Samsung Galaxy S4 Active Review

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active held in front of a brick wall

Samsung have long been a major provider of rugged mobile devices. However, with only one or two exceptions, such phones tend to be flip, or feature phones. Rarely do we see full screen smartphones given the rugged treatment. If we do, the lengths gone to to toughen up the phone are not as great as we might like.

And so it was a surprise when Samsung first announced that they were going to release an “Active” version of their flagship Galaxy S smartphones. The company’s pedigree in rugged phones is unquestioned, and they have made full screen rugged smartphones previously. But the Galaxy S range is a high end, very well specced smartphone with a superior pedigree.

Such a device would mean significant investment from Samsung, and people would expect to be able to trust that their expensive flagship smartphone would actually survive the odd trauma.

To see if that is actually the case, we passed it onto our team of less than gentle reviewers to see just what the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active can withstand.

You can get the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active for just $149, fully unlocked and brand new.

Introducing the Samsung Galaxy S4

A hand holding the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active showing its front page screen

There’s no doubting the quality of the standard Galaxy S4. Currently available for just $149, it is still a match for all but the best of the high end flagship devices available today.

One of the considerations when manufacturers decide on a rugged smartphone is the size and weight. If you add extra protection to any device, it will always take on extra bulk. And that bulk means extra weight. As a result, some compromises may need to be made in order to keep the weight down as low as is practical. This is also the case with the S4 Active. There’s nothing which looks, at first glance, like any kind of problem, but there are component compromises to stop the cost ballooning with the extra technical measures needed.

At the end of the day, to live up to its name, the S4 Active needs to be tough. That Samsung have not re-branded it, but stuck with the Galaxy S name, shows what confidence they have in the phone meeting expectations.

Scores For The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active

A closeup of the bottom buttons of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active

The score our team awarded the Galaxy S4 Active is 4.3/5. This score is achieved by way of individual scores awarded for the following categories:

  • Design (4.6/5)
  • Build  (4.4/5)
  • Display (4.1/5)
  • Cameras (4.2/5)
  • Hardware (4.2/5)
  • Software (4.4/5)

The overall score for the Galaxy S4 Active is just a shade lower than the score we awarded the standard Galaxy S4. The reason is simply that one or two components don’t match the specs of those in the standard S4. However, the gap isn’t so big as you might expect. The Galaxy S4 Active is still an excellent performer and, at $149, it’s a steal.

Full Specs

Comparing the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active against the S4

Size5.5 x 2.81 x 0.36 in
Weight5.40 oz
Display Size5”
Display Resolution1920 x 1080 Full HD
Cameras8MP / 2MP
Internal Storage16GB
MicroSD Card SlotYes – up to 64GB
4GYes
Battery Life17 hours talk time / 15 days standby
Price$149

Design and Build

Water being poured onto the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active

Although technically a rugged smartphone, the Galaxy S4 doesn’t reach some of the heights which we’d expect today from such a device.  The S4 is water and dust-proof, and does appear to have some drop protection, although Samsung don’t advertise that particular fact. This means that the S4 Active may not quite reach the trued hardcore rugged standards of some. However, it also means that those who need phones with some extra protection built right in will find the Galaxy S4 Active a real benefit.

Samsung do claim dust-proofing, and that the S4 Active is waterproof to 3 feet for 30 minutes. In our (very unscientific) tests we found this to be the case. We actually left the S4 Active in a bowl of water for an hour, and it still worked perfectly well. Given that most water-based smartphone mishaps usually mean being dropped in a pool, bath or toilet, then we think you’ll be okay here. Also, in a huge bonus, despite being waterproof, the back case can be removed to replace the battery. This is almost unheard of if waterproof smartphones, so kudos to Samsung for achieving it.

As we mentioned above, Samsung make no claims about the S3 Active surviving any kind of drop, so we won’t say here that it will. But, we did drop it more than once during our tests and it survived intact. We’ve dropped other phones just once and seen a mess of spiders web cracks on the screen, but not with the S4 Active. Of course, we might just have been lucky but, regardless of what Samsung do or don’t claim, the phone does seem to be reasonably robust.

Display

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active leaning against a brick wall

The display of the Galaxy S4 Active is one are which has seen costs reduced from the standard S4. Instead of the Super AMOLED display in its close relative, the Galaxy S4 Active has a TFT display. It is still 1080p Full HD resolution and, to be totally fair, there’s no discernible drop in quality. Side by side, the Super AMOLED does have more “oomph” to the display, with brighter colors. However, the colors on the TFT of the S4 Active are actually far more accurate. To us, if it means keeping costs down, then the trade off seems perfectly acceptable.

We found movie watching to be easy and a very pleasant experience. We also found that we didn’t get the disappointed feel we sometimes get when viewing camera phone images on a big screen, Often, with Super AMOLED screens, when you look at pictures on the phone, they look amazing. Then when viewed on a different device, it seems to lack color and contrast in comparison. With the TFT of the S4 Active making a better job of reproducing the true colors on screen, what you see on the phone is what you see on the monitor. We think this is a good thing, overall.

Cameras

Holding the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active and showing its back to the camera

The 8MP rear camera of the Galaxy S4 Active produces some of the best images we’ve seen in a smartphone at this price. It might not be the biggest pixel count ever, but Samsung have squeezed every bit  of the available quality out of the sensor. Photos are sharp and have great color, and the 1080p Full HD videos are also excellent quality.

The 2MP front camera also produces great selfies and can also record 1080p Video.

One key feature of the Galaxy S4 Active is its ability to take photos underwater. Most waterproof cameras stop at simply not being destroyed when immersed in water. The S4 Active actually uses that to its advantage. Underwater, the volume rocker button becomes the camera shutter button. This allows you to take pictures underwater, something very few smartphones are capable of. You do need to respect the 3 feet/30 minutes rule for keeping the phone in the water, but it’s a terrific feature to have.

Hardware

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active on the ground

The Quad Core processor of the Galaxy S4 Active makes sure that the phone responds instantly to any action. There’s no lag opening or switching between apps, and no stutter or tearing when watching hi-res video. You get 16GB of storage and a MicroSD card slot that can take another 64GB if needed. There’s WiFi 802.11 ac, dual band, so you will get the fastest speeds available.

The battery will provide more than a days use, and you have several other connectivity options like Bluetooth 4, and NFC.

Software

Showing the front of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active in front of a table

The Galaxy S4 Active utilizes Samsung’s Gesture controls. This allows you to scroll or swipe through various pieces of content including images. It makes using the phone with gloves on a breeze. However, you can actually use the touchscreen with gloves on if you wish, which is great.

The S4 Active is upgradable to Android 5, which is still the most commonly used version of Android around.  Although not festooned with extra features, the general feel of how the Galaxy S4 Active uses what it has is great.

Conclusion

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is everything you’d expect from a tough smartphone, Dust and water proofing plus, at least in our experience, the ability to withstand the odd drop. It all makes the S4 Active a top choice.

Rachel C.
Rachel C.
Rachel is the researcher and blog writer for the Mr Aberthon website. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York and eventually made her way to Connecticut in order to become a part of the Mr Aberthon Team. She is passionate about technology and electronics, and nothing gives her more pleasure than discovering insights into the latest gadgets to hit the electronics market.