Confession: If it weren't for the Galaxy S8 Active's monster battery life, I'd tell you to buy the regular Galaxy S8 and a good case.
The Galaxy S8 Active costs more than the S8 for what is essentially a built-in case and screen protector, but not one of your own choosing. An S8-and-case combo would save you money and let you buy a case that works for you.
And then the S8 Active's truly all-day battery swoops in and saves the day. It lasted an average of 24 hours after five looping video drain tests, in airplane mode with the brightness set to 50 percent. In contrast, the Galaxy S8 lasted about 16 hours in our lab tests. In real life testing the phone gamely marched along, retaining power reserves after bedtime even after we'd streamed YouTube videos and navigated using Maps -- two of the most resource-taxing activities you can do on a phone.
The Active costs more than the regular S8 -- $100 more on US carrier AT&T -- so if you're willing to pony up extra cash to avoid topping off your phone's power quite as often as you would with the S8, then the S8 Active is a good choice. It's got all the Galaxy S8's top-notch features, and a sturdier screen and body, too.
If that battery delta isn't all that important to you, then who is the S8 Active really for? It does have a more rugged/sporty/outdoorsy aesthetic, and can appeal to people who don't want to worry about getting their phones messy or wet.
That said, Samsung has stripped the Galaxy S8 Active of a few past "Active" features, like those physical home buttons, that could make it feel like a truly different phone. And remember the Galaxy S8, S8 Plus and Note 8 are all already water-resistant.
My advice: If you're fine charging the S8's battery more often, the S8 Active offers a lot less this year to make it stand out from the S8. A case from brands like Ballistic and OtterBox can protect the Galaxy S8 from most drops just as well. I know, because I tested both phones side by side; I used a Spigen Tough Armor case on the regular S8.
We'll cover my drop test results later. But first, here's how the S8 Active diverges from the Galaxy S8 and previous Active phones.
The S8 Active has a thick metal-and-plastic body of past phones in the Active line, reinforced corners and a "shatterproof" screen similar to the Moto Z2 Force. These traits inherently protect the S8 Active from drops and spills.
But this year's model loses the three physical navigation buttons below the screen, which came in handy when you're wearing gloves or your hands are wet and the screen won't respond to your taps. Samsung made the change to give the Active a full-face display like the S8; buttons take up valuable screen space. I like the screen real estate, but I miss the buttons; they were a major part of the Active's identity.
It also lost the convenience key on the Active's left spine. You used to be able to open a health app (think step-counter) or just about any app you programmed. Now this belongs to Samsung's Bixby Voice app, which only opens Bixby Voice and nothing else. This is a bone of contention for me with Bixby in general. Historically, any phone with a convenience key also lets you remap it to open any app you want. Samsung's insistence on brute-forcing you into launching Bixby, often on accident, is too much like being held hostage to Samsung's agenda.
So what we're left with at the end of the day is:
For that, the S8 Active costs more, slotting in right between the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy Note 8 phones. For example, on US carrier AT&T, the Galaxy S8 goes for $750 and the S8 Active sells for $850. While international pricing isn't yet available, that roughly converts to £645 for the UK and AU$1,090. The original Galaxy S8 sells for £689 in the UK and AU$1,189 in Australia.
If all-day battery life doesn't make you blink, that price hike is a little tough to swallow. For a while that made sense, back when the Active phone really was the only one with waterproofing (military-grade at that) and dust resistance. Now, those are basically table stakes.
With two of the Active's trademark features gone, I wanted to see if there was any advantage to the Active design over the S8 in a rugged case. I wedged it into a Spigen Tough Armor case I bought from Amazon for $16 ($35 at full retail in the US) and put both phones through three not-very-scientific tests.
The Active's tougher-than-average 810-G durability spec includes a long list of assurances against atmospheric pressure, extreme temperatures, shock, all kinds of rain, moisture, salt, sand, strong vibrations (like gunfire!) and acceleration. I'm guessing most people don't encounter these in daily life, so my tests include dropping, dunking in water and shoving the phones in a freezer.
I dropped them four times each (watch it happen in the video at the top of the page):
They both sustained tiny scratches, because that's often what happens when glass smacks against pavement, but were otherwise fine. If I kept dropping them, they'd probably crack more as those surface abrasions deepened and the surface integrity gave way.
The main point: no obvious advantage. Note that your Galaxy S8 or Active could dent and scuff if it scraped over rocks or river rapids, for example.
CNET tested the Active's waterproofing claims by leaving the phone at the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket of water (and sometimes a pool at a depth of 3 feet) for 28 minutes... twice. Most phones claim water-resistance up to 3 feet for 30 minutes; our goal is to stress the phone, but not break it.
A bad batch of last year's Galaxy S7 Active phones failed our swimming pool test and died. Samsung later fixed the problem, so we've kept a closer eye on this year's model to see if the same flaw recurred. We've had no problems with either S8 so far.
You'll probably never purposely freeze your phone, but you might drop it in snow during winter and fumble around for awhile until you find it again (we don't have much snow in San Francisco, but hey, it could happen). To that end, I slid the S8 and S8 Active into the freezer for 30 minutes, again, twice.
Both screens fogged a bit when I took them out, but the Always-On displays stayed on, a first indication that the phone is on and operational. Afterwards, they worked perfectly, even when frosty-cold.
|Samsung Galaxy S8 Active||Samsung Galaxy S8||iPhone 8||Google Pixel 2|
|Display size, resolution||5.8-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels||5.8-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels||4.7-inch; 1,334x750 pixels||5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels|
|Pixel density||570ppi||570ppi||326 ppi||441 ppi|
|Dimensions (Inches)||6x3x0.39 in||5.86x2.68x0.32 in||5.45x2.65x0.29 in||5.7x2.7x0.3 in|
|Dimensions (Millimeters)||152x74.9x9.9 mm||148.9x68.1x8 mm||138.4x67.3x7.3 mm||145.7x69.7x7.8mm|
|Weight (Ounces, Grams)||7.3oz; 207g||5.5 oz; 155g||5.22 oz; 148 g||5.04 oz; 143g|
|Mobile software||Android 7.0 Nougat||Android 7.0 Nougat||iOS 11||Android 8.0 Oreo|
|Processor||Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (2.35GHz+1.9GHz)||Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (2.35GHz+1.9GHz) or Octa-core Samsung Exynos 8895 (2.35GHz+1.7GHz)||Apple A11 Bionic||Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835|
|Storage||64GB||64GB||64GB, 256GB||64GB, 128GB|
|Expandable storage||Up to 2TB||Up to 2TB||None||None|
|Battery||4,000mAh||3,000mAh||1,821mAh (Apple doesn't confirm this)||2,700mAh|
|Fingerprint sensor||Back||Back||Home button (Touch ID)||Back cover|
|Special features||Water-resistant (IP68), wireless charging, Gigabit LTE-ready||Water-resistant (IP68), wireless charging, Gigabit LTE-ready||Water resistant (IP67), wireless Qi charge compatible||Water resistant (IP67); Google Lens; unlimited photo cloud storage|
|Price off-contract (USD)||AT&T: $850||AT&T: $750; Verizon: $720; T-Mobile: $750; Sprint: $750; U.S. Cellular: $675||$699 (64GB), $849 (256GB)||$649 (64GB), $749 (128GB)|
|Price (GBP)||Converts to £645||£689||£699 (64GB), £849 (256GB)||£629 (64GB), £729 (128GB)|
|Price (AUD)||Converts to AU$1,090||AU$1,19||AU$1,079 (64GB), AU$1,329 (256GB)||AU$1,079 (64GB), AU$1,229 (128GB)|