[Review + Video] Samsung Galaxy S4 Active

galaxy_s_4_active

Samsung isn’t new when it comes to more waterproof devices, having offered the likes of the Galaxy Rugby and the Solid Immerse in the past. But what about something similar, something that offers the latest and greatest that the current smartphone world has to offer? That’s what Samsung’s Galaxy S4 Active (Amazon), exclusive to AT&T here in the States, aims to deliver.

Unboxing Video

Video Review

Specifications

The Galaxy S4 Active keeps most of what the regular Galaxy S4 had internally, with the most noticeable difference being the rear-facing camera (13MP in the S4 versus 8MP in the S4 Active).

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad-core CPU @ 1.9GHz
  • 2GB LPDDR3 RAM
  • 16GB (microSD available, up to 64GB)
  • 2600mAh user-replaceable battery
  • 5-inch 1080×1920 (Full HD) TFT display with Gorilla Glass 2
  • 8MP rear-facing camera (1080p30 video recording)
  • 2MP front-facing camera (1080p30 video recording)
  • Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean

Design & Hardware

I’ve very much liked the design that Samsung has given their smartphones over the years, with the Galaxy S4 being the most modern and classiest of the bunch. Things changed slightly with the GS4 Active, mainly to give it more of a “rugged” look. For example, Samsung opted to go for 3 physical buttons on the front, as opposed to a physical home button with two touch buttons on the regular Galaxy S4. Samsung also added panels that used a soft-touch, rubberized coating to the top and bottom portions of the back. All told, with these changes comes something that’s just slightly wider, taller and heavier than the original Galaxy S4.

The majority of the Active is made of plastic, which makes the side of the phone a bit slippery at times to grip. Given the large frame of the Active, it’s also a bit difficult to use when it comes to one-handed operation. As most smartphone users use a case to protect their device, such accessories should also give you more grip.

Along the right side is the power button, featuring a dotted texture on it to make it easier to find and press. The feedback, or “click,” that you get, is fantastic, but even more so with the volume rocker to the opposite side. You’ll find a waterproof 3.5mm headset jack at the top as well as the IR blaster (yes, the Galaxy S4 Active can also be used as a remote for all of your A/V equipment) and microphone pinhole. On the bottom is a covered USB port, and another microphone pinhole.

On the front, you’ll see the earpiece, various sensors, the front-facing 2MP camera, 5-inch display, and the three, physical navigation buttons. When you move along to the back, you’ll notice the 8MP rear-facing camera with an LED flash below it. Because the camera protrudes from the back of the device a bit, the phone will never lie flat on a surface. The bottom of the back cover is where you’ll find the speaker cutout.

If you remove the back panel, you’ll notice that it has a gasket to help keep moisture out from the important components of the phone. The typical set of removable ones include the battery, microSD card, and micro-SIx`M slot. When reinstalling the back cover, make sure to apply pressure right about where the AT&T logo is, or right below the LED flash if you’re not using a carrier-branded model. This is so that the seal of the back cover is as good as it gets.

Build quality is very good, making the overall package very solid. Assuming you don’t abuse your devices, this phone should last you quite some time.

Since we’re still on the topic of hardware, you might be wondering how well the waterproofing is. In my testing, it’s pretty good, but you shouldn’t take it diving with you. The Active has an IP67 rating, which means that it’s dustproof and waterproof up to 1 meter (3.28 feet). Trying to search for a recipe, but accidentally drop the phone into a water-filled sink? There’s nothing to worry about. Trying to take pictures near a pool, but accidentally fall in? Don’t go too deep, and you should be fine. The Active also has a underwater-specific camera mode, called Aqua, that makes underwater photos a little nicer to look at.

Display

Samsung expects people who use the Active will be more outdoors than anything, so they opted to use a TFT display over AMOLED like the Galaxy S4. This results in colors that aren’t as vivid, but viewing angles are fantastic. Even better, the display is actually viewable in direct sunlight, something that was horrible with the GS4. The high-resolution display results in text and images that are clear and sharp.

Speaker, Network, and Call Quality

Like with most Android devices, the speaker is quite loud, sometimes loud to the point where the audio will begin to be distorted. I found that the speaker was perfectly suitable for casual listening of music, audio shows, etc.

While call quality will slightly vary by carrier, it was just fine, with the earpiece providing loud, clear audio.

Another thing that will vary by carrier is network speeds. While AT&T doesn’t come close to Verizon in terms of 4G LTE coverage, they still provide very speedy network access. My strongest LTE speedtests came out to around 65Mbps down and 20Mbps up. On average, I noticed speeds of roughly 35Mbps down and 15Mbps up. Obviously, these will vary depending on your location.

Software & Features

Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay, at first, was really good. It looks nice, and works well overall. However, the more I used the Active, the more frustrated I got. Some of Samsung’s tweaks to applications, such as Email, seemed nice, but the stock Internet browser and many of the others have poor designs that are ultimately unintuitive, making performing certain tasks take longer than they should. What seemed the worst was the with the Settings application. Samsung decided to add four tabs to try and help organize things, but this seems to complicate them more than anything, as finding certain things can sometimes be a tough task alone. Unfortunately, at least at the time of writing this review, custom ROMs aren’t available for the Active yet, as the bootloader needs to be unlocked.

Some of this also carries over to many of the features that Samsung managed to pack into the device. Just some of these include Air View, Air Gesture, and Smart Stay. While most of these feature worked, they weren’t too reliable or stable. I imagine that further software updates could greatly help these things, but I honestly don’t feel as though many would use these features on a regular basis, regardless of how well they worked. But, when they did work, they were pretty neat to use and show off to people occasionally.

Samsung includes 2 keyboards, a Samsung keyboard and the Swype one. Each has its pros and cons, but neither should really be used. The issue with the Samsung keyboard is that, while its own swiping feature works very well, thumb typing does not, because it has no autocorrect. The Swype keyboard obviously has excellent swiping, but its thumb typing would often get mixed up with the swiping, resulting in many mispressed keys. Installing SwiftKey from Google Play will make typing much, much better.

Performance

Overall, the Active is quite speedy and snappy, with an occasional slowdown due to the lack of full optimizations with Android on Samsung and AT&T’s end.

After a hard boot, nearly 900MB of RAM will be used, and depending on any background services that may have been installed from Google Play or elsewhere, this number could be higher. You still have a lot leftover for leaving multiple applications in the background, however.

Battery Life

The battery in the Active is quite large with a capacity of 2600mAh. With many essential Android features left on, such as GPS usage, auto brightness, and mobile data, I was able to get through the day with very little worries. Some of what I did on the device included some short calls, tweeting, email checking, using the camera, playing some games, downloading & updating new apps on LTE, streaming video of Wi-Fi, and some texting. I would keep the charger handy at the end of the day, just in case. Fortunately, the Active’s battery is easily removable, so spares could be had on the cheap.

Camera

Featuring a respectable 8MP sensor, the Active takes great photos in the day. At night? Not so much, though the “night” mode helps quite a bit by increasing brightness and decreasing contrast. Some of the other modes were worth using, such as HDR mode. Video quality was good as well, including the audio.

Conclusion

There’s no denying that Samsung’s Galaxy S4 Active is a fantastic phone. While the phone is quite large and often difficult to use with just one hand, I still enjoyed using it. It performs well, works well, and has the looks to complement everything else that it has going on.

The ultimate, deciding factor of whether or not you should get this comes down to the physical size of the unit. You use your smartphone everyday, so you’ll want something that’s comfortable and easy to use under a number of circumstances. As mentioned several times, the darn thing is just big. There is an assortment of other Android phones that are a bit more compact and more enjoyable to use, so you would need to try them out at a store first.

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