Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: The mobe for CHUCK NORRIS TYPES
Padded up for prang protection and dips in the drink
However, Samsung hasn’t got where it is today by sitting still and letting a rival get away with any sort of competitive upper hand, so now we have an S4 that carries an IP67 rating. Enter the S4 Active.
Dunked: Samsung’s water - and ale - resistant Galaxy S4 Active
If you’re wondering what the difference between IP57 and IP67 is, the latter number means that it’s completely rather than mostly immune to dust ingress. Water resistance remains the same, namely good down to a depth of one metre for about 30 minutes.
In designing a battened-down and sealed-up version of the S4, Samsung has perhaps inadvertently addressed one of the major criticisms levelled at its flagship: that it looks and feels a bit cheap. The Active, by comparison, feels like a quality bit of kit. Yes it’s a little heavier than the S4 - 153g to 130g - and thicker to the tune of a mere one-and-a-bit millimetres, but it feels much more solid and altogether less plastic-y. The last improvement is partly due a different finish than the typical Samsung hyperglaze.
Bumpers lend some machismo, and the USB port has a bung
One rather funky design touch is the carbon fibre effect finish that’s used on the fascia buttons, the volume and power keys, and the bumpers that sit above and below the back panel. The bumpers also each feature a brace of chrome locating pins. It’s probably all for show as the S4 is not a tough phone by any stretch of the imagination - so I won’t be driving over it in a 4 x 4 or tossing it out of any third-floor windows - but there’s nothing inherently wrong with a bit of Chuck Norris styling.
Beneath the 5-inch, 1080 x 1920 screen you will still find the traditional Samsung trilogy of menu, home and back buttons. But the better to work in the drink, all three are now physical keys. I actually prefer this to the usual mix of capacitive and mechanical controls used on the S4, Mega 6.3, Note 2 and every other Galaxy device ever spawned, even if the Active’s buttons aren’t backlit.
Note the trio of physical buttons
The screens of the S4 Active and S4 proper may share the same size and pixel density of 441dpi but the Active’s panel is an LCD rather than OLED affair. That means the contrast isn’t so good and it’s less easy to read in bright sunlight, but colours are more natural and it’s brighter. In fact, the Active’s screen is the best TFT LCD panel I’ve ever seen on a mobile device with very little visible chromatic shift even at extreme viewing angles.
Where the TFT panel does lose out is when it comes to efficiency. It clearly sucks on the battery teat more aggressively than the S4’s S-AMOLED branded screen. The two handsets use the same 2600mAh battery but in my usual 720p video-loop test the battery in the Active coughed and died at the five hour 20 minutes mark compared to seven hours 30 for the S4. In everyday use you won’t get much more than a day from a full charge.
The back unclips - note the seal - and the battery is removable
Doing the pools
The waterproofing of the Active has been achieved without two of the major compromises that Sony forced on the Xperia Z. Firstly, the 3.5mm audio jack doesn’t have a stopper so you can just plug your headphones in as you would with any other handset. Secondly, the back panel is removable, meaning you can swap out the battery.
The 2MP webcam and sensors around the screen
Obviously to avoid bricking your phone in the briny you need to make sure the plastic back panel is clamped firmly in place and that the silicon plug for the micro USB port is pushed in all the way in, but as pre-submergence checks go those are the minimum you are ever going to get away with. The tether for the micro USB plug feels durable and I can’t see it breaking unless given some serious abuse.
Samsung has recognised that touchscreens go a bit loopy when in contact with water so the Active offers you the option of using the volume keys to activate the camera when you’re underwater. There’s even an ‘aqua’ setting that apparently optimises the camera software for underwater photography and video recording. The results are nothing to write home about, as I discovered while taking snaps of a small model elephant in my bath, but at least you can take a picture or two while cavorting in the pool or jacuzzi.
Ready to snap underwater life, or - ahem - a toy elephant in a Mancunian bath
Incidentally, the Active uses the 8MP camera from the Galaxy S3 rather than the S4’s 13MP shooter. To my eyes the differences in the end results were negligible so it’s not a difference you need worry about. The 2MP webcam is the same as the S4’s.
Inside the Active you’ll find exactly the same Quad-core 1.9GHz Krait-class Qualcomm Snapdragon 300 chip with 2GB of RAM and an Adreno 320 GPU as the one used in the S4. So performance is nigh on identical or, to put it another way, very good. There’s also the same 16GB of storage of which the system snaffles 4.1GB. If you need more storage there’s a Micro SD card slot that can be accessed without removing the battery.
Almost as fast as the regular S4, faster than the Sony Xperia Z
The two handsets’ software and feature lists are similarly identical so you get LTE connectivity, an NFC pick-up, infra-red transmitter, Bluetooth 4.0, dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and a Micro USB port port that supports MHL and USB-on-the-Go hosting plus the whole TouchWiz enchilada. Samsung’s fine video and music players are also present and correct while the single loudspeaker is rather impressive. No problems to report when it came to signal reception or call quality with everything working tickety-boo.
The Reg Verdict
As a smartphone, the S4 Active is every bit as impressive a performer as the S4 proper, but the dust and waterproofing are handy additional features especially as they have been achieved without plugging up the audio jack or locking the battery in place. The LCD screen does nothing for battery life but it is brighter than the S4’s OLED panel and offers more natural colour reproduction. It’s also worth keeping in mind that if you’re buying your handset unlocked, the Active seems to be about £40 cheaper than the S4. ®
Thanks to Clove for the loan of our review handset.