23 June 2013

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active - First Impressions

Samsung might have shot itself in the foot here - the new Active version is a champion in its own right.

For the most part we've understood the idea behind the new members of the Samsung Galaxy S4 family. The S4 Mini for the budget, the S4 Zoom for the camera lovers. Makes sense, and they're suitably dulled down in certain spec areas to make up for it.

But with the Galaxy S4 Active, it's like the normal phone has been given a supercharged health kick to make it into a handset you can enjoy from a spec sheet perspective, but also feel secure about carrying around.

Think the Galaxy S4 in a case, but without a case needed. That's roughly what you're getting here, but with less heft.

Samsung Galaxy S4 tips and tricks

OK, so the differences are there. For instance, the screen isn't Super AMOLED, just your run-of-the-mill TFT. The camera has been downgraded to 8MP. But beyond that, there's very little to choose between them.

It's a bit thicker, obviously, but the same quad-core 1.9GHz Qualcomm processor is chugging away at the heart of it, and the 2GB of RAM remains as well.

On top of that you've got waterproof ports, IP67 dust and water resistance rating, and a more solid-feeling back that suggests you could lob this phone down the stairs, into the toilet, in a drink or bury it and it would keep on trucking.

Then you've got the same glove sensitivity, S Health apps and impressive Aqua Mode on the camera for underwater snaps, and you can see that there's going to be some tough choices down your local phone shop if you don't care so much about the huge camera sensor.

But what's it like to use in real life? Well, like we said: every bit as good as the Galaxy S4, and thanks to that already being bedded-in, the pre-production model we tried was superbly fast, whipping through the internet that nearly gave us motion sickness.

It will be interesting to see what Samsung does with the internal memory on this one, as early reports have suggested that the Active will actually use less storage for the OS than its original sibling - leading to many questions over whether some of the features on the S4 are really that necessary, and more of the space that's nabbed for the phone could be leveraged for actual user choice.

There's so much that's impressive in the Active's design: from the easy-to-hit menu, home and back buttons to the mottled nature of the rear battery cover, there were details that felt so much more premium than we encountered on the Samsung Galaxy S4.

The screws that adorn the rear of the phone seem more to be for decoration than anything else, creating a more rugged feel to a device that needs to show the world that it can take the hard knocks thrown at it.
We couldn't test it in that way, as it was tethered to the stand, but we were impressed that there was very little flex involved when we twisted and stretched the S4 Active in different ways.

And something that will irk Sony: there were no flappy covers that had to be closed at all times to preserve the waterproofing. The headphone jack is clearly marked as something that can get wet without issues, and the back cover clips off in the same way as the Galaxy S4.

Hey, what's under there? That's right: a microSD card slot and removable battery, of course! We can debate the merits of both until the cows come home, but there are plenty of people that are desperate for this feature on a handset, and it's right here for them.

Aqua mode, which we mentioned earlier for the Samsung Galaxy Active, is the new part of the camera app that allows the phone to offset the blur that comes from taking photos underwater. As the phone's touchscreen won't work beneath the waves you have to set what the volume button will do underwater. It's just a shame there's no dedicated camera key here when it feels like there's space for just that.

Early verdict


So what do we make of the Samsung Galaxy 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.

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