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Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review - waterproof Galaxy S4 offers excellent performance

£486 inc VAT

Manufacturer: Samsung

Our Rating: We rate this 4 out of 5

The Galaxy S4 Active is one of Samsung's family of Galaxy S4 smartphones. This Android phone is built to last: a toughened smartphone able to handle dust, water, and all the vicissitudes an active life can throw at a handset. Here's our Galaxy S4 Active review.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active

Galaxy S4 Active vs Galaxy S4

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active shares many qualities with the flagship Galaxy S4 smartphone: both phones have a 5in Full HD screen, 1.9GHz quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage. And both run Samsung's own take on Android 4.2 Jelly Bean featuring Samsung's software features including Air View and Smart Pause.

But there are critical differences, mainly involve the ruggedised - or 'Active' - nature of the Galaxy S4 Active. On the negative side you get a a less impressive TFT panel rather than the Galaxy S4's SuperAMOLED display, and an 8Mp camera replaces the S4's 13Mp snapper.

On the positive the specially designed ports and flaps keep the dust and water out to the extent that the S4 Active is dust and waterproof with a rating of IP67. This means it can be submerged in 1m of water for up to 30 minutes. And therein lies the critical differentiator between the flagship Galaxy S4 and the S4 Active: this phone is meant to be slung about by someone with an [coughs] active lifestyle. But is it worth choosing over the Galaxy S4 or another high-end smartphone? Read our review to find out.See also Samsung Galaxy S4 Active release date, specs and price in the UK. We tested a Galaxy S4 Active from Phones4U.

Galaxy S4 Active build and design

The Galaxy S4 Active is a lightweight plastic slab. Thin and wide the overall impression is of ultimate portability, a robust handset with a nice if plasticky finish.

The front is dominated by the 5in display. The thin bezel is shiny grey plastic surounded by a thin metallic strip that wraps around the edges. At the top is speaker, camera apertures and a large silver Samsung logo. At the bottom are three hardware buttons - the traditional Android Settings, Home and Back buttons. They are plastic and don't have a huge amount of travel, but are easy to find in the dark.

Around the edges of the Galaxy S4 Active on the lefthand side is the volume rocker, and on the right the power button. At the bottom is a covered slot for the mini-USB port, also used for the power cable. As is the nature with ports that are covered for dust- and water-proofing reasons, the lid feels a little dinky, but its as robust-feeling as any we've seen.

In another nod to the ruggedised nature of this handset, the back of the Galaxy S4 Active is topped and tailed with two rubbery plastic bands, each held in place by a pair of large screws. Inbetween these is a detachable, grey plastic cover. This is easy to flick off with a finger nail, revealing the detachable battery, memory card and SIM slots. We had some minor problems putting the cover back on. This was easy enough to resolve, but you need to make sure it is on properly before you get your Galaxy S4 Active wet! Naturally we ran the phone under water to test the waterproofing, with no obvious problems beyond the screen getting a little confused:

Galaxy S4 Active display

As we mentioned above the Galaxy S4 Active matches the vanilla Galaxy S4 with a 5in 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution display. That gives it a healthy pixel density of 440ppi. In fact, more than healthy it is virtually market leading - the HTC One is still the highest at 469ppi, but you won't notice the difference. The sharp resolution means image edges and text are crisp, making the Active comfortable for reading long pages of texts.

You will notice the difference between the Galaxy S4 and the Galaxy S4 Active, however. The Active has a TFT display rather than the Super AMOLED display from the S4. This makes it less vivid than its AMOLED counterpart. Some people find AMOLED displays too much, however, and the Galaxy S4 Active is perfectly respectable. The touchscreen is responsive, too - although it goes a bit wonky when wet. See also: Group test: what's the best smartphone?

Galaxy S4 Active specs and performance

The Galaxy S4 Active is packed with a quad-core Qualcomm ARMv7 processor running a 1.89GHz. This is paired with 2GB of fast RAM, so we expected good performance. And, well, we got it.

In our GeekBench 2 general speed benchmark the Galaxy S4 Active turned in a stunning average score of 3314. To put this in context, this is marginally better than the record-breaking Galaxy S4 itself (we can only assume that the marginally better score is due to the marginally less hungry display). Other top Android phones include the Sony Xperia Z which topped out at 1986, and our previous market leader the HTC One managed 'only' 2721. This is a fast phone, and it feels it in use.

Graphics performance is good, too. In our GLBenchmark EgyptHD graphics test the Galaxy S4 Active achieved a great score of 38fps. It's not quite the Galaxy S4's 41fps but it is all but a market-leading performance. Javascript performance is decent, with the Galaxy S4 Active's score of  636.8ms is in the same decent ballpark as the Galaxy S4. The same but better - the Galaxy S4 scored a marginally worse four-figure time.

The Galaxy S4 Active has a similar 2,600mAh battery cell to the Galaxy S4, and we found performance roughly similar. In essence, with moderate toheavy use you can still squeeze a day's use out of a fully charged battery. But don't expect to go overnight without charging.

Galaxy S4 Active

Galaxy S4 Active: cameras

instead of the Galaxy S4's camera in the S4 Active you get 'only' an 8Mp camera. As you might expect this makes a difference only at the point in which you need a lot of detail at a large size. For Twitter and Facebook the Galaxy S4 Active is a good smartphone camera, capable of capturing decent images with good if not great levels of detail and decent warm colours.

Galaxy S4 Active test shots:

Click images to view them at full size:

 Galaxy S4 Active test shot

Galaxy S4 Active test shot

Galaxy S4 Active test shot

Galaxy S4 Active software

As mentioned above the Galaxy S4 Active's software is similar to the Galaxy S4's. So here is what Chris Martin said about that phone:

As you might know, the Galaxy S4 will ship with Android 4.2 Jelly Bean. The interface is familiar to that of the Galaxy S3 so existing Samsung users will feel right at home. Other Android users shouldn't find it too hard to get used to either, since everything is located where you would expect it to be.

One tweak is that the settings menu has been split into different tabbed sections, but this isn't hard to get accustomed to. As well as the Google Play Store, the Samsung Hub is another source for games, movies, music and books.

What Samsung offers is seemingly endless amounts of software features on top of the usual Android ones. The firm did this with the Galaxy S3 to differentiate itself and has gone even further with the Galaxy S4. Since there are so many we'll go through each one, explaining what it does and whether it's any good.

Galaxy S4 Active: Air View and Air Gesture

Air View and Air Gesture are innovative screen technologies. The former lets you can preview information by hovering a finger above the screen while the later means you can scroll through content or answer the phone with a wave of your hand. They work reasonably well once you get the hang of it and could be handy, albeit in a few niche situations such as when you're cooking and have messy hands.

Galaxy S4 Active: Smart Scroll and Smart Pause

Samsung has also advances its Smart Screen technology with the Galaxy S4. Smart Scroll and Smart Pause are two new features which utilise the front facing camera. They allow you to scroll up and down pages and pause video content without touching the screen.   

We found the automatic scrolling of Smart Scroll buggy and hard to use – apparently it doesn't work too well if you wear glasses and it often scrolled when holding the phone at a suitable viewing angle. When it does work, it's a neat thing to show off in the pub but we can't see a real-life use for it apart from being extremely lazy. It also doesn't work if you're using the Chrome browser or Gmail which is a shame.

We can see that automatically pausing a video if you look away from a screen is cool but pretty handy too, the problem is a slight delay before it happens and a weird sensation where you don't know if the handset has done it properly or not. The feature works with your own videos and apps like YouTube.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active apps

Galaxy S4 Active: Multi Window

One of our favourite features is Multi window. This allows you to use two apps side by side in a similar way to Snap Views in Windows 8. You can have a straight 50:50 split or let one app take up more real estate than the other to varying degrees. It works in both portrait and landscape but an annoying retractable side bar stays put unless you switch the mode off.

Galaxy S4 Active: S Translator and S Health

Two key apps which Samsung pre-loads onto the Galaxy S4 are S Translator and S Health. The S Translator helps you communicate either by text or speech recognition with someone who doesn't speak your language. It works pretty well but there are only eight languages aside from English plus it needs a data connection to work which isn't handy when you're abroad and roaming.

For those into fitness gadgets, the Galaxy S4 is one in itself. With its multiple sensors and S Health app you can keep track of your steps, calories used and other information.

Galaxy S4 Active: WatchON

Like the HTC One, the Galaxy S4 can be used as a TV remote control because it has a built-in infrared sensor. It's a handy way of controlling your TV if you've lost the remote and also works for multiple devices in rooms around the house. Furthermore, it tells you what's on the box and gives recommendations. Compatibility will vary between devices and you might not get all the functions working. At the end of the day, reaching for the dedicated remote is still easy, if far more boring.

Overall it's a mixed bag when it comes to these software features. Many seem to be there for the sake of it, to have bragging rights but no real day-to-day benefit to the user. However, some are really handy. See also: Group test: what's the best Android phone?

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active Expert Verdict »
Samsung Galaxy S4 Active Scores 8.3 out of 10 based on 38 reviews
5in Full HD screen
1.9GHz quad-core processor
2GB of RAM
16GB of internal storage
Android 4.2 Jelly Bean
8Mp camera
  • Build Quality: We give this item 9 of 10 for build quality
  • Features: We give this item 8 of 10 for features
  • Value for Money: We give this item 8 of 10 for value for money
  • Performance: We give this item 9 of 10 for performance
  • Overall: We give this item 8 of 10 overall

We really like the Galaxy S4 Active. It's got the kind of features that we wish the flagship smartphone has. There is a downgrade with some specifications but they don't seem like a big sacrifice. Performance is excellent and the neither display nor the camera could be described as poor. If you want durability, this is the Galaxy S4 for you but it's worth checking out the Xperia Z as an alternative.

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