Samsung has a penchant for taking a successful handset and spinning it out into related models. The Galaxy S4 has three very close relations, the S4 Mini, S4 Zoom and S4 Active. The latter is a version of the Galaxy S4 with an IP67 ruggedness rating, and Clove sent us the sample handset for this review.
There are lots of IP ratings (Ingress Protection), with IP67 being the one ruggedised handsets generally get given to show that they meet a range of water and dust resistance challenges. The 6 means the handset has complete protection against dust – not a smidgeon can get into the casing, and this is the highest of the dust resistance ratings. The 7 means the handset can handle immersion in water of a depth of up to 1 metre for 30 minutes, without letting any water in. There is a higher rating, 8, but this is only really for hermitically sealed equipment, and 7 is the rating usually given to phones.
What’s interesting about the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is that its design is very different to the original Galaxy S4. One feature that is immediately of interest given that IP67 rating is that the backplate is removable, and frankly its seal doesn’t look all that waterproofed to me.
With the backplate off the Sim and microSD card are exposed and could easily suffer water damage. The rubber band round the inside of the backplate looks all too flimsy to protect them long term, particularly as you need to work quite hard to ensure the backplate is firmly in place all the way round – pressing down on all its edging.
The microUSB slot on the bottom of the chassis is protected by a hinged rubber cover that you’ll have to press firmly into place to stop dust and water getting in. There is no protection at all for the top mounted headset connector which is waterproof but looks open to the elements.
The left side volume rocker and right side on/off buttons are both textured and well raised – as befits a handset designed for the great outdoors you could use them fairly easily with gloved hands (hold that thought).
Samsung has abandoned its usual front design of a single unmarked home button and two touch sensitive buttons – instead there are three physical buttons. This is not a matter of design choice for Samsung – touch sensitive buttons just don’t work well when water is around and physical buttons are much more reliable. The look is rather less slick than we’ve come to expect from Samsung, though.
In fact, the whole design is less appealing than usual. Samsung has done what it can to brighten things up with a honeycombed pattern on the backplate, some silvery rivets that give a sort of rugged look to things, and rubberised top and bottom edges that act as bumpers while looking fairly innocuous, but it is all pretty bland.
There’s an anomaly in terms of toughness with regard to the screen which is made from Gorilla Glass 2 – the Samsung Galaxy S4 uses the tougher Gorilla Glass 3. Corning says version 3 is up to three times more damage resistant than 2. Samsung incorporates ‘Glove Touch’ – and you can probably guess what that means.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is just that little bit thicker and heavier than the standard S4 – it measures 139.7 x 71.3 x 9.1mm and weighs 153 grams, as opposed to the vanilla S4’s 136.6 x 69.8 x 7.9 mm and 130 grams.
Ruggedness and physical design apart, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active differs from the Galaxy S4 in a couple of other respects. The screen, for example, shares the S4’s 5in 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, but the S4’s Super AMOLED has been replaced by LCD. For me the AMOLED display is superior but this is a matter of taste. You’ve got the ability to select colour modes as on other high-end Samsung handsets, so you can easily tweak things to suit your preferences.
And the camera is, in fact, a step down from the one seen on the Galaxy S4, which has a 13-megapixel lens that is more capable than the 8-megapixel one here. Still, Samsung has added Aqua Mode which does some colour correction for underwater photography, and you can take photos with the volume rocker rather than needing to touch the screen. That’s handy as the screen’s touch sensitivity goes haywire when under water. That’s the norm, by the way, not a particular downside of this handset.
The core specifications are the same as the Galaxy S4. The S4 Active runs on Android 4.2, has a 1.9GHz quad-core processor and 16GB of storage. Checking fresh out of the box 11GB was free, and you’ve got the microSD card slot for augmenting that.
The usual Samsung additions to the standard Android apps are here. They add up to what some call a completely bloated handset, and what others feel is a supremely well-appointed smartphone.
For me, Air View, which performs functions when you hover a fingertip over the screen in some apps, feels like utter bloat. I like the Smart Screen feature which stops videos running when you look away from the phone, but I don’t like the feature that scrolls web pages as you move your head because it didn’t work for me.
Both of these and a couple of other Smart Stay features use the camera to monitor your movement. There are oodles of features like this, many involving tilting the phone and passing your hand over it. You’ve got granular control so you can turn off all the features you don’t want.
One of Samsung’s selling points for the Galaxy S4 Active is S Health. There’s a pedometer on board, and the ability to link out to third-party devices. But you can kit out handsets with a myriad of health apps these days, so if you are not into the Samsung ecosystem there are other ways to get health-related features.
Samsung includes its range of bespoke apps too – for example S Planner, a calendar app, and S Note, a note-taking app, both of which work really well on the large screen. Samsung Hub is an alternative store for music, eBooks, videos and games, and Samsung Apps is an alternative app store. Both are about tying you in to all things Samsung, but you can ignore them and just use Google Play, of course.
Considering that this phone costs nearly £500 Sim-free it is a shame there aren’t stereo speakers. Sound quality is pretty good, but the HTC One does a better job.
Despite it gaining an IP67 rating, I’m not convinced that the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is the phone to choose if you are looking for a rugged handset. Try the fully sealed Sony Xperia Z as an alternative before taking the plunge (so to speak). Samsung has compromised on camera quality here, too, and has given up some of the standard Galaxy S4’s design finesse.
Manufacturer and Model
Samsung Galaxy S4 Active
5in, 1,920 x 1,080
8-megapixel (main); 2-megapixel (front)
GSM 850/900/1800/1900; HSPA 850/900/1900/2100; LTE
139.7 x 71.3 x 9.1mm