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Samsung Galaxy S4 Active Review: In Depth

The Good

  • Good battery life

The Bad

  • Heavy/cumbersome
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Samsung seems keen to leverage the Galaxy S4 brand as much as possible, but at least some interesting – if unconventional – devices are coming out of its quest for more money. One of those devices is the Galaxy S4 Active, a device that’s near identical in terms of specifications to the South Korean company’s 2013 flagship, save for a different design that protects against water as well as dust. The Active is priced the same as the vanilla Galaxy S4 too, so which one should you ultimately buy?

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Design & screen

The biggest alteration between the original S4 and the S4 Active is the design. Gone is the smooth and glossy polycarbonate body, instead replaced by a much harder plastic that’s resistant to fingerprints. The top and bottom of the phone are rubberised too, designed to help absorb any shock should the device be accidently dropped.

The capacitive navigation buttons below the display have been replaced as well, with a trio of physical keys serving as hardier replacements. We’d argue that the dedicated Home button and two capacitive keys on the original Galaxy S4 make for a better experience in day-to-day use.

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There have been some other minor alterations to help waterproof the phone as well. A rubber flap protects the microUSB port at the bottom of the phone so that water doesn’t flood in, and the battery cover now houses a rubber seal that protects the internal components from the elements. Otherwise, the key Samsung staples seem to have remained. The power button is still found on the top right hand side of the phone, with the volume rocker directly opposite on the left hand side. Even those buttons are different, though. Again, they’ve been rubberised for better tactile feedback, but both generally seem firmer and more pleasant to depress.

All that protection has bumped up the thickness of the phone. The Galaxy S4 measures 7.9mm thick, with the Active increasing the girth 9.1mm. It doesn’t sound like a lot on paper, but it does have a knock-on effect. The phone isn’t quite as comfortable to hold, and the added weight – 153 grams versus the S4’s 130 grams – is definitely more noticeable.

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Samsung says that the S4 Active should be able to be submerged in up to a meter of water for around 30 minutes. Accidental spills or drops into water won’t cause any damage either, and that seems to be true in our testing. Setting the phone down in a puddle during a rainy summer day didn’t have any effect on the device, and dunking it in a glass of water didn’t seem to faze the phone either. A word of warning, though: you have to make sure the battery cover is completely closed to make sure the protective rubber seal is working correctly. Missing an edge or not pressing down firmly enough will leave a small gap, allowing water to enter the compartment and potentially damaging the internal components.

There are two key differences between the two phones, though. First, the Active features a 5-inch 1080p TFT display instead of a AMOLED panel. And the screen that Samsung has chosen to use on the Active is hardly the best we’ve seen out there either.

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It should go without saying that it can’t match up to the inky blacks found on the company’s AMOLED panels, but even viewing angles and colour reproduction don’t match up to what the Galaxy S4, iPhone 5 and HTC One have to offer. It’s better than the display used on the Sony Xperia Z, but it simply can’t hold a candle to the best out there right now. Still, the panel is definitely brighter the original Galaxy S4’s AMOLED screen, so you’ll at least be able to see the display outside without too much trouble.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Operating system & performance

The brains of the S4 Active are the same as those found on the vanilla S4, with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad-core processor clocked at 1.9GHz along with 2GB of RAM. As you’d expect, this means that the Active yields similar results with regards to general performance.

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The user experience, like the rest of the S4 family is based around Samsung’s own TouchWiz Nature UX 2.0 overlay, which sits atop Android 4.2.2, meaning that out-the-box Active users will find a myriad of pre-installed widgets and Samsung apps to play with as well as handy additions in the form of a robust notifications panel, which features quick settings to toggle on and off.

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Usability is solid although as has been said before, some might find the user experience a little overwhelming as a result of just how much customisation and flexibility is on offer. The only distinct addition, exclusive to the S4 Active is an extra shooting mode within the camera UI.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Camera

The camera sensor on the Active is the other key difference to the one found on the original S4. While the latter device included a 13-megapixel shooter, the former instead uses the 8-megapixel sensor previously seen in the Galaxy S3. The results are pretty good overall, but again, they can’t match up to the iPhone 5, or even the vanilla Galaxy S4.

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Samsung tends to be a little aggressive when it comes to noise reduction – even in brightly lit scenarios – and things get messy pretty quickly in low light. It’s a more consistent camera than the HTC One, for instance, but 2013 devices from other vendors are capable of producing better pictures. The only other minor difference is the inclusion of an Aqua Mode in the camera software, which lets you take photos underwater by using the volume rocker as a shutter key.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Multimedia & storage

As we mentioned earlier, the display does allow users the ability to watch Full HD video content in its native resolution, although the screen doesn’t have the same punch as its vanilla counterpart. Thankfully the 16GB of inbuilt storage means that there’s enough room for a range of content including Full HD video and apps to be installed without running short of room, but under the removable back users can also pop in a microSD card (up to 64GB in capacity) if they wish to really bolster the S4’s Active’s ability to carry media.

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Unlike many manufacturers, Samsung also includes a My Files app, which allows for fine grain file management from the device, making the media management capabilities very robust. Those who’ve bought into the Samsugn ecosystem with other devices can also make use of the Samsung Link application (formerly AllShare) to stream media from one device to another via WiFi Direct.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Connections & battery

Even the battery used for the two phones is identical. Just like the S4, the Active uses a 2,600mAh cell, and just like the S4, battery life generally seems to be good. I managed to go a day and a half with light usage before the phone hit the 10% mark – that included push Gmail, occasional web browsing, some camera usage, WhatsApp messaging, and about an hour’s worth of video playback, all while the screen brightness was set between 40 and 100%. You won’t be able to get multiple days out of the battery like the Galaxy Note 2, but making it through a full working day with heavier usage should be doable.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Conclusion

The ultimate question at the end of the day is this: how much do you need a rugged, waterproof device? Samsung is to be applauded for trying to make sure that the Active provides an experience as close to the original S4 as possible, but it’s hard to overlook the hardware differences. It’s a more awkward device to use on a day to day basis, even if that waterproofing does come in handy from time to time. The screen is inferior to the S4, the camera doesn’t quite match up, and the necessary design changes to the hardware simply means that it’s not as enjoyable to use.

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If you’re a fan of Samsung’s Android devices and are desperate for a rugged device that can stand up to some abuse, then the S4 Active is a good choice. But the original S4 is simply the better all around device as a daily driver – we have to recommend it above the Active on that basis.

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