- Review Date: 7/3/2013
- Bottom line: The Samsung Galaxy S 4 Active remixes the successful S 4 with a waterproof coating for the accident-prone, but the camera suffers.
- Pros: Waterproof. Excellent speakerphone. Super fast processor. Latest version of Android.
- Cons: Camera isn't quite as good as standard S 4. Not actually rugged.
The slightly confusingly named Samsung Galaxy S4 Active ($199.99-594.99) isn't quite a Galaxy S4 in a waterproof case. It's a different phone, albeit with the S4 processor and Android skin. Some of the changes are for the better (a super-loud speakerphone), others are for the worse (a less-capable camera), and yet others are a matter of taste (a different screen technology). Since camera quality is critically important nowadays, I'll say that factor slightly outweighs the others, but I wouldn't be amazed if you judged differently. This is still an excellent Android smartphone.
The Galaxy S4 Active is a bit thicker than the standard S 4 at 5.5 by 2.8 by .36 inches (HWD). Irritatingly, that seems to make some standard S4 cases not work because the hole for the headphone jack is in ever so slightly the wrong place; you can fix that by cutting a bigger hole in your case.
I strongly prefer the Active's three physical Menu, Home and Back buttons to the S4's single Home button and capacitive Menu and Back buttons. Above those buttons, there's a 1080p TFT LCD screen rather than the original S4's Super AMOLED HD. It appears marginally brighter, but with slightly less saturated colors. The LCD also doesn't use the PenTile pixel arrangement, which bothers some people but which I insist is invisible at a pixel density this high (441ppi.)
The Active comes in gray and turquoise. Our model had a blue back and sides with textured gray plastic panels at the top and bottom of the back. The back appears to have a texture, but that's just an illusion; it's the usual slick Samsung plastic, and it peels right off to reveal the microSD card slot and removable battery.
The Galaxy S4 Active is water-resistant and "dust resistant," but not rugged. Although those gray plastic panels are somewhat tougher than the original S4's back, the screen isn't protected, and it's just as likely to scratch as on the standard S4. That said, the water resistance is real here. I submerged the Active for half an hour in about eighteen inches of water, and later did camera testing for half an hour in a warm bathtub. The Active didn't leak, but the touch screen became useless under water and for up to a minute after removing it from the water. Because almost all of the Active's features depend on the touch screen, that made the phone pretty useless.
The one exception was the camera. By kicking the camera into "Aqua" mode before you put it in the water, you turn the volume rocker into a shutter button, triggering either photos or videos. That and the power button are the only controls you get underwater.
Voice Calls, Battery and Networking
The S4 Active is a good voice phone, but not quite as good as the original S4. I found inconsistent voice quality using the earpiece in a few tests. Sometimes the Audience-powered noise cancellation worked well, sometimes it didn't. Earpiece volume was loud enough for most environments, although the phone vibrated a bit at top volume, something I didn't notice on the regular S4. The phone has a stunningly loud speakerphone which vibrates the device body noticeably. The speakerphone also has excellent noise cancellation and a nice, warm tone through its microphone. It was easy to activate voice dialing with a Plantronics Voyager Legend Bluetooth headset, but Samsung's S Voice had trouble recognizing some names for dialing.
The Active's 2600mAh battery is the same as the Galaxy S4's, so you should get the same talk time. I can't explain why I got such spectacular battery results here, with 16 hours, 41 minutes of talk time and 5 hours, 41 minutes of video streaming compared to the ordinary S4's 10 hours, 50 minutes of talk time and 4 hours, 48 minutes of streaming. You should expect similar battery life here to the HTC One on AT&T.
Speeds on AT&T's 4G LTE network were also blazing. AT&T's network is the fastest in the USA, and we got awe-inspiring speeds of 14-18Mbps down and 6-8Mbps up in Manhattan. The phone will work on AT&T's network here in the US; it will also roam to foreign HSPA+ networks. Other connectivity includes 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi on the 2.4 and 5GHz bands, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and a GPS chip that locks in very quickly and accurately.
Software and Performance
Here's where the S4 Active is most similar to its sedentary cousin. Just like the ordinary S4, the Active runs Android 4.2 with Samsung's additions on a 1.9GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor, making it the fastest phone on the market right now. Benchmark scores were similar to the S4, except for a little hiccup where it was imperceptibly slower to toggle Bluetooth on and off.
I wrote about Samsung's extensive "S Everything" skin in my original Galaxy S4 review, so you can take a look by jumping to that page here. My Galaxy S4 Tips and Tricks story shows what happens when you go a level deeper.
In summary, there's a massive jumble of ideas here: great ones like customizable call audio, split-screen multitasking and a built-in pedometer; so-so ones like a slightly sluggish IR remote control; and unreliable ones like Smart Scroll, which is supposed to let you scroll pages by tilting your head.
As I said in the original review: It's like Microsoft Office, in that it's packed with features. But you know what? People love Microsoft Office, because everybody finds what they need in it, and they don't all find or need the same things. The Samsung Galaxy S4 has a million ideas and needs to share all of them, right now, and it doesn't matter if five of them are ridiculous because you're going to think the next five are brilliant.
The most interesting thing about the Galaxy S4 Active is the underwater camera, so let's get to it. As I discussed earlier, you have no controls when you're underwater, other than the shutter button, but you can change your camera resolution while the phone is still dry.
I took several photos and videos in my bathtub, and also compared Aqua mode to the standard mode out of the water. Aqua mode makes everything yellower, and several of my photos ended up either out of focus or oversharpened. While it's fun if your photos aren't critically important, it's no replacement for a true waterproof camera like those in our Best Waterproof Digital Cameras.
Underwater video was surprisingly clear at 1080p and 30 frames per second. Underwater audio recording was pretty hilarious, although water in the microphone created some rustling sounds in the left channel for a few minutes after I took the phone out of the water. You can snap stills in the middle of a video.
Out of the water, the Active has an 8-megapixel main camera and 2-megapixel front camera. Images taken with the main camera look soft, sometimes even Vaseline-smeared; this isn't as good a camera as you'll find on the "real" Galaxy S4. The front camera gets seriously blurry in low light. Outdoors, there's a tendency to wash out bright areas; using the phone's HDR mode really helps. Video at 1080p was clear and ran at 30 frames per second indoors and out.
The S4 Active has the same excellent music and video playback performance as the regular S4 does. I really appreciate how Samsung's packed in lots of codecs: MPEG4, WMV, H.264, Xvid, and DivX video will play here, as well as pretty much all non-DRMed music formats. Samsung's WatchOn app uses Peel Remote's data to give you live TV program data; a built-in IR blaster lets the phone function as a general-purpose home entertainment remote control. You can play your media on a TV using the phone's MHL output, with the appropriate HDMI adapter.
There's about 11.5GB of available memory on the 16GB unit, and our 64GB microSD card worked just fine.
Everything is compromise in this life. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is a high-end smartphone designed for the slightly accident-prone. It isn't a fully ruggedized phone like the NEC Terrain, and you lose some of the "real" Galaxy S4's camera acuity and voice quality in the transition. That makes the Galaxy S4 Active highly recommended, but a standard Galaxy S4 with a rugged case like the upcoming Seidio OBEX can bring you even more. Of course, that makes for a bulkier package: As I said, pick the compromises you're comfortable with.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.