After Samsung's latest product push in London, we have nothing short of a Galaxy S 4 franchise on our hands. While the company unveiled its expected Mini version along with a photography-focused variant, it also took a step in the rugged-device direction by announcing the Galaxy S4 Active. With IP67 water and dust protection, the phone promises to see you through 30 minutes of aquatic activity at a time. Ruggedness aside, though, this device is quite similar to the GS4, albeit in a slightly heftier -- and arguably more attractive -- package. We spent some quality time with Galaxy S4 Active on AT&T, which retails for the same $199.99 as the original S 4. So is this a better pick? You know where to find out.
Gallery: Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review | 25 Photos
We're likely not alone in equating "rugged" with "boxy and unattractive." Our initial response to the idea of a GS4 Active wasn't exactly one of enthusiasm, then, as we knew it would sport a thicker profile than the flagship S 4. The Active measures 5.5 x 2.81 x 0.36 inches (139.9 x 71.4 x 9.1mm), while its predecessor is more petite at 5.38 x 2.7 x 0.31 inches (136.6 x 69.8 x 7.9mm). Weight-wise, too, the rugged version is a bit chunkier: 5.29 ounces (150g) compared to 4.59 (130g). When we actually got the device in our hands, though, that extra bit of bulk was appreciated. The Active is arguably even more comfortable to hold than the original S 4, as its edges are more rounded and the extra fractions of an inch make for a sturdier grip.
The Galaxy S4 Active sports a polycarbonate design, a mainstay for Sammy's flagship handsets, but the body has a metallic, rather than a plasticky, finish. Our review unit came in a punchy turquoise shade called Dive Blue -- it's definitely more exciting than the white and cobalt hues available for most Galaxy products, and also pretty appropriate given the device's water-resistant features. There's even a hint of metal, courtesy of rivets, on the Active's backside. These details add up to a phone that, quite frankly, looks higher-end than the Galaxy S 4.
While the rim and backing of the S4 Active are decked out in blue (or Urban Gray, as the case may be; there's also a Flame Orange option for the international variant), the front face sports a texturized cobalt finish around the 5-inch display. The bezels are wider than on the S4, which also has a 5-inch panel. Cosmetically, everything else is pretty similar across both devices -- you'll find the usual speaker grille and Samsung logo above the screen, along with the LED indicator lights and 2-megapixel camera -- although there are a few exceptions. First, the Active's display is coated with Gorilla Glass 2 rather than Gorilla Glass 3 for scratch resistance, which strikes us as odd, considering that the phone is supposed to be especially durable. There are also three physical buttons for home, back and menu rather than just one hardware key. The raised buttons are easy to find by feel, which comes in handy when you attempt a little eyes-free operation. Some may say they cheapen the look of the device, but from a usability standpoint, they're definitely superior.
You'll find the micro-USB port on the bottom edge of the phone, and it's covered with a rubber flap. The left side of the device sports the volume rocker, while the right has the power button. Up top, there's a water-resistant headphone socket and IR transceiver for using the phone as a TV remote. Flip the handset over, and you'll see the 8MP shooter with LED flash (a step down from the 13MP unit on the GS4) along with both AT&T and Galaxy branding and another speaker grille.
Finally, removing the cover reveals the 2,600mAh battery along with the micro-SIM and microSD card slots. This is also where you'll find the phone's rubber waterproofing seal, which encloses those elements -- the camera, on the other hand, remains exposed. Removing the backing was easy enough for this reviewer with medium-length nails; there's an indentation on the upper-right edge of the phone that helps you pry it loose. On the other hand, getting the casing to reattach is a little more difficult, as you have to hold it in exactly the right position for it to firmly snap in everywhere.
If you're enticed by the Active's pedigree as a durable device, we should temper your expectations just a bit. This isn't a phone that can survive all the elements: Samsung very specifically states that it's water-resistant for up to 30 minutes at a depth of one meter or less. It's protected from dust as well, but it doesn't have the government-issued MIL-SPEC-810G certification to technically qualify as rugged. In other words, there's no guarantee you'll have a working cell if you take the Active deep-ocean (or pool) diving.
The Galaxy S4 Active sports a 5-inch Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) TFT panel, and you'll definitely notice the difference between this LCD and the Galaxy S 4's Super AMOLED screen (also with 1080p resolution). While images and text look clear on both, colors aren't nearly as vibrant on the Active. When we compared our review unit with the Sprint version of the Galaxy S 4, blacks appeared slightly bluish, and overall colors seemed slightly flat and muted. By comparison, images virtually pop off the screen on the GS4. We also noticed a slightly magenta cast on the Active's panel. Compared to the Droid DNA's Super LCD 1080p screen, too, the Active's panel delivered more washed-out tones and slightly less-detailed images.
We asked Samsung why it opted for a lower-quality screen on this model, but the company hasn't yet issued a response. In the absence of an official answer, we'll venture that it has something to do with price: the GS4 and the GS4 Active both go for $199.99 on AT&T, after all, and what the Active lacks in screen luster it makes up for in build quality and water resistance.
That said, the Active's capacitive screen is far from average -- especially considering that many phones don't even offer a 1080p resolution. Viewing angles are very wide, and text looks perfectly crisp. Plus, it's very easy to read items on-screen in direct sunlight, more so than on the S4. So while it may be a step down from the GS4, it's still more than satisfactory.
We covered Samsung's latest software features in great detail in our Galaxy S 4 review, and things are pretty much the same on this device. That's not an exaggeration: the Active also runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, which gives you seven home screens to fill with widgets and apps, and the Samsung-standard TouchWiz interface is layered on top. You'll find the same notification bar present on the GS4, and all of the company's new smart features (Smart Stay, Smart Scroll, Smart Pause and Smart Rotation) are here as well. Both devices let you switch between an expanded view of the notification bar and a collapsed mode for toggling features such as screen mirroring, multi-window and S Beam. Moreover, both phones offer Samsung's on-screen keyboard powered by Swiftkey, which allows for swiping between letters to create words.
Gallery: Samsung Galaxy S4 Active screenshots | 16 Photos
Getting really granular, there are a few more minor differences: the Active offers a driving mode for reading out incoming notifications when you're behind the wheel, and the GS4 includes one additional display mode called Professional Photo, along with an auto-adjust screen tone option. Suffice to say, though, that software shouldn't factor in to which device you choose to purchase.
As far as apps go, the pre-load should look pretty familiar. There's Samsung's ChatOn service, along with Group Play, Messages, S Memo, S Translator, S Voice and WatchOn. There's also S Health still, though this time there's no humidity sensor for gauging your surroundings. Third-party apps include Flipboard and TripAdvisor. That's not it, though: you'll find a host of carrier-branded apps here as well. These include DriveMode, FamilyMap, Locker, Messages, Navigation and Smart Wi-Fi. None are particularly obtrusive, but they can be disabled to minimize clutter.
Considering the Active is built to support underwater shooting, the camera may be the main reason you'd consider this phone over the original Galaxy S 4. While the Active does offer a unique Aqua mode for capturing stills underwater, its rear camera sports a 1/3.2-inch 8MP CMOS sensor with LED flash and 4X digital zoom, compared to 13 megapixels on the GS4's shooter. Regarding UI differences between this guy and the OG Galaxy S 4, well, there really aren't many. Both phones use a right-hand shortcut bar that includes toggles for flash, microphone and video mode. The GS4 does offer night-detection mode, which the Active lacks, while the latter includes a shortcut to the timer. Jump into the full settings menu on each device, though, and the only real discrepancy you'll notice is a video stabilization option for the original GS4.
We were at home rather than in some exotic locale while reviewing this phone, so instead of capturing sea turtles and tropical fish in their native habitats, we took this guy for a spin in an indoor pool (uninspired, we know). Samsung's included Aqua mode disables the Active's touchscreen and uses the volume rocker for the camera / video-record button. This mode only works for the rear-facing 8MP camera, though, so you'll still have to tap the display for underwater selfies. Our sample images looked reasonably clear, and colors appeared accurate. Keeping the camera steady while it's submerged can be tricky, though; some of our first shots and videos turned out a bit out of focus.
Gallery: Samsung Galaxy S4 Active sample shots | 33 Photos
What about performance back on land? The 8MP shooter does a respectable job reproducing accurate colors, and for the most part its automatic focusing is spot-on. In addition to Aqua mode, there are settings for: Beauty Face, Best Photo, Eraser, Drama, Panorama, Rich Tone (HDR) and Sound & Shot. Of course, there's also Auto mode, and it works well across different environments. Notably, the Galaxy S 4's dual-camera feature isn't available on this device. Regular daylight performance is very strong, with plenty of detail showing up in shots of Astor Place on a sunny day.
When we tested out the cam's low-light performance, we got very grainy, pixelated results. On the other hand, images snapped with flash provide a decent amount of detail. Rich-Tone (HDR) mode also works well; when we snapped a pic of an apartment stoop half in the sunshine, half in the shade, we were able to make out details in the entire photo.
Both the rear and front cameras shoot video in 1080p at 30 fps, with a bit rate of 17 Mbps, and in our sample footage, everything looks crisp. We wouldn't call the quality exceptional, but for a smartphone camera, it's par for the course, and underwater footage is perfectly usable.
The Active packs the same internals as the Galaxy S 4 on AT&T: a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor clocked at 1.9GHz, an Adreno 320 GPU and 2GB of RAM. Memory-wise, your only choice is 16 gigs, though just about 11GB of that is user-accessible.
That Snapdragon 600 chip is still relatively young, having only appeared in a handful of devices including the HTC One and the LG Optimus G Pro, but so far we've seen the expected, incremental boost in performance. Naturally, then, the Galaxy S 4 Active turned in good stats when we ran it through the usual suite of benchmarks. Overall, this handset's scores are in line with the GS4's and the HTC One's, and it was even at the head of the pack on graphics-focused tests such as GLBenchmark.
Samsung Galaxy S4 Active
Samsung Galaxy S 4
Samsung Galaxy S III
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms)
GLBenchmark Egypt 2.5 HD Offscreen (fps)
SunSpider: lower scores are better. Samsung Galaxy S III was benchmarked on Android 4.1.
As far as real-world performance goes, the Active makes a good daily driver. We didn't notice any bugginess in our hands-on time, though the device did feel noticeably warmer after we used the camera for a solid half hour. Switching between apps, texting, light gaming and browsing the web didn't trip the phone up, though.
We conducted several speed tests on LTE in New York and averaged 32 Mbps up and 41 down. We averaged above four bars of signal throughout our few days of testing time. In the US, the Active runs exclusively (so far) on AT&T. It uses LTE bands 2, 4, 5, 7 and 17, HSPA+ (850 / 1900 / 2100) and quad-band GSM / EDGE. It also provides dual-band WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC.
Call quality and volume on the Active is very solid. When we rang up a friend to test it out, her voice sounded clear and accurate, and she reported the same on her end. The phone offers noise-cancellation, which does a good job to block out din in the background. GPS performance is also very good; the handset was able to detect our location in a matter of seconds when we powered up Google Maps for navigation.
On our standard video-rundown test -- with LTE on, screen brightness set to 50 percent and a locally stored HD video playing on loop -- the Active held strong for six hours and 13 minutes. We were disappointed in this showing, we must say. It seems the LCD display is the culprit here, though, as it sucks far more power than an AMOLED panel. Real-life usage paints a more positive picture: using the Active to frequently email, check social networks, text and watch the occasional video, we got about 12 hours of endurance.
Some may say the Galaxy S 4 Active is a gimmick; an attempt to squeeze as much momentum out of the GS4 brand as possible. True, it's more "rugged lite" than "military-grade," and its display literally pales in comparison to its predecessor's. But water resistance aside, this handset still has quite a few things going for it. We actually prefer this design, and it runs well as a daily driver. And even though the camera has fewer megapixels than the GS 4's, it delivers clear, detailed shots and 1080p video.
So, it seems we set ourselves up for a question we can't in good faith answer. Should you pick the Galaxy S4 Active over the Galaxy S 4? Ultimately it comes down to what you need your phone to do. Enjoy texting from the bathtub, or simply prone to spilling the occasional glass of water? The Active is probably the better choice. Want the absolute highest-end specs, from camera to display to battery life? The original Galaxy S 4 is definitely the better bet.