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

A never-quit battery, waterproofing and handy shortcut buttons make this Active phone for AT&T sturdy enough for almost any lifestyle.

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Jessica Dolcourt
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Jessica Dolcourt

Editorial Director / CNET Franchises, How-To, Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads CNET Franchises, How-To, and Performance. With over 15 years in journalism, her experience includes mobile phone and software reporting and reviews, and delivering advice on expansive topics ranging from personal finance to travel and home. Jessica got her start at Download.com and holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).

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7 min read

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.

samsung-galaxy-s6-active-8989.jpg
8.6

Samsung Galaxy S6 Active

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.

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.

Ready, set, Samsung Galaxy S6 Active (pictures)

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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

Samsung reserved the bottom strip of Activity Zone to pimp its Milk Music service, a white-label version of Slacker Radio (which I've enjoyed for years). The idea is to provide easy toggles to curated stations geared toward certain activities: walking, running, yoga, weight training and dancing.

I found the Milk shortcut pretty convenient for my run, even though my fingers' particular grip kept me mashing the volume button. If you aren't a premium user, Milk streams ads. I often switched between running and dancing until I hit on the jogging tempo or song I liked. Of course, you can always just draw from your own playlists instead.

Specs recap

  • Android 5.0 Lollipop with TouchWiz interface
  • 5.1-inch 2,560x1,440p display
  • 16-megapixel camera
  • 5-megapixel front-facing camera
  • 2.1GHz Exynos 7 octa-core processor
  • 32GB of storage (no 64GB or 128GB versions)
  • No expandable storage option
  • 3,500mAh battery (versus S6's 2,550mAh)
  • Wireless charging
  • NFC

In case you're wondering about that fingerprint reader, Samsung passed on it this time. No scanner might not worry you for locking and unlocking the phone, but it does affect how you'll use Samsung Pay when that feature rolls out.

The Active will includes the MST technology underpinning Samsung Pay; Samsung tells us that you might need to enter a password to authenticate transactions, whereas with the S6 and S6 Edge, a simple press of your digit will do.

The S6 Active: Is it?

So now for the main question: Is the S6 Active truly suited for people who work out, or at least work outdoors? My answer: sure, it is. Its body is certainly tougher than those of most flagship models, and scuffs will just play to the rough-and-tumble aesthetic. Its water-resistant rating offers some practical peace of mind, as well as the luxury of using the phone from the hot tub.

I took the phone on some runs and walks. I have yet to tumble a phone while on a run, but the ridges did make me feel more secure and less paranoid about dropping it. It felt a little wider in my hand, which was noticeable, but not too bad.

Three generations of Galaxy Actives (plus one S5 Sport). James Martin/CNET

Samsung is starting to nail it on the Activity Zone by making the app more flexible, and the grids more useful. I also like the optional shortcut to its Milk music service, even though that's really just a sneaky way to get you to subscribe. Still, with the long-press on the convenience key, you can easily launch your preferred music service or playlist, if it's something other than Samsung's.

Those who specialize in a particular sport or environment will still need to seek out specific apps; the S6 Active is still a general-purpose device.

OK, so what about the Active for non-active types? It's a good choice for them, too, as long as buyers enjoy the look. Anyone can benefit from a water-resistant coating, and I find the button-pushing rather fun. Likewise, busy people with messy environments (like no-fuss parents of young children) won't have to worry about fully drying their hands in order to navigate around the screen (since buttons aren't touch-sensitive).

That water-resistant coating gives the S6 Active an edge over the S6. James Martin/CNET

Since you can completely reprogram the Active key, couch potatoes can still benefit from the shortcut button on two favorite apps.

Buy it or skip it?

At $200 on-contract and $700 all-in, the Active is a premium device that contains most of the S6's terrific internal specs, but then bumps up the battery (always a welcome plan.) At about the same price as the S6, too, you're mostly looking at the aesthetic trade-off -- plastic over metal and glass -- and if you really want a water-resistant phone.

(The timing seems a little unfortunate to me, since a lot of AT&T customers who may have wanted the S6 Active have likely already invested in the regular S6.)

While there's always a risk that you'll break the glass faceplate, the S6 Active is one of the few phones with flagship-caliber parts that makes an effort to protect your asset. There just aren't a whole lot of sturdy phones these days, even midrange "tough" devices. (I suspect customers are using more cases for this.)

Its slightly wider grip takes on your pocket. James Martin/CNET

Microsoft's (Nokia's) Lumia line does bulk up a bit with its thick, polycarbonate casing, and HTC at least acknowledges issues with its Uh-Oh Protection warranty for its beautiful metal HTC One M9. On the water-resistant front, Sony's phones -- like the new Xperia z4v for Verizon -- is the latest.

The S6 Active isn't the most beautiful or premium phone on the market, but it has the benefit of being one of the only ones that will keep up with the speed of your day-to-day life, whether by helping you work (or work out) easier, or by easing your worries about scratches and spills. If you want a flagship phone that you don't have to baby, you can't beat this one.

samsung-galaxy-s6-active-8989.jpg
8.6

Samsung Galaxy S6 Active

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 9Camera 8Battery 9
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