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

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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.

9.0 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 9
  • Performance 9

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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