Samsung Galaxy S4 Active Review

90/100

WhistleOut
02 September 2013

Samsung knows all too well, that when you're on a good thing you stick to it. The S4 Active is proof of this; a Galaxy S4 in a wrapper designed to protect it from punishing conditions.

Design

Given that Samsung has kept a number of the central components in the Active the same as the original S4, it is not surprising that both phones look so similar. Not identical, but enough to easily confuse one for the other.

The major difference from the front is that Samsung lay a strip of physical buttons across the Active, mechanical Menu, Home and Back buttons that sit raised off the front chassis below the display. For outdoors types, this is a great feature to include, especially for snow bunnies with gloved hands.

The Active is a touch bulkier than the standard S4. It's 1.2mm thicker with a few more bumps and dips across the battery cover, which is still removable. It's also 20-grams heavier, and while these might sound like minuscule differences, you can feel them when holding both phones.

This extra bulk goes towards making the S4 Active water resistant and dust proof. Unlike other waterproof phones that use large screws or seal the phone shut to keep water out, Samsung has a rubber strip inside the battery cover that works to keep moisture out.

Curiously, while the screen on the Active looks the same as the screen on the S4, it is actually quite different. Samsung uses a standard TFT LCD panel in the Active, rather than a Super AMOLED screen, and Gorilla Glass 2 rather than Gorilla Glass 3. Both are cost-saving measures, and while this should be a bad thing, it is very difficult to say it is.

For starters, the screen in the Active looks brighter, due to the difference in the way LCD and AMOLED screens display whites. AMOLED tends to look a little blue, and side-by-side the colours just look better on the Active.

User Experience

Once the power is on, the differences between the original S4 and the newer Active disappear. The user experience is a carbon copy of the latest Samsung TouchWiz UI, so there is no difference to speak of.

The Active features all of the curious eye-following, finger-hovering 'enhancements' that the previous did, some of which make the phone easier to use with gloved hands -- something we had the opportunity to test out. You certainly don't use the phone as easily with gloves, but it is possible, you just need to move slowly and be a little more patient than usual.

Perhaps more interesting than what is included is what's not included. The Active moniker suggests a phone for people with sporty hobbies, and yet there is no additional software on the phone to support this. There is the same S-Health app we found in the S4, but no run trackers, cycling assistants or work-out trainers.

Camera

There is a killer camera, though -- something the outdoors set will make great use of we think. It seems to be the same 8-megapixel image sensor found in the original S4, and the picture quality in natural light is outstanding. Great detail, great colours and temperature.

Photos aren't so good after the sun goes down, but then the same could be said for the sat majority of smartphone cameras.

Performance

In the past, weather-proof phones have tended to be on the crappier end of the power spectrum. It was a trade-off: power for protection. Happily, this isn't the case with the S4 Active. You can have you phone wrapped in a protective shell and rely on it to be as powerful and responsive as a normal top-end smartphone.

In terms of synthetic performance benchmarks, the S4 Active sits alongside the original S4, with very little variance in the results between the two phones. This should be the result given that the Active uses the same 1.9Ghz quad-core processor, the same graphics processor and 2GB RAM.

This puts the S4 Active towards the top of the list when comparing it next to the other smartphones of the year. The HTC One is also very close, if you're looking for a powerhouse handset.

Despite what we have been told about the positive effect on battery life you get from AMOLED screens, our tests show that the S4 Active is a little better at holding its charge than the S4 we have in the office. Anecdotally, the Active lasts for about a half day longer between charges, which is handy for when you can't get back to a charger at the end of each day.

Overall

If you are in the market for a Samsung Galaxy S4, there is no reason to look past the S4 Active, especially if you have destroyed a phone in the past with water damage. You get the same great smartphone experience plus the piece of mind that the life-proof chassis offers. It costs about the same too, so the only trade off is in the extra width and weight.

That Samsung doesn't include specialty software for its sports-minded fans is a bit of an oversight, but it's nothing you can't overcome with a quick trip to the Google Play app store.


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