When we’ve tested S4, the thing that we disliked the most was that it resembled its predecessor, SIII, too much. S4 Active is what we were hoping to see, an S4 version that looks differently and has interesting capabilities, for example, being waterproof. Now, when we’ve received Active for testing, it’s time to check the differences between these two phones and decide which one we prefer, since their market price is the same.
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After unpacking the box designed in eco-friendly manner, since it’s made out of recycled paper and the writings are in ink made out of soy, the inside look practically the same as with the full-blooded S4 model: smartphone, charger with detachable USB cable, headphones and user manual. Unlike the headphones, the charger with 2A of power is excellent and will fill up the battery in less than two hours in most cases, which will come in handy, since the battery is spent quicker than with S4. The headphones are pretty bad for this class of device, without any low tones and with overemphasized high tones, despite the fact that it’s an in-ear model.

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S4 active looks and feels a lot sturdier, which is augmented by its somewhat bigger dimensions, as well as hard, rubberized top and bottom edges. It’s a real shame because the rest of the edges aren’t completely made this way; rather they are made out of plastic with a glossy finish, so they’re not scratch and shock resistant. The sample we’ve received for testing was dyed in Urban Grey color scheme, so the back lid has a honeycomb pattern printed. The lid with this theme wasn’t coarse, but it’s at least less slippery than with the standard S4 and looks more resistant to small scratches that occur during regular use. It’s easily removed and relatively easy to put back in, and the order pictured on a sticker should be followed. Unlike S4 and even SIII that looked compact and neat when held in hand, S4 Active squeaks a bit and gives a bit hollow feel when held in hand. Still, it should be noted that Samsung retained the capability of removing the back lid in order to gain access to the battery and micro SIM and micro SD card slots, while retaining the waterproofness. Headphones out is also waterproof without the need to be closed all the time, and it looks like regular connectors. The competition, such as Xperia Z smartphone, which is also waterproof, didn’t manage to do that, so you need to open and close the lid all the time on all connectors. S4 Active has a lid only over the micro USB port and it’s pretty inconvenient to use. On the back side, there’s also the camera, which protrudes a bit from the phone surface and it’s accompanied by a LED flash which is surprisingly weak. When compared to the S4’s camera, Active has less MP, but in terms of image quality, they’re about the same. All side buttons are at their usual locations; power button on the right, volume rocker on the left. They’re made in “Active” manner, because they’re made out of ribbed plastic. Layout on the top side is as expected – headphones out, secondary microphone for eliminating the background noise and IR (infra-red) transmitter. Front of the smartphone has the usual layout, where the screen dominates the surface, above it is the headphone, sensors and front camera, and below are the navigational buttons. Instead of the usual layout where Home button is mechanical and other two are sensor buttons, all of them are mechanical and without backlighting. This is done in order to retain functionality even under water, and requires getting accustomed to it, but since the buttons protrude a bit and is nicely designed, it’s not hard to locate them even in the dark. All in all, S4 Active is a bit more robust than S4, but it’s waterproof up to 1 m of depth and no longer than 30 minutes. That’s achieved by an increase of 1 mm in thickness and 21 g increase in weight.

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After using Galaxy S4 Active smartphone for a while, we got an interesting idea. Since this is a waterproof phone, it makes sense that you’ll be using it when you’re at sea, to take pictures on the beach, under waves, etc. However, we didn’t find any information regarding whether Galaxy S4 Active’s screen is coated with a different sort of layer in order to be scratch-proof, but only that the testing was done in freshwater. We’re saying this because we’ve encountered the screen’s most fearsome nemeses – sand and salt, and that’s something you’ll encounter a lot on a summer holiday. For example, since headphones connector doesn’t have a lid, what happens if only a small amount of saltwater remains in the connector, and the water dries and salt sticks to it? Or even worse, what happens when the phone dries out after being submerged in the sea, and salt sticks to the screen? Or a few grains of sand sticks to your fingers before you start using it. In those cases, even the smallest touch can make serious scratches of the screen’s surface. Since the summer is over, and we’re not even remotely close to a sea, we weren’t able to test out our theory, but we believe that sand and saltwater will make an average user pay for thinking their phone is ‘active’ enough.

What’s the same and what isn’t?

The first thing you’ll notice is that the screen isn’t SAMOLED anymore, but rather TFT IPS. This entails some consequences and contrast is not at the level of the original S4. Viewing angles, sharpness, color reproduction and the lighting are excellent and we can say very comparable, so it’s becoming unclear why Active didn’t get the same screen. Whatever the reason, the lack of parts or problems with waterproofness, the screen, even though great for IPS technology, isn’t on par with S4. Luckily, the combination of processor and graphic card remained the same, which is a requirement for Full HD screen to work properly. 2 GB of RAM is enough for even the most demanding applications, as well as for multitasking, but 16 GB of available space for data storage is a bit low for today’s needs. Luckily, ROM is better optimized for Active, which leaves the user with almost 12 GB of available space, which is better than with the original. At the same time, most of S4’s useful, advanced functions have been retained, of which some gained a completely new dimension.

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Back camera is of significantly lower resolution when compared to S4 and it seems it’s been borrowed from SIII model, while the front is the same as with S4, with 1,9 MP resolution. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, dual-shot mode is lacking, but it has a new mode – Aqua. You guessed it, it’s intended for taking pictures underwater, and considering the fact that screen doesn’t react to touch as well in those cases, image shooting button can be assigned to one of the volume control buttons. Camera produces images of good quality, but the flash is a bit anemic and works to a maximum 1 m of distance, everything beyond that is unusable.

Processor Qualcomm quad core Krait 300 1.9 GHz, Snapdragon 600
GPU Adreno 320
Memory 2 GB RAM, 16 GB storage, microSD
Display 5'', 1920x1080 pix, IPS TFT, Gorilla Glass 2
Interfaces microUSB, Bluetooth 4.0, WiFi n, DC HSDPA, GPS, LTE, MHL
Camera Back: 8 MP with autofocus and LED flash; Front: 2 MP
Battery Li- Ion 2600 mAh
OS Android OS 4.2.2
Dimensions 139.7 x 71.3 x 9.1 mm
Weight 153 g with battery
Price 750 €
Contact www.samsung.com

As for the software, operating system is still Android 4.2.2, of course, heavily modified with TouchWiz user interface. Like we’ve mentioned a couple of times so far, functionality of this user interface is undeniable and its many functions. On the other hand, the design is more or less the same as with devices with screen resolutions of 800x480 pix, filled with colors that often resemble a cartoon. Simply put, it needs a modernization as soon as possible and coming up with a brand new line of design, which is something that it’s hinted upon with the weather widget. All of that aside, when you start doing something with S4 Active, you’ll finally have the impression that you’re using a top of the line Android smartphone. Without any additional trick and speeding up of the animations, even though in the beginning it’s encumbered with a lot of widgets on the screen, all operations are performed fluidly. Browsing the web is lightning-fast and significantly faster than on an average computer.

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Air View detects the presence of a finger above the screen, and in the applications that support it provides additional capabilities. For example, if it’s used in Samsung’s browser, above the list of opened tabs, it will display their thumbnails. In the gallery, in case you hold the finger above the folder, it will display thumbnails of images in the folder, and if you the same with a video files, it will start playing in a small window. While we’re at the video player, it’s one of the best pre-installed players. It supports mkv file format, surround sound (it provides “downmix”, if necessary), subtitles, it can work in a mini-window if needed, and provides a very clear image. Multiwindow splits the screen in two parts that use different applications, and the list of the supported applications keeps getting longer and longer.

Adapt Sound is an idea borrowed from other sound reproduction applications. With a series of “beeps” of various frequencies, it checks the user’s sense of hearing, and in accordance with that, it changes the outgoing signal. Interestingly enough, for users with a good sense of hearing, without any effects. While we’re talking about Adapt functions, there’s also Adapt Display, which detects light intensity in all three main colors (RGB) in order to adapt screen brightness and color intensity to the current situation. This works exclusively in Samsung’s applications such as Gallery, Samsung Books, Chat On, etc.  Like we’ve already mentioned, Galaxy S4 active has an integrated IR sensor, which in combination with WatchON application functions as a remote control for other devices such as TV or air conditioner. Setting this up is easy – you choose the device category, brand and applications sends an IR signal in accordance with the desired function. We tried this out with Sharp TV and LG DVD player and everything functioned without any hitches. Smart Pause enables you to pause the video playing when you take your eyes off the screen, but only when you’re using Samsung’s video player. Samsung Smart Scroll enables you to scroll web pages or emails up and down without touching the screen. This feature detects eyes and screen inclination and then scrolls the pages in accordance with that. This also works in specially-adjusted applications, such as browser and mail. If you hover your hand over the screen while the screen is off, it will display the most important information, such as missed calls, received messages, battery status, clock and weather information. These three functions still have the same characteristic; they’re rather whimsical and often don’t work properly.

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If all of this wasn’t enough, you have at your disposal an impressive list of applications and functions. S Voice recognizes voice commands, and in the same line, there’s also S Health and S Translator applications. The last one is interesting because it enables you to translate a text or spoken word from one language to another. We’ll also mention interesting applications such as Story Album and Group Play. Album automatically sorts images according to location or time, and you can even order them printed over Blurb service. Group Play can literally be called advanced S Beam, with whose help you can play music over multiple Galaxy S4s in the vicinity, display the same images or read same documents. You think that’s all? Nope, there’s more – for example S Voice Drive for voice control and information during driving, Optical Reader which differentiates between regular text, business card or QR code and in accordance with the content displays the relevant options. Not to mention a large number of functions and applications taken from the predecessor, such as detecting whether the user is lying down or not and rotates the screen in accordance with that, not allowing the screen to turn off while you’re looking at it or cover it with a hand, i.e. putting the phone down to mute it, automatically displaying the contacts on screen when it’s next to an ear and a lot, lot more…

S4 or Active?

When we first saw information about Samsung S4 Active smartphone, we thought it’s what original S4 was supposed to be. Now when we’ve tested it, that’s no longer the case. True, you get a waterproof phone which looks more robust than S4, but in reality, it’s still sensitive to falls, impacts, etc. On the other hand, S4 is more elegant, weighs less, thinner, with a better camera, screen, longer battery autonomy. Is it really worth it to sacrifice all of that in order to take a few pictures in the shallow waters without risking your phone getting wet stops working due to that? Of course, that’s for you to decide, but in our opinion, S4 is a better choice, regardless of the fact that both work fast and have excellently optimized software. S4 Active doesn’t even have the price going for it, since it costs the same as the original S4. This is Samsung’s decent effort, but this concept still needs some improvements in order for it to be successful.