Samsung's Galaxy S4 Active, a Rugged Alternative

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active Review

Considering just how much we all rely on smartphones every day, they’re shockingly fragile. All it takes is one quick drop or spilled drink to end in disaster for your expensive gadget. For as quickly as phone technology is advancing, durability for many smartphones has remained a problem. That’s where Samsung hopes to make some waves with their latest handset, the Galaxy S4 Active.

The formula is simple: take the tried and true Galaxy S4, make a few tweaks here and there to ruggedize it and you have the Galaxy S4 Active. It’s a slight bit thicker and heavier and the rear has a rubber texture top and bottom but otherwise it feels just like any other GS4 and it performs like one too. The most obvious concession to the water resistance are new physical Menu, Home and Back buttons which are a bit spongy (but not too annoyingly so), along with a cover for the MicroUSB port. What’s impressive is what hasn’t changed, most notably that you still have a removable rear cover to get access to the SIM slot, MicroSD card slot and the phone's 2600mAh battery.

While dropping the Active might not be the greatest idea, it does easily handle water thanks to its IP67 certification. Close the flap covering the MicroUSB port and make sure the cover for the battery is tightly sealed and the phone is ready for a dip. Since water is conductive the screen doesn’t really work underwater but there’s a new Aqua mode in its camera app that you can use to snap pictures or record video with the volume keys. It’s rated for 30 minutes of submersion but since parts of the phone are designed to flood I always felt nervous leaving it under for long. In fact, AT&T has acknowledged that some phones have been been damaged by water and has started a program to replace waterlogged S4 Actives. So be wary.

Internally, we’re looking at pure Galaxy S4, which also means you get Android 4.2.2 with Samsung’s TouchWiz skin. If you’ve read our original review of the Galaxy S4 you’ll know we found it to be an excellent phone that’s among the fastest we’ve ever tested and that holds true with the Active as well. The software is loaded with customizations like multi window support and a full featured camera with a few novelties thrown in as well. Some of the nature-based sounds and effects will either please or annoy you, depending on your personal taste, but overall it delivers a solid Android experience.

The screen is one of the few areas where the Active differs from the Galaxy S4, however, it’s hardly a major downgrade. Instead of an AMOLED panel we’re looking at an IPS display with the same 1080p resolution. This is still among the best screens you’ll find on a smartphone with excellent color, good viewing angles and a pixel density of 441 PPI. You do lose out on some contrast but otherwise everything else is in there, including AirView to control the phone without touching the screen.

Internally we’re looking at a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 1.9GHz quad core SoC (System on Chip) paired with Adreno 320 graphics, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, with up to an additional 64GB through the MicroSD card slot.

In Linpack we see the Galaxy S4 Active continue to put on an excellent showing, coming just behind the Galaxy S4 and right along with the fastest phones you can buy today.

Using Browsermark the Active falls a bit farther behind compared to the Optimus G and G Pro, however, again, performance is rock solid.

Thanks to the beefy Adreno 320 graphics the Galaxy S4 Active has no problem delivering a top notch score of 41 frames per second in GLBenchmark 2.5.

Even though it’s outfitted with the same internals and battery the IPS screen in the Active, with its IPS display, seems to be slightly less efficient than the AMOLED panel in the standard Galaxy S4, cutting a bit into the still-good battery life of the phone. As a reminder, the AnTuTu battery test is a worst-case stress test of sorts. All-day performance without a recharge is totally within reach, under regular, mixed usage of calls, web, email, video, etc.

Moving on to the camera we’re looking at an 8 megapixel sensor capable of 1080p video that performs well, but isn't quite able to match the excellent 12 megapixel shooter inside the Galaxy S4.

Colors are a bit muted, however, photos are nice and sharp and you can get some perfectly fine results with Samsung's great TouchWiz camera app.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active delivers such a solid overall experience that there’s really no reason to choose the standard Galaxy S4 over the Active, unless the extra durability is of no consequence to you. The ruggedized design matched with the top notch internals makes this one of the best phones you can buy on AT&T today.

  • Excellent performance
  • Rugged design
  • Great display
  • Full featured software
  • Decent camera
  • Not fully waterproof
  • Slightly spongy buttons

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