The Samsung Galaxy S4 is one of the biggest releases of the year, and since it’s release, it has been met with wild success. It wasn’t long after it’s release that we began hearing of more Galaxy S4 smartphones, starting with the Mini, and Soon the Galaxy S4 Active, and Galaxy S4 Zoom.
Samsung is creating a sort of Galaxy S4 dynasty here, and while many may look at that as a cheap move, the Galaxy S4 Active is actually a really great smartphone. In fact, it may just convince those who passed on the original Galaxy S4 to get this particular device. It has a few perks that are no doubt hard to pass up.
And now, we’re going to give the Galaxy S4 Active the full review treatment. If you’re in a rush, jump straight to the video, otherwise, stick with us as we take a closer look at the new device in the Galaxy S4 family.
When it comes to general design, you do notice similarities to the original Galaxy S4 — but there has been a lot of changes. After all, the Galaxy S4 Active is a rugged device. What was once a silver bezel is now a rim that is visible from the front, and it’s available in a few different colors.
The familiar button layout of the Galaxy S4 has been strengthened and has a nice, meaty feel to them. Looking around the back, the Active is very different from the Galaxy S4. Rugged is the term that comes to mind when you see the four screws on each rubberized corner and the smaller, slightly textured plastic cover adorning the body.
While the main material here is still plastic, it does have a better feeling. Being the rugged device that it is, it feels thicker and less bendy in the hand. Holding it, you don’t feel like you’ve bought into a cheap device.
Removing the back cover, you get the same access to the removable battery and microSD card slots. Just make sure that it’s sealed tight before you take your Galaxy S4 Active into the water.
To help with water resistance, there is a cover over the mciroUSB port. Little plastic covers like this tend to wear out quickly, but it seems sturdy enough. Holding the Galaxy S4 Active in the hand, you get a heftiness that is very noticeable compared to the original Galaxy S4.
Whereas the light and nimble Galaxy S4 has good balancing, the S4 Active really does feel like a phone you can knock around some, though, we wouldn’t advise purposely doing such a thing because of it’s display (more on that later).
The Galaxy S4 Active feels like you have a really nice case on your S4, only that’s not a case, and you’re actually holding your phone.
While I do prefer the Active over the original Galaxy S4, I’ll be doing a VS between the two devices for comparisons. However, I know that for a lot of people, what they wanted out of the S4, is at least being heavily teased in the Active.
It might be surprising, but the Galaxy S4 Active doesn’t use Samsung’s iconic Super AMOLED display, instead opting for a less saturated LCD display still capable of 1080p resolution, rated at 441ppi. It won’t throw colors out at you the way the Galaxy S4′s screen does, but for some people, that might be a plus.
Nonetheless, you get the same kind of performance with a slightly different overall color profile. Furthermore, it doesn’t handle contrast as well as the Super AMOLED display does, but that’s far from making this guy a deal breaker. It’s still a great screen, and it should prove to be fun for all media consumption and text viewing.
What surprises many about the Galaxy S4 Active is that for a rugged phone, it’s performance is of the highest order. The S4 Active has everything its original counterpart has — a Snapdragon 600 CPU clocked at 1.9GHz, backed by the Adreno 320 and 2GB of RAM.
The Snapdragon 600 powers all of the top tier devices in the market today, so there are no doubts when it comes to speed and efficiency. If you thought the Galaxy S4 was a great performer, you will get the same experience with the Galaxy S4 Active.
The same goes for hardware — the Galaxy S4 Active literally has all of the bits and pieces that made the Galaxy S4 a great device. Every sensor for hand gestures, air views, and controlling televisions make a return here. Being able to expand the memory is always a positive, too. As I mentioned before, everything you know about the original Galaxy S4 is here, but beefier.
The big thing with the Galaxy S4 Active is its water and dust resistance. Following in line wit many of the rugged phones on the market now, the S4 Active can be submerged in depths of up to one meter for up to half an hour. Those details are very important to remember — any longer than that and you might end up with a S4-looking brick.
Dust resistance on the Galaxy S4 Active is certified, although there really isn’t any clear way of testing it. Other than that, the LCD display is covered in Gorilla Glass 2, not 3, unfortunately. It’s scratch resistant, but I’d think twice before letting it get knocked around.
Don’t be fooled, the rugged feel of the device is great because it is vastly superior than the original Galaxy S4. However, if you hold a real rugged phone in your hand, you’ll know that while the Galaxy S4 Active can withstand the elements, it can’t just go charging into them.
One of the many things I like about the Galaxy S4 Active is that it retains the removable battery. While you won’t be changing your batters underwater (that is a really bad idea), having a spare 2,600 mAh unit can be very handy. In my own battery tests, the life of the S4 Active’s unit pretty much holds up.
While a video looping test drained it down to half battery in 3 hours, I didn’t find any problems getting through the day with normal usage. It might be the LCD screen that is consuming power differently, but rest assured that you’ll get everything you need finished before it’s time for bed.
As for the camera, well, it might be a bit disappointing, as you get a 8-megapixel rear shooter instead of the 13-megapixel shooter in the original Galaxy S4. As far as the app goes, you get pretty much all of the same modes available in the Galaxy S4, minus the dual recording feature and the addition of Aqua Mode (more on that later).
Now, megapixels obviously don’t tell the whole story when it comes to the quality of a photo, but a small decrease is expected when the resolution is lowered. However, the Active manages to take pictures on par with the quality of the Galaxy S4.
Pictures in daylight and good indoor lighting have very good detail and color reproduction, all of which translates into video capabilities. Overall, the Active gives you some great look photos, despite that drop in resolution.
Of course, the main attraction with the Galaxy S4 Active’s camera is being able to use it underwater. When the Galaxy S4 Active is submerged, a feature we mentioned earlier kicks in — Aqua Mode. The touchscreen is pretty much unusable when submerged, so in the camera app, the volume buttons can be your shutter or record button. It’s a really nice way of making the camera usable even when water contact makes touch navigation tough.
As you might expect, the photos you take in Aqua Mode are going to have to wait to be edited until your out of the water. When it comes down to it, the Galaxy S4 Active’s water resistant camera is a great addition to this particular device.
Software-wise, there isn’t a whole lot that’s changed with the S4 Active. As I mentioned in the Hardware section, all of the sensors return in the S4 Active, making air, hand, and eye gestures still possible. As for apps, you still get S Health, Group Play, and WatchON, all of which are preloaded apps on the original S4.
If you want a full rundown on the software capabilities of the S4 Active, you can check out my original Galaxy S4 review.
And finally, we come to the price. There isn’t a very clear picture of how broad a release the Galaxy S4 Active will see. So for the time being, through AT&T the Galaxy S4 Active is $199 on a new two-year contract with the carrier. As for unlocked prices, those still seem to be up in the air, however, the Active shouldn’t be much more than the same unlocked price as it’s original counterpart.
Samsung is definitely looking to create some sort of Galaxy S4 dynasty, and this is quite the start for the rollout. The S4 Active should please plenty of people who love the original Galaxy S4, but are looking for something more sturdier and hefty in the hand. What I really do love about the S4 Active is that it gives an alternative, so if you haven’t snagged yourself a Galaxy S4 just yet, maybe what the Active offers might just entice you. If anything, it’s still fun to dunk it in water!
Stay tuned for my full comparison of the Galaxy S4 Active and the original Galaxy S4.
Brad Ward contributed to this review.