Samsung is certainly flogging the S4 brand as far as it can. Multiple configurations of the original device, plus the Mini, the Zoom and the Active give us a group of products that don’t all share the same design language and don’t all share the same specs, but which collectively flesh out the S4 range. The Active is, in many respects, the least interesting of them all, but, ironically, might just be the best.
The S4 Active is a partially ruggedised handset with an IP67 certification. This means it is totally protected against dust, and protected against immersion in water up to one metre deep. In most practical instances this simply means that you will be able to use the device in the rain without any fear of it becoming damaged, although Samsung has added an Aqua Mode to the camera app to help improve image quality taken underwater.
To use the Active underwater you need to ensure that the seal on the USB port on the bottom is tightly closed, as is the removable backplate (which provides access to the replaceable battery, SIM and memory card slots). The headphone jack on the top has no cover, but is fully water resistant. It’s a slightly more elegant setup than we saw on Sony’s toughened devices, with its full suite of external ports each with their own seal.
The device continues to function underwater, but the touch screen does not respond, so there’s a limited amount you can use it for. To take underwater snaps you use the volume buttons to activate the shutter.
Apart from this feature the S4 Active is broadly the same as the S4. The design has been tweaked to allow for the ruggedisation – it’s a tad thicker (91.mm compared to 7.9mm) and 23g heavier, but still feels great in the hand. There are physical buttons below the screen, and though they do give the handset something of an old school look, they function well enough.
Otherwise it’s pretty much the same story, with the perfectly positioned power button beneath your right thumb, an IR port on the top edge, and a loud speaker on the rear. Plus, it’s still defiantly plastic. On the whole it feels a little less sleek than the original S4, but retains its consumer looks well. Some may even prefer this version.
There are two key differences on the hardware specs. First is the display. It is still full 1080p HD, and still looks stunning, but the technology has been switched from AMOLED to TFT. We struggled to notice any difference here: the blacks may not be quite as black, yet the colours are still incredibly vibrant and the text as crisp as ever.
More significantly, the camera has been downgraded. The sensor has been reduced from 13 megapixels to eight and the aperture reduced from f2.2 to f2.6. The lens is also wider: 3.7mm (28mm equivalent) compared to 4.2mm (32mm). The specs in the Active’s camera are remarkably similar to those in the S III, in fact, and the resulting images are on a par with that, albeit with a better camera app and improved processing to get more from your shots. It’s still a good camera, and lacks the shutter lag we noticed on the S4.
A couple of the sensors have also been dropped, including the thermometer and humidity sensor. These are niche features that won’t concern most users.
The other specs are the same: quad-core 1.9GHz processor, 2GB RAM, 2600mAh battery and so on. Our test device had 16GB of internal storage, of which around 11GB was free, comparing favourably to the 9GB in the original S4’s launch setup.
The software is essentially identical to the S4, with all the bells and whistles loved and hated in equal measure. To recap, this means the phone is more TouchWiz than Android.
There’s lots of touchless gestures that frequently don’t work, lots of S-branded apps that replace (or double up on) the stock Android and Google apps, cartoony icons aplenty, and a default setup that makes a ludicrous ‘plop’ sound every single time you touch the screen. For better or for worse TouchWiz is an incredibly rigorous skin aimed at the mass market, and the mass market has lapped it up.
With little in the way of price difference between the S4 and the S4 Active it’s hard to find a reason not to recommend the latter. It’s arguably nicer, certainly tougher, and even the differences in the camera output are negligible. The waterproofing of phones is very much a trend we’re in favour of, and by the time the S5 comes along next year we’d like to think it will have become a standard feature.