Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review: The Galaxy S4 Active is a powerful phone, wrapped in a waterproof body

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CNET Editors' Rating

4.5 stars Outstanding

Average User Rating

3.5 stars 11 user reviews
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Waterproof design; Searingly powerful; Full HD screen; Good camera.

The Bad Screen isn't as vivid as standard S4; Lots of Samsung settings will be confusing to new Android users.

The Bottom Line Like the standard Samsung Galaxy S4, the S4 Active packs a 5-inch, Full HD display and a ridiculously powerful quad-core chip. Better yet, it's fully waterproof, meaning you never need fear taking a call in the rain. If you've ever wanted to take your mobile in the shower, this is the phone for you.

CNET Editors' Choice Jul '13

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The Samsung Galaxy S4 's specs list reads like a nerd supergroup. A 5-inch, Full HD screen, a blisteringly powerful quad-core processor, a 13-megapixel camera and 2GB of RAM are among its key attributes. Get it wet though, and a few minutes later all those dazzling details will mean nothing.

That's where the S4 Active plays its trump card. It shares those same specs, but comes with a fully waterproof body, protecting it from the elements. If you're careless with your phone -- or live on a boat -- it could be the phone for you.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is available now for free on contracts from £29 per month. My review sample was kindly provided by Unlocked Mobiles, which is selling the S4 Active SIM-free for £495.

Should I buy the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active?

Have you ever worried about breaking your phone when taking a call in the rain? Ever had that moment of absolute panic when it accidentally falls in your drink or down the loo? While most smart phones will shake off their mortal coil at the merest hint of moisture, the S4 Active is fully submersible to a depth of 1 metre for up to half an hour.

Like the standard S4, it has a 5-inch Full HD display and a ridiculously powerful quad-core processor. Whatever you want to throw at this phone -- liquid, demanding software, whatever -- it'll handle it. The camera is only 8 rather than 13 megapixels, but it performs really well too.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active splash
Splish-splash -- the S4 Active loves taking a bath.

I should note that while it's water (and dust) proof, it's not what I'd call ruggedised. That means its screen in particular is still vulnerable to drops, although it has plastic bumpers to fend off scratches. If you need something really sturdy for going mountain biking or working on a building site, for instance, I recommend the hunky CAT B15 , which runs Android Jelly Bean but won't give up the ghost after a few clonks.

If you fancied the blistering performance of the Galaxy S4, but your everyday clumsiness makes you wary of spending £500 on a flimsy phone, then the S4 Active is for you. Another waterproof phone to consider is the Sony Xperia Z . It's also a 5-inch, Full HD phone, has a slimmer, sleeker design and a 13-megapixel camera, but doesn't quite match the S4's performance.

Design and build quality

Some of the design elements of the standard Galaxy S4, such as the metallic banding around the edge and slender speaker grille, are here too. Other than that, the S4 Active brings its own burly stylings to the S4 lineage.

The small silver-edged home button on the front and the touch-sensitive navigation buttons either side of it are replaced by three chunky rubber buttons. They're designed to let you use them when wearing gloves or when the phone is underwater. They feel surprisingly odd if you've become accustomed to touch-sensitive buttons, but I quickly got used to them.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active and Galaxy S4
The S4 Active is a little beefier than the normal S4.

The glossy plastic back panel has been removed too, replaced instead with a matte grey panel with a subtle honeycomb effect. At the top and bottom are two rubber bumpers, with cool metal bolt heads at each corner. It's a much more industrial design than the classic S4. It won't appeal to everyone, but I actually prefer this burly look to the standard S4. If you moaned that the S4's style too closely resembled the older S3's, the Active might well be more to your taste.

That hardcore design isn't there for show. The phone is waterproof to a depth of 1 metre for up to 30 minutes. To help achieve this, the micro-USB port has a rubber seal, which you'll have to make sure is closed before dunking. Oddly, the headphone jack doesn't have a seal over it, so presumably Samsung has performed some sort of wizardry to keep water out there.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active port cover
Don't forget to make sure this is safely shut before you drop it in your pint. Note the cool rivets on the corners.

Samsung reckons the phone is ideal to take Scuba diving, so you can win Instagram by putting filters over pictures of coral. You can use the volume keys as a shutter button, which is handy, as the touchscreen doesn't work underwater. Even if diving among colourful fish isn't on your agenda, the water protection is still a brilliant feature.

Making phone calls or taking photos in the pouring English rain no longer means destroying your phone . Similarly, you don't need to worry about plonking it down on a pub table where it's in very real danger of being showered with stray splashes of lager. While your mates might be quivering with anxiety about passing round their iPhone, you can rest assured that even if it takes a dunking in a great big fruity cocktail, it'll come out working fine -- although perhaps a little sticky.

I left the Active submerged in water for 25 minutes -- almost its maximum time -- and it came out working perfectly.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active
The touchscreen doesn't work underwater, but you can use the volume keys as a shutter button for the camera.

The Active isn't the only waterproof phone around. Sony's flagship Xperia Z boasts similar credentials. While the Xperia Z has a much more elegant, glass design, it uses more rubberised port covers than the Active. They all need to be securely shut, meaning there's more chance of beer getting inside when you've had a few.

The waterproof design has come at the cost of size though. It's marginally wider and longer than the standard S4, 1.2mm thicker and 23g heavier. It's not a massive amount more, but for an already sizeable phone, it might just push it over into 'unwieldy' territory. It definitely feels bulkier to hold, so it's worth going hands-on in a shop if you're worried about the size.

Storage

The phone comes as standard with 16GB of internal storage, around 9GB of which is usable. Samsung got into hot water with the S4 as so much of its internal space is taken up with Samsung software. It promised an update, however, that will allow you to install apps directly to an external card.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active
There's enough storage on board for the essentials, but if you need more room you can move big apps to an SD card.

That update is already on the Active, letting you easily move your apps from your phone, to a card. Not all apps support this though. I was mercifully able to move the enormous N.O.V.A 3 to the card, but Grand Theft Auto: Vice City wouldn't be budged. Hopefully all apps will soon support this.

It's also worth bearing in mind that if you're playing games directly from external storage, it'll need to be a very fast card to give the best experience. In my testing, I was using SanDisk's latest Extreme micro SDXC card, which worked very well. You'll also need a fast card if you're recording a lot of HD video.

Display

Like the standard S4, the Active has a 5-inch display with a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution. That makes it perfectly poised to handle all the Full HD video from YouTube or Netflix you could want.

The Active has a TFT display however, rather than the Super AMOLED display from the S4. The TFT screen is considerably less vivid than its AMOLED counterpart, with blacks having a slightly grey-blue hue. By itself, it's perfectly good for most tasks, but side by side against the S4, it's very noticeable that the screens are different.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active screen
The Active's screen is dimmer than its skinnier sibling.

There are various screen modes to choose from that help to boost the colours slightly, but the black levels don't become any deeper. There's no way you'll get it looking as vivid as the S4. Many argue the S4 does in fact look rather too vivid, at times bordering on oversaturated. If you prefer things to look a little more toned down, the Active will suit you down to the ground.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
  • Service Provider not specified
  • Weight 153 g
  • Diagonal Size 5 in
  • Sensor Resolution 8 pixels
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