This review is about 4500 words long. We do that a lot here at Android Police, and if you want an exhaustive breakdown of the hardware and software in the Galaxy S7 Active, then by all means, read on. But if you want the long and the short of it, here it is: the S7 Active is a Galaxy S7 with a permanent "tough" case around it and an extra 1000mAh of juice. If that sounds like a good thing, and good enough that the $100 premium AT&T asks is reasonable, then the phone is right up your alley.
If you'd rather have something smaller, or more trendy, or with a bigger screen or a modular capacity, look elsewhere. You should also look elsewhere if you want something fashionable (unless camo patterns are your cup of tea) or inexpensive (as even "ruggedized" phones like the S7 Active can be had for hundreds of dollars less). As it stands, the Galaxy S7 Active is the only phone on the market that combines top-of-the-line internal hardware with a tough-as-nails exterior. That won't be an ideal combination for most customers, but for those it does suit, it's more or less perfect.
|High-end hardware||The S7 Active uses exactly the same hardware specs as the Galaxy S7, with the obvious exception of its case and battery. The phone is quite expensive, but it can't be said that you don't get what you pay for in comparison to other Samsung flagships. It's also the only flagship-class phone made specifically for rugged use.|
|Giant battery||4000mAh. 5.1-inch screen. Snapdragon 820 SoC. Yeah, this thing is a beast when it comes to battery life.|
|Active Key||This extra hardware button makes a lot of sense on an "active" device, and it's something I wish other manufacturers would copy.|
|Toughness||Yes, the phone is exactly as rugged as Samsung says it is, and maybe a little more so.|
|Price||The S7 Active costs almost $800. That's as much as a Galaxy S7 Edge, and $100-300 more than any other flagship phone in the US market. Ouch.|
|Style||Why do manufacturers assume that anyone who wants a phone that can take a beating also wants a phone that looks like a G.I. Joe accessory?|
|Bloatware||AT&T and DirecTV add quite a bit of bloat on top of the already-heavy TouchWiz interface and Samsung apps.|
|Poor reception||Both cellular and Wi-Fi reception on the S7 Active were less than optimal for an urban area.|
This is the fourth entry in Samsung's "Active" line, and while the company has made some important improvements as it has progressed, there are a few elements that it can't really do too much about. Even a generous reviewer would describe the S7 Active as "chunky": with dimensions of 148.8x74.9x9.9mm, it's larger on all sides than the vanilla Galaxy S7, and about the same size as the Galaxy S7 Edge, which has a considerably larger screen. It's thicker even than that. With a body that combines aluminum on the edges, textured plastic on the rear, and a hard, rubbery impact shell of plastic stretched out across the back and all four corners, the phone isn't trying to be anything less than aggressive in its styling.
AT&T offers the phone in the green camo seen here, an only slightly better sand color, and a grey-blue option. The latter is a bit bland, but at least it doesn't look like something you'd order out of the back of Soldier of Fortune.
Even so, it's an improvement on older models. Many of the extraneous details from the S5/S6 Active are gone, including the annoyingly gauche faux rivets and the distracting grooves on the rear panel. In so much as Samsung's current minimalist style can be applied to a phone like this, it is. You'll find the usual power button and volume rocker on the right and left edge of the device, respectively, and the single somewhat underpowered speaker has been moved to the bottom edge, right next to the MicroUSB port. I didn't have any trouble listening to music or podcasts through said speaker, though obviously it's not as clear or loud as a stereo speaker setup.
The headphone port is on the top, the dual-function SIM/MicroSD card tray is on the right side, and the heart rate monitor hangs out on the back, just like all of Samsung's more recent designs. Aside from the larger size, the biggest difference between the S7 Active and the standard S7 (and by extension, most of the current flagships) is the physical home, app switch, and back buttons, and an extra "Active Key" on the side, both of which are inherited from older Active phones. The home button doubles as a fingerprint reader, a new addition for the Active line. It's the same design used in the main Galaxy S7 series. The physical navigation buttons are jarring if you're used to virtual or glass buttons, but they're not hard to get used to.
The Active Key deserves some special attention. It sits just above the volume rocker on the left side of the phone, and until you learn to distinguish it by its raised mesh pattern, it will fool you into thinking that it's a power button. But in fact it's a lot more useful than that. The Active Key is bound by default to Activity Zone, which appears to be the only Samsung-branded app in the S7 Active that differs from the other S7 phones. It's an interesting little tool, but the key is much more useful with custom bindings. Users can set the key to launch three different apps: one with a single tap, one with a double tap, and one with a hold. It's basically the same idea that Pressy had for adding a utility button to Android devices (except that this time it works).
I re-bound the button to open Chrome with a single press, Google Play Music with a double-press, and this flashlight shortcut with a long press. (That functionality really should have been baked in, but then this is an Android blog - all hail the mighty dev!) It's probably my favorite thing about the Galaxy S7 Active's design, and the only thing that spoils it is that the button won't activate another bound app while one is open. So for example, I can't open Play Music with a double-tap while I'm currently using Chrome. That doesn't seem like intentional behavior - perhaps Samsung will patch it in a future update.
Oh, and it works as a shutter button when the camera app is open. Very handy.
Put the specification lists for the Galaxy S7 and the S7 Active next to each other, and you have to look hard to tell the difference. The S7 Active uses the same Snapdragon 820 processor (no Exynos model yet), same 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage space, same MicroSD card expansion, same 12MP rear camera, et cetera. Even the software (Samsung's "Whatever They're Calling TouchWiz Now" skin over Android 6.0.1) is the same, save for the Active Key app mentioned above. Even the screen is the same 5.1-inch Super AMOLED panel with a 2560x1440 resolution, and Samsung didn't leave out NFC or wireless charging, either.
All of that in and of itself is surprisingly notable. Samsung remains the only major manufacturer to offer a "ruggedized" version of its flagship phone that doesn't compromise on specifications. One could make an argument for the "shatterproof" DROID Turbo 2, but that phone only claims that its screen is invincible - it doesn't boast the same impact, temperature, and ingress protection that the S7 Active does. For customers who want a rugged phone with no compromises, the S7 Active is basically their only choice... it's just a shame that AT&T appears to be the only company on Earth actually interested in selling it.
There is one major departure in internal hardware for the S7 Active: the battery. It uses a 4000mAh non-removable battery, a full 33% larger than the one in the standard S7 (and a bit more than 10% bigger than the one in the S7 Edge). That's impressive, considering that the Galaxy S7 is already no slouch when it comes to longevity. The S7 Active's battery is one of the most capacious on the market right now, and certainly the largest in the 5-inch range. I suspect that Samsung's switch to non-removable designs has allowed the engineers much more freedom in this area, and they're making use of all that extra space from the ruggedized space to absolutely cram as much juice as possible into the phone. Even users who don't have any particular interest in the phone's rugged capability might be swayed by the extra battery life. There are a few other phones on the market with bigger batteries, but none from major manufacturers with high-end hardware.
Other than that, this is the same phone that Samsung has been selling for months. I won't bore you with overlong benchmarks or comparisons to other flagships... not least because pretty much everyone is using the Snapdragon 820 platform in their high-end phones anyway. Suffice it to say that the S7 Active can handle pretty much whatever you throw at it, even if it's not a zippy as some of the Exynos variants of the primary S7 series.
TouchWiz over Android. You've heard this song before. Samsung has made some excellent progress in terms of getting its proprietary skin to behave - it's no longer the battery or resource hog that it once was. But calling it "elegant" would be too generous. "Functional" is about as far as I'll go, with the understanding that your opinion on the usefulness of the many, many add-ons on top of Android that Samsung has become known for will vary from person to person.
Just a couple of examples: the always-on screen is quite handy if you're the type of user who's abandoned a wristwatch in favor of checking your phone for the time, and the option to add a calendar view is a good choice. Samsung's split-screen implementation, which is literally years ahead of Google at this point, is surprisingly stable if only occasionally useful on a phone screen. And Samsung's load of pre-installed apps are, if not entirely necessary, at least not altogether unwelcome.
I wish the same could be said for AT&T's apps. Normally this is a bit of a petty point to make, since every carrier-branded phone is saddled with this crap, but AT&T is the only place to buy the Samsung Galaxy S7 Active. That means that even if you track one down for use on another network, you'll need to deal with the apps for Smart Limits, Protect Plus, AT&T Locker, Drive Mode, Setup & Transfer, Device Help, plus partner apps for The Yellow Pages, Plenty, Uber, and Amazon. Oh, and DirecTV. Good Lord, the DirecTV integration that's become standard since AT&T bought the satellite provider is annoying. And it would be annoying if the phone merely included the apps, but it goes further by auto-starting the DirecTV box remote (for a service that a huge amount of customers don't have) and putting a big honking widget right on your phone's home screen.
Yes, all of these apps can be uninstalled or disabled. They're still incredibly annoying. A one-page prompt at setup that simply asked, "are you a DirecTV customer?" would have been enough to dissuade me from ranting on in the review like this. AT&T product managers, please make a note of it.
Other than that, there aren't many surprises to be found in the software. The Settings menu is a confusing jumble of lists, and it's hard to separate some of the core Android features you know should be there from the shovels full of antiquated Samsung extras at times. But all of it is easy enough to get used to.
A final note: the fingerprint sensor on the Galaxy S7 Active (or at least on our review unit) seems to be noticeably pickier than other Samsung phones, and other high-end Android devices in general. It wouldn't scan for me about 60% of the time I tried to use it, and often repeated attempts wouldn't unlock the phone, either, sometimes causing a "cooldown" timer to appear. After a few days I simply went back to my usual pattern lock to avoid frustration. Your mileage (and your fingers) may vary.
Call and data quality
I live in a mid-sized city on the California coast (at the moment), so there should never be any time when my access to AT&T is anything less than stellar. Alas, that wasn't the case with the Galaxy S7 Active. Compared to other phones I was testing in the same area, the S7 Active regularly went down by several bars, and it was often sluggish in loading web pages. On two separate occasions my calls were dropped with "full" coverage for both cellular access and LTE, something that I haven't experienced in a populated area in a long time. Wi-Fi reception and speed in my house, even within sight of my router, were poorer than usual.
Once calls were connected, they were about as clear and understandable as any standard-fidelity call. Those I spoke to reported similar results on the other end. AT&T doesn't offer Wi-Fi calling on this device (yet), but I noticed that VOIP calls I made via Hangouts on my local Wi-Fi network were much clearer than standard calls from the dialer. The poor reception isn't so terrible that the phone is unusable, but it's worth considering if you spend a large amount of time outside of urban areas... which might be the case, considering the S7 Active's "rugged" market position.
Jeremiah Rice reported similar problems with the Galaxy S4 Active, also an AT&T exclusive and the last "Active" phone we've had for a full review. I can't help but wonder if Samsung's rugged design somehow undermines its normally adequate wireless performance.
In a word: great. That's not exactly surprising, considering that the longevity of the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge was already quite good. Combine 4000mAh with the relatively small 5.1-inch screen (by current flagship standards, anyway), and you have a phone that's built to outlast almost any activity. Boosting the size of the battery is pretty ingenious on Samsung's part - it's not as if buyers of a "rugged" phone expect anything thin anyway, so why shave a few millimeters when you can cram in a few hundred extra milliamps instead?
Wi-Fi off on the left, on on the right.
As always, your specific experience will differ based on the manner in which you use your phone. But in the time I've used the S7 Active as my mobile device, I've been able to get a solid day and a half of LTE usage (even more impressive considering the low reception mentioned above). Using it as normal, with mostly Wi-Fi access and only a few LTE sessions a day, I was able to get almost 48 hours out of the phone. Unless you constantly run streaming high-definition video or play hours and hours of games, I can't see how a normal user would need to top up the Galaxy S7 Edge multiple times a day more than once in a great while.
The battery alone might be worth the extra expense of this phone for a considerable number of users. I will note one oddity: wireless charging on the Samsung-brand pad sent to us with the review phone was somewhat inconsistent. At times setting the phone down on the pad resulted in a net loss in battery power, even when the pad was confirmed to be charging. I'm going to chock that up to more physical space in between the wireless charging components thanks to the phone's larger body. In any case, fiddling around of a wireless charging "sweet spot" seemed to fix the problem.
The S7 Active uses the same camera module as the normal S7 and S7 Edge. That means that its photos are quite good, even if the software behind the camera sometimes seems to be working overtime - you'll have to work to find a normal shooting situation that the phone can't handle. While many devices on the market offer sensors that can beat the 12MP camera in raw pixels, its excellent low-light performance (if not technical color accuracy) closes the gap and then some.
This is one of Samsung's selling points for this generation, so it makes sense that they'd focus on it. The camera isn't magic - moving targets in low light will still tend to blur without flash, and the various software tricks and enhancements are pretty obvious to a serious photographer - but I think it's safe to say that you won't find better performance outside of a dedicated mid-range camera.
This is what you came here for, right? Who wouldn't buy this phone and at least wonder what it can handle? Well before we begin, let's break down the level of "toughness" that Samsung thinks the S7 Active can take. The phone has an ingress protection rating of 68, meaning that it can handle up to 5 feet of water for half an hour and any amount of dirt, dust, or sand - the only thing it's not rated to block out is an extended steam-jet cleaning.
As nice as that is to know, it's not all that impressive anymore - the regular Galaxy S7 is also rated IP68, as are at least a few other flagship phones. To make the Galaxy S7 Active stand out, and not least to justify its premium price, Samsung went further. Unlike previous entries in the Active series, the S7 Active is also rated MIL STD 810G, meaning that the design (if not the individual phone you purchase) has passed a series of tests for readiness according to the U.S. Military. Now, that's a little nebulous: MIL-STD is a testing protocol, not necessarily a certification for specific capability. But according to Samsung's promotional materials, the phone is resistant to extremes in temperature, shock and vibration, and high and low pressures at various altitudes. As vague as they are, these "resistances" are more than Samsung was willing to provide for previous Active phones.
The screen is also "shatter-resistant." Samsung defines that as "up to five feet on a flat surface." An AT&T PR representative went into detail on exactly what makes the screen stronger than normal. At its base is Gorilla Glass 4, the latest version of Corning's proprietary tempered glass. On top is a layer of impact-resistant polycarbonate layer (read: plastic). It's basically a factory-installed, unremovable screen protector - you can see the area around the physical navigation buttons where a gap was left (below). On top of all that is the phone body itself, which extends a small lip of absorbent hard plastic up and over the screen and reinforces all four corners. That "flat surface" bit is important, too - while I can't see any way that flat concrete or hard wood would impact the phone screen-first, irregular surfaces like large rocks or a protruding bit of pipe might still be able to shatter it. Compare these caveats to the DROID Turbo 2 and its "shatterproof" screen, which can take at least some punishment directly to the polymer-reinforced screen panel itself.
Lastly, both AT&T and Samsung note that while the S7 Active can withstand the abuse outlined above, it's not rated to survive all of that without cosmetic damage. In other words, you can toss your phone around like a Frisbee all day long, but don't expect it to look good afterward.
So, let's get to the good stuff. Water resistance is easy enough to test. I don't have five feet of water handy, but the S7 Active can chill at the bottom of my bathtub or inside a pitcher for a half-hour without any problems except dampness. Unlike some older water-resistant designs, there are no plastic covers for the MicroUSB port or other openings. This means that the speaker grille gets blocked fairly easily, but some vigorous shaking is all it takes to get it working again.
Ingress of dirt, soil, and sand didn't bother the phone. While the beach in Monterey left grains stuck around the home button and screen bezel, they seemed to work themselves out soon enough. For temperature I sat the phone next to a space heater for an hour or so, where it definitely exceeded a hundred degrees Fahrenheit for quite a while. The phone was too hot to touch, but once it cooled down it worked fine.
"Vibration resistance" usually means something like long-term, sustained, and relatively high-frequency vibrations, like something sitting on top of an engine cover. I didn't have anything to test in that regard, but I enclosed the phone in a tin box and slammed it around for a few minutes. Aside from some scratches to the screen and scrapes on the rubbery part of the case, it seemed fine. It was time to test the "shatter-resistant" screen. It dropped it five times from my head height, a little under six feet, onto hard ceramic tile. I could definitely see scrapes and chips in the body, but as promised, the screen was in one piece.
Time to step it up. To test water resistance, vibration resistance, and temperature resistance, I put the Galaxy S7 Active through a laundry session in my washing machine, starting inside the pocket of my jeans. Forty minutes later it was still powered on and functioning, though the impact-resistant body was definitely showing some bruises. I started the dryer on a 20-minute cycle with the phone once again in the pocket of the jeans and still powered on.
The phone made an awful racket going round and round, and I thought for sure that hundreds of impacts on the metal drum would at least crack the screen. Not so. While the temperature warning was finally tripped, the phone was intact. Impressive.
I decided to give it one last somewhat reasonable test before sending the phone back to AT&T. I went outside to my back porch and dropped the phone from head height, then threw it up about ten feet, then fifteen, then twenty. The phone survived. It's not pretty, or to be more accurate it's even less pretty than it used to be, but it's still in one piece and completely functional. There are serious dents in the casing, part of it is separating from the body, and the screen is scratched to hell, but it will still work as a smartphone just fine. Note that this last test exceeds the rated impact limitations supplied by Samsung and AT&T.
I should point out that while the screen is shatter-resistant, it doesn't appear to be very scratch-resistant - that plastic cover placed over the tempered glass seems to make the Galaxy S7 Active more prone to light scratches than an ordinary glass-screened device. Owners who want to keep the screen clear might want to invest in a screen protector. Yes, that would be a layer of plastic over the layer of plastic that's already on top of the screen itself.
Value and conclusion
The Galaxy S7 Active costs $794.99 outright from AT&T, and roughly the same on its various no-interest financing agreements. Compare that to $695 for the regular Galaxy S7, or the same nearly $800 price tag for the Galaxy s7 Edge. (All of that's assuming you can't find them cheaper somewhere else, which you probably can.) Staying within Samsung's AT&T flagship lineup, that presents an interesting value proposition. Both the S7 Active and the S7 Edge are $100 more than the regular phone, offering a tough body and longer battery life on one hand, or a bigger screen and more stylish flagship design on the other.
Personally, I find the S7 Active an easy pick over the S7 Edge. The screen isn't so much larger that it's a deal-breaker (or indeed, worth considering over a Galaxy Note), and the curved glass doesn't appeal to me. If you look at the S7 Active as a regular S7 plus an extended battery and the protective case you would have bought for the slimmer phone anyway, even that $100 gap doesn't seem so large.
That being said, almost $800 is a hell of a lot of money for a phone in 2016, especially on AT&T, where customers have the option to bring their own equipment. Someone hunting for something under $500 can easily find a phone that will equal the S7 Active's specs on paper (though that battery is very hard to beat at any price), and there are even a few options at $400 or less, especially if you don't mind picking up last year's model. Last week there was a new Galaxy S7 being sold for $430 on eBay. The S7 Active might make sense as a $100 upgrade over the status quo, but even with its toughness and longevity, it would be hard to justify more than $300 extra for a phone that (let's face it) you're going to replace in about two years anyway.
The premium price that AT&T and Samsung are demanding makes sense in one context, and one context only: a premium, flagship device that can take a beating. No one else makes a phone like that - lower the price or switch up the model, and you're looking at a compromise on either durability or capability. If you want a phone that ticks all of those boxes, the Galaxy S7 Active is your only choice at the moment.
A final message: the fact that this phone is exclusive to AT&T at the moment is quite cumbersome. I had hoped that the age of carrier exclusives was coming to an end, but with this phone and the latest Motorola designs both being exclusive to US carriers (at least at the moment), it seems consumers aren't quite done suffering. There's no indication that the Galaxy S7 Active will be offered in an international or unlocked version (the S5 Active and S6 Active were both AT&T exclusives as well, though there was an "S5 Sport" for Sprint). Perhaps there simply isn't enough interest outside of the American market to produce an international version. But that means that anyone who wants to use the phone off of AT&T will have to pay full retail price and get it SIM-unlocked through the carrier... and even then, AT&T's locked bootloader policy means that users won't ever have full control of the hardware.