After Samsung launched is latest in the line of Galaxy S smartphones, the Galaxy S4, the company unveiled a number of variants to add to the franchise. These devices included the diminutive Galaxy S4 Mini, as well as the photography-based Galaxy S4 Zoom, not to mention the Qualcomm LTE variant. In addition, Samsung also introduced a more rugged version, the Galaxy S4 Active. There are a few smartphones on the market these days claiming either rugged or waterproof, or both, capabilities, many of which can be regarded simply as a gimmick. With its Xperia range, Sony proved its worth beyond a mere marketing campaign. Samsung aims to achieve the same.
Build and Design
At first glance many would mistake the Galaxy S4 Active for the original Galaxy S4, if only for a few seconds. Upon a closer inspection, you’ll clearly notice the addition of its three physical buttons, replacing that of the two capacitive and physical home buttons; a trend dating back to the first Galaxy S in 2010. Moreover, all physical buttons have been rubberised, and slightly raised for easier grip, including the other common buttons, such as the volume rocker and power button. Although it may look less appealing than the chromed buttons on the GS4, it doesn’t come across as being cheap. In fact, the rubberised buttons add to the usability, especially if you’re planning a few underwater snaps.
Thanks to its IP67 water and dust protection, the GS4 Active provides subsurface use for 30 minutes at a maximum depth of one metre. This allows users to capture photos poolside (or even in the pool) without the fear of water damage. In addition to the rubberised buttons, the rear’s top and bottom ends are also rubberised to provide further grip when holding the phone. The rear cover is still removable, which may be of some concern to prospective buyers. The addition of rubberised gasket beneath the cover, however, seals the device and prevents and leakages. Be careful, though, to double check that all clips are snapped into position before submerging the smartphone. All this extra measures and features for protection mean that the Active has some additional bulk, around 23g worth. Unfortunately, the addition of all its rubber doesn’t equal a truly rugged device, and is almost as likely to sustain damage as the GS4.
Hardware and Performance
Apart from a few changes, the S4 Active sports the same hardware as the LTE variant of the GS4 (i9505). Under the hood you’ll find the same Qualcomm Snapdragon Quad-core 1.9 GHz CPU, Adreno 320 GPU, 2GB RAM and 2600mAh battery. Surprisingly, many benchmark tests have indicated higher scores for the Active over the Qualcomm-sporting GS4.
The two biggest difference, apart from the build and design, is the TFT capacitive touchscreen display, and 8MP rear camera. The display produces the same 1080x1920px resolution over its 5.0” screen with a pixel density of 441ppi. While this may be a slight downgrade, the only major difference between the two types of display (without going into too much technical detail) is the contrast depth, which means it doesn’t achieve the same levels of darker colours; mainly blacks. Image quality is still as crisp, and unless you compare the two side by side, you won’t notice much difference. Interestingly, Samsung has also chosen to use the older Corning Gorilla Glass 2 screen protection, as opposed to the Gorilla Glass 3 on the GS4.
Camera and Aqua-Mode
The other major difference is the reduced camera capabilities, downgraded from a 13MP rear camera on the GS4 to an 8MP camera on the Active. Image resolution, however, isn’t the be all and end all in camera functionality, although it does count in the end. Comparing image quality between the two reveals the Active to snap higher contrast photos, with slightly warmer colours. Compared on a desktop PC, however, you’ll start noticing the difference in the GS4’s 13MP camera, providing clearer images. Other weakness include restrictions on focus (often resulting in a few blurred snaps, especially if you’re not as steady-handed as most), and slightly grainier images for low-light captures (as a result of the reduced pixel count), as well as a few other features not being available, such as Samsung’s dual-camera mode.
Being waterproof (or water resistant if you must), it’s needless to say that the camera, too, is protected against the same elements. In addition to this, Samsung added a new Aqua-mode feature to its camera app to allow users to take shots under water. If you’re planning on using the camera underwater, simply set the camera Aqua-mode in the settings menu, which then converts the volume rocker into a ‘dedicated’ camera button. Since the touchscreen is pretty much useless when any amount of water is splashed on it, this feature is pretty necessary. The biggest gripe I have with Aqua-mode is that the action has to be predetermined, in that you cannot already be underwater when decided to take a photo. This also means then that the screen, and your hands, have to be relatively dry. An additional camera button would’ve been more useful for such situations, which, when pressed, will directly open the camera app, even when the device is locked. In Aqua-mode, there is also no automatic focus, which means that you’ll have to have an almost perfect shot before hitting the trigger. This often leads to a lot of back and forwards movement in the hope that everything will eventually come into focus on its own.
It’s interesting to note that while the menu and back buttons have been swapped out for physical buttons to use when underwater, it does seem pointless if you really think about it. Since the touchscreen isn’t functional, apart from being a display, you can’t run any apps, open the settings menu, or pretty much anything else, apart from going back to the homescreen. Using capacitive buttons would have yielded the same results, and maybe prove to be a lot more waterproof. There are many other such interesting points about the overall design and thought process behind the Active, but until such waterproof devices are fully functional when submerged, there will always be a lot more questions than answers.
Many would assume that the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is nothing more than a gimmick to sell more devices for the brand, where, in fact, it has a lot more going for it than merely punting its waterproof capabilities. The S4 Active has more rounded corners, and with its rubberised top and bottom, it makes it easier to grip. Apart from its physical buttons, the S4 Active looks and feels better than the original. If not for Samsung purposefully limiting some of the hardware, such as the camera and display, the Active may have more going for it than the original, having outperformed it on a few benchmark tests. Irrespective of the limitations, the Galaxy S4 Active still sports some good features, and with a little extra thanks to its underwater camera capabilities, makes it a worthwhile grab for those in need of such requirements. Let’s hope the Galaxy S5 comes standard with ‘Active’ features.
You can find the full specifications here.