Samsung has been muddying the waters of the Galaxy brand ever since it launched, and the Galaxy S4 has been sent to new depths, with no less than three "S4" variants following the original's release by only a few months. But the Galaxy S4 Active - the sporty, tough, waterproof version of Samsung's flagship - is the first of the company's myriad extended line that actually deserves the same name as its more mainstream brother. With specifications that match the US version of the S4 in nearly every category, plus a design that's both "ruggedized" and appealing, the S4 Active is worth a look for AT&T customers who want a top-of-the-line smartphone that they won't have to treat like a delicate flower.
Those who aren't fans of Samsung's general design ethos won't be won over - the S4 Active is still extremely "plasticky," and TouchWiz is just as overbearing as it was on the Galaxy S4. But since phones with water and dust resistance tend to be on the low end of the mid-range, the S4 Active is number one with a bullet if you work or play hard, and don't want to compromise on your Android hardware. The Galaxy S4 Active is $199.99 on-contract, or $594.99 without.
Galaxy S4 Active: Specifications
- Processor: 1.9GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600
- GPU: Adreno 320
- Network compatibility: GSM quad-band, LTE bands 2, 4, 5 & 17
- Operating system: Android 4.2.2 with TouchWiz Nature UX 2.0
- Display: 5" 1920x1080 (441 DPI) TFT LCD
- Memory: 2GB RAM / 16GB storage (10GB usable)
- Cameras: 8MP rear / 2MP front
- Battery: 2600mAh, removable
- NFC: Yes
- Ports / expandable storage: microUSB / microSD
- Thickness: 9.1mm
- Weight: 149g (5.3oz)
- Nearly all the hardware power and flexibility of the original S4
- Tough, waterproof body that you don't have to worry about
- Screen is fantastic, and easier to read in sunlight than AMOLED
- Size is comparable to the Galaxy S4
- Still feels like Samsung's typical plasticky quality
- Signal is noticeably lower than other Samsung phones
- Camera isn't up to snuff with the S4
- Physical navigation buttons - wouldn't on-screen nav buttons make more sense here?
- Only available in 16GB
Design and Build Quality
The S4 Active comes in grey or the rather glitzy teal that you see in this review. The phone has the ubiquitous slate shape that you know and love, but several factors queue you in to the "Active" part of the spec sheet. Note the exposed screw covers on the top and bottom "bumpers" of the phone's back, holding on reinforced plastic with a grippy diamond pattern. They're the same color and texture as the physical home, menu, and back buttons on the front, which contrast with Samsung's usual single home button flanked by capacitive keys. These seem a little odd on a phone like this - wouldn't fewer moving parts make even more sense on a phone that's designed to be abused? - but they work well enough, and a tapered shape makes them easy to feel out without looking.
The rest of the phone is more or less the same as the standard S4: a big 5-inch screen taking up most of the front, the back mostly bare save for the camera and LED flash. The right edge has the power button, with the left edge holding the volume rocker. Both buttons are smaller than their S4 counterparts, and oddly tapered into the seam of the plastic border. The S4 Active has a "ring" similar to the S4, but because it's colored like the battery cover, it's harder to notice at a casual glance.
The microUSB port on the bottom of the phone has a built-in plastic cover, which helps keep water and dust out. The tiny groove for popping it open is tricky with short fingernails, and it usually doesn't want to go back in without a bit of effort, but I suppose both of these are for ingress protection. On top you'll find a non-covered headphone port and an infrared port like the S4. Pop open the battery cover and you'll find the battery, SIM and MicroSD slots surrounded by a thin border that matches up with the interior of the cover for water protection. Users need to make sure that all 16 clasp points on the cover are securely snapped in place, or risk damaging the phone like any other when it's splashed or submerged. (Pay attention to this. It will be important later.) Strangely, the rear speaker is outside this ring, but still works just fine after some basic water tests.
Technically, the S4 active is just a bit more than 1mm thicker than the normal S4, but a sharper taper on all sides makes it feel considerably more chunky than that. At 9.1mm it's not exactly fat, but with a screen this large every extra bit of girth adds up to a smaller area that's comfortably reachable with one hand. For example, while I can generally reach all the way to the notification bar with my thumb on the Galaxy S4, I need to take my fingers off the side of the S4 Active to do so. The weight is a bit more than the S4 as well, but with Samsung's featherweight plastic bodies, that's not saying much.
Speaking of which: those who aren't thrilled with Samsung's "plastic or nothing" design philosophy won't be won over by the S4 Active, for all its claims at rugged toughness. It still feels a little flimsy when compared to other high-end phones, especially HTC's metal-clad One. The body has a little bit less flex than the standard S4, and the knowledge that the phone is designed to take a beating helps, but it still doesn't "feel" like a $600+ device.
The screen on the S4 Active matches the size and resolution of the S4 at 5" and 1080p. But Samsung ha s swapped out the Super AMOLED panel for a conventional TFT LCD, perhaps to save a bit on part cost, perhaps just to make it easier to read outdoors. Whatever the reason, it is indeed a better fit for this device's target market, and it's noticeably easier to make out color and depth in direct sunlight than on AMOLED screens, at the cost of some brightness and contrast indoors. Colors are vibrant, if not quite so dramatic as the corresponding ones on AMOLED. 1080p screens on 5" phones are so impressive in any case that it's hard to imagine anyone complaining about it, though I imagine that at least a few picky users who don't like AMOLED will prefer the S4 Active to the S4, assuming they haven't chosen another company to deal with altogether.
The bezel around the screen itself is a tiny bit thicker than the S4, with a fetching brushed gray color that contrasts nicely with the teal edge. Note the extra proximity sensors, in between the earpiece and the camera. This is what enables Samsung's air gestures, a series actions that let you activate functions or control existing functions like Obi-Wan explaining the futility of looking for droids.
These are more annoying than useful, at least for me, with the possible exception of the "quick glance" function. This allows you to tap the screen when it's off to get a quick look at missed calls, email, battery percentage, et cetera. It's interesting, but like most of Samsung's bells and whistles, ultimately unnecessary - why not just press the home button and get all that information the old-fashioned way? Also, the air gesture sensor had a bad habit of going off in my pocket, making the phone's tingly unlock sound play in my pants. I disabled it, because nothing should play in my pants without my express permission.
Battery Life And Reception
In the United States, you can buy the S4 Active for any carrier you want, as long as it's AT&T. In my home AT&T phones usually get 1-2 bars of HSPA+, but the S4 Active struggled to hold on to even one, going silent for 10-20 minutes on multiple occasions and forcing me to resort to WiFi. I can't say if this is due to the phone's ruggedized build, but you can definitely expect noticeably worse reception on the S4 Active than on comparable phones. Calls would cut in and out frequently while I was inside.
Moving down the road a bit to try the S4 Active "in the wild" yielded better results. The phone found and held both 3G and LTE signals easily in a high coverage area, and calls were clear. If you don't expect to travel much outside the city limits, the phone will serve you well... but then again, for the target market, that may not be an acceptable level of performance.
Battery life and cell reception are generally linked, and sure enough, the S4 Active got noticeably lower battery life from its 2600mAh power source in my home. While I worked on stories and some freelance jobs I'd get a little less than 14 hours worth of regular usage (checking up on email and calls regularly, with a little music and the odd video in between) while I purposefully stayed off WiFi. When I switched back to my daily driver, this would translate into about two days of standby time.
Again, battery life seemed to improve notably once I got into a more reliable AT&T area, even on LTE. A couple of hours of working in Starbucks under much the same load as I put it on at home drained the battery by just 8%, much more in line with the excellent life that the Galaxy S4 and other Samsung hardware gets. I'd say that you can make it through a typical day just fine if you're in a high-signal area, and if you're not, find a WiFi network for better results.
Audio And Speaker
The S4 Active gets a single, small speaker on the back of the phone, below a double-slit grille with a tiny bump for a strap. This speaker doesn't win any points for fidelity, but it's plenty loud, which is all I ask for in a phone's external sound. It's easily twice as loud as, say, the similarly-sized speaker on Samsung's own Galaxy Nexus. It's not "boomsound," but you don't need to worry about missing a call or alert at full volume.
Music played through the headphone port was very loud indeed - on most phones I keep it at about 80%, but the S4 Active became uncomfortably loud after 50% (where it warns you not to blow out your eardrums with a software pop-up). It's just as well, since above that distortion becomes an issue. At lower and mid volumes - which, again, are extremely loud by the standards of other phones - audio was clear, with especially good bass. Connections over Bluetooth were generally good, with a slightly longer range than usual at about 35 feet before I started getting interruptions in playback.
The camera on the S4 Active is 8 megapixels, which is fine, but not quite as high-end as the fantastic 13MP shooter on the S4. I'm not sure if it's the same camera module as the Galaxy S III, but the photos seem to be similar: pretty good by phone standards, though of course, the low-light performance is a bit wanting. The LED flash does its best to compensate, but you're not going to get great shots after dark whatever you do. With plenty of light, the shots have pretty good color reproduction, if a bit fuzzy.
The front-facing camera is 2MP, which is about as much as you should need for video conferencing or a quick profile photo. It's not fantastic, but it will get the job done. Video is smooth at 1080p, but like all smartphones, you'll need a very steady hand to avoid artifacts and tearing motion issues.
In terms of specifications, the S4 Active is nearly identical to the American LTE version of the Galaxy S4: the same 1.9Ghz quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor, the same Adreno 320 GPU, and perhaps most crucially, the same 2GB of RAM. Predictably, scores for benchmarks are outstanding. Even with Samsung's heavy software load, apps loaded almost instantaneously, and you'll go through quite a lot of them before running out of memory. The Galaxy S4 and its new bad boy brother might not have the same world-beating performance as the octo-core versions overseas, but it's still more hardware than you're likely to need for the foreseeable future.
Storage is another issue entirely. At present the S4 Active is offered only in a 16GB model, and with Samsung's tendency to build a downright enormous software package, you've only got access to a bit more than 10GB. With gigantic games and HD video, a user who's big on entertainment will run out of on-board storage rather quickly. It is possible to move at least some apps to the SD card (if you've got one). But in this writer's opinion, a flagship device these days should have no less than 32GB, especially if the manufacturer insists on filling what space there is with software of questionable utility.
In any case, I encountered no slowdowns during my week of testing. Transitions were smooth, HD video played without issue, even at 1080p, and intense games like Epoch were smooth as butter. You'd have a hard time finding something that this hardware couldn't handle, at least for the time being.
Since the rugged nature of the S4 Active is its primary selling point, I gave it a thorough dose of both water and dust, which it is rated to resist, if not in all circumstances. The phone has an Ingress Protection score of 67, which means it should be good to work under any kind of dirt or after submersion for thirty minutes in no more than one meter of water. The dirt and dust seems accurate enough - my dog has a nasty digging habit, and shoving the S4 active into a pile of loose, fine soil did nothing but get it dirty. The physical buttons worked flawlessly afterwards.
Then there's the water protection. The S4 Active handled light dunks and douses with no trouble at all, and needed nothing more than a quick wipe down to get it working again. (Water and capacitive touchscreens don't mix.) But, and this is a big but, don't forget to snap the battery cover completely closed after you open it. This is more involved than it sounds: there are snapping enclosure points ringing the entire back of the phone.
See that photo below? It was meant to demonstrate the waterproof function of the S4 Active. But after taking photos of the rear section devoid of its cover, I neglected to completely close it, which is counter-indicated by the included manual. There was clearly water inside the battery compartment, and it was dripping out of the phone itself as well. The white dot beneath the MicroSD card slot, which I'm now certain is a water indicator, turned from white to red.
So I did what you're supposed to do in these situations: removed the battery and cover, stuck the phone in a bowl of rice, and waited. After an hour in the sun, the S4 Active seems to be working just fine. That's not to say that you shouldn't take care -the warranty on our review unit is almost certainly void at this point - but it looks like it is indeed very comfortable in small amounts of water.
I also did some basic impact tests, which is to say that I tossed it around my house in ways that might be expected in normal activity. (Note: Samsung doesn't make any specific claims about the S4 Active's impact resistance.) I also tossed it into the air about 30 feet outside, letting it land on grass... because I'm not at all sure that the screen can handle direct impact on anything harder at that height. All that happened was a few scuffs on the plastic case, not even a dent, so you can expect the S4 Active to survive at least minor falls.
One final note: the Rugby Smart, an older "rugged" Samsung smartphone, included a quick flashlight toggle to turn on the LED light without turning on the phone. It was a fantastic idea with a great implantation that is, alas, absent on the S4 Active.
Update: As commenter jonathan3579 found, this feature is still there, it's just hidden in a settings menu. While the screen is off, you can press the Volume Up button for about a second to activate the flashlight, then press the Volume Down button to dismiss it. I love this feature, and I encourage both manufacturers and ROM developers everywhere to steal it.
The software on the Galaxy S4 Active is nearly identical to the 4.2.2 build on the Galaxy S4, Samsung's TouchWiz Nature UX 2.0. David Ruddock already wrote an exhaustive review of this, and the only change is a minor software bump (mostly for the aforementioned Apps to SD card functionality) and a few new wallpapers. Suffice it to say, it's quite a bit different than stock Android, and at this point you should probably know what to expect. The performance issues of earlier versions of TouchWiz how now been pretty thoroughly eliminated, either by the dedicated work of Samsung's software team, or the simpler expedient of rapidly expanding mobile hardware capabilities.
TouchWiz is a mixed bag, as always. There are things that I really like (such as the horizontal ribbon of toggles on the notification bar) and things that I don't (like the fact that there are 20 of the damn things, and you can't get rid of any of them). The one thing that I like the least about this latest incarnation i s that it tends to fill up the notification area extremely quickly, even on a huge 5" screen: by default, I had a clock, battery icon, signal strength bar, 4G/LTE indicator, Bluetooth icon, and Samsung's "SmartStay" indicator, pushing the notifications past the halfway mark in portrait mode. That really annoys me, and while I can't justify my distaste in a rational way, I know I'm not alone. I do like the option to display a numeric battery percentage, and wish Google would do the same for AOSP.
I'm not a fan of Samsung's overly shiny UI design, but they've sold tens of millions of these things, so I would appear to be in the minority here. Additions to basic Android include the ability to use an "S Voice" command to unlock the screen, which only worked about one out of five times for me, a main Settings menu strangely divided into tabs, and the predictable array of custom launcher, widgets, icons, keyboard, and so on. The one thing that I did really appreciate was the option to set the volume rocker as a shutter button in the Camera app - very handy for any user, and especially if you intend to take photos underwater.
The basics of getting around Android with Samsung's button layout are slightly modified. The "recent apps" button is activated by long-pressing on Home. A quick double-tap on Home will bring up S Voice, Samsung's "I can't believe it's not Siri" competitor. Want Google Now instead? It's been moved to the Settings button, which you long-press to open the Google Search interface. Want to do a quick voice search with Google Now instead of S-Voice? Too bad. There's no way to bring it up without a second tap.
The rest, you can take or leave. I'll give Samsung props for the "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" school of interface design, but most of the extra features are just not appealing for someone who's been using Android every day of the last few years. I'd encourage any prospective buyers to try out a Galaxy S4 retail unit or borrow one from a friend to get a quick impression of Samsung's latest additions to its software platform.
Samsung's standard collection of branded apps are present, in addition to AT&T's seemingly unavoidable add-ons. For the love of God, AT&T, give up on AT&T Navigator already. You also get Flipboard, Polaris Office 5, TripAdvisor, and the Yellow Pages. The full complement of Google Play media apps are present, as are Chrome, Google+, and Google Talk (which was almost instantly replaced by Hangouts). Most of these can be disabled through Android's Apps menu if you like, though a few of Samsung's first-party apps are unavoidable. The only non-Google app I feel inclined to hang onto is Samsung's built-in file browser, which does well enough if you don't need root capabilities.
Here's the main thing about the $200 on-contract S4 Active: there's no other option on AT&T for a top-of-the-line phone that's specifically designed to resist the rigors of an active job or lifestyle. You could make the argument that the Sony Xperia Z is at least as waterproof, but a nearly all-glass body doesn't do anything for durability (as Nexus 4 owners can testify to). Plus, you'd need to buy one outright to use it on AT&T, or switch to T-Mobile. Verizon's got a Casio G'zone they'll sell you... with hardware that's a year out of date and software that's almost twice as old.
The Galaxy S4 Active isn't invulnerable, but it will stand up to a fair bit of torture, like James Bond at the beginning of the third act. If you need a phone that can take a lickin' and keep on tickin', and don't want to settle for anything but the best hardware (at least in terms of screen, processor, and RAM), the S4 Active is pretty much your only choice on AT&T. And even if you don't need a phone that can withstand a typically lethal amount of water and dust, it's worth considering over the standard S4, especially if you don't need the latest and greatest camera.
There's a lot of words up there, and they boil down to this: the Galaxy S4 Active is just like the S4, with a tougher shell and a slightly reduced camera. All the hardware and software features of Sammy's flagship are intact, for better or worse. If you want a Galaxy S4 that you can take to the poolside or a job site with the reasonable expectation of it surviving, this is it. Downsides to the hardware include Samsung's typical plastic build, albeit somewhat tougher in this incarnation, and a relatively huge software load. Reception seems a bit lower as well, though if you don't frequent rural areas you probably won't have to worry about that.
I'm encouraged that Samsung chose to make the S4 Active with as few compromises as it did - aside from a very slightly larger case, a camera that's more mid-range, and an LCD screen, you lose nothing by going with the Active. The battery is even removable. It's got the same $199 starting price as well, which makes it worthy of consideration even if you've got only minor threats to your phone... like, say, children. Bravo, Samsung - I hope more manufacturers either make their flagships as durable, or release Active variants of their own.