makes the Galaxy S6 Active such a good fit for an Ingress scanner? I’m glad you asked.
The Galaxy S6 Active is built to be outdoors
Almost every portal in Ingress is outdoors, so it pays to have a phone that can handle some of the nasties nature can throw at it. The Galaxy S6 is rated to MIL-STD 810G for resistance to “dust, shock, vibration, temperature extremes, humidity, and high altitude” according to AT&T, and it’s also certified to the IP68 standard, making it dustproof and capable of withstanding total immersion in up to a meter and a half of fresh water. And these aren’t empty promises, either: our early durability testing proved the S6 Active more than lives up to its alphabet-soup certifications.
All that durability paid off last week, when I was playing Ingress far from home and a thunderstorm rolled in. Despite being doused by sheets of rain, the S6 Active soldiered on without even a stutter. I got a little nervous when the rain really started to come down: there’s a sub-game within Ingress called “glyph hacking” that requires precision tracing of very specific patterns, and Samsung hasn’t always been the best at wet-finger tracking on its displays. While it wasn’t totally flawless, the S6 Active performed very well even when the rain was pouring down. And when the sun came back out and threw a bunch of glare on the screen, the Active compensated by overpowering the display’s light level to its near-700-nit-maximum, making sure I could still see what was going on.
It’s got a massive battery
With a 3500 mAh power pack, the Galaxy S6 Active dwarfs almost every other smartphones in sheer battery capacity – and that overpowered hardware pays off big time here. While Ingress isn’t the most graphics-heavy game, it does track your movements across a map in realtime, so your phone’s power-hungry GPS and WiFi location services are running almost constantly. Add to that the energy penalty of the always-on display and the constantly-running background soundscape, and you see why many Ingress players use an external power pack.
The Galaxy S6 Active makes such an external battery more optional than essential. During one marathon evening last week, I played Ingress from 6pm to 10pm in one continuous session. Besides burning out my eyeballs and rendering me a plodding zombie by the end of the mission, it also should have drained my phone’s battery completely (I’d started with something like an 80% charge). Instead, the Active had about 20% remaining at the end of the four-hour odyssey, and it soldiered on under more typical smartphone duties until about 1am.
It’s made to multitask
Samsung’s software tends to emphasize multitasking, and that combined with the built-in conveniences of Android Lollipop make the Galaxy S6 Active particularly well-suited to Ingress.
Exotic Matter (XM) powers literally everything you do in the game, and you’re only able to collect XM when Ingress is running in the foreground – so closing Ingress to, say, reply to a text message is inconvenient. Android lets you reply to inbound texts right from the popover notification itself, leaving Ingress running underneath. And if your message traffic is coming from someplace else, like Hangouts, Samsung’s TouchWiz interface gives you the option to run it in a separate window that sits atop Ingress, with both apps running simultaneously. It’s not the most convenient setup in the world even on the Active’s relatively spacious 5.1-inch display, but it’s an option if you need it – and whether you’re running two apps side by side or just Ingress itself, the Active’s beefy Exynos processor delivers a smooth experience.
Even the simple act of launching the Ingress app is simpler on this phone, because you can program the Active Key above the volume rocker to launch the game with a single press. And –prepare to get fully nerdy with me– the S6 Active hardware kind of looks like what I imagine a Scanner to be. It’s beefy and rugged and sports either a dark gray or camouflage finish … and if you want to go the full route there are even Ingress-themed software skins for your phone and Android Wear smartwatch.
It could always be better
Just as no portal is impregnable, no smartphone is perfect – and the Galaxy S6 Active certainly has its shortcomings. For one thing, the speaker is located around back, making it tougher to hear some of the in-game sound effects unless you’re wearing headphones. Also, the compass isn’t the best –my Active routinely thinks I’m pointing 180 degrees away from the direction I’m actually facing– but after having played Ingress on five separate smartphones I can safely say this is a problem endemic to Android devices in general.
Probably the biggest downside this phone faces is its availability. The Galaxy S6 Active is exclusive to AT&T in the US, and while it can be unlocked to work with T-Mobile, you’ll be stuck paying close to the full retail price of nearly $700 to do it (sorry, Verizon and Sprint customers; you’re out of luck).
For those who really want the best phone for Ingress but really don’t want to leave their carrier to get it, I do have a couple honorable mentions. Google’s Nexus 6 ditches the durability, but retains the excellent battery life while also adding a huge screen and front-firing speakers to the mix, and it’s available on every US carrier. The Droid Turbo brings an even bigger battery and better one-handed usability to Verizon Ingress players. And those who really like to Ingress in the rain can save a bit of coin by springing for the older (but just as water-resistant) Galaxy S5 or Sony Xperia Z2/Z3.
As for me, I recently made the switch to T-Mobile and I’m weighing the benefits of switching to Project Fi – plus, I need to return this Galaxy S6 Active review device to Samsung. So I’ll be going back to our in-house Nexus 6 to do most of my Ingressing. But if the game was a big enough part of my life that I were making my phone-buying decisions based partially on it (and given my increasing obsession, it just might come to that) I don’t think I could do much better than this. If you ask me, the Galaxy S6 Active is the best phone for Ingress in 2015.
Now you go! Let us know what phone you Ingress with down in the comments, and share a few details of your experience so people know if it’s a good buy! Then check out our recent reviews of the Galaxy S6, LG G4, Apple Watch and Pebble Time – and follow Michael on Twitter where he sometimes tweets between missions.