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Waterproof Samsung Galaxy S4 Active makes some waves (hands-on)

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active's 8-megapixel camera and Aqua mode shoots scenes beneath the waves.

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Samsung's Galaxy S4 line gets another family member in the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active, a hardened, ruggedized spin-off of the company's flagship model.

Waterproof to a meter below the surface and for up to 30 minutes, the Active carries on computing with Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, Samsung's TouchWiz interface, and a 1.9GHz quad-core processor, the same as its more delicate Galaxy S4 sibling.

Many of its other specs are also similar, but one that stands out is the camera, whose 8-megapixel module can take this bad boy under the waves with its brand-new Aqua mode.

We love that Samsung has finally made waterproofing a feature rather than a fail-safe against damage. A lot of other rugged handsets that make the same waterproof claims stop short of turning the capability into a real benefit.

The handset's lower-caffeinated camera compared with the original S4's may seem like a downgrade for some, but for the S4 Active's price of $199.99 on AT&T, its rugged features are a pretty fair compromise.

Aqua mode lets you snap images underwater. Brian Bennett/CNET

A special camera setting called Aqua mode lets you use the volume buttons as the capture or video record key. The reason for this is that the touch screen is shut down when Aqua mode is engaged. When we tried out the feature we found it a little tricky to use underwater.

To be fair, though, we attempted the feat in the tight confines of a small fish bowl Samsung supplied. Additionally we noticed that the view through the lens was terribly blurred and distorted. Hopefully when we get our hands on the device for a full review we'll have better luck.

The volume keys act as shutter buttons in water. Brian Bennett/CNET

Physically, the Active has a slightly beefier feel than its less-armored cousin. It's a bit thicker and the chassis carries a little extra heft. That said, if we didn't know of the Active's splash- and dust-proof pedigree, we'd likely never suss its protective coating out. Of course the four screws on the back are a little menacing compared with the slimmer Galaxy S4.

We do like the textured plastic surface of the Galaxy S4 Active's back plate (top and bottom edges), which our fingers gripped without any trouble. Indoors the Active's 5-inch LCD screen is just as big, bright, and colorful as the standard S4's AMOLED, plus Samsung claims the display panel is built to respond to gloved hands, a feature useful when exploring the arctic tundra perhaps. We also have a feeling that the Active's LCD will be easier to view under strong sunlight, because OLEDs tends to be a tad darker overall.

Since the Galaxy S4 Active arrives this summer, on June 21 to be exact, we have a feeling we're going to have a heck of a time testing out its Aqua camera mode first-hand. Pool party, anyone?

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