Samsung Galaxy S4 Active (AT&T) Review

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Pros: Dust- and water-resistant design; Underwater photo/video feature; Louder speaker than regular S4; Great array of special features; Better outdoor viewability than original S4

Cons: Lower camera resolution than original S4; LCD lacks rich colors of AMOLED; Heavier and thicker than regular S4

Verdict: The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active brings water resistance, a louder speaker and better outdoor readability for the same price of the regular S4.

The Galaxy S4 line of phones is quickly growing, and the next to join Samsung's galactic party is the S4 Active. Available exclusively for AT&T and starting at $199 on contract, the Active is nearly identical to the original S4 in terms of performance. However, this thicker and heavier version can withstand submersion in up to 1 meter (3 feet) of water for up to 30 minutes. The S4's water resistance does come with some caveats, but the Active lives up to its name.

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Editor's Note: Portions of this review were taken from our earlier review of the Samsung Galaxy S4 (AT&T).

Design

From the front, the Galaxy S4 Active looks like a slightly chunkier version of the S4 in a new color. The basic design is the same, but instead of a single physical button at the bottom, the S4 Active has three: Home, Back and Settings.

The rear of the S4 Active is much different. The top and the bottom have bands of gray, textured, rubberized plastic. The center panel, though still removable, has a gray hexagonal pattern. Customers can choose between an aqua blue or urban gray Active color, which extends from the panel to the sides of the phone.

To meet IP67 standards, the microUSB port on the bottom is covered by a gray rubber flap that locks in place.

When you pick up the Active, the difference between this version of the S4 and the original are immediately apparent. Measuring 5.5 x 2.8 x 0.40 inches, the Active is both larger and thicker than the original S4 (5.31 x 2.69 x 0.25 inches) and, at 5.4 ounces, is nearly 1 ounce heavier than the S4 (4.6 ounces). The Sony Xperia Z, which is also water-resistant, is thinner and lighter, at 5.47 x 2.79 x 0.31 inches and 5.15 ounces. But the Sony is also taller and wider, making the S4 Active easier to use with one hand.

 

MORE: Galaxy S4 Tips

 

Water Resistance

The Active's key feature is that it can withstand submersion in up to 1 meter (3 feet) of water for up to 30 minutes. When we tested the phone, it emerged from the depths unscathed, but the touch screen didn't work underwater. However, the display registered splashes of water as if they were touches. Apps launched, and items were copied to the clipboard as droplets of water beaded off of the screen.

Display

Another key difference between the Active and the Galaxy S4 is their displays. While both measure 5 inches and boast 1920 x 1080 resolution, the former sports a TFT LCD, and the latter is equipped with a Super AMOLED screen.

We noticed extremely wide viewing angles while watching the "Don Jon" trailer. Details were crisp in Joseph Gordon Levitt's character's apartment, lit only by the glow of his lecherous laptop activities. However, Scarlett Johansson's skin looked much redder than normal. When we viewed the same trailer on the S4, we noticed much more accurate colors, especially in the actors' skin tone, as well as deeper contrast.

The TFT display on the Active shines almost as brightly as the standard S4's display. In our tests, the Active S4 put out 438 lux, whereas the standard S4 registered 480 lux. Both are well above the category average of 296 lux. It was easier to read text on the Active in direct sunlight, as opposed to text on the S4, which seemed to blend into whatever background it was on under sunlight.

Audio

The tiny speaker on the S4 Active puts out enormous volume for its size. When we jammed to Empire of the Sun's "Alive," the phone delivered a crystal-clear vocal track, though the synthesizer and thumping drums sounded rather tinny.

Playing the same track beside the original S4 put this explosive volume into context. Not only could we clearly hear the difference, but we could also feel the difference. While playing the song at maximum volume on the Active, we could feel the entire device vibrate. The same song at max volume on the original S4 only produced vibrations around its speaker.

Operating System and UI

The Galaxy S4 Active runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, augmented by Samsung's TouchWiz UI, just like the original. However, the Active has physical buttons in place of the capacitive controls on the original S4.

There are 19 quick settings buttons in the notification drawer, enabling users to toggle everything from Wi-Fi connectivity to unique features such as Smart Scroll. These buttons can be rearranged by clicking on a tile button in the top-right corner of the notification drawer.

Multitasking

The 5-inch screen on the Active is ideal for Multi Window Mode, part of Samsung's TouchWiz interface. Holding down the physical back button opens a sidebar with a list of Multi Window-compatible apps, including Chrome, Email, Gmail, Google Maps, Facebook and Twitter. These apps can be placed onto half of the screen, allowing the application to run concurrently next to any other app. We found it useful to browse the Web and check our email at the same time.

Though we were able to view videos in Multi Window Mode, we preferred Samsung's Pop-up Play feature, which allowed us to play clips in a floating, draggable window that appeared on top of our desktop and other apps.

Keyboard

Samsung's virtual keyboard is one of the most accurate, comfortable and intelligent we've used, and that stands true in the S4 Active. The QWERTY layout has plenty of space between the keys, which made it easy for us to avoid adjacent-letter errors. The dedicated number row allowed us to enter numbers without switching modes. The keyboard also supports haptic feedback and trace typing (like Swype).

Based on the popular SwiftKey predictive keyboard, the Galaxy S4's keyboard learned from our typing patterns and, after a short time, did a great job of guessing the word we wanted to use next. The phone also has a floating keyboard mode, which gives you a smaller version of the keyboard that you can drag around the screen.

 

MORE: 5 Best Keyboard Apps for Android

 

Air View

Samsung's Air View feature is still around on the S4 Active. Air View allows the device to display information previews, progress previews and speed-dial previews, as well as magnify a Web page area when you hover your finger over it. We were able to view a set of thumbnails by hovering over an album in the Gallery app, and the Web page magnification is especially useful. However, on the S4 Active, our thumb often had to get so close to the screen for the feature to work that we would frequently touch the screen accidentally.

Smart Scroll and Smart Pause

Samsung's more recent eye-tracking features, Smart Scroll and Smart Pause, return on the Active. Smart Scrolling lets you scroll through websites and emails by simply tilting your head up or down (or the device, depending on which setting you choose). After performing a search on Google, we successfully scrolled down by tilting our head down slightly, and back up by tilting our head up. However, the device had to recalibrate after even the slightest movement.

Gesture Support

Samsung's Air Gestures allow you to perform a few actions by waving your hand in front of a sensor located next to the S4 Active's front-facing sensor. You can still view important information from the lock screen, scroll through Web pages, navigate through image galleries or music tracks, move app shortcuts or calendar events to different pages and accept phone calls.

However, as is the case on the original model, Air Gestures didn't always work. The feature was the most consistent while we navigated websites. However, we had to be deliberate in our gestures, and the phone often mistook moving our hand out of the way as a scroll.

Quick Glance, however, is both an impressive and useful feature, displaying the time, unread messages, missed calls and battery level from the lock screen. Unlike our experience on the original S4, this feature was consistent throughout our testing on the Active.

The S4 also lets users move app shortcuts and calendar items using gestures. But we needed to use two fingers -- one to hold the desired item and the other to wave left or right, which was awkward and unnecessary. This doesn't make performing the same simple tasks via touch any easier.

Answering incoming calls with a wave of the hand worked most of the time. However, our fingers needed to be very close to the sensor for it to work, which was also the case for most gesture features on the S4 Active.

WatchOn and Samsung Hub

The S4 Active has an infrared port, as well as software for controlling your TV or cable box. The WatchOn app is part TV guide and part digital video guide, providing video suggestions based on user interests and navigating to shows with a single click. We could navigate to different episodes by clicking a thumbnail of the program.

The app is separated into two main sections: On TV and Video. On TV shows listings for television shows that are currently being broadcast live, as long as the user has inputted his or her ZIP code and cable provider. The Video section shows suggested videos from digital video providers, such as Netflix, based on the user's preferences.

 

MORE: How to Use Your Samsung Galaxy S4 as a TV Remote

 

S Translator

Like the original S4, the Active comes with S Translator, which helps users translate foreign-language voices, text and signs in 12 different languages, including Chinese, Japanese and Korean. The audio translator, which looks almost identical to Google's own Translate app, allowed us to speak into the microphone or type in text and have it immediately translated in text or spoken aloud.

In a quick test, we spoke a Japanese phrase into the microphone and watched as it was accurately translated to English text. There's also a handy list of preset phrases that might be of use to tourists, such as "Here is my passport."

S Translator's engine is also built directly into the email client. Users can select the Translate button whenever a foreign-language email is received, and the app will convert the note to the reader's native tongue. We sent a note with simplified Chinese characters, which was translated correctly, although we had to manually select the original language because autodetect did not work.

Optical Reader

The Optical Reader returns on the Active, handling word lookup, translation or business-card transcribing through text recognition. We pointed the app at a page with typed English sentences, and the app was able to recognize individual words and provide definitions. The app recognized most of the text on our business card, but it didn't quite categorize information correctly. After clicking the Add to Contact button, the app assigned the person's name and phone number to the correct fields, but was confused by the email and Web address.

Group Play

Samsung includes a helpful collaboration and entertainment feature called Group Play on the S4 Active that allows users to share music, documents and photos from the S4 or play games with other users over Wi-Fi direct. There's also a music-sharing feature, which allowed us to play a single song over multiple devices by connecting to friends' phones. This seems to be more of a party trick than something we'd use regularly.

S Health

Aimed at rivaling accessories such as the Fitbit Flex, Nike+ FuelBand and Jawbone's UP, Samsung's preloaded S Health app helps keep track of your activity levels and diet. After entering our vitals, the app provided a recommended amount of daily calories to consume and burn, and offered several options to track our health, including a health diary, food tracker and exercise tracker.

Walking Mate acts as a digital pedometer, similar to the Moves app for iOS. Considering the S4 Active is water-resistant, it would be neat if there were a swimming tracker, too.

 

MORE: How to Set Up and Personalize S Health on the Samsung Galaxy S4

 

Camera Performance

With a 13-MP lens, the original S4 is equipped with one of the best smartphone cameras on the market today. However, Samsung took things down a notch with the S4 Active, placing an 8-MP camera centered on its back and the same 2-MP shooter up front. The Xperia Z boasts a 13-MP camera.

This drop in resolution resulted in stills that weren't quite as dreamy as those the original S4 captured when viewed on a PC monitor. Images taken of Grover and red Furby dolls on both the Active and the original S4 produced digital noise, though it was far more pronounced on the Active. The first S4's lens seemed to capture much more color as well, producing more vivid reds than its ruggedized counterpart.

On the other hand, the Active's rear camera produced fairly impressive stills. Photos of the buildings surrounding the LAPTOP offices displayed crisp detail, down to the grout between each brick, and vibrant color reproduction. Shots from the front-facing camera weren't nearly as clear, muddying details in indoor images.

The Active's camera also demonstrated fantastic image stabilization, showing little to no distortion, in recording 1080p video, keeping up with us as we spun about our desk. Of course, the 2-MP shooter had to play catch-up as we shook the phone slightly.

Camera Features

One feature that sets the Active apart from the rest of the S4 line is its ability to shoot underwater. Using the Aqua mode, users can take either stills or video in up to 3 feet of water by using the volume key in either direction, rather than the touch screen. (Touch screens generally aren't usable when submerged.)

The S4 Active brings with it another new camera feature: Continuous Shot Mode. In this mode, users can press and hold the screen's shutter button to take four photos per second for up to 20 stills.

Aside from those features, all of Samsung's fancy camera modes that were introduced with the original S4 make an appearance on the Active, save for Dual Camera Mode. That includes Animated Photo Mode, Drama Shot, Eraser Mode and Sound & Shot.

 

MORE: Smartphone Camera Shootout 2013

 

Story Album

Samsung's Story Album returns on the Active, and monitors your photo-shooting activity and sends you notifications suggesting you turn your photos into attractive virtual flip-books. We were able to create an album by simply tapping a thumbnail, typing a name, choosing a layout style, hitting the Create button and either deleting or captioning the automatically curated photos. Users can order printed photo albums directly through the app, with prices ranging from $14.15 for a small softcover book to $31.15 for a large hardcover.

Third-Party Apps

In addition to the bevy of Samsung apps, the Active comes with a number of preloaded apps from AT&T, the most notable of which is AT&T's Drive Mode, which helps support its campaign against texting and driving. The app can automatically activate whenever the phone is traveling at more than 25 mph, causing it to autoreply to texts, calls and emails with an automated message and limit phone functionality.

Other apps include AT&T Navigator, 5GB of free cloud storage through AT&T Locker, AT&T Family Map for parents who want to keep tabs on their kids, myAT&T, AT&T Smart Wi-Fi and AT&T Messages.

4G LTE

Over AT&T's 4G LTE network, the Galaxy S4 Active registered fantastic speeds using Speedtest.net in Manhattan. With an average download speed of 38.1 MBps and upload speed of 6.9 MBps, the Active outclassed the original S4's scores of 23.7 down and 3.8 up, respectively.

The Active loaded The New York Times' mobile site in a blazing 3.5 seconds. ESPN.com loaded up in 4 seconds, while Laptopmag.com loaded in full in just 5 seconds on average.

AT&T offers 4G LTE coverage in 326 markets across the U.S., including most major cities, with 24 more coming soon.

Call Quality

The S4 Active offered solid, consistent call quality in our testing over LTE. Both on our end and as reported by callers, we experienced great volume and little to no distortion. Switching the phone to speaker led to somewhat garbled sound but respectable volume.

Performance

The S4 Active comes with the same 1.9-GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 CPU and 2GB of RAM as its predecessor, but is clocked a bit higher than the HTC One's 1.7-GHz variety.

On the general performance benchmark Quadrant, the Active scored 12,648, which narrowly beats the S4 (12,422) but is three times as high as the category average of 4,343. The HTC One barely beat Samsung's amphibious phone, with a score of 12,706.

The Active scored 7,569 on the An3DBench graphics test, edging out the original model's score of 7,536 and surpassing the category average (7,270). Again, HTC's flagship phone came out on top, with 7,716 points.

Real-world testing proved that the Active and the original S4 are cut from the same cloth. Although we noticed a clear delay when switching between orientations, moving between apps and games proved to be a breeze. While playing Jet Ski racing game Riptide GP, the environment blurred past us, and water splashed the screen with no choppiness.

Battery Life

One area in which the S4 Active doesn't quite make the cut is endurance. On the LAPTOP Battery Test, which continuously browses the Internet over LTE, the Active lasted 5 hours and 45 minutes. That's behind the category average of 6:08. The Power Saver setting didn't help much, bumping the runtime up by a measly 11 minutes to 5:56.

At least that beats the original S4 on AT&T, which lasted just 5:13 on standard power settings and only 5:54 on Power Saver mode. The HTC One lasted longer than both on AT&T's LTE network in both regular mode (5:55) and power-saving mode (6:20).

Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active isn't a rugged phone, per se, but it does offer water and dust protection without weighing you down. We also like the very loud speaker and the camera's Aqua mode, though we wish it had as high a resolution as the original S4. The S4's Active's screen is easier to read outdoors than the AMOLED display on the regular S4, but the latter offers richer colors.

If you don't need the extra protection, pick up the regular Galaxy S4 or the HTC One. But the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active offers the peace of mind for those who want to get a little wet.

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Author Bio
Joe Osborne
Joe Osborne, Associate Reviews Editor
Joe Osborne joined the Laptopmag.com staff in 2013, focused on improving LAPTOP's already stellar review coverage and original benchmark tests. With a B.A. in Journalism from Temple University, Joe has covered the games and tech scenes through reviews, hands-on previews, news, interviews and more for outlets like PCMag and AOL's Games.com.
Joe Osborne, Associate Reviews Editor on
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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
Carrier AT&T
Phone Display Size 5
Display Resolution 1920x1080
Form Factor Candybar Touchscreen
OS Family Android
Operating System Android 4.2.2
Networks
Data GSM
Data LTE
Data HSPA+
CPU 1.9 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600
Processor Family Qualcomm Snapdragon 600
RAM 2GB
Internal Memory 16GB
Memory Expansion Type microSD Card
Display (main) 5-inch TFT LCD/1920 x 1080
Display (secondary)
GPS Yes
Bluetooth Type Bluetooth 4.0
Wi-Fi 802.11a/ac/b/g/n
Front Camera Resolution 2 MP
Camera Resolution 8 MP
Audio formats supported WAV
Audio formats supported MP3
Audio formats supported MIDI
Audio formats supported M4A
Audio formats supported AMR
Audio formats supported AAC
Audio formats supported WMA
Video formats supported WMV
Video formats supported MP4
Video formats supported 3GP
Video formats supported 3G2
Talk / Standby Time
Ports microUSB
Ports 3.5mm headphone
Size 5.5 x 2.8 x 0.40 inches
Weight 5.4 ounces
SAR Rating (Head)
SAR Rating (Body)
Company Website http://www.samsung.com