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

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.

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