The Samsung Galaxy S4 has only been available for three months now, and as expected, it’s been met with critical acclaim. And now, we have another device joining the Galaxy S4 family — Samsung’s Galaxy S4 Active, a rugged, and better handling version of the S4.
While there wasn’t a huge bevy of changes, the Galaxy S4 Active might just be appealing to those who shied away from getting themselves an original Galaxy S4. Regardless, since the device is now a member of the Galaxy S4 family, it’s only right that we pit them against one another and see how well they do!
If you’re in a rush, jump straight to the video, otherwise, stick with us as we take a closer, more detailed look at the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active.
It wouldn’t be far off saying that the Galaxy S4 Active is highly similar to its original counterpart. The best way of putting it is that the original, plastic body of the S4 has been beefed up. Taking a look at the Galaxy S4, we see that it has the plastic clad, tried and true design with a removable back cover, which quite frankly, is pretty flimsy. A silver spine connects the front and back, and there’s a home button on the front flanked by softkeys for back and menu.
The buttons on the sides are classic Samsung and overall, it is a safe design that plenty of people either love or hate by now. However, the main feat of the S4 was taking a 5-inch display and making it as easy to handle as possible. After all, the general size is the same as the previous Galaxy S3.
Now, onto the Galaxy S4 Active. At a glance back to back, you can see that this phone is a just a little bit longer, a little bit thicker, and heavier in the hand. It’s available in a few different colors and instead of having a silver spine, this color comes from the back to the front and is visible in the very rim around the phone.
All of the buttons are in the same place but now have harder shells for a definitely better feel. Perhaps they aren’t as elegant — especially the new tactile back and menu buttons — but they feel great and bring no question to their quality. The port on the bottom has a small cover now, though over time it could break off.
The real action is on the back. Four screws on each rubberized corner surround a smaller plastic cover that is slightly textured for feel but definitely seems sturdier than the one found in the original. You can tell it is meant to really seal the phone shut because of all the loud snaps you hear putting it back on.
Let’s face it, plenty of people are sick of Samsung’s plastic choices now, and while it can be argued that this didn’t change with the Active, it definitely did improve on it. It’s meatier in the hand, giving it a more reassuring feel as opposed the nimbleness of the original. That’s what it comes down to as far as feel goes. For looks, it depends on your hate or love for the tried and true Samsung plastic design.
Personally, the only thing I didn’t like about the Galaxy S4 Active was the color I got. However, with a grey variant out there, that doesn’t really matter as much. I do believe, however, that the Active can better attract the eyes than the all-too-familiar original S4.
The real difference between the S4 Active and original S4 lies in the displays, as Samsung seems to have opted for an LCD display in the Active, instead of the usual Super AMOLED panel. The original S4 sports the Super AMOLED display, capable of 1080p rated at 441ppi.
Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays are well know for having a high saturation that does help contrast, but otherwise, makes colors really pop. It’s a great performer that makes for a great example of how good 5-inch screens really can be.
While the S4 Active does have an LCD display, it actually performs very well. It has the same capabilities of 1080p resolution and 441ppi, so sharpness and high resolution media is still nice to look at. A LCD screen has its advantages, such as being somewhat brighter.
However, the Active’s screen is covered in Gorilla Glass 2, not 3. In other words, it’s arguably not as protection as version 3, which can be found on the S4. However, the Active’s main disadvantage is the lack of saturation on the LCD panel. More specifically, the lowered saturation lowers the overall contrast. Dark hues have a lighter profile to them, and you can just tell that the colors on the original S4 seem to just have more dimension.
Sure, there are some disadvantages to an LCD screen over a Super AMOLED panel, but the LCD on the Active is still great, and it sits among some of the best LCDs out there. If you really want your colors as vibrant and accented as possible, the Galaxy S4′s Super AMOLED display will get the job done. Really, these points feel somewhat like nitpicking, as general users will still have a great time with the similarly performing LCD on the Active.
However, one of the great things the Active to brings to the table is choice. Don’t like the Super AMOLED screen on the Galaxy S4? Get the Galaxy S4 Active — a relatively same experience, just with a new screen. It goes the other way around, too.
What’s great about the Galaxy S4 Active is that it comes with the same processing package as the original. Both of these handsets tout a Snapdragon 600 clocked at 1.9GHz, backed by the tried and true Adreno 320 GPU and 2GB of RAM.
When it comes down to it, there’s no real difference between the two in performance, though, the scores in ANTuTu tell a different story. Perhaps this is because of a lack of optimization or even Samsung opting for an LCD screen instead of a Super AMOLED on the Active, resulting in the lower AnTuTu score.
Regardless, there’s not much to worry about here. The performance is comparable, and you should have no issues either way.
In terms of hardware, when comparing the Galaxy S4 Active and the original S4, it’s pretty much exactly the same, with the exception of the meters for measuring temperature and humidity in S Health. Otherwise, every sensor for hand, eye, and air gestures makes a return — along with the IR Blaster and the usual bevy of Bluetooth and S Beam. Unfortunately, the Galaxy S4 Active only comes in a 16GB model, but you can still expand the memory with a microSD card either way.
The real difference between these two handsets is water and dust resistance. Yes, folks, the S4 Active is made for the klutz in all of us who spills drinks or, God forbid, is prone to dropping phones in the toilet. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that the Galaxy S4 Active is definitely not idiot proof, though, as the instructions clearly state, the Active can handle half an hour in one meter depths.
If it stays submerged any longer than that, it’s possible that your new Active will sustain some damage. What I did notice about the water resistance was that the uncovered headphone jack at the top did work a little weird. With the little bit of water slowly drying in it, the headphone sensor kept firing off. Doing that, the phone told me I had headphones in it when I didn’t. It eventually stopped, so either the water eventually dried up or filtered out.
It’s a slight complaint, but believe me, that can get annoying. Obviously, though, if you really want that extra layer of safety, the Galaxy S4 Active is a perfect choice. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the S4 Active is not a super rugged phone, so it might not be wise to put the phone through any serious beatings. The screen can still crack, and enough water can still make it break. If you’re prone to accidents, though, the S4 Active has you covered.
Battery and camera
Both the Galaxy S4 Active and original Galaxy S4 sport the same 2,600 mAh unit. Power saving features are the same across the board, and standby times, as usual, are very, very long. Perhaps because of the Active’s LCD display instead of the Super AMOLED, the Active loses some time in full endurance tests, but it still rivals the general day’s life of the original Galaxy S4.
Either way, both handsets — the Galaxy S4 and Galaxy S4 Active — provide great battery life. You’ll have more than enough to get through the day on heavy usage.
As for the camera, the Galaxy S4 Active doesn’t have the 13-megapixel rear shooter of the original S4, as it’s been bumped down to a standard 8-megapixel rear camera. As far as quality goes, the smaller resolution does put a tad bit of a toll on the quality, but it’s not very noticeable. The performance is still on par with the S4, with great details in well lit environments. When it comes to low light performance, it’s decent at best, but that’s not really surprising.
However, the main attraction of the Galaxy S4 Active’s camera is the Aqua Mode. With the light water resistance, you won’t really going diving with the Active, but you can capture pool party memories just fine. Aqua Mode kills touchscreen functions when underwater, effectively making the volume rocker your new shutter button.
If underwater photography is a big part of your summer plans this year, the S4 Active can easily get all that done for you. If not, well, the higher performing original Galaxy S4 might be more up your alley.
There isn’t much comparison to be had in the software department. After all, both of these handsets bring you the very same version of TouchWiz. The Active brings you that very same general experience that you might be familiar with on the Galaxy S4, however, if you need a rundown on all of the software features, check out my review on the original Galaxy S4.
Price and final thoughts
And finally, we come to price. The Galaxy S4 Active is currently only available at AT&T for the price of $199 on a new two-year contract with the carrier. The same goes for the original Galaxy S4, though now that it’s been out for awhile, discounts are starting to surface. If you’d like to ditch the contracts, you can find both devices, unlocked, for $700, give or take.
And so, there you have it. The first S4 variant is a version of the original that can withstand some punishment. Otherwise, both are so similar that general users will probably find the same experience either way. If you wanted a better feeling S4, the Active is what you’ve been waiting for. And if for whatever reason your lifestyle requires a phone that can take some bumps and splashes, same story.
The S4 is the bleeding edge in this comparison, so that would be your trade off. In the end, it’s nice that if you felt like you were settling for the S4, there’s a new version out there that might pique your interest.
Brad Ward contributed to this post.