There are now several members of the Galaxy S4 family. In the goldilocks tradition, the Galaxy S4 is the daddy bear, the Galaxy S4 Zoom the mummy bear and the S4 Mini the baby bear. And the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active was out having a swim while the children's story was being written. It's a water-resistant Android phone with a large full HD screen and quad-core processor. If you care about the weatherproofing feature, it's a good alternative to the Galaxy S4.
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The S4 Active has different design priorities to the original S4. Being thin and light are no longer of top importance as this phone cares more about surviving everyday life.
It’s a teeny bit thicker than the 7.9mm-thick S4 at 9.1mm thick and around 20g heavier at 153g. The Galaxy S4 Active feels more robust, as if it has been pounding a few protein shakes pre-release.
The construction is, perhaps surprisingly, not all that different from the S4, though. It has a removable plastic battery cover that’s pretty flimsy and light. There are rubberised ends to the S4 Active, though, which will help avoid light scratches, for a while at least.
This is one of the few parts of the phone that is textured, though. While the rear cover has a metallic honeycomb-patterned finish that’s meant to make it look tougher than a construction worker with a 9am 5 o' clock shadow, it’s actually just smooth plastic.
While the Active’s name suggests it’ll survive knocks and bumps, in real terms it’s not much more rugged than any other top smartphone. In some respects it’s actually less tough than the S4, as it has a Gorilla Glass 2 screen layer instead of Gorilla Glass 3, which is significantly stronger. Make no mistake – the S4 Active won’t appreciate being dropped onto a hard surface, and while its top and bottom edges are rubberised, they are not actual rubber that would soak up an impact.
Perhaps the most significant hardware departure for the Galaxy S4 Active is that it uses raised, clicky soft keys rather than touch-sensitive ones. There’s an obvious reason why – this is a water-resistant phone and the capacitive sensors of touchscreen buttons go haywire underwater.
Samsung Galaxy S4 Active – Water Resistance
The Galaxy S4 Active is certified to IP67, a standard that denotes a certain level of water and dust resistance. What does it mean? The S4 Active can withstand being submerged in water, and won't let dust in.
There’s no magic involved here. Samsung uses two main rubber seals to provide both the water and dust resistance. The main one is on the battery cover, creating a sealed barrier between the outside world and vulnerable elements such as the SIM slot, battery and other electrical contact points.
The second rubber seal is on the plastic flap on the S4 Active’s bottom edge, used to cover the microUSB slot.
If there’s one part of the Active’s waterproofing that does impress, it’s the headphone jack. It’s not sealed, but is waterproof, being completely blocked off from the insides of the phone. The water resistant Xperia Z uses flaps, including one for the headphone jack, making it less graceful in its execution.
You should grasp quite how ‘nuts and bolts’ the Galaxy S4 Active’s water resistance is before buying. If the phone is dropped, somehow damaging the seal, it’s game over for the phone’s water-resistance. However, it does seem sensible that the rubber itself is on the easily replaceable battery cover part.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active has a 5-inch screen with a 1080p resolution, the same core specs seen in the ‘vanilla’ S4. However, the two are quite different.
The Galaxy S4 has a Super AMOLED display, the S4 Active an LCD panel. They work in quite different ways. Super AMOLED screens do not have a universal backlight like the Active’s LCD type, letting them provide excellent contrast and black levels.
This becomes quite obvious when the S4 Active is taken into a darkened room – the universal backlight becomes quite visible when the screen is angled, making blacks look greyish. This effect is more marked than in the IPS-plus display of the HTC One.
However, typical of an LCD screen, top brightness is slightly higher than the Galaxy S4, and colours are cooler and less rich. There are a few different colour saturation modes (a feature shared with the other top-end Galaxies) and the display can look a shade blown-out at top brightness with a less vivid mode switched-on, but otherwise it's a good display.
Super AMOLED displays are generally more expensive to produce, explaining why the LCD type is used in the Active, but both screens are immaculately sharp, with pixel density of just over 440ppi. This level of sharpness is one of the calling cards of 2013’s top phones, and you won’t find it in any mid-range phones as yet.