Quite a few smartphones these days can claim to be waterproof, but you have to hand it to Samsung's Galaxy S4 Active for turning that characteristic into a camera feature.
Specs-wise, that waterproof camera is the only element that justifies the creation of this brand new S4 phone.
The 8-megapixel shooter's underwater aqua mode absolutely works — so long as the seal holds — but it's a mistake to think of the S4 Active, which is also dust proof, as a rugged or durable phone. Internals are still vulnerable behind a flimsy back panel, and "tougher" design elements are largely cosmetic. You don't buy the Active to go SCUBA diving or mountaineering; you buy it because you like a flashy design and top-tier Android features. The surge of worry-free confidence you get on beach days, hikes and at the pool is all extra.
Beyond its design and hydrophilic camera, the Galaxy S4 Active rarely strays from the Galaxy S4 flagship phone in any meaningful way.
Those looking for a true rough 'n' tumble smartphone will find that the Active's name oversells its outdoorsy abilities. But if it's a fun, slightly sturdier S4 experience you want, you'll find it here.
Vodafone has the S4 Active as an exclusive for the next three months or so. You'll get it on a variety of plans, including the AU$60 per month plan, with AU$5 handset repayments. You'll also be able to pick it up outright from Samsung Experience stores and "a range of mobile retailers" for AU$699.
Just how "Active" is it?
As it turns out, the S4 Active isn't really a rugged phone.
Unlike your typical durable handset, there's very little extra reinforcement for protecting edges, and while it's slightly less glossy and slick, there's no real grip on the Active's backing. Yes, harder, more rubbery accent pieces frame the top and bottom edge on the phone's back, but they stop short of encasing the phone's front corners and edges. Decorative "screws" lend an edgy look, but appear to serve no function.
The elements-fighting magic takes shape in a flap that plugs into the micro-USB slot (the reinforced headset jack apparently needs no protection), and a rubbery gasket beneath the flimsy back cover seals in gaps to keep essential components from accumulating particles and droplets.
However, you'd better make darn sure that charging flap is secure, that the back cover is firmly in place, and that you've pressed down firmly on the back to complete the seal. Otherwise, you'll wind up with a waterlogged phone that even a bag of rice might not be able to fix.
Even after you successfully dunk the phone, keep in mind that the S4 Active's IP67 ratings clear it for dives of up to a metre under the surface and for up to 30 minutes. Any longer than that and it still may work, but you're starting to play with fire.
All that said, using the Active's aqua mode was a ton of fun, and we'd absolutely take it into the drink for a quick, casual snorkel and keep it handy at a pool party.
Design and build
We definitely liked the Galaxy S4 Active's physical navigation buttons and flashy colours — well, in Australia, there's just orange and "urban grey", but the orange is quite nice. It's arguably nicer than the Galaxy S4 flagship design any day. We just wish that Samsung had gone ahead and added a physical camera shutter button along the spine to match all those navigation keys.
The S4 Active on the left, with its older brother on the right.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
Side by side, the Active is a hair taller than the original S4 and just a little heavier, as well.
You'll see more differences when you flip the phones over to see their backsides. In addition to its aforementioned rubber bumpers, the camera and flash modules are more squared than the S4's more rounded mounts. The power and volume buttons are also thicker and easier to press, and the headset jack is quietly waterproofed.
You'll find one more difference when you look at the 5-inch touchscreen, and that's use of an LCD panel on the S4 Active, rather than Samsung's usual AMOLED display. LCD colours tend to be less juicy and more natural, but the screen technology can also achieve greater brightness, a theoretical benefit for outdoorsy types. In practice, both screens will get you squinting and shading the screen in bright daylight.
OS and apps
As with the Galaxy S4, the Active runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean as its operating system, topped by Samsung's proprietary TouchWiz interface.
There are a few little omissions, like the dual-shot mode on the GS4's camera, for instance, and a setting to turn the LED flash into a flashlight you can turn on when the screen is off.
Aqua mode is the Active's real killer feature, but it comes with caveats. To get started, you select Aqua mode from the list of camera modes before taking a dip, and choose whether you're converting the volume button to a still shutter button or to video. Why? Because touchscreens don't work well when submerged.
Underwater image quality was hit or miss. There's no focus in Aqua mode, so you've got to adapt and adjust yourself around the fixed focus. That'll make you miss some shots for sure, but take enough and you're bound to get something you can work with.
Making matters more frustrating, the screen — and therefore your subject — is barely visible underwater, so there's a little guesswork concerning where to aim the Active and how long to keep clicking. Since the lens is all the way at the top of the phone (the far left or right as you hold it in landscape mode), that's a little more mental math to do until you get used to things.
Cameras and video
The big concern for most shutterbugs will be just how much you sacrifice in stepping down from the Galaxy S4's 13-megapixel camera to the Active's 8-megapixel assembly. The answer: not very much.
Before the S4 came out, an 8-megapixel shooter like this one pumped out sharp, colourful images taken outdoors in auto mode. You lose the original GS4's dual-shot capabilities that overlay the front-facing camera image on that of the rear, but that's a bit of a gimmick, anyhow. Even if you never use Aqua mode (it requires premeditation), the camera offering is still strong for photos, videos and self-shots.
(Credit: Nic Healey/CNET Australia)
Performance: speed, processor, battery life and call quality
Thanks to Vodafone, we were able to test the Active on both the Australian 4G network and on roaming in New Zealand.
The local 4G is definitely the preferred network, but coverage can still be a little patchy. Around the Sydney CBD, we saw speeds of around 25Mbps for downloads, with that sharply sliding to as low as 1.4Mbps as we moved further into the inner west areas of Sydney. The top speed we noted was 36Mbps around the Redfern area.
Upload speeds were around 11Mbps to 15Mbps in the 4G coverage, and down to a bottom level of 593Kbps. As we noted in our initial look at Vodafone's 4G network, the long-term evolution (LTE) speed are excellent in covered areas, but the general network remains a little spotty in some areas.
Call quality was clear, with little fuzz or pop even in strong winds. The speakerphone was surprisingly clear as well, with good voice pick-up for both sides of the call.
In New Zealand, speeds were decent, but not at the level that 4G users have come to expect. We were very impressed with both the range of coverage (we had a strong signal even at the top of a mountain) and the call quality we experienced.
Speedtest and AnTuTu results.
(Screenshot by Nic Healey/CNET Australia)
Like the original Galaxy S4, this Active runs on a 1.9GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chipset, one of the fastest currently available for mobile phones.
We ran the AnTuTu benchmarking software on the Active, where it scored 25,501. Re-running the same benchmarks on the standard Australian version of the S4 gives 26,001, so the two are very much alike.
In terms of just general use, the Active felt almost identical to the S4 — it's a zippy phone that loads apps and web pages quickly. Everything we liked about the S4 is still here in terms of overall performance.
The S4 Active comes with 16GB of internal storage, which translates into about 11GB that's available to you. In addition, there's a microSD card slot that can take up to 64GB in external storage. You'll get 2GB of RAM.
Battery life is rated at 17 hours of talk time and about 13 days on standby time on the S4 Active's 2600mAh battery. Anecdotally, the battery lasted throughout the day with pretty regular use, benefiting from an overnight charge. We'll conduct deeper battery tests and update this with the results.
Who should buy it
If you're an S4 owner, there's nothing in the active that would make you want to change phones. But if you've been thinking of making a move to an S4, then it might be worth considering this rather than the plain old vanilla model.
The design is sharp, and the build feels a little more solid than the standard S4, but the internals offer the same power. While you do lose a few megapixels on the camera, it's still a good snapper that takes nice photos, if that's important.
Ultimately, the S4 Active is a nice, if not strictly necessary, addition to the other S4 variants floating around.