Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review: A cut above the Galaxy S4? [updated]

Reviews Damien McFerran 14:34, 22 Jul 2013

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active – the sportier Galaxy S4 gets put to the test

Rating: 
4.5
Typical Price: 
£525.00
Pros: 
Very powerful, water and dust resistant, Appealing design
Cons: 
Weaker camera than the Galaxy S4
Verdict: 
Weaker camera and TFT screen aside, this is essentially the Galaxy S4 with dust and water resistance, and ranks as one of the most impressive Android phones of 2013

Samsung is doing its best to expand the Galaxy S4 line as swiftly as possible, with the Galaxy S4 Active being the third phone to arrive in recent weeks holding the esteemed moniker - the other two being the Galaxy S4 Zoom and Galaxy S4 Mini. However, while these other handsets use the name purely for additional recognition, the Galaxy S4 Active is the real deal - it has largely the same internal tech as the original S4, but comes with the added advantage of being water and dust resistant.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Design

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active Display

Although Samsung has altered the design of the S4 Active, it’s still unmistakably a close relation to the original model. It’s thin, light and dominated by that 5-inch touchscreen.

Despite its svelte nature, the phone is built for people who spend a lot of time exposed to the elements. It proudly carries an IP67 certification, which means it is resistant to dust and can be submerged in water with a depth of one meter for up to 30 minutes. We tested this claim and found that the phone was quite happy to be dunked in a sink for half an hour.

This impressive level of protection is achieved by sealing the Micro USB charging socket and giving the battery cover an inner seal as well. Plus, Samsung has maintained the user-removable battery that is present in so many of its other phones – something that Sony wasn’t able to do with its waterproof Xperia Z.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active Ports

The rubber seal which covers the Micro USB port requires a bit of pressure to get it to click into place, so expect to fuss around with your handset after charging. The headphone socket is thankfully open at all times and unhindered by a rubber flap. Samsung has clearly been able to maintain water resistance without the need for a special cover, which is handy for music lovers who are constantly plugging and unplugging their headphones into their phone.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active Side

The back of the S4 Active has rubberised edges at the top and bottom, which appear to be secured to the bodywork with metal screws. While this looks cool in an industrial kind of way, these screws seem to be purely for show, as the phone isn’t intended to be shock-proof. 

However, news reports are starting to pop up that say the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active isn't covered if you do decide to dunk it in water and the smartphone is damaged as a result.

The manual says, 'This Limited Warranty does not cover: (a) defects or damage resulting from accident, misuse, abnormal use, abnormal conditions, improper storage, exposure to liquid, moisture, dampness, sand or dirt, neglect, or unusual physical, electrical or electromechanical stress.'

Following on from this announcement, Samsung said it would replace water-damaged Samsung Galaxy S4 Active smartphones with a brand new one if the device internals were to get wet. Bit of a switch around, huh, Samsung?

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Specifications

Beating inside the heart of the Galaxy S4 Active is the same chipset which powered the original S4: a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600. 2GB of RAM helps to keep things nippy, and in terms of pure performance, things don’t really get much better in the world of Android. Benchmarks such as GeekBench 2 (3218) and AnTuTu (22472) prove just how adept this phone is – both are comparable to the original Galaxy S4. Simply put, this is one of the most powerful phones on the market right now. 

However, it's now said the Samsung Galaxy Active will be updated with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 CPU in certain markets to allow for LTE-Adavnced. Although the service isn't yet available in the UK, we hope Samsung does upgrade the processor here too. After all, benchmarks show the Galaxy S4 Active LTE Advanced's CPU clocked at 2.3GHz - we'd like some of that action!

16GB of internal memory is included, of which you’ll be able to use around 11GB. A Micro SD card slot is also present, thankfully, allowing you to add up to 64GB of additional space. 

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Camera

This is one of the areas where the Galaxy S4 Active has taken a step backwards from the first version of the phone. While the original S4 had a 13-megapixel snapper, the Active has to make do with an 8-megapixel setup. As a result, images look slightly less detailed although the overall quality is still more than adequate, particularly if all you want to do is upload stuff to Instagram and Facebook.

One thing this phone does have over its illustrious relation is the ability to capture images underwater using ‘Aqua’ mode. Once submerged the Galaxy S4 Active’s display does not work, so instead you use the volume rocker. It’s not an ideal solution but it is a decent enough workaround for when you find yourself underwater and presented with a photo-op.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active Aqua Mode

We did notice that the Active’s camera was fussier than the S4’s when it came to focusing on objects. Interestingly, we’ve come across this issue on the Nexus 4, so it could be that this is a software issue rather than a hardware one. Android 4.3 - which is expected this month on the Nexus 4 - apparently has improved camera software, and this could potentially rectify this issue. Aside from that, the Active’s camera won’t give you cause for complaint - unless you’re expecting the kind of performance witnessed on the Galaxy S4 Zoom, that is. 

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Software

Like the Zoom and Mini, the S4 Active ships with Android 4.2.2, which at the time of writing is the most recent version of Google’s OS. 4.3 is expected later this month, and should come to the entire Galaxy S4 range shortly afterwards. 

The big news with any Samsung phone is the exclusive elements such as new gesture controls and the ability to run two different apps in split-screen. Some of the other features - such as Smart Stay, which keeps the screen on when you’re looking at it - work less well. 

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active Display

Another cause for concern with all these features is that there are simply too many – newcomers could end up being confused. Even seasoned Android users may struggle here, as Samsung has thrown in many new features that aren’t present on other handsets.

However, once you’ve had chance to take it all in the end result is a phone which is more customizable and feature-rich than the vast majority of its rivals. But that’s basically Samsung’s entire shtick in a nutshell, really. 

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Screen

The camera isn’t the only thing that Samsung has changed in the Galaxy S4 Active - the screen is different, too. While it retains the same 5-inch size and 1080 x 1920 pixels resolution (that’s a pixel density of 441 ppi, in case you were wondering), it’s using a TFT panel instead of the Super AMOLED one seen in the original S4.

If you struggle with the unnatural colour replication of AMOLED screens then this will surely be a blessing, but TFT displays can’t quite match them for brightness and punch. Even so, the screen on the S4 Active is pin-sharp and gorgeous to behold, so there shouldn’t be much to moan about here - unless you’re a card-carrying AMOLED obsessive. 

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Battery

You’d think with its sporty outlook and love of the outdoors that the Galaxy S4 Active would benefit from more impressive stamina than the bog-standard S4, but that isn’t the case - the phone has the exact same 2600 mAh battery. This means you’ll get about a day of use before you need to charge it up - the massive screen and quad-core CPU result in a considerable appetite for juice. 

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active Back Panel

Samsung’s bundled Battery Saver feature will allow you to wring out a bit more usage, but it essentially cripples the phone’s most useful features, making it something you’ll only want to resort to when you’ve no hope of getting to a charging point. 

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Conclusion

Although it has a weaker camera and lacks the striking Super AMOLED screen of the standard S4, the Galaxy S4 Active is actually the better phone of the two, purely because it offers the same degree of power but comes with water and dust resistance.

The increased resilience to the elements might seem like a gimmick, but not having to worry about getting your phone wet when you’re waiting for the bus on a raining evening is actually more of a blessing than you might think. It’s also hard not to prefer the rugged appearance of the S4 Active - the revised casing and physical buttons below the screen are sure to strike a chord with many who considered the standard S4 to be too similar to the S3.

Review handset kindly provided by www.mobilefun.co.uk.

Specifications

Length 139.7 mm
Width 71.3 mm
Thickness 9.1 mm
Weight 153g
Screen Size 1080 x 1920 pixels TFT, 5 inches
Camera Resolution 8-megapixels (rear), 2-megapixels (front)
Operating System Android 4.2.2
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 with 2GB of RAM
Built-in Memory 16GB (of which you get 11GB)
Additional Memory up to 64GB via microSD
High-speed Data 3G and 4G

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£525 that works out at £21 over 24 months.
1GB of data for £30 is insufficient and therefore there will be extra out of plan data charges. A 3-4 GB monthly plan costs £43 per month.
A good profit for the operators!

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