The Galaxy S8 Active is the fifth Samsung S phone to bear the Active name, and it's easily the most refined take on the concept yet. Currently, the S8 Active is only available on AT&T, and that's the model we've received for review, but eventually, Samsung has less than subtly implied it will make its way to other carriers here in the US, as well to the unlocked market.
What's new compared to the outgoing S7 Active? Frankly, everything.
There are no more hardware navigation keys. The Active key is gone, too. It also doesn't look like it was styled by someone at the local army surplus, either. Like the S8, the S8 Active has software nav keys, a Snapdragon 835 CPU, USB-C port, headphone jack, iris scanner, the same cameras, and a Bixby key. It also has the same terrible rear-mounted fingerprint scanner. And while its Quad HD+ Super AMOLED display is similar in size to the S8's at 5.8", it lacks the signature curved edges, making this the only flat-screened Samsung flagship you can buy.
Buying it, though, is a very expensive proposition. AT&T's pricing works out to $850, which is nearly $300 more than the current price for a standard, US unlocked Galaxy S8 ($575). And really, all you are paying for is the ruggedization and the larger battery. The Active doesn't have any unique features, and in some cases is noticeably worse to use than the standard S8. This is a phone for a very specific kind of buyer, and while it may serve that buyer well - you'll get no argument from me - this probably isn't worth picking up just because it lasts longer on a charge.
|Rugged||Samsung says the S8 Active is good for drops on flat surfaces at heights up to five feet. I can believe it. The rugged body lips around the display, and said display is flat, so it's pretty well-protected.|
|Battery life||A 4000mAh battery means the already very-good battery life of the S8 is now truly excellent.|
|Still basically an S8||That means a great camera, good performance, Quick Charge 2.0, a headphone jack, iris scanner, and Samsung Pay.|
|Not as ugly||The S8 Active isn't pretty, but it's far from the camouflage-cosplay monstrosities that have been Active phones of the past.|
|Compact[ish]||The S8 Active, despite having a 5.8" display, is no thicker or wider than last year's 5.1" S7 Active. It is a touch taller (around 3mm) and a fair bit heavier (by 24g), though.|
|Price||AT&T wants $850 for what is essentially a Galaxy S8 wearing a big battery and body armor - $275 more than you'd paid for a regular unlocked S8. That's a very tough price to justify.|
|Still basically an S8||TouchWiz (eh), reasonable if not amazing performance, slow updates, the annoying Bixby key.|
|Fingerprint scanner||The placement is still absolute garbage. I'm not sure how Samsung thought it was going to get away with this layout. At least you have the iris scanner (useful for gloves, admittedly).|
|Nav keys (maybe)||Some owners claimed the hardware navigation keys of Actives-past made sense for use with gloves. That's obviously not an option with this phone.|
Design and materials
This really is the raison d'être for the S8 Active. Samsung isn't sharing much about exact construction techniques and materials when it comes to the S8 Active, but it does seem extremely stout. The company claims drops onto flat surfaces from heights under five feet should be survivable, period. that means dropping your phone while walking on the sidewalk or in your tiled kitchen should be absolutely no risk to the S8 Active, which is good to know. Sure, it'll get dinged up, but the lipped screen will prevent most catastrophic face-down cracks, and the heavily reinforced corners will redistribute force through the phone's extremely rigid frame instead of the display glass.
And it does seem to work. I tossed the S8 Active down a flight of concrete stairs (from an initial height around 4-5') that really left it little worse for wear. There are some scuffs and gouges here and there, but this is a rugged phone - it's kind of meant to get messed up, and those marks mean the corner protectors and display lip are doing their jobs.
The rear cover of the phone is coated in some kind of grippy silicone-esque material that theoretically makes the S8 Active easier to hold onto, though I really found it made little difference in practice.
At nearly 10mm thick, the Active is definitely on the chunky side, but since you'll be foregoing a case, that might be forgivable for the kind of person picking this phone up. It's also pretty heavy, but again, you'd kind of expect that.
The fingerprint scanner is in the same awful position as it is on the regular S8 and S8+, unfortunately, and it's still terrible to use and will regularly cause you to smudge your camera lens with fingerprints. Samsung really blew it here. As for the buttons, I accidentally activated Bixby pretty often (you can fix this... by disabling Bixby) when I pick up the phone. You've got your standard compliment of stuff along on the bottom, including the USB-C port, 3.5mm jack, and speaker outlet.
Like the S8 and S8+, the Active is rated IP68 waterproof, and can survive submersion at depths of five feet for up to 30 minutes.
One caveat to the S8 Active's rugged frame is that the USB and 3.5mm ports are rather deeply recessed. I found some USB-C cables had a hard time connecting to the Active, and I'd really have to push them in there.
The S8 Active uses the same type of Quad HD Super AMOLED display as the S8 and S8+, minus the curve. A flat screen is generally going to be a lot easier to protect from impact damage, so this only makes sense, and Samsung has equipped the S8 Active with a lip around the display glass to ensure glass-on-ground contact is unlikely in the event of a drop.
One thing I have noticed is that the S8 Active appears to have some weird kind of coating on the screen that causes it to be a bit of a dust magnet. I've asked Samsung about this but haven't heard back. The display is definitely glass - there's no Moto Z2 Force plastic business going on here - but I'm wondering if Samsung opted for a special treatment here to better make it repel liquids or something.
The screen itself is outstanding, as is the case with the S8 and S8+. Colors are bright and vivid, or if you switch to standard mode in the settings, extremely accurate. Outdoor visibility is very good, and dynamic range is superb. Samsung makes the best smartphone screens, so none of this should be especially surprising.
With the same size and type of display as the standard Galaxy S8 but a battery a full third larger (4000mAh versus 3000mAh), you will not be shocked to learn that the S8 Active lasts quite a while on a charge. Six hours of screen time was easily doable for me over the course of 36 hours off the charger with always-on display turned off. With always-on display turned on, I could achieve similar screen-on figures over a single day of use, but that AoD really does add up when you leave the phone off the wall wart, especially overnight. (Note that these are my screen on figures, and won't map onto your experience. I generally got around 5 hours screen on time with the Galaxy S8+, for comparison.)
Many of you will likely ask "so why doesn't Samsung just put a 4000mAh battery in the regular S8?" And I think we all know the answer to that: because thin smartphones are sexy smartphones, because marketing. It's annoying, I agree, but at least there is a real "flagship" option with a reasonably large battery pack out there.
Charging is achieved via Samsung's standard Quick Charge 2.0 (AKA Adaptive Fast Charge), meaning it doesn't take too terribly long to get the Active back up to full from single digits, and you can claw back a fair bit of juice if you've only got 15 minutes to spare. I realize Quick Charge 2.0 makes it sound old, but with 18 watts of peak output, in theory it should be no less speedy than USB Power Delivery on the Pixel XL.
Wireless, reception, and audio
The S8 Active supports a host of advanced AT&T network like MIMO, 256QAM, VoLTE, and more. As such, it should be a pretty solid mobile data performer, given it's packing a Snapdragon 835 with the X16 LTE modem. It also supports all the standard Wi-Fi bands, Bluetooth 5.0, and NFC.
I found reception to be solid, if not amazing, and the S8 Active performed pretty well on AT&T's network here in the Bay Area. Calls seemed clear and the phone performed the way I would expect.
I tested Bluetooth with my wireless earbuds and had no issues to report. Like the standard S8, the Active can use the extra bandwidth from its Bluetooth 5.0 support to transmit audio to two connected Bluetooth audio devices at once, which is pretty neat.
The Galaxy S8 Active's bottom-firing speaker seems basically the same as the one you'd find on the S8 and S8+ (I know, you're hearing this a lot in this review). It gets reasonably loud and sounds pretty decent. The headphone jack is powered by Qualcomm's quite-capable AQstic audio codec, and provides good levels of output with excellent overall audio quality. No compromises here.
Again, the S8 Active utilizes the same 12MP f/1.7 rear camera found on the standard S8 phones. That is to say, this is one of the very best smartphone cameras on the market. Autofocus is incredibly fast, details are great, contrast is vivid, and dynamic range is near the top of its class. While not hugely changed from the Galaxy S7's camera in 2016, Samsung did update the sensor a bit this year and also made significant alterations to its image processing. The result is that, like the S8, the S8 Active takes pictures that look significantly more natural in terms of color and sharpness (perhaps put more bluntly, a reduction in the intensity of both), resulting in some of the best shots you'll get on any phone currently available for sale.
The front-facing camera is also unchanged from the S8, offering 8MP of resolution and Samsung's software-based autofocus.
Samsung's camera app is simple to use and generally stays out of the way unless you really want to mess with things like filters or stickers, which are there if you want them.
The S8 Active performed largely like my Galaxy S8+ - which is to say reasonably well. Samsung's phones aren't the quickest this year. They really aren't even as fast as the Google Pixel a lot of the time, but I will say that performance is much more consistent than it was on the S7 and S7 edge. You don't get those big, throttle-induced slowdowns that made using those phones such a bear at times. Sure, there are occasional stutters, sometimes apps take a bit long to load, and I find the notification bar is oddly unresponsive at times.
But, the S8 Active generally performs admirably, and I've not seen my S8+'s speed diminish much over the months. I've noticed no particular performance issues (at least not that I hadn't also seen on the S8), and there's no reason to expect any real difference in experience here. After all, the changes are almost universally external.
Because the software on the Galaxy S8 Active is near identical to that of the S8 and S8+, I am going to direct you to the software section of that review. There are some very small tweaks and additions - like Samsung's Activity Zone app - this really is just the same ROM you'd find on those phones. Check out our original review of the Galaxy S8's software here, it's fully applicable to the S8 Active.
As for that Activity Zone app, it's pretty boring - it's basically a splash screen that shows you the weather, barometric pressure, your step count, a compass, and adds shortcuts for the flashlight toggle and a stopwatch. It feels very, very forced. You're almost definitely not going to use it, and it doesn't take advantage of any features unique to the S8 Active.
At $850, it's hard to say the S8 Active represents good value for money. Considering an unlocked Galaxy S8 can be had for $575 direct from Samsung - nearly $300 less - there's no reasonable way you can claim three-hundred bucks more stuff is offered in this phone. Purchasing it at MSRP makes no sense.
That said, most will buy this device on an installment plan, and of them, most probably will pick it precisely for its blend of durability and premium features. There really is only one other phone out there like the S8 Active, and that would be the also very expensive Moto Z2 Force. But handsets that blend top of the line smartphone specifications with a heavy focus on durability are rare. And if it's one of two products really in that category, Samsung (or rather, AT&T) may not see a reason to price it aggressively. After all: I doubt they'll be making a huge number of these phones. They're decidedly niche.
So, the Galaxy S8 Active is quite expensive. Probably too expensive. It probably also doesn't matter a lot to the kind of person who would buy it. But if you were wondering if the Active might make more sense than a standard S8, a good insurance plan, and a case from a bottom line financial perspective? No, it almost certainly does not.
In this review, I tried not to linger too long on areas where the S8 Active clearly wouldn't differ from the standard S8 and S8+ that preceded it. That said, its one big differentiator is durability, and if you're looking for a more thorough accounting of just how much abuse this phone can take, this probably isn't the review for you. If you are interested in the way this phone differs (and doesn't) from Samsung's previous flagships, though, hopefully you've left here with some insight.
This is a phone built with a specific subset of customers in mind, and for them, it may be extremely appealing. Greatly reduced danger of screen breakage from a drop is no small feat, and as someone with family members who have broken a good many phones, I can understand why some people may just want to give up on all the cases and insurance plans and just buy a phone they're less likely to damage in the first place. It makes sense.
And if that's what you're looking for, the S8 Active is an easy phone to recommend. The Galaxy S8 was an excellent phone, and this is basically a Galaxy S8 in chunky body armor with a much bigger battery. As such, I'm issuing the S8 Active our editor's choice Most Wanted award. It may not be the best value for money, but the S8 Active is still an impressively uncompromised take on the ruggedized smartphone.