Samsung Galaxy S6 Active review: A battle-ready battery beast

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The Good The Samsung Galaxy S6 Active's long-lived battery and resistance to water, dust and scuffs make it more appealing than the regular Galaxy S6. Its shortcut button conveniently launches two different apps of your choice.

The Bad Built of plastic with thick edging, the S6 Active isn't a particularly attractive device, certainly not as glamorous as metal or glass phones. No expandable storage option means you're locked to 32GB.

The Bottom Line AT&T customers looking for a sturdier handset will find the Galaxy S6 Active a worthy upgrade to an already top-caliber phone.

8.6 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 9
  • Camera 8
  • Battery 9

A toughened-up version of Samsung's flagship phone, the Galaxy S6 Active bears all the hallmarks of the original S6 , then bolsters them with a seriously impressive battery, "waterproofing" and bouncy buttons.

Cloaked in blue or gray camouflage or all-black, the Active series evokes a sense of combat against day-to-day spills, drops and breaks, while also appealing to a class of people who engage in "active" lifestyles.

The Active lacks the original S6's graceful lines and upscale metal-and-glass build, but its thicker, hardier construction makes up for any brutishness with practical physicality. And don't let the fitness-focus phase you. A durable design for a flagship, the S6 Active is a good choice for anyone who wants to shrug off major worries over wear-and-tear and leave the protective case for the other guy -- gym shoes or not.

Samsung says (that for now, at least), it's selling the S6 Active solely in the US, with AT&T as its exclusive carrier partner. The S6 Active for $200 on-contract, or $695 all-in. Or, you can break payments into 30 increments of $23.17 (Next 24); 24 payments of $28.96 (Next 18); or 20 payments of $34.75 (Next 12).

Editors' note: This review calls out the differences between the S6 and S6 Active. To read up on how the camera and processor perform, be sure to check out my full Samsung Galaxy S6 review .

Tougher look, sturdier build

  • Water resistant
  • Convenience key
  • Embedded 3,500mAh battery

The S6 Active is a fun phone to describe. First, the whole thing is unabashedly made of plastic. A rim frames the phone face, intermittently pocked with shallow troughs to create a lightly ridged, grippy pattern around the edges. The corners are extra-thick, too, and angled and reinforced to protect against smashed corners.

Lucky for us, Samsung also hulks out the phone's physical navigation buttons as well. Just like in last year's Active model (and this S5 Sport variant ), the S6's touch-sensitive buttons give way to three keys below the screen. They're slightly raised and lightly textured, making them easy to find and push. As with the S6 and Edge, you can double-press the home button to launch the camera, even when the screen is locked. When it's unlocked, press and hold the home key for Google Now to spring to life.

Like the camouflage? It also comes in white/gray. James Martin/CNET

The usual buttons also get the tactile treatment, from the nicely large power/lock key on the right spine to the volume rocker and bright blue convenience key on the left (more on this below). Your SIM card hibernates in a snug tray on the right side.

Ready for the best part? Flip the phone over to reveal that blue or gray camouflage pattern (or solid black color, which is a lot less exciting). A plasticky finish and finely pebbled surface carry on the theme of no-slip-grip, along with those thick black borders. Four decorative rivets return for a third round on this year's Active. They may look like they mean business, but they're really just for show.

Like the S6, this S6 Active is an embedded device, which means the back panel won't pop off. Sorry, no swappable battery or expandable storage here. It also means you're stuck at 32GB with no other capacity options to jump to if you happen to store a lot of media files on the device.

Quick draw! Program this handy button to launch your two favorite apps. James Martin/CNET

If there's one thing you can do with the Active that you can't with the regular S6, it's go for a swim. Samsung decided not to make its S6 water-resistant this time around, a controversial decision that seems to be more about saving something useful for the Active than anything else. Rated at military specification IP68 makes the S6 Active water-resistant for up to 30 minutes in 3 feet of water. It also withstands dust and protects against 4-foot drops.

The larger 3,500mAh battery swells from the S6's just-adequate 2,550mAh ticker. And guess what? It's performed terrifically in our video rundown tests: over 16.5 hours each time (for an average of 16.8 hours). That's huge, especially compared to the Galaxy S6's 12.4 hour lifespan and the S6 Edge's 13.5-hour run.

Anecdotally, battery life lasted a very full day. Remember that always-on and resource-heavy activities (like map navigation and music streaming) will draw battery faster.

Activity tracker

Remember that bright blue convenience key? Samsung's calling it the Active Key. Press it quickly once to launch Activity Zone, an app that gives you at-a-glance information and access that's helpful for all kinds of activities. A long press pulls up a second app. It's set to a music player by default, but, wonderfully, you can customize either of these to open just about any app you want, say Endomondo or My Fitness Pal or even Google Maps.

Here's a closer look at the Activity Zone. When you open it, it presents a grid of six app shortcuts for the weather, S Health (which has a pedometer), a stopwatch, a flashlight, a compass and a barometer. You can view details in a glance, or tap each shortcut to launch each mini-app fullscreen. Feel free to drag the tiles around to rearrange them all you want. Just know that you won't be able to replace them.

Quick access to a flashlight, a pedometer and streaming music are some of the activity tracker's tricks. James Martin/CNET

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