Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review: Sporty, splashy fun, but not truly rugged

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active camera test
I shot this image, which I then resized, using the Active's auto mode. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Samsung Galaxy S4 Active camera test
Here it is again at full resolution. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Before the S4 came out, an 8-megapixel shooter like this one pumped out sharp, colorful images taken outdoors in auto mode. You lose the original GS4's dual-shot capabilities that overlay the front-facing camera image on that of the rear, but that's a bit of a gimmick anyhow.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active camera test
The camera did a good job with this rose, taken in overhead sunlight. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Samsung Galaxy S4 Active camera test
Here's the flower at full resolution. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

A more important consideration in my book is how much you care about Aqua mode to begin with, and if you're a night photographer. There are plenty of modes on here to tackle motion, night scenes, and a load of other scenarios, but auto mode alone is weak in some indoor lighting situations and generally abysmal in low light scenarios -- that's an area Samsung has to keep working on without requiring you to flip to another setting.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active camera test
This tomato was shot in the shade. Colors are accurately dusty. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Even if you never use Aqua mode (it requires premeditation), the camera offering is still strong for photos, videos, and self-shots. If you love the phone's look and feel, I wouldn't get hung up on megapixels alone .

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active camera test
This fountain is partially sunlit and partially shaded. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

For more photos, compare smartphone image quality in CNET's gallery of controlled studio shots.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active studio shot
There aren't any flash flairs with the Active's studio shot, but it has a brownish cast that shouldn't be there. Click to enlarge. Josh Miller/CNET

Call quality
There's more good news in the S4 Active's communication department.

Audio sounded pretty good on my end when I tested the Galaxy S4 Active's call quality on AT&T in San Francisco (GSM 850/900/1800/1900). Voices were mostly clear and volume sounded strong, when I ratcheted levels toward their upper limit.

Samsung's typical onscreen control gives an extra volume boost, but also enhances flaws. Voices weren't crystal clear at any time and sounded a little scratchy with faint static around the edges; callers also didn't sound quite as warm as on other phones. I did notice a bit of distortion from time to time, but no noise or buzz.

On his end, my chief tester said I came across clear, if a little flat and distorted. My voice, he said, especially distorted on volume peaks, but he mentioned that otherwise, I sounded very strong and natural, without any background haziness. He'd grade call quality a B+ or A-.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active call quality sample Listen now:

The Active's speakerphone was another rosy story. Voices were loud on my end and comfortable to listen to. I didn't hear any echo, though it did sound clearer and sharper, perhaps more pitched, than the voice did through the standard earpiece. There was definitely a processed quality that wasn't bad, just different. I could comfortably carry on a conversation.

Speakerphone was mostly successful on my tester's side as well, even though softer sibilance made it hard to distinguish certain words. Example: When I said, "Your voice sounds processed," my tester heard "Your voice sounds softer." On the whole, though, my tester said I sounded a little clearer via the speaker, and that distortion seemed to dissipate.

Performance: Speed, processor, battery life
AT&T's 4G LTE has been cutting it up in San Francisco, so I wasn't surprised to see speeds in the double digits. There was a bit of a range, though, when I tested speeds using the diagnostic Speedtest.net app, with highs of 34Mbps down and 47 Mbps up in downtown San Francisco, and lows of 3.5Mbps down and about the same up.

Diagnostic data and internal speeds, as tested on Speedtest.net and Quadrant apps. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

In real life, Web sites loaded quickly, apps installed in no time, and in general, data worked smoothly enough that I rarely gave it a passing thought. The same goes for the smartphone's internal performance as well.

Like the original Galaxy S4, this Active runs on a 1.9GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chipset, one of the fastest currently available for mobile phones. In fact, the S4 topped CNET Eric Franklin's gaming graphics throwdown against other premium phones .

I ran two diagnostic tests on the S4 Active. Its Quadrant score was a 12,364 average out of five tests, compared to 12,194 for the HTC One. The Linpack multithread score averaged 620 MFLOPS out of five tests, compared to the HTC One's 697 MFLOPS. That's no surprise; both phones use the same processor.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active (AT&T)
Download CNET mobile app (3.7MB) 13.3 seconds
Load up CNET mobile app 5.7 seconds
CNET mobile site load 5 seconds
CNET desktop site load 10 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 30.8 seconds
Camera boot time 2.4 seconds
Camera, shot-to-shot time 2 seconds, with auto-focus; also continuous mode

The S4 Active comes with 16GB of internal storage, which translates into about 11GB that's available to you. In addition, there's a microSD card slot that can take up to 64GB in external storage. You'll get 2GB of RAM.

Battery life is rated at 17 hours talk time and about 13 days on standby time on the S4 Active's 2,600mAh battery. Anecdotally, the battery lasted throughout the day with pretty regular use, benefitting from an overnight charge. We'll conduct deeper battery tests and update this with the results.

FCC tests measured a digital SAR of 0.61 watts per kilogram.

Who should buy it
One of five Galaxy S4 variants, the Active is marketed for people who live an active lifestyle, but I think it's suited for anyone. Who doesn't ever knock over a glass of water or pull into a dusty parking lot from time to time?

I also think that the physical design is compelling in its own right: it has more personality than the approachable, but ultimately plain, Galaxy S4.

Buy the S4 Active if you:

-Are an AT&T customer

-Like a flashy design

-Want a phone with Galaxy S4 features

-Are moderately outdoorsy

-Want a strong camera, but don't need top-of-the-line

Skip it if you:

-Aren't an AT&T customer

-Require a rugged phone that needs to withstand heat and long drops

-Seek a higher-resolution camera

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Where to Buy See all prices

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active

Part Number: 6860357 Released: Jun 21, 2013
Low Price: $0.00 See all prices

Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Jun 21, 2013
  • Weight 5.3 oz
  • Diagonal Size 5 in
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