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Samsung Galaxy S5 Active review: Style and substance, but sportiness is so-so

Great specs and a slightly tougher build make this Galaxy S5 spinoff one to consider, but its take on athletic and brawny prowess barely breaks a sweat.

Jessica Dolcourt Senior Director, Commerce & Content Operations
Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Commerce & Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Commerce, How-To and Performance Optimization. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica began leading CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
Expertise Content strategy | Team leadership | Audience engagement | Tips and FAQs | iPhone | Samsung | Android | iOS
Jessica Dolcourt
7 min read

If you want to keep your smartphone safe from scratches, spills, thumps, and drops, chances are high you'll be buying a thick, heavy case. There just aren't that many truly rugged phones around these days, and the few that do take a beating don't have all the smarts. Bridging these worlds is the Samsung Galaxy S5 Active. Its stronger physical design and same best-in-class specs as the Galaxy S5 make it a brawnier-than-average smartphone to pocket. Still, without a truly rugged construction or deep sports modes, you'd be better off thinking of it as a hulkier Galaxy S5, than as a truly impervious handset made just for hardbodies.

9.0

Samsung Galaxy S5 Active

The Good

The Samsung Galaxy S5 Active has a sturdy build, excellent physical controls, and a convenience key that double as a camera shutter. Inside, it has the same top-tier specs as the Galaxy S5.

The Bad

It lacks a fingerprint scanner, it's slippery, and apart from its tougher aesthetic, the S5 Active isn't much tougher or athletically-minded than other dust- and water-resistant smartphones.

The Bottom Line

Though it's only marginally more durable than the original Galaxy S5, the Galaxy S5 Active's physical buttons and high-end features keep it in Samsung's hit parade.

And that's mostly OK. Samsung never claims that the Active is a durable device, and the fact that the company doesn't skimp on the phone's software and hardware fixin's speaks volumes. Samsung hopes that outdoorsy types will gravitate to the heart-rate monitor, physical navigation buttons, and to the convenience key that pulls up a compass, flashlight, and the camera, but really, these benefit anyone. Like the original S5, this Active can withstand short dips in water, shocks, and dusty landscapes.

As a phone, the S5 Active's flaws are relatively minor oversights, like a design that's more slippery than grippy, and the missed opportunity to highlight camera modes for action and landscapes. Instead, Samsung keeps it all mainstream. If you're seeking a high-end smartphone with an edgier look that doesn't need a separate protective case, get the Active. Otherwise, get the phone you want and find a case that fits your rough-and-tumble lifestyle.

For now, the S5 Active sells in the US with AT&T for $200 with a new, two-year contract.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Active not so tough after all (pictures)

See all photos

Sturdier design

A tad taller and wider than the Galaxy S5, with reinforced plastic corners for extra scuff-proofing, straight (but grooved) edges, and a flat back, the Camo Green, Ruby Red, and Titanium Grey S5 Active is a tougher-looking device (and downright militant in Camo Green). While I love the physical navigation keys and finger-friendly volume rocker, I miss the slightly rubbery grips on the S4 Active's top and bottom edge. The problem is, neither the S5 Active's edges nor the smooth back panel actually make it easy to grab.

I also miss the S4 Active's bright aqua and orange colors, and the slight rounding of the back that fit it better in the palm. While I still like the S5 Active's looks, I don't personally feel the same connection to it as I did to the S4 Active.

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The Galaxy S5 Active has thicker, angled corners and responsive physical buttons. Josh Miller/CNET

Thankfully, though, its buttons which take you Home, Back, and to the Recent tab are just as satisfying. As with other Samsung phones, press and hold the home button to raise Google search (the home of Google Now) and double press to call up Samsung's S Voice alternative. If multi-window is turned on, a long press on that back button will pop that feature's navigation window in and out.

The one trade-off with this home button, perhaps, is that there's no fingerprint scanner for locking and unlocking your phone with a swipe. To me, this is a minor loss, not a reason to avoid the phone.

In addition to raised buttons below the display, there's a short volume rocker and convenience key on the left spine, and a power button in its customary place on the right. Up top is the headset jack and IR blaster and on the bottom is a sealed Micro-USB port.

samsung-galaxy-s5-active-3245-015.jpg
The S5 Active, left, is a bit larger than the S5 in every respect, but is the same inside. Josh Miller/CNET

Just like the S5, there's a 16-megapixel camera module on the back (and a 2-megapixel shooter up front). The heart-rate sensor is there as well, right next to the LED flash. As with last year's Active model, four nubs on the back look like screws, but are purely decorative; the backing (reluctantly) peels off from an indentation at the top. Your microSD card slot resides under there, along with the battery and SIM card slot.

The Active is a tiny bit wider and taller than the GS5; heavier too. While the Active technically fit into my back pocket, it did bulge out and dig in slightly more than the S5.

Dimensions Weight
S5 Active 5.72 x 2.89 x 0.35 inches (145 x 73 x 9mm)6 oz. (170g)
Galaxy S5 5.59 x 2.85 x 0.32 inches (142 x 72.5 x 8.1mm)5.11 oz. (145g)

If you know the Galaxy S5's OS, apps, and extra features, then you know what the Active has in store. Namely, Android 4.4 KitKat, a TouchWiz interface with a tremendous amount of settings and optional add-ons, and a few AT&T apps. Some others, like Beats Music and Yellow Pages, join the club.

One thing to note is that AT&T has opted out of Samsung's Download Booster add-on, which pairs data and Wi-Fi for accelerated download, so you won't find it here.

For a deeper look, check out my full Galaxy S5 review .

Convenient "Active" key

One major addition over the S4 Active and GS5 is a convenience key that Samsung dubs the "Active Key." Press this once and you pull up the Activity Zone, which collects a bunch of meters and into one dashboard. Press and hold to launch the camera.

samsung-galaxy-s5-active-3187-007.jpg
That blue button above the volume rocker pops open two apps. Josh Miller/CNET

After a short press, you'll see atmospheric pressure and elevation, and your compass position. There are also shortcuts for a stopwatch and for a flashlight. The flashlight app lets you control brightness and blinking, and also has modes to keep the screen on, and to flash out morse code -- it'll even translate your commands into the right sequence.

gs5activeactivityzone1.jpg
The new Activity Zone app features some tools you might use outside. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Slightly customizable, you can easily add other shortcuts into the Activity Zone menu, say S Health or RunKeeper, and call them up with a press of the button and a couple of taps.

Here's the thing, though: If you skip into the settings, you can turn the Active key into a shortcut for almost any app, exercise-related or not.

gs5activeactivityzone2.jpg
The flashlight app lets you adjust intensity and opt for blinking; you can even tap out Morse code. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The only drawback to this Active Key is that it won't work when the screen is locked, which makes it a little less convenient when you're trying to take photos one-handed, like I did a number of times during testing.

Stellar camera and video, reliable performance

Just like the Galaxy S5, the S5 Active has a terrific 16-megapixel camera stuffed with modes and filters, and a video recorder that can shoot UHD video, up to 2160p (though 1080p is still the default). The 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera is also reliable for selfies, and applies a Beauty Face mask by default (though you can adjust it) or turn off the forced airbrushing entirely.

The 2.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor is blazing fast and supports rich gaming. Meanwhile, the S5 Active's 2,800mAh battery workhorse keeps ticking hours long, a little over 15 of them in CNET's video runtime test.

Again, my full Galaxy S5 review has all the details, and more photos. But here are a few more, taken on the S5 Active, just for fun.

gs5activecameraflower.jpg
Just like the GS5, this Active takes clear, crisp shots with its 16-megapixel camera. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

gs5activecamerajump.jpg
The more light, the better, but the GS5 Active does also take pleasing photos in low light conditions. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

gs5activecamerasand.jpg
The detail of this damp, sandy beach is pretty impressive. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

gs5activecameralandsend2-test.jpg
The Galaxy S5 Active was able to capture the natural beauty of this San Francisco landmark. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Strong call quality, fast LTE

The S5 Active was a calling champ when I tested it on AT&T's network in San Francisco. Volume came across loudly on the medium-high level, without much background noise, just a tiny bit of uniform softness to keep it from sounding extra sharp. Voices, though, were warm and natural without any muffling.

My calling partner agreed that clarity and quality both soared. He heard a slight distortion that didn't distract from the conversation, and a subtle frying sound of pink noise in the background that halted when I spoke and picked up maybe a half-second later. Overall, though, I sounded strong and natural, though he said he could tell I was calling from a cell phone and not a wired line.

Podcast

Speakerphone was also surprisingly good, without any echo or tinniness on my end that usually plagues this feature. Moreover, instead of sounding thin and distant, his voice sounded whole, complete. The phone did buzz in my hand on louder volumes, and clicked at times (like on the "K" in "OK") when my calling partner spoke. Still, speakerphone was strong enough and reliable enough to use for a conference call and for a call in the car. Likewise on his end, my tester agreed that the speakerphone sounded strong and that he only heard normal amounts of echo from my surroundings.

Just how "Active" is it?

The Galaxy S5 Active occupies a weird in-between place. As far as durable phones go, its reinforced corners rate better than average -- the S5 Active was ding-free after a few drops and after I wedged it into some rough tree branches -- but its slippery backing and lack of grippy material are a letdown in the ruggedness department.

As a phone for sports-minded folks, the convenience key that calls up the compass, barometer, and shortcuts to other apps is useful, but not essential. Since you can quickly reassign the button to open any app, it's good for everyone, and certainly not limited to people with active lifestyles.

Last year's Galaxy S4 Active also had the added advantage of being waterproof, dust-proof and shock-proof where the S4 flagship was not, but that isn't the case with the S5 and S5 Active, as both share these traits.

At the end of the day, the S5 Active gives you a few extra benefits without trading away power and performance. For AT&T customers, the fact that it costs the same as the Galaxy S5 boils this decision down to the handset's physical appearance rather than to its capabilities, which are top notch any way you look at it.

9.0

Samsung Galaxy S5 Active

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 9