Beyond the sturdy design and rubbery plastic back, practically everything else about the S4 Active appears to be the same as the original Galaxy S4: it has a 5-inch display with Full HD resolution (1920 x 1080 pixels) for a pixel density of 441 dpi, a 1.7 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad-core processor, 2 GB of RAM and a 2,600 mAh battery, plus Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac and 4G LTE wireless compatibility.
But on second look, you see that some things are quite different, starting with the screen. The resolution is the same, but the S4 Active has a TFT panel instead of Super AMOLED. And the protective glass has been downgraded from Gorilla Glass 3 to Gorilla Glass 2, which is kind of weird for an all-terrain model, considering that Gorilla Glass 3 is supposedly "three times more damage resistant" than Gorilla Glass 2.
The camera has also been demoted, from 13 Megapixels to 8 Mpx, and instead of a choice of 16, 32 or 64 GB of storage, the S4 Active only comes in 16 GB.
So, contrary to what Samsung would have you believe, the S4 Active seems not only like a rugged version of the S4, but also a trimmed-down version. In that case, is it really worthy of the name?
DESIGN & HANDLING
We actually prefer the look of the S4 Active. It's still got the omnipresent plastic, but something about it looks classier than the original. However, in order to make it more outdoors-friendly, Samsung replaced the touch-sensitive buttons with physical buttons that have a coarse finish to make them easier to hit with gloves on or when you're underwater. The top and bottom ends of the phone are made of rubber to absorb shocks. Like the Xperia Z1, the audio jack has no protective cover, but by some sort of sorcery is still waterproof.
The materials help make the phone stay steady in your hand, so it won't slip out of your fingers while you're doing an ollie, and ours didn't smudge at all. That's one of the S4 Active's strengths: it's sturdy and rugged, all while retaining its elegance and style.
To get to the microSD slot you have to take the back off. An element-proof exterior slot like the Xperia Z and Z1's would obviously have been a simpler solution.
The original Galaxy S4 has five preset display modes that change the colours, brightness and contrast depending on your taste. "Dynamic" and "Standard", for example, grossly exaggerate the colours, bringing the Delta Es all the way up to an astronomical 11.6 and 15.4.
Fortunately, the modes don't vary as wildly on the Galaxy S4 Active. "Standard" mode brings the Delta E down to a picture-perfect 2.9, the contrast to 823:1 and the brightness to an excellent 446 cd/m², making the screen easier to view outside in the sunlight. "Dynamic" puts the brightness even higher to 458 cd/m² and raises the contrast only slightly to 843:1. The Delta E goes up to 4.7 and the colour temperature is a little high at 8,207 K, making the colours just a tad exaggerated, but not necessarily enough to notice it with your face in the mud. "Movie" mode is pretty similar to "Standard", but the colour temperature is more balanced (7,172 K).
The viewing angles are nice and wide no matter which mode you're in, making the screen easy to see from any direction. This is a great-looking screen, which is pretty cool for a smartphone that's more about sturdiness and brawn.
INTERFACE & NAVIGATION
There are no surprises with the interface, it's all the same as on the GS4: Android 4.2.2 with a huge gob of TouchWiz on top. And when you know how many awesome features there are on TouchWiz, there's little to complain about. The S4 Active comes with all of Samsung's usual apps: ChatON, Samsung Hub, S Voice, etc. That said, Samsung could have added a few sports-specific apps to the mix, such as an altimeter or an anemometer.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor makes the S4 Active a super-responsive device that reacts like lightning.
Web browsing is fast and fluid, whether you use the default browser or Chrome. With Smart Screen on, you can scroll through web pages by tilting your head or the phone, and that definitely comes in handy when you're doing outdoorsy things—maybe more so than on the standard S4.
The sound quality—both through the built-in speaker and the headphone output—is in the upper average for a smartphone, with reasonably high volume, and there's an equaliser to boot.
With the same GPU as the S4's, the S4 Active runs video games exceptionally well. Even the most demanding titles, like Real Racing 3 or Epic Citadel run as smoothly as can be (although you'll notice some aliasing in Real Racing 3).
The results from our camera tests clearly weren't as impressive as on the S4—the pictures don't come out as sharp or detailed. But it isn't a bad camera, just not as good as its namesake. It holds its own in low lighting against competing 8 Mpx smartphones, such as the Lumia 920 and iPhone 5, although the Lumia 920 holds a slight advantage.
For a phone designed for "a more adventurous life" that gives you "freedom to live outside the boundaries", we hoped to get more out of the 2,600 mAh battery. The Galaxy S4 Active lasts around a day and a half with Battery Benchmark, which is more or less what we found in practice. For average usage, using both Wi-Fi and 3G, you basically have to charge the phone at the end of every day. That's fine as smartphones go, but outstanding battery life would have been a major selling point.