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

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The Good Samsung's Galaxy S4 Active has a sporty design, takes strong daylight photos, and delivers the majority of Android 4.2 features. It also has a great speakerphone.

The Bad Aqua mode is fixed focus, the S4 Active takes weak low light shots, and the phone isn't as durable as its name suggests. Its 8-megapixel camera is lower resolution than the original Galaxy S4's.

The Bottom Line Choose the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active for its sporty style, fast internals, and underwater camera fun, but pass if you're an image snob or seek a truly rugged phone.

8.2 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9

Quite a few smartphones these days can claim to be waterproof, but you have to hand it to Samsung's Galaxy S4 Active for turning that characteristic into a camera feature. Specs-wise, that waterproof camera is the only element that justifies the creation of this brand-new S4 phone.

The 8-megapixel shooter's underwater aqua mode absolutely works -- so long as the seal holds -- but it's a mistake to think of the S4 Active, which is also dustproof, as a rugged or durable phone. Internals are still vulnerable behind a flimsy back panel, and "tougher" design elements are largely cosmetic. You don't buy the Active to go SCUBA diving or mountaineering; you buy it because you like a flashy design and top-tier Android features. The surge of worry-free confidence you get on beach days, hikes, and at the pool is all extra.

Beyond its design and hydrophilic camera, the Galaxy S4 Active rarely strays from the Galaxy S4 flagship phone in any meaningful way. Most other specs hold steady, which is why AT&T is charging the same asking price that it does for the 13-megapixel Galaxy S4: $199.99 retail with a two-year contract.

Those looking for a true rough 'n' tumble smartphone will find that the Active's name oversells its outdoorsy abilities. But if it's a fun, slightly sturdier S4 experience you want, you'll find it here.

Also: Check out how the Active's specs compare to the entire five-phone Galaxy S4 lineup.

Just how 'Active' is it?
As it turns out, the S4 Active isn't really a rugged phone.

Unlike your typical durable handset, there's very little extra reinforcement for protecting edges, and while slightly less glossy and slick, there's no real grip on the Active's backing. Yes, harder, more rubbery accent pieces frame the top and bottom edge on the phone's back, but they stop short of encasing the phone's front corners and edges. Decorative "screws" lend an edgy look but appear to serve no function.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active
So long as it's sealed up tight, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is fit for a dunking. Josh Miller/CNET

The elements-fighting magic takes shape in a flap that plugs into the Micro-USB slot (the reinforced headset jack apparently needs no protection), and a rubbery gasket beneath the flimsy back cover seals in gaps to keep essential components from accumulating particles and droplets.

However, you'd better make darn sure that charging flap is secure, that the back cover is firmly in place, and that you've pressed down firmly on the AT&T logo on the back to complete the seal. Otherwise, you'll wind up with a waterlogged phone that even a bag of rice might not be able to fix. And yes, I know this firsthand after drowning my first review unit.

Of course, few people peel off the back cover as much as I do, so most aqua mode users are only going to really have to worry about the charger port's seal.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active
This slim rubber gasket seals the deal, keeping components clean and dry. Josh Miller/CNET

Even after you successfully dunk the phone, keep in mind that the S4 Active's IP67 ratings clear it for dives up to a meter under the surface -- that's a little over 3 feet -- and for up to 30 minutes. Any longer than that and it still may work, but you're starting to play with fire.

All that said, using the Active's aqua mode was a ton of fun, and I'd absolutely take it into the drink for a quick, casual snorkel and keep it handy at a pool party. I assess the S4 Active's underwater performance into the camera section below, so keep reading!

Design and build
I'll go ahead and say it: I love the Galaxy S4 Active's physical navigation buttons and flashy colors -- teal, orange, and OK, a more buttoned-up gray. In fact, I'd take it over the Galaxy S4 flagship design any day. I just wish Samsung had gone ahead and added a physical camera shutter button along the spine to match all those navigation keys.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active
The Active comes in teal, flame orange, and a more sober gray shade. Josh Miller/CNET

Side by side, the Active is a hair taller than the original S4: 5.5 inches tall by 2.8 wide by 0.36-inch thick. It's slim enough to carry in my pocket, but a smidge too tall to comfortably transport for long stretches. At 5.4 ounces versus 4.6, it's a little heavier than the S4, too.

You'll see more differences when you flip the phones over to see their backsides. In addition to its aforementioned rubber bumpers, the camera and flash modules are more squared than the S4's more rounded mounts. The power and volume buttons are also thicker and easier to press, and the headset jack is quietly waterproofed.

Samsung's Galaxy S4 Active, left, side by side with the original S4. Josh Miller/CNET

You'll find one more difference when you look at the 5-inch touch screen, and that's use of an LCD panel on the S4 Active rather than Samsung's usual AMOLED display. LCD colors tend to be less juicy and more natural, but the screen technology can also achieve greater brightness, a theoretical benefit for outdoorsy types. In practice, both screens will get you squinting and shading the screen in bright daylight.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active
Physical buttons on the Active's navigation array are responsive and easy to press. Josh Miller/CNET

OS and apps
As with the Galaxy S4, the Active runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean as its operating system, topped by Samsung's proprietary TouchWiz interface.

There are a few little omissions, like the dual-shot mode on the GS4's camera, for instance, and a setting to turn the LED flash into a flashlight you can turn on when the screen is off. A persistent flashlight is definitely useful for for outdoor activities like camping, but it's also handy for a whole lot of indoor scenarios, too.

For a rundown of the GS4 family's OS features, read more in the full Galaxy S4 review.

Aqua mode
Aqua mode is the Active's real killer feature, but it comes with caveats. I learned about these after spending hours with the device in two different pools.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active
Select Aqua mode from the camera app. Josh Miller/CNET

To get started, you select Aqua mode from the list of camera modes before taking a dunk, and choose whether you're converting the volume button to a still shutter button or to video. Why? Because touch screens don't work well when submerged; I tried it just to see what would happen.

You forget this, though, which is natural, and sometimes you'll even be able to monkey with the on-screen controls while the screen is above water. This reckless behavior usually resulted in me inadvertently zooming in on people or starting up video when I really wanted to take a still. Oh well, that's what deleting is for.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active
Aqua mode uses the volume rocker to either take stills or video when wet. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Underwater image quality was hit or miss. There's no focus in Aqua mode, so you've got to adapt and adjust yourself around the fixed focus. That'll make you miss some shots for sure, but take enough and you're bound to get something you can work with.

Making matters more frustrating, the screen -- and therefore your subject -- is barely visible underwater, so there's a little guesswork concerning where to aim the Active and how long to keep clicking. Since the lens is all the way at the top of the phone (the far left or right as you hold it in landscape mode), that's a little more mental math to do until you get used to things.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active camera test
Image quality is hit or miss with fixed focus and without good visibility. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Clicking the volume button to take a shot is another motion you get used to, and a reason that a physical camera button would come in handy.

Cameras and video
The big concern for most shutterbugs will be just how much you sacrifice in stepping down from the Galaxy S4's 13-megapixel camera to the Active's 8-megapixel assembly. The answer: not very much.

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