29/08/2013 14:15 | By Dan Sung, contributor, MSN Tech

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Is Sammy's latest rugged, sporty handset tough enough?

What is it?
The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: you’ve met its flagship friend, this is the tougher one of the pair. Same specs - more or less - but the Active is water and dust-resistant.  

What’s great?
Performance is just as bang on as the S4 proper and the underwater photography options are really very good indeed.   

What’s not?
It’s not shock-proofed in any meaningful way, the battery is a little shaky and many of the Galaxy modes aren’t quite as useful as they should be.   

The bottom line:
Don’t buy this expecting it to be fool proof. It’s not. It’s great for those that get wet a lot but it won’t last long down the site. Nice phone but more tough guy mouth than actual hard nut trousers.  

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active (© Samsung)

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Review

The Samsung Galaxy S4 is one of the best phones on the market right now. Fact. Go and read our Samsung Galaxy S4 review if you don’t believe us. If there’s one thing the Korean giant likes to do for it customers, though, it's give them options. If that S4 is too big for you, well, then there’s the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini to try out instead. If the S4’s camera isn’t good enough, how about the Samsung Galaxy Zoom?

The trick with the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is that it’s “designed to enhance the life experiences of active users who want to stay connected”, as reads the marketing material. The spec is almost identical to the official flagship model apart from a thicker and waterproof chassis and a slightly less pixel-packed camera. The difference in price, as a result, is that the Active is £50 cheaper at £497 SIM-free or thereabouts. So, is that money well saved or do you end up missing out on the real S4 experience? Here’s what MSN Tech made of it.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Body build

It’s easy to recommend the all-metal HTC One to people over the Samsung Galaxy S4 for the build quality alone. The plastic, flimsy feeling of the latter is simply no match in the hand to the authentic materials of the former. So, while the S4 Active might be a little chunkier than the normal S4 at 139.7 x 71.3 x 9.1mm and 151g, it’s actually a little better for it. The back might still be bendy but there’s a metal rim around the device and rubber top and bottom edges that lend a little character and solidity in an otherwise all-too-samey Galaxy phone range.

The micro USB socket is now hidden under a protective seal and the touch keys at the bottom of the screen have become hard buttons. It’s actually quite refreshing to have them back as such. What’s quite amazing is that the 3.5mm audio socket is entirely uncovered. The insides of it are water-resistant which means you can keep listening to music even when it’s wet.

As ruggedised mobiles go, ultimately, it’s a very subtle and good looking - if slightly unremarkable - affair but, then, that’s because it’s not entirely rugged...

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active (© Samsung)

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: A real tough guy?

As an IP67 standard device, the S4 Active is fully sealed to keep dust particles out and it’s protected against water damage at a depth of one metre for up to 30 minutes. The idea from Samsung is that you can take it to the beach, or on your bike on rugged mountain trails, or for a long dusty hike. Well, you can and you can’t.

The IP67 credentials certainly stand up. We took it to the beach - this beach, as it goes - and it did just fine. We chucked it in a swimming pool - to a depth of 3m for about an hour, in fact. And, again, aside a little confusion from the software about apparently having headphones plugged in when we actually didn’t, full marks. What IP67 doesn’t offer you, however, is any guarantees that you can drop this phone, and that’s because you can’t.

The rubber top and bottom and metal rim offer a little more protection that the S4 but the screen will still scratch and crack just the same and the body will scuff too. So, if you do attach the S4 Active to the front of your bike and you happen to stack it while cruising one of those rugged mountain trails, then there’s an excellent chance you’ll total your phone along with an assortment of bones in your body.

It’s a bit of a shame because it means that you don’t get that total peace of mind about this expensive device. It’s fine if all you want is waterproofing but this isn’t a solution mobile for the terminally clumsy. 

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: S Health and other features

Active, of course, isn’t just about whether this phone can take a few knocks. Samsung has loaded the S Health software onto the device to add authority to that claim. S Health is a way of monitoring both your exercise and your diet on a daily basis. There’s an in-built pedometer and a food tracker as well as a host of graphs and other pictorial measures of how you’re getting on. To be fair, you can pick up apps from Google Play to do much the same but it’s nice to have something clean-looking that’s also ad-free.

The pedometer keeps a track of your steps even if you’ve accidentally closed it. Some part of the counter is always running in the background at no noticeable cost to the phone’s performance and that’s a very good thing. It did tend to register our fast walking as running, though, which is really a long way off the mark. Nonetheless, it’s an excellent indicator of whether you’re getting enough movement each day. Combined with Exercise Mate, where you can add in any number of activities, it gives a decent account of how many calories you’ve burned off each day.

Food Tracker is slightly less good. It’s far too time consuming to use consistently unless you have 20 minutes at the end of every meal or snack to look up everything you ate. There’s no bar code scanner to easily look up calorie stats and the database of pre-stored items is a little sketchy at best. Fortunately, you can make custom entries if you happen to know the calorie count from the side of a packet, but that’s not always possible.

The other disappointment with S Health is that there’s little about nutrition. The focus is all on fat and energy. There’s nothing about protein, vitamins or promoting a balanced diet in any way. You could be using it as a bible blissfully unaware that your levels or iron are anaemic and that your joints will suffer from missing omega oils and such. S Diet or S Fat would be a better name for it, and that’s a pity because we can see this app as a real selling point if developed further.

Luckily, the S4 Active comes with lots and lots and lots of all the other features and functions that you’ll find in the Galaxy S4 handsets. All the Gesture and Motion modes are there meaning that you can activate a handful of the phone’s applications without even touching it. Some of them are more useful than others, though.

The Smart Screen features which track your eyes and offer auto-video pausing and page scrolling are not reliable but the gesture controls that allow you to flick through web pages, pictures and emails - all without actually touching the display - are considerably better and almost worth using if you can remember how to work them all.

They’re actually rather perfect for when you’re covered in mud and dirt from your extreme exercise, or perhaps midway through preparing food. It’s just a pity that there’s only a small number of native apps with which these functions are compatible. For example, if you choose to use the Google Chrome mobile browser instead of the built-in Webkit one, then you’re going to miss out, and Chrome is a very popular Android app indeed.

WatchOn and Group Play are standard Galaxy features that we’ve mentioned in reviews before. The former is both a universal remote control for a host of TVs and set top boxes out there, and also TV and film recommendation service. It works very nicely and should not be ignored. The second is the heavily advertised way of getting you and your mates to turn your Samsung phones into speakers for the same song using NFC. That one’s a little more on the novelty side.

Lastly, we really like that you can use the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active touchscreen while wearing a pair of gloves. That’s great for winter of for gardeners or goalkeepers or whomever you are. What we like even more is that you can turn the this feature off to prevent your thigh opening up apps while the phone’s in your pocket. We didn’t have even one such incident throughout our time with this mobile.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Sub-aqua camera  

The power performance of the Galaxy S4 Active is identical to that of the straight S4. With the same 1.9GHz quad-core processor and 2GB RAM, it performs any task you need without even a hint of lag - no matter how many apps you have open at the time. One area where the specs of this phone have been brought down, however, is with the camera. The S4 Active has an 8MP sensor for the main camera compared to the 13MP unit on the flagship model, but don’t for a moment think that imaging is a second class citizen on this phone. In fact, it’s rather excellent.

The jewel in the crown is the Aqua Mode which leverages the Active’s water-resistant properties. Both the videos and pictures we captured under water are some of the best we’ve seen even outstripping dedicated toughcam compacts such as the Fujifilm XP200. Both the sound and the picture quality is a real delight and it adds hours of fun to what might otherwise be a humdrum handset.

On top of that, the Active has pretty much all of the additional camera modes and features that you’ll find in the S4 apart from the debatably worthwhile Dual Shot. Most of the interesting ones involve the phone snapping 5 shots of the same scene in quick succession and then performing some clever tricks. You can display a single object several times on the same snap to show motion. You can remove unwanted objects from the frame. You can select the best facial expression. You can even transplant faces to form the best group shot possible.

They don’t always work quite as they should, but work they certainly do. Nonetheless, you’ll probably get more consistent joy from the panorama and HDR modes. Ultimately, however you look at it, despite what the spec sheet says, the S4 Active has a very good camera.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Verdict

We definitely like the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active. Of that, there is no doubt. The build is solid, if unsexy, the performance is top notch, the underwater camera is excellent and the screen is both sensitive and packed with Full HD detail. The only issue we’d have, aside a touch-and-go battery life and a set of fun features that don’t always work, is over how active it really is.

It’s very good underwater and decent down the beach but it’s not built to withstand much bashing around and will break like the rest if you drop it. We’re also not convinced by the diet and exercise tracking of S Health in its current form.

In short, yes, this phone will offer you more protection from the elements than most but we don’t think that this is the mobile device answer for what truly active people are looking for.

4 stars

 Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Available now for £497 or also on contract – check the latest prices with Bing  

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