Samsung Galaxy S5 Active review: a true flagship in a ruggedized body

July 1, 2014
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At a glance

A true flagship in a ruggedized body

PROS
  • IP 67 dust and water resistant
  • Military-grade ruggedness ratings
  • Great camera
  • Beautiful display
  • Solid construction
CONS
  • Lacks fingerprint scanner
  • Poor low-light performance
  • The design isn't for everyone
9.0
The Galaxy S5 Active is not a watered down (no pun intended) flagship in a rugged body. It IS a flagship. If you loved everything about the Galaxy S5, but you wished it could take more of a beating, than the S5 Active is a perfect solution.

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The Samsung Galaxy S5, with it’s IP67 certification, features¬†protection¬†from dust and the occasional splash in the water. But what if that protection isn’t enough?

Well, the Samsung Galaxy S5 Active could be your solution. It’s meant to take¬†a lot more punishment and that’s apparent from its design. The S5 Active is still made of plastic, but it’s built like a tank and is a complete departure in terms of aesthetics from the¬†regular S5. It’s still rated IP67 for protection against dust and immersion, but¬†the added bulk gives this phone resistance¬†against shocks from drops up to four feet onto flat surfaces, extreme temperatures, humidity, and high altitudes.

Related: Best Samsung Galaxy S5 Active cases

While this phone is much more rugged, pretty much all of the staple pieces of hardware found on the standard Galaxy S5 have made their way over to the S5 Active. All the buttons, ports, and speakers are in the typical Samsung locations, and the heart rate monitor has also made a return here.

What hasn’t returned is Samsung’s signature home button flanked by capacitive keys on the left and right. Instead, the S5 Active features physical buttons, which add to the usability¬†of the phone, while sacrificing¬†the¬†fingerprint scanner. That could be a dealbreaker for some, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it won’t matter to many of you out there.

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However, there is one new piece of hardware on the S5 Active that can’t be found on the standard Galaxy S5. Located right above the volume rockers, it’s what Samsung calls the Active key. Pressing this key takes you into the Activity Zone app, where you have access¬†to a¬†barometer, compass, flashlight, and stopwatch. It’s almost as if Samsung is begging you to take this phone on some extreme activities. That isn’t all this key can do though. A long press will launch the camera app, and, once inside the camera, the active key serves as a shutter button, allowing you to take photos underwater. That’s obviously another feature that isn’t available on the standard S5.

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The S4 Active from last year came with quite a few¬†compromises, especially when it came to the display, but that’s not the case this year with the S5 Active. You still get the same 5.1-inch Super AMOLED display with 1080p resolution that’s very bright and beautiful, with punchy colors and great viewing angles and outdoor visibility.¬†The Galaxy S5’s display is considered one of the¬†best displays on a mobile device, and the story remains unchanged on the S5 Active. Whether you’re taking care of some business, watching videos, or playing games, this display should provide a very enjoyable experience.

The internal specs haven’t changed either. The S5 Active features the mighty¬†Snapdragon 801 chip with an Adreno 330 GPU, and two¬†gigs of RAM, so the specs are still as high-end as ever. In day to day usage, the S5 Active performs as admirably as you would expect it to. Swiping through home screens, navigating through the UI, opening and closing apps, multitasking, and playing games created no issues at all. There may be the occasional TouchWiz lag here and there, but, for the most part, it’s a very fluid and responsive experience that many people should have no problems with.

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The 16 MP ISOCELL camera on the Galaxy S5 also carries over to the S5 active and pretty much everything remains intact, including the camera interface. Many of the features that you’ve come to know and love from Samsung, like dual camera, eraser, drama shot, selective focus mode, and more, are all still here. While Samsung’s camera interface isn’t the most simple out there, there’s no denying that it does offer a great amount of control. Picture quality on the other hand is still just as good as ever. Samsung has made some great smartphone cameras over the last several years and the S5 Active is no exception. Photos are sharp and crisp and the 16 megapixels provide plenty of detail for your zooming and cropping needs.

Color reproduction is very nice and vibrant and this camera does a fantastic job of properly exposing shots, even when outdoors on a sunny day. HDR works well, bringing out plenty of detail without being overly aggressive, which can’t be said about many¬†smartphone cameras.

If this camera has a weakness, it’s in low-light photography. The shutter speed becomes painfully slow especially with picture stabilization turned on, and photos turn into a noisy mess. If taking pictures in low-light is of absolute importance to you, we can’t recommend this camera. Despite this issue however, this is definitely one of the best smartphone cameras money can buy.

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Battery life should be of no concern, with a removable 2800 mAh battery. It’s not the largest battery in a smartphone, but it should be more than enough to get most people through the day with average use. With the usual activities like checking social networks, browsing the web, watching YouTube, taking photos, and playing the occasional game, I managed to consistently get between 4 and a half to 5 hours of screen on time. If you need even more out of the battery, Samsung’s power saving and ultra power saving modes should help you get the most out of your S5 Active.

Software-wise, the S5 Active ships with Android 4.4.2 KitKat and¬†Samsung’s latest iteration of TouchWiz. It’s still very colorful, bright and packed with all the usual features like Multi-Window, Smart Stay, Smart Pause, Air Gestures, and many more. My Magazine still lives one swipe to the left of your main home screen, and the settings menu is still just as difficult to navigate as ever. TouchWiz isn’t my favorite OEM skin and, while Samsung has made a lot of improvements over previous iterations, it still has a long way to go.

 

The Samsung Galaxy S5 Active is available now in Titanium Gray, Camo Green, and Ruby Red. It’s an AT&T exclusive and can be had for $199.99 on a 2-year contract or $660 if you’re willing to go the unlocked route.

Rugged phones usually carry a lot of compromises, but that’s not the case with the Galaxy S5 Active. The premium price can be justified here, because, at the end of the day, you’re getting a high-end flagship in a ruggedized body. This phone isn’t going to be for everyone, but it’s a great option if you need a rugged phone to fit your active¬†lifestyle or perhaps you’re just a klutz and need a phone that can take a lot of punishment. If that is indeed the case, the Galaxy S5 Active is certainly more than capable of resisting whatever you put it through.

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