Ah, the great outdoors – not enough reception to put the “phone” in smartphone, but plenty of dust and water keep it out. Good thing there are IP67-certified phones like the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active then, combining premium specs with enough durability to survive a hike or a dive.
We’ve become a little wary of the Galaxy S label, which Samsung flagships share with a number of almost unrelated devices, which simply piggyback on their reputation. That’s not the case of the Galaxy S4 Active though, it’s a proper flagship.
The 5″ 1080p screen has been moved to TFT tech instead of Super AMOLED like on the regular S4, but LCD’s are typically brighter, and plus LCDs are less likely to suffer water damage.
The camera situation is less clear though – Samsung downgraded it from 13MP to 8MP and while we’ve seen plenty of good 8MP cameras, 13MP is the current flagship standard. Everything else seems in order, however, here’s the yay and nay list for the Galaxy S4 Active.
- IP67 certification – can spend up to 30 minutes in up to 1m of water
- Quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE; quad-band 3G with HSPA; LTE
- 5″ 16M-color 1080p TFT LCD capacitive touchscreen with Gorilla Glass 3
- Android OS v4.2.2 Jelly Bean with TouchWiz UI
- Quad-core 1.9 GHz Krait 300 CPU, Adreno 320 GPU; Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chipset
- 2GB of RAM
- 8 MP autofocus camera with LED flash,1080p video recording @ 30fps, continuous autofocus and stereo sound
- 2 MP front-facing camera, 1080p video recording
- Dual shot and dual video recording, Drama shot, Shot and sound
- Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac, Wi-Fi Direct and DLNA
- GPS with A-GPS, GLONASS
- 16GB of built-in storage
- microSD card slot
- microUSB port with USB host and MHL 2.0
- Bluetooth v4.0
- IR port for remote control functionality
- Standard 3.5 mm audio jack
- Accelerometer and proximity sensor
- IR gesture sensor for Air gestures
- Smart screen: Smart stay, Smart pause, Smart scroll
- Active noise cancellation with dedicated mic
- Ample 2,600 mAh battery with great endurance
- Smart volume and Adapt Sound features for the music player
- Camera downgraded to 8MP
- Screen is TFT, not Super AMOLED
- Thicker and heavier than regular Galaxy S4, Sony Xperia Z
- No FM radio
- Shared camera interface makes framing tricky
- No thermometer or hygroscope
Samsung is not new to rugged Androids – the Galaxy Xcover line (along with carrier-specific versions) has been around for a while, but those favored durability over specs. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is not as rugged as those phones, it is a premium package.
That includes the powerful chipset, the advanced connectivity, exclusive features, the works. Of course, it’s not without competition – the Sony Xperia Z has been around for a while and it’s clean, elegant design doesn’t pay the rugged tax – the IP57-certified Xperia Z is a suave survivor. But anyway, if you search “quad-core, 1080p and water resistance” you’ll find a very short list of options.
The internal hardware and the software of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active are almost identical to those of the regular S4, the real changes are on the outside.
Design and handling
The basic floor plan of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is that of the regular Galaxy S4 (the thin bezels around the screen are a hair thicker) but there are many design cues taken from the Xcover phones. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active comes in three color versions – the bold Orange Flare and Dive Blue and the more muted Urban Grey.
The Galaxy S4 recently got some new color options as well, but they are not quite as eye-catching as the Orange and Blue versions of the Active, which accentuate its rugged nature very well. The four screw caps on the back are a clear sign of “rugged”.
Then there are the physical buttons on the front (capacitive buttons don’t work when wet) and the new plastic on the back. It’s has a honeycomb texture under a transparent glossy layer.
The Galaxy S4 Active unit we used for the preview (the Orange Flare version) had a matte, patterned back, which we quite liked. However, the version we’re reviewing – the Urban Grey – has a smooth glossy back and so does the Dive Blue version. We’re yet to see a production version of the Orange Flare, but chances are it has the same smooth plastic on the back.
The patterned plastic was better at hiding fingerprints and also provided more grip – the smooth glossy plastic is slippery even dry and it will only get worse when wet. We also wish Samsung put the same ribbed sides as on the Galaxy Xcover, they made the grip really solid.
Still, we like the design of the Galaxy S4 Active – it strays away from the S III derived design that has turned Samsung’s lineup into a clone army. Also, some people just prefer hardware buttons over capacitive keys, especially when the bezels are so thin, increasing the chance of accidental taps on the capacitive controls.
In terms of handling, the Galaxy S4 Active is roughly similar to the regular S4. The extra thickness and weight are noticeable, but don’t impede one-handed operation. It’s not as sleek as the Sony Xperia Z, but that one clearly rated elegance higher than rugged appearance.
We should note that when we say “rugged” we mean in comparison to regular smartphones. The Galaxy S4 Active will handle dust and some water like a champ, but it’s not really meant to take hard knocks so you should still be careful with it.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active uses a 5″ 1080p LCD screen, unlike the Super AMOLED on the regular S4. It has 441 pixels per inch and while it has more sub-pixels per inch (since Super AMOLED uses a PenTile matrix), the perceived sharpness is virtually the same (the high pixel density and new sub-pixel arrangement in the latest generation Super AMOLED take care of that).
The LCD does have some tangible advantages – it’s brighter, for example. The contrast and black levels aren’t as great though and there’s some slight contrast loss at an angle. It’s a minor issue and the screen on the Galaxy S4 is among the better LCDs we’ve seen.
Color rendering is another difference between LCD and AMOLED – colors in a gradient are more distinct on the Galaxy S4 Active display than they are on the regular S4.
You can find all about our display testing routines here.
The 5″ TFT is slightly more reflective than its Super AMOLED counterpart, which hurts sunlight legibility despite the higher brightness.