Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review: Uncharted waters

GSMArena team, 1 July 2013.

Tags: Samsung, Android

Samsung I9295 Galaxy S4 Active 360-degree spin

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is slightly larger than the regular Galaxy S4 in every dimension, and the more than 1mm of extra thickness is the easiest to spot. It's also 21g heavier due to the water-proofing, the different plastic used and the different screen. It certainly adds to the solid feel of the device, but does make the smartphone a bit harder to carry around.

Compared to the Sony Xperia Z, the Galaxy S4 Active has virtually identical footprint and weight, but again, it's thicker by over a millimeter. Whether or not the added flexibility of a bigger, removable battery is worth it, is a question everyone should answer for themselves.

Design and handling

The basic floor plan of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is that of the regular Galaxy S4 (the thin bezels around the screen are a hair thicker) but there are many design cues taken from the Xcover phones. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active comes in three color versions - the bold Orange Flare and Dive Blue and the more muted Urban Grey.

The Galaxy S4 recently got some new color options as well, but they are not quite as eye-catching as the Orange and Blue versions of the Active, which accentuate its rugged nature very well. The four screw caps on the back are a clear sign of "rugged".

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Samsung Galaxy S4 and S4 Active side by side

Then there are the physical buttons on the front (capacitive buttons don't work when wet) and the new plastic on the back. It's has a honeycomb texture under a transparent glossy layer.

The Galaxy S4 Active unit we used for the preview (the Orange Flare version) had a matte, patterned back, which we quite liked. However, the version we're reviewing - the Urban Grey - has a smooth glossy back and so does the Dive Blue version. We're yet to see a production version of the Orange Flare, but chances are it has the same smooth plastic on the back.

The patterned plastic was better at hiding fingerprints and also provided more grip - the smooth glossy plastic is slippery even dry and it will only get worse when wet. We also wish Samsung put the same ribbed sides as on the Galaxy Xcover, they made the grip really solid.

Still, we like the design of the Galaxy S4 Active - it strays away from the S III derived design that has turned Samsung's lineup into a clone army. Also, some people just prefer hardware buttons over capacitive keys, especially when the bezels are so thin, increasing the chance of accidental taps on the capacitive controls.

In terms of handling, the Galaxy S4 Active is roughly similar to the regular S4. The extra thickness and weight are noticeable, but don't impede one-handed operation. It's not as sleek as the Sony Xperia Z, but that one clearly rated elegance higher than rugged appearance.

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Samsung Galaxy S4 Active in the hand

We should note that when we say "rugged" we mean in comparison to regular smartphones. The Galaxy S4 Active will handle dust and some water like a champ, but it's not really meant to take hard knocks so you should still be careful with it.

Display

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active uses a 5" 1080p LCD screen, unlike the Super AMOLED on the regular S4. It has 441 pixels per inch and while it has more sub-pixels per inch (since Super AMOLED uses a PenTile matrix), the perceived sharpness is virtually the same (the high pixel density and new sub-pixel arrangement in the latest generation Super AMOLED take care of that).

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The S4 and S4 Active use a Super AMOLED and TFT respectively

The LCD does have some tangible advantages - it's brighter, for example. The contrast and black levels aren't as great though and there's some slight contrast loss at an angle. It's a minor issue and the screen on the Galaxy S4 is among the better LCDs we've seen.

Color rendering is another difference between LCD and AMOLED - colors in a gradient are more distinct on the Galaxy S4 Active display than they are on the regular S4.

Display test 50% brightness 100% brightness
Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio
Samsung I9190 Galaxy S4 mini 0 166 0 396
Samsung I9295 Galaxy S4 Active 0.20 207 1053 0.57 594 1046
HTC One 0.13 205 1580 0.42 647 1541
HTC Butterfly 0.14 173 1200 0.45 501 1104
Samsung I9505 Galaxy S4 0 201 0 404
Samsung I9300 Galaxy S III 0 174 0 330
Sony Xperia Z - - - 0.70 492 705
Oppo Find 5 0.17 176 1123 0.51 565 1107
Samsung N7100 Galaxy Note II 0 215 0 402
LG Optimus G Pro - - - 0.41 611 1489
Nokia Lumia 920 - - - 0.48 513 1065
LG Optimus G 0.14 197 1445 0.33 417 1438
Apple iPhone 5 0.13 200 1490 0.48 640 1320

You can find all about our display testing routines here.

The 5" TFT is slightly more reflective than its Super AMOLED counterpart, which hurts sunlight legibility despite the higher brightness.

Sunlight contrast ratio

  • Nokia 808 PureView
    4.698
  • Apple iPhone 5
    3.997
  • Samsung I9300 Galaxy S III
    3.419
  • Samsung Galaxy S4
    3.352
  • Samsung Omnia W
    3.301
  • Samsung Galaxy S
    3.155
  • Nokia N9
    3.069
  • Samsung Galaxy Note
    2.970
  • HTC One S
    2.901
  • Samsung Galaxy S II
    2.832
  • Samsung Galaxy S II Plus
    2.801
  • Huawei Ascend P1
    2.655
  • Nokia Lumia 900
    2.562
  • HTC One
    2.504
  • Sony Xperia Z
    2.462
  • Samsung Galaxy S III mini
    2.422
  • Motorola RAZR i
    2.366
  • Sony Xperia ZL
    2.352
  • Samsung Galaxy Note II
    2.307
  • Apple iPhone 4S
    2.269
  • HTC One X
    2.158
  • Nokia N8
    2.144
  • Oppo Find 5
    2.088
  • BlackBerry Z10
    2.051
  • Samsung Galaxy S4 Active
    2.022
  • Apple iPhone 4
    2.016
  • Sony Ericsson Xperia ray
    1.955
  • Samsung Galaxy Camera
    1.938
  • Samsung Galaxy Mega 6.3
    1.913
  • HTC Butterfly
    1.873
  • Huawei Ascend Mate
    1.845
  • Sony Xperia V
    1.792
  • Sony Xperia U
    1.758
  • LG Optimus 4X HD
    1.691
  • HTC One V
    1.685
  • LG Optimus Vu
    1.680
  • HTC Desire V
    1.646
  • LG Optimus G Pro
    1.552
  • LG Optimus 3D
    1.542
  • Nokia Asha 302
    1.537
  • Nokia Lumia 610
    1.432
  • Gigabyte GSmart G1355
    1.361
  • HTC Desire C
    1.300
  • LG Optimus L7
    1.269
  • LG Optimus L9
    1.227
  • Meizu MX
    1.221
  • Sony Xperia E dual
    1.203
  • Samsung Galaxy Pocket
    1.180
  • Sony Xperia tipo
    1.166
  • Samsung Galaxy mini 2
    1.114

All in all, we can't call the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active display much of a downgrade - it's the same size and resolution and it's brighter and color rendering is a tiny bit more accurate. We'll see how the different screen affects the battery life though.

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