While the Samsung Galaxy S5 can shrug off water, the S5 Active is tailor-made for klutzes and outdoorsy types. Not only is this AT&T-exclusive device ($199 with two-year agreement) water resistant, it can withstand drops, sand and dust, and extreme temperatures. You can even snap photos underwater. The S5 Active is heavier than the regular S5--and you don't get a fingerprint reader--but otherwise it's a compelling device for those who are tough on their phones.
The Galaxy S5 Active looks like the smartphone equivalent of a Panasonic Toughbook laptop--in a good way. Although it's made of plastic and not metal, the enlarged bumpers on the corners and back panel (with four dots that look like screws) lend the impression that this device can take some abuse. Our unit came in Titanium Gray, but you can also order the Active in a more stylish Ruby Red or a military-inspired Camo Green.
As with the S5, the Active sports a flap over its microUSB port, which helps seal the design but gets in the way when you want to charge the device. However, we're glad this handset opts for chunky physical buttons beneath the screen instead of capacitive ones. We appreciated not having to wait for the backlight to kick in or guess which button does what while using the phone in direct sunlight. We also like that the sides have textured grooves, which makes for a better grip.
The right side of the Active houses the power button, while a convenience (shortcut) key and the volume rocker line the left side. The headphone jack and IR blaster sit on the top edge of the phone, and the back panel has the 16-MP camera hump and heart rate sensor. The white AT&T logo and Galaxy S5 Active logos are thankfully subtle.
You can remove the back panel toward the top to access the battery, SIM Card slot or microSD Card slot. The S5 Active comes with a modest 16GB of internal storage, but you can expand that by up to 128GB by adding your own card.
The S5 Active is noticeably heavier than its less ruggedized brother, weighing 6 ounces versus 5.1 ounces for the regular S5. That's also heavier than the 5.6-ounce HTC One M8, which has a metal body. The S5 Active is thicker and noticeably taller than the S5, too, measuring 5.7 x 2.9 x 0.35 inches, compared to 5.3 x 2.9 x 0.25 inches. However, the extra height forced us to shift the phone up and down in our hand more than we'd like.
There's something really satisfying about dropping a smartphone multiple times (on purpose) and seeing it survive. The S5 Active easily handled a few drops of 4 feet onto a thin carpet over concrete. In fact, the device's Military Standard 810G shock and vibration resistance means it can withstand this plunge 26 times.
We then attempted a 4-foot drop onto a hardwood floor. The S5 Active's back plate popped off, and the battery fell out, but the device turned on and worked properly after we put everything back together. We also didn't notice any dings or scratches.
Like the Galaxy S5, the Active can also withstand being submerged in up to 3 feet of water for up to 30 minutes. Plus, you can use the camera while the S5 Active is underwater, something the regular S5 can't do. This is because the Active lets you use the convenience key on the side of the device as a shutter button; the touch screen doesn't work while submerged.
The S5 Active can also withstand humidity, high altitudes and temperature extremes.
Active Key and Activity Zone
In addition to its durability, the Galaxy S5 Active stands out from the regular Galaxy S5 with its Active Key. The small button on the left side of the device launches an exclusive app called Activity Zone. This app aggregates multiple tools related to outdoor exploits, including a Barometer (powered by Accuweather), Compass, Flashlight and Stopwatch. If you open the menu on the left side, you'll also find an app shortcut to the Exercise app.
By default, long-pressing the Active Key launches the camera, after which you can use it to shoot photos. However, you can customize what a short and long press does within the Settings menu.
While the Galaxy S4 Active skimped on the display versus the S4, the Galaxy S5 Active packs the same brilliant and rich 5.1-inch full HD Super AMOLED screen (1920 x 1080 pixels) as the regular S5. While watching Optimus Prime take on a menacing Dinobot, we could make out fine scratches in his blue shoulders, which popped against the lush green forest just before he smacked down his attacker. We also enjoyed the panel's wide viewing angles and easy outdoor readability.
The S5 Active averaged 364 nits on our light meter, which is a bit below the regular S5 (373 nits) but in the same ballpark. The HTC One M8 registered a slightly higher 368 nits.
The Active's display delivers 154.9 percent of the sRGB color gamut, which is comparable to the S5 (158.4 percent) and higher than both the One M8 (115 percent) and iPhone 5s (98.4 percent). A higher percentage isn't necessarily better, but we like the highly saturated colors offered by the Active.
In terms of color accuracy, the S5 Active is a strong performer, notching a Delta-E score (lower is better) of 2.2 in its default Adaptive screen mode. When we switched the display mode to Standard, the score improved to 1.9. The One M8 scored a worse 4.1. The iPhone 5s (0.05) is still the champ in this category.
One of the unsung benefits of the Galaxy S5 Active versus the S5 is that it boasts a louder back speaker. We measured a rate of 78 decibels for the Active against 73 dB for its non-ruggedized brother.
We noticed the difference as we played King of Leon's "Use Somebody." The track had more punch on the S5 Active, although the sound was harsh at max volume. Nevertheless, everything from speakerphone calls to turn-by-turn GPS directions should come through louder on the Active.
The Galaxy S5 Active sports the same TouchWiz interface as the regular S5, which is to say that it's stuffed with features and options but sports a slightly cleaner presentation than the S4. For instance, the Settings menu gets a flat aesthetic treatment with colorful circular buttons. The lock screen also has a sparser look, with only the camera shortcut for unlocking the device, as opposed to several options with earlier devices.
The home screen presents a Google bar for searching with your voice (no need to touch the device). Swiping to the left launches Samsung's My Magazine, a Flipboard-powered news and social reading tool. Swiping down from the top of the display launches the Quick Settings menu, where you can adjust the brightness with a slider and toggle a host of other options.
There's some things we still like (and loathe) about TouchWiz. We appreciate Multi Window for running two apps side by side and the Swiftkey-powered keyboard, complete with number row. However, finding something on your device is harder than with the iPhone's Spotlight feature, and we're not fans of Samsung's incessant touch and unlock sounds (which you can disable).
The Galaxy S5 Active comes with way too many pre-installed AT&T apps for our taste. You'll find some useful options, such as Mobile Hotspot and myAT&T (for keeping tabs on billing and data usage), but we could do without AT&T FamilyMap, AT&T Locker, Caller Name ID, AT&T Messages, Mobile Locate, Mobile TV and especially AT&T Navigator. Why use the free Google Maps for voice guidance when you can pay your carrier $9.99 per month?
Notable Samsung preloaded apps include Activity Zone, S Health and S Voice, as well as Smart Remote for controlling your TV.
The bloatfest continues with such third-party apps as Isis Wallet for mobile payments and YP (Yellow Pages), but we don't mind the inclusion of Flipboard or Beats Music. Keeper helps store your passwords, while Lookout can secure your device and help locate it should it get lost or stolen.
Heart Rate Monitor
Befitting its name, the Galaxy S5 Active sports a heart rate sensor on the back of the device that works in tandem with the S Health app. After holding our fingertip on the sensor for several seconds, the S5 displayed our heartbeats per minute. Like the regular S5, however, the Active sometimes had trouble reading our heart rate the first time.
S Health has a lot of other features that can help whip you into shape. The app can keep track of your steps, calories burned and calories consumed, as well as measure the distance you traveled along with elevation. The S5 Active can also keep track of your diet, tying into popular chains like McDonald's and Starbucks.
The Galaxy S5 Active boasts high-powered specs, including a 2.5-GHz Snapdragon 801 processor and 2GB of RAM. However, to get swifter everyday performance you'll want to turn off the S Voice home button shortcut; it will make opening and exiting apps faster. In-app performance proved responsive as we played "Batman & The Flash Hero Run," dodging bad guys with ease.
To gauge the smartphone's real-world performance, we first timed how long it took to fire up the N.O.V.A. 3 game. The S5 Active took 16 seconds, which is slightly faster than the regular S5 (19 seconds) and HTC One M8 (17 seconds).
Next, we transcoded a 204MB video file to 480p using the VidTrim app. The S5 Active finished in just 4 minutes and 11 seconds, which is about the same as the regular S5's 4:12. The One M8 took a slower 4:47, but that was with an earlier version of the test.
As expected, the S5 Active turned in similar results on various synthetic benchmarks. For example, the Active notched 2,977 in Geekbench 3 (multicore performance) and 18,691 in 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited (graphics). The S5 scored 2,977 and 18,024 in those same tests, while the One M8 hit 2,480 and 20,965, respectively.
The Galaxy S5 Active uses the same 16-MP camera as the regular S5, which means you'll be able to take advantage of such perks as Real Time HDR and Selective Focus.
Real Time HDR lets you preview images before you take them, creating more evenly lit photos under challenging conditions.
Selective Focus enables you to take a shot and then decide whether you want to keep the foreground or background in focus afterward. This effect worked well when we photographed a group of roses.
Overall, the Galaxy S5 excelled when taking photos outdoors, but struggled indoors without much ambient light. For instance, a shot of two co-workers in a dimly lit conference room looked more grainy and dark on the S5 Active than the iPhone 5s. We could also barely make out the back wall on the Samsung's photo.
Selfie fans may appreciate the Beauty Mode that kicks in on the S5 Active's front 2.1-MP camera. It smoothed out the wrinkles in our face, but the shot looked on the soft side. You can dial down or turn off this effect, though.
Editor's Note: For more on the Galaxy S5's front and back cameras, see our original Samsung Galaxy S5 review.
Packing a large 2,800 mAh battery, the Galaxy S5 Active should provide plenty of endurance for your outdoor (or indoor) adventures. On the Laptop Mag battery test, which involves continuous Web surfing over LTE on 150 nits of screen brightness, the phone lasted a strong 9 hours and 37 minutes. That's in line with the S5's runtime of 9:42 and well ahead of the 7:30 smartphone average. The HTC One M8 lasted a slightly longer 9:52. As with the original S5, you can also remove the battery and replace it with a spare or potentially a higher-capacity unit.
The Galaxy S5 Active is a smartphone that has a much better chance of surviving the length of that two-year contract than your typical handset. Plus, you get all the best goodies the regular S5 has to offer, including its bright and rich full HD screen, long battery life and feature-rich camera. The louder speaker than the S5 is another plus. We're not fans of the extra bulk versus the regular S5--and the microUSB port flap is still annoying--but overall the Active is a smart choice for those who don't want to bother with a case.