Samsung Galaxy S4 Active

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is closest of the S4 family of devices to the original model. It offers similar points on the spec sheet when it comes to the display size, the hardware that powers it, and the overall experience that it offers: the same can't be said of the Samsung Galaxy S4 mini or the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, which are distinctly different.

The SGS4 Active also joins a growing collection of devices offering protection from the elements. Moving away from the "rugged" phone, with chunky rubberised coatings and industrial looks, the latest wave is very much "life proof" as per the expression coined by Motorola with the launch of the Defy, giving you a device that's still slim, but happy with a splash of water.

The SGS4 Active now goes up against phones like the Sony Xperia Z at the top end, but we feel that the Active is a little more sporty when compared to Sony's slick design.

Design

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active sticks to Samsung's preferred plastics and unlike the Sony Xperia Z approach, you get a removable back cover. While the prospect of a sealed unit might appeal more when it comes to keeping water and dust out, that means that the SGS4 Active brings you the advantage of being able to change the battery.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is solidly built despite the plastic construction; it looks and feels like a great device in the hand. It measures 139.7 x 71.3 x 9.1mm and weighs 153g, which is towards the top end, but given the waterproofing, the 5-inch display and everything else, it's not too bad.

There's a slight throwback to yesteryear with the inclusion of three physical buttons on the front for navigation, with Samsung dropping the normal menu and back capacitive touch buttons for something that will work better in all conditions.

Flip the GSG4 Active over and you have a real nod to protected design, with rubberised ends secured with exposed bolts. Pull the back off and you'll see how Samsung protects some of the components thanks to an "O" ring around the inside of the cover. Of course this depends on having it properly in place, so after pulling the rear off the phone, it's important to make sure it's clicked in place all over, and that includes around the LED flash, to make sure it's properly seated at the top.

There's an additional flap on the bottom of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active that protects the Micro-USB charging port. Unlike the Sony Xperia Z however, the 3.5mm headphone socket is waterproofed, so you don't need a flap to cover it. That's again a practical move, so pairing the phone with water-resistant sports headphones, means you can head out running in the rain without fear, and without the fuss of additional flaps.

The back of the phone is perhaps a little slippery considering you might be using it with wet hands: we'd prefer something a bit more tactile, but overall, the SGS4 Active is a nicely designed and built device.

The hardware performance

One of the big selling points of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is that it's powerful. There's a 1.9GHz quad-core CPU packed into it, along with 2GB of RAM. That matches the regular Samsung Galaxy S4, with plenty of power for typical tasks. It also means that despite being a tough nut, this phone will keep up with the best out there - well, almost.

There are some points where things feel a little slower than they perhaps should, although it seems to us that this is down to software rather than hardware. Opening a folder on the home page, for example, is nicely animated, but seems rather languid. Tapping the home button is the same, it seems to take its time deliberately, rather than snapping to task.

The same applies to galleries, as there just seems to be too much of a delay at times, despite there being plenty of power on offer. But this seems to be limited to these highlighted areas. Fire up your favourite apps and you'll find the experience is first class as you'd expect from a device at this level. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active can get rather hot when you get it going. There's a noticeable warming around the back of the handset, just beneath the camera. At least you can dunk it in bowl of water to cool it down…

As we mentioned previously, with a removable back, you can use a microSD card to expand the internal storage over the 16GB of internal memory. Of that 16GB, only about 11GB is available to the user. Once this is expanded by 64GB it's not such a problem, but we're sure there will be those calling for a 32GB version, especially those who make use of large games, which can take up as much as 1GB. 

Display

One of the highlights of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is the 5-inch display. It's an impressive size and resolution, giving you 1920 x 1080 pixels, which is a sharp 440ppi. It also sees a move from AMOLED to TFT LCD, which might make the colours a little more natural and less saturated, and it's perhaps a little more power hungry.

The display itself is good. Samsung uses a lot of colour in its user interface, which helps to emphasise the vibrancy of things, even if things aren't as visually engaging as they are on the SGS4. It's capable of nice clean whites, perhaps a little on the cool blue side, and the blacks aren't as inky as those from the AMOLED display. Viewing angles are great and, as we we've said, it's capable of plenty of detail.

It's a nice bright display, although the power-saving mode can make the automatic brightness a little irregular: sometimes you'll wake up the phone and you can barely see it, others, it's no problem at all. You can easily tweak the auto-brightness levels if you feel you need to nudge it up a notch, but we have found ourselves constantly tinkering with the brightness as we've been using the phone.

The display offers ultra sensitivity, meaning that you can use it with gloves. That's great for cold winter mornings, but throw on a pair of ski gloves and it's still nigh on impossible to control. One thing to bear in mind is that the touch display doesn't work when it's underwater. It will sort of work when wet, but water on the display can confuse it. If you're checking Google Maps during a downpour then you'll be fine, but if it's soaked, you'll need to give it a wipe.

So, although there is a change in display technology for this device, we can't say it's hugely detrimental: it's still a great 5-inch display.

Software and media

We'll not spend too long on the software, as, in many cases, it's the same experience as the original Samsung Galaxy S4 when it comes to features. However, if you're not familiar with Samsung's skin over Android, we'll cover the main points here, as well as look at the handling of media and entertainment.

TouchWiz sits over Android 4.2.2 on the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active. That's the latest version of Android (at the time of writing) although Samsung's phones are now the furthest removed from the pure Android experience, with the likes of Sony and HTC now rolling closer to the raw Google experience.

Everything has been tweaked, menus rearranged, control options added that mean it's possible to make this device your own in many ways. Some, we have to say, could be deemed superfluous: we love the flexibility, but sometimes too much choice can be baffling. Still, it's safe to leave things be in many cases, and we suspect the vast majority of Samsung owners do just that.

There's a selection of innovative features, including an array of gesture controls, options to scroll the device when you're looking at it and so on, but in general, we don't find that they really add to the experience. The swipe of a thumb is incredibly natural, and in many cases, Samsung's energies feel like they could be slightly misplaced: we'd rather have the folders snap open than be able to use many of the Smart Screen functions.

But there's a lot to like about Samsung's phones and the user interface is engaging, there's plenty of explanation, warnings about what you're doing and so on. We also like things like S Health: it's a convenient suite of health monitoring features and although you could use any of a number of apps, we like the visual design that Samsung has applied.

Samsung's keyboard makes great use of the display size, giving you numbers and letters easily, although we quickly found that it wasn't as adept as some of the third-party keyboards you can download, and we'd still recommend SwiftKey as a great choice.

In some places, there's a throwback to the skeuomorphic design that companies, like Apple, have said they are moving away from. Take the calendar, for example. It's incredibly cluttered, with detailing that's simply unnecessary. Fortunately, the stock Jelly Bean calendar is just a free download away.

When it comes to the handling of things like video, music and photos, there are plenty of options and great sharing through AllShare. We like the design of the Gallery visually, but we found it rather slow to open, and slow when it came to attaching images to messages and so on. The result was that on many occasions we cancelled the action and started again, thinking that the phone had crashed. If you've got a large capacity card, make sure it's the fastest you can get to make sure that's not contibuting to any sluggishness in the gallery. It's worth noting though, that the more images you amass, the slower the gallery gets which is bad. 

On the music front, we're impressed by how good the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active sounds. With a decent set of headphones attached, the music performance is great. The external speaker supplies plenty of volume, but lacks the excellent performance of the BoomSound speakers of the HTC One.

Video is a strength of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active. It plays smoothly and looks fantastic on the 5-inch display, you get those clever options like the pop-out player and the USB supports MHL if you want to feed it into your TV's HDMI. We also like the live previews in the video hub, so you have an idea of what it contains.

Overall, we feel that there's a lot in TouchWiz that's superfluous, features that simply won't get used. Visually, it perhaps now lacks the sophistication of HTC's Sense 5, while it suffers the same problems as Sony in wanting to offer you different routes to content you could just as easily source from Google Play. But there's no lack of innovation from Samsung and crucially, it's easy enough to get to what you want and ignore, or turn off, everything else.

Cameras

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active sees a drop in megapixels from the regular S4, with an 8-megapixel camera on the rear and a 2-megapixel camera on the front. Aside from the obvious waterproofing, it's in the camera that Samsung has made a few tweaks to accommodate your active lifestyle. As such, there's an "aqua" mode thrown into the mix that is designed to make the most of your shots underwater. This will allow for the natural change of colours underwater, but be careful not to use it out of water, as everything will look wrong.

Engaging aqua mode also lets you select your control option. Obviously the touch buttons then don't work, so you can assign capture to the volume controls, with a choice of stills or video. That makes it really easy to get shots in water, as you just hit the volume button. We used the SGS4 Active underwater with no problems, capture was easy and the phone survived. We're going to try and find something more interesting to shoot and bring you more on this when we get the chance. It's worth noting that the IP67 rating refers to 1m depth, so don't go diving with the phone, as it won't survive.

Aside from aqua, there are plenty of other shooting modes, covering things like beauty shot, continuous shooting, sound and shot. There's lots of fun to be had, as well as a range of filters you can apply. In regular auto shooting, which we suspect will be how most people use the phone, the Samsung produces average results. The autofocus isn't as fast as you get from rivals like the HTC One, but it also supports touch focusing, which works well. Colours could perhaps be a little richer, but overall we're happy with the results.

One gripe is that the camera shutter sound can't be switched off on its own, although you can stop it by putting the phone in silent. With your notifications set at a level you can hear them in a busy street, the shutter sound is so loud it's offensive, while also making the back casing vibrate. The low light performance isn't so good, with shots being blighted by plenty of noise, but that's typical of smartphones so isn't a surprise.

When it comes to video, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active produces nice Full HD video. You can pause while recording which we always like as it means you can move around to make a video more interesting. The continuous autofocus is average, perhaps a little slow when you deliberately switch focus, but you can always touch to refocus, which it nice and smooth, without the seeking that blights some video focusing systems. Audio capture will be affected by wind noise, but there's nothing unusual about that.

Battery and calling

Sitting under the hood is a large 2600mAh battery. With a large display you'll need this battery to stand the chance of making it though the day. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active almost makes it, but we found that by mid-afternoon, the levels were looking a little low and in desperate need of a top-up, but that's with very little regard for preserving battery, so it can be eked out for longer. At least you can carry a spare if you're looking at a day at the beach, taking photos, pinging them to Facebook, listening to music and so on.

We found the call quality to be reasonable on the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active. There is noise cancellation in place - which can be switched off - and callers reported no problems. However, the ear speaker isn't as rich and clear as some.

Verdict

There's a lot to love about the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active. There's a great hardware experience on offer here that's competitive with some of the best devices on the market. Naturally, the waterproofing is the big sell: it works, taking away the worry of getting your phone wet, but bringing that additional fun of being able to take photos in, or under, water.

For that luxury, however, you only have to pay a small price in the size and weight of the device, you're not sacrificing on screen size or functionality. That makes the SGS4 Active an appealing prospect for those considering the regular Samsung Galaxy S4, especially as the SGS4 Active is a little cheaper.

READ: Samsung Galaxy S4 review

But we feel it could be better on the software front. Like the SGS4, there are plenty of features that you'll probably never use and while TouchWiz gives you incredible depth and options, it doesn't feel quite as sophisticated as it once did.

Overall, a great fun smartphone that gives you a flagship experience, but loves a little water sports too.