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Samsung Galaxy S4 Active: Rugged and ready for adventure

Armando Rodriguez | Sept. 2, 2013
If Indiana Jones used a smartphone, this would probably be it.

Data speeds over AT&T's 4G LTE network are quite good, with download speeds reaching up to 18 megabits per second here in our San Francisco office. Calls are loud and clear, though your mileage will vary depending on AT&T's coverage in your area.

I got a full day of casual mixed use out of the phone (downloading apps, browsing the Web, playing games), and our official lab battery test rates the Active's battery life at 8 hours, 1 minute. The Active lasted an hour longer than the Galaxy S4, but didn't come close to achieving the same battery life we see in phones like the Samsung Galaxy Note II or Motorola Droid Razr HD.

Unlike the standard Galaxy S4, the Active doesn't feature wireless charging, but several third-party accessories can easily add that functionality if you really want it. You can always buy a higher-capacity battery for the phone, but that might compromise its resiliency against dust and moisture.

Too much Samsung
Samsung has a tendency to cram its phones with as many features as it can dream up—and that's not always a good thing. Just setting up the phone requires you to jump through dozens of menus and pop-ups asking you to enable various extras and settings. It can quickly get overwhelming, and most of these settings come off as gimmicky.

The Active comes with all the same Samsung apps as the standard S4, most of which attempt to replicate the functionality provided by the Google's own suite of apps. Why Samsung feels the need to package its own Web browser when the Chrome browser comes preinstalled is beyond me, especially when Samsung's software is not as slick or intuitive as Google's offerings.

Though the Active ships running Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, it's highly likely that Samsung will update the phone to Android 4.3 since it shares almost all of its specs with the company's current flagship smartphone.

Underwater photography
The 8-megapixel camera on the Active is a slight downgrade from the 12-megapixel shooter on the standard S4. Photos exhibit minor artifacting and the white balance is sometimes wonky when you're taking pictures indoors. There are a variety of different shooting modes available including HDR, panorama, night, and best photo, but most of the time the auto mode will get the job done without much hassle.

The camera works underwater, and an aqua shooting mode lets you use the volume-up button to control the camera, since you won't be able to use the touchscreen while the phone is submerged. (A problem we also ran into while using the Sony Xperia Z.)

Bottom line
Samsung has a winner on its hands with the Active: It's sleek, powerful, and won't fall apart the first time you drop it or get it dirty. The downgrade in camera quality is lamentable, and some will absolutely hate all of Samsung's software extras, but those are small concessions to make for a phone that you can use in the shower or pool. If you need a phone that can survive the great outdoors, then the Active should be your first choice. If you value your photos and don't really spend much time being active, then the regular Galaxy S4 will suit you just fine.


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