We’re currently putting the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active through its paces in our in-depth review process, but we’ve updated our hands on with what we’ve made of it so far.
What do you do when you create an incredibly lucrative brand? Milk it for everything it’s worth, and that mentality has led to the creation of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active.
The S4 Active arrived alongside the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom and Galaxy S4 Mini a short while after the flagship Samsung Galaxy S4 as the Korean firm looks to get the maximum from its internationally recognised brand.
As you may be able to guess from the name the Galaxy S4 Active is aimed at the rugged market with its key selling points being its dust and water resistant. It’s IP67 certified which means it’ll survive being dipped into fresh water for up to 30 minutes at a depth of 1 metre.
Unlike its brothers the S4 Mini and S4 Zoom, the Galaxy S4 Active hasn’t seen its specs slashed viscously by Samsung and thus it makes it a much closer relation to the stock Galaxy S4.
Some changes have been made however, with the camera on the S4 Active only 8MP compared to 13MP on the S4, and the 5-inch screen is a TFT affair instead of Super AMOLED, but it still boasts a full HD resolution and looks smashing.
On the inside you still get the powerful 1.9GHz quad-core processor which adorns the flagship, plus the same 2GB of RAM and Android 4.2 OS which zips along nicely.
When it comes to price then there’s little surprise that the S4 Active will set you back £490 (around $765, AU$830) SIM free, while on contract you can pick it up for free from £29 per month over two years.
The price, coupled with its decent line up of specs means the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active goes up against the likes of the also water resistant Sony Xperia Z as well as the other stalwarts at the top of the smartphone game such as the HTC One, Nokia Lumia 925, BlackBerry Z10 and even its brother the Galaxy S4.
As part of the effort to make the Galaxy S4 Active waterproof the handset is slightly chunkier than the S4, measuring 9.1mm in depth compared to the 7.9mm chassis of the original.
It’s also wider, taller and heavier with vital statistics of 139.7 x 71.3mm and 153g making the S4 Active a more substantial device in the hand, although it’s still just about manageable.
Looking at the S4 Active from the front or side reveals it shares the same design as the Galaxy S4, with a polycarbonate body wrapped with metal rim round its circumference providing a rigid and relatively premium look and feel.
The big difference on the front are the buttons below the screen, with the touch keys present on the rest of the S4 range replaced with chunky physical alternatives.
These add to the rugged nature of the S4 Active and are present due to the fact the touch options are less responsive in wet conditions.
The keys themselves do require a decent amount of pressure to register, so if you’re used to just lightly tapping a touch button then this will take a little getting used to.
Take a look at the edges and on the right you’ll find the power/lock key while on the left there’s the volume rocker switch.
Both buttons have been given a textured finish making them easier to find and providing more grip if you’re handling the S4 Active is slippery conditions.
Placement of both is good and you’re able to hit both one handed without too much issue, which is great for such a large device.
Up top there’s a headphone jack, but unlike the Sony Xperia Z there’s no tricky cover to fiddle with here.
Samsung has made the port water resistant without the need of a flap, so if you invest in some waterproof headphones you can take the Galaxy S4 Active swimming and still listen to your tunes.
Something which hasn’t been given the water resistant treatment is the microUSB port on the base of the device which does sport a plastic cover which you’ll need to pick off every time you come to charge the S4 Active, which gets a little annoying after a while.
We also fear for the structural integrity of said flap, as it feels like something which could easily break after a number of uses and thus ruining the Galaxy S4 Active’s water resistant credentials.
Flip the Galaxy S4 Active over and you’ll find things are a little different here compared to the rest of the S4 range, with a more industrial design adding to the rugged tag the handset sports.
Four large, metal rivets adorn each corner of the handset although their function appears to be purely cosmetic, but nether the less they look good and the rubber strips which run between them at the top of the bottom of the S4 Active provides some additional grip.
We’d have liked to see the rubber also make its way onto the removable back plate which takes up the majority of the rear of the phone and its slick plastic finish does little in terms of grip.
Now you didn’t just read that wrong, we did indeed say the back of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active was removable while still being a water resistant device – something the Xperia Z and even the Panasonic Eluga can’t boast.
Peeling it off reveals a microSIM port as well as the welcome presence of a microSD slot and even a removable battery, which will no doubt please many of you power users out there.
Once again we’re a little wary of the water resistant credentials of the S4 Active with all that exposed tech hidden away under the exceedingly thin back plate which has a tiny seal running all the way around it.
The Galaxy S4 Active does come with warning stickers on the back notifying you that you need to ensure the back plate is fully engaged – especially below the camera lens – before you even think about taking it for a dip.
There have been reports of water leaking into the device, so if you’re planning on taking the S4 Active into the bath with you make sure everything is properly sealed before sliding in.
We didn’t experience any leaks when we took our Galaxy S4 Active for a splash in the bath and shower, and it managed to stay water tight when we were caught in heavy downpours.
The Galaxy S4 Active does live up to its rugged nature as we did drop it several times – thanks to a recently broken finger – and it survived every hit with no visible damage.
Overall the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is the macho version of the firm’s flagship smartphone. The camera and screen may not be quite as stellar, but if you can get over that and the slightly larger dimensions it’s certainly an attractive proposition.
Sure it doesn’t have the same sultry design of the HTC One, but remember you’re getting a water resistant mobile with the added benefit of a microSD slot, removable battery and just one annoying flap which trumps the Xperia Z.
Its solid build and additional heft makes the S4 Active feel like it could take a number of bumps and go on trips we’d think twice about taking our HTC One or iPhone 5 on, but at the end of the day there’s no escaping the plastic finish.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active rocks up with Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean on board, which isn’t quite the latest version of Google’s platform (that honour goes to Android 4.3), but it’s not far off and we’d expect 4.3 to land sooner rather than later.
This being a Samsung phone however means it’s not the pure Android experience, with the firm’s substantial TouchWiz UI slapped on top of Google’s platform which does bring some handy functions alongside a number of bloatware applications.
As we mentioned in the introduction the Galaxy S4 Active certainly has the power to run Android without issue with a beefy 1.9GHz quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM in charge of ensuring everything stays smooth.
That means general operation on the S4 Active is almost identical to the that of the Galaxy S4, resulting in a slick interface with almost no lag at any point.
You can zoom between homescreens, applications and browser tabs with minimum effort – even in the bath!
The physical keys below the screen do slow you down from time to time as they’re not quite as responsive as the set up on the stock Galaxy S4, but it’s not a huge issue.
The 5-inch display ensures everything looks glorious, although thanks to the TFT screen technology colours aren’t quite as vibrant when compared to the Super AMOLED offering on the S4 – but there’s very little to pick between the two.
With a full HD resolution images and text are just as sharp and you’ll be more than happy with the S4 Active on the visual side of things as it’s right up there with the best of them.
Hit the power/lock key on the side to access the lock screen and you’ll note the "inspired by nature" water ripple effect on the Galaxy S3 has been replaced by a bead of light.
This light source will follow your finger round the screen when you hover it a few millimetres above the display.
While it may be a pointless feature there’s no denying it makes for a fun little game. How far away can you get your finger and have the S4 Active still register it? Can you move your finger faster than the phone can cope with? Hours of fun.
Dive into the settings can you can choose whether to have app shortcuts at the bottom of the lock screen and decide if you want the "Life Companion" text to stay or go – you can edit this to say whatever you like. It’s all a great deal of fun.
You can also do this on the Galaxy S4 Active, but you’ll need to head into settings again and check the multiple widgets box.
Swipe you’re finger across the screen and the solar glare signals the unlocking process has been successful, turfing you onto the homescreen.
Now if you’ve used an Android phone before, and especially a Samsung one, then everything is as you’d expect. There are a multitude of screens for you to flick through, where you can add, remove and edit apps and widgets to your hearts content.
Pinch on any homescreen and you’ll see an overview of all of them. You can have up to seven in total, but you can delete extra ones if you want.
Hold down on any free space on a homescreen and you’ll be able to add apps, widgets and folders as well as change the desktop background – allowing you to personalise your Galaxy S4 Active.
The stock Android multi-tasking menu is present on the S4 Active, just hold down the home key to get it up on screen.
While the column of app thumbnails which you swipe sideways to close remain the same, Samsung has added three on screen buttons at the base of the display – quick links to the task manager and Google Now as well as a "close all" option which we found rather handy.
There’s another way to access Google Now too, by holding down the menu key below the display on the S4 Active. This is much quicker than having to dive into the multitasking page.
Google Now is Android’s answer to Apple’s Siri personal assistant which offers up various bits of information such as the weather for your current location and transport details home.
It can be handy at times and if you let it snoop through your emails then it can pull up some cool related content about flights and what not – although its spooky accuracy about your life and location may put some people off using it.
If you fancy a slightly more Siri-like conversation with the Galaxy S4 Active double tap the home button to launch S Voice – Samsung’s answer to the Cupertino based firm’s assistant.
You can then ask various things such as "call X", "send a text to Y", "what’s the weather like?", "open calculator" and while we didn’t find that the Galaxy S4 Active had any issues understanding us, it did take a good five to 10 seconds to process each request.
This delay meant that a lot of the time it was quicker to actually perform the action with our fingers, making the inclusion of S Voice a little pointless, although there’s obvious advantages when it comes to driving and other hands free activities.
The trusty Android notification bar is present and correct, but it hasn’t escaped Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay on the Galaxy S4 Active with handy quick settings and a brightness bar included.
You can customise the quick settings you have displayed and while only five appear on screen at once you can slide sideways to scroll through more – there are 21 quick settings in total for you to choose from.
To edit which quick settings you have in the notification bar hit the button in the top right of the screen to view the ones currently on show and then tap the pencil icon at the top of the screen to drag and drop the various settings in and out of the bar.
It’s a simple process and allows you to have your most used functions front and centre, although this is something which will appeal more to the power users out there.
Samsung has also played around with the Android settings menu in its latest version of TouchWiz, dividing it up into manageable tabs: connections, my device, accounts and more.
This makes it easier for users who are not so familiar with the Android interface, but those who have spent some time using other devices running the same OS may be a little thrown at first.
While it took us a while to find a couple of things it didn’t take us that long to get our heads round it all.
The slowness of S Voice was the only real lag we experienced on the S4 Active and in general it performs impressively and there’s very little to difference between it and the S4 in terms of day to day performance.
Hands on gallery
So what do we make of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active? We have to say we’re fully impressed by the phone that takes the best of the S4 and makes it something that’s more life-proof in a variety of ways.
We can see this phone being the handset of choice for exercise fiends up and down the country, thanks to the combination of S Health (or more probably another app that’s a little better at tracking your exertions) and a robust design that promises the Active could survive a slip.
We like the fact it has a full HD screen as well as keeping it at a 5-inch size, on top of the superbly powerful innards. The addition of Aqua mode won’t be anything more than a gimmick to most, but shows that Samsung has got the skew of this phone a lot more right than a number of other handsets it’s spewed out in recent years.
Would we rate it as better than the original? That’s a tough question, as not only are you losing some of the key specs that make the S4 one of the world’s top phones, you are also having to put up with a bit more heft – and the difference is noticeable.
We’re looking forward to getting this one in for review soon – so stay tuned and we’ll let you know whether it’s worthy of a place in the top ten on its own merits, or if it’s just a more rugged version of the phone we’ve already talked about for months.
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