Samsung Galaxy S4 Active $599

23rd Aug 2013 | 15:56

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active

Like the normal S4 - but much more satisfying

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

All the power of the S4 (minus the camera and screen) in a waterproof package. A little too much chunk, but good for peace of mind.

Like:

Water resistant; Excellent screen; Fast, fluid OS;

Dislike:

Average battery; Bulkier than S4; Lower res camera;

Introduction

Ratings in depth

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review
Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review
Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review
Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review
Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

What do you do when you create an incredibly lucrative brand? Milk it for everything it's worth, and it's that mentality that has led to the creation of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active.

The S4 Active arrived alongside the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom and Galaxy S4 Mini a short while after the flagship Samsung Galaxy S4 as the Korean firm looks to get the maximum from its internationally recognised brand.

As you may be able to guess from the name the Galaxy S4 Active is aimed at the rugged market with its key selling points being its dust and water resistant. It's IP67 certified which means it'll survive being dipped into fresh water for up to 30 minutes at a depth of 1 metre.

Unlike its brothers the S4 Mini and S4 Zoom, the Galaxy S4 Active hasn't seen its specs slashed viscously by Samsung and thus it makes it a much closer relation to the stock Galaxy S4.

Some changes have been made however, with the camera on the S4 Active only 8MP compared to 13MP on the S4, and the 5-inch screen is a TFT affair instead of Super AMOLED, but it still boasts a full HD resolution and looks smashing.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

On the inside you still get the powerful 1.9GHz quad-core processor which adorns the flagship, plus the same 2GB of RAM and Android 4.2 OS which zips along nicely.

When it comes to price then there's little surprise that the S4 Active will set you back £490 (around $765, AU$830) SIM free, while on contract you can pick it up for free from £29 per month over two years.

The price, coupled with its decent line up of specs means the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active goes up against the likes of the also water resistant Sony Xperia Z as well as the other stalwarts at the top of the smartphone game such as the HTC One, Nokia Lumia 925, BlackBerry Z10 and even its brother the Galaxy S4.

As part of the effort to make the Galaxy S4 Active waterproof the handset is slightly chunkier than the S4, measuring 9.1mm in depth compared to the 7.9mm chassis of the original.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

It's also wider, taller and heavier with vital statistics of 139.7 x 71.3mm and 153g making the S4 Active a more substantial device in the hand, although it's still just about manageable - unless you have small hands that is.

Looking at the S4 Active from the front or side reveals it shares the same design as the Galaxy S4, with a polycarbonate body wrapped with a metal rim round its circumference providing a rigid and relatively premium look and feel.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

The big difference on the front are the buttons below the screen, with the touch keys present on the rest of the S4 range replaced with chunky physical alternatives.

These add to the rugged nature of the S4 Active and are present due to the fact the touch options are less responsive in wet conditions.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

The keys themselves do require a decent amount of pressure to register, so if you're used to just lightly tapping a touch button then this will take a little getting used to.

Take a look at the edges and on the right you'll find the power/lock key while on the left there's the volume rocker switch.

Both buttons have been given a textured finish making them easier to find and providing more grip if you're handling the S4 Active is slippery conditions.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Placement of both is good and you're able to hit them one handed without too much issue, which is great for such a large device.

Up top there's a headphone jack, but unlike the Sony Xperia Z there's no tricky cover to fiddle with here.

Samsung has made the port water resistant without the need of a flap, so if you invest in some waterproof headphones you can take the Galaxy S4 Active swimming and still listen to your tunes.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Something which hasn't been given the water resistant treatment is the microUSB port on the base of the device which does sport a plastic cover which you'll need to pick off every time you come to charge the S4 Active, which gets a little annoying after a while.

We also fear for the structural integrity of said flap, as it feels like something which could easily break after a number of uses and thus ruining the Galaxy S4 Active's water resistant credentials.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Flip the Galaxy S4 Active over and you'll find things are a little different here compared to the rest of the S4 range, with a more industrial design adding to the rugged tag the handset sports.

Four large, metal rivets adorn each corner of the handset although their function appears to be purely cosmetic, but nether the less they look good and the rubber strips which run between them at the top of the bottom of the S4 Active provides some additional grip.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

We'd have liked to see the rubber also make its way onto the removable back plate which takes up the majority of the rear of the phone and its slick plastic finish does little in terms of grip.

Now you didn't just read that wrong, we did indeed say the back of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active was removable while still being a water resistant device - something the Xperia Z and even the Panasonic Eluga can't boast.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Peeling it off reveals a microSIM port as well as the welcome presence of a microSD slot and even a removable battery, which will no doubt please many of you power users out there.

Once again we're a little wary of the water resistant credentials of the S4 Active with all that exposed tech hidden away under the exceedingly thin back plate which has a tiny seal running all the way around it.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

The Galaxy S4 Active does come with warning stickers on the back notifying you that you need to ensure the back plate is fully engaged - especially below the camera lens - before you even think about taking it for a dip.

There have been reports of water leaking into the device, so if you're planning on taking the S4 Active into the bath with you make sure everything is properly sealed before sliding in.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

We didn't experience any leaks when we took our Galaxy S4 Active for a splash in the bath and shower, and it managed to stay water tight when we were caught in heavy downpours too.

The Galaxy S4 Active does live up to its rugged nature as we did drop it several times - thanks to a recently broken finger - and it survived every hit with no visible damage.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Overall the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is the macho version of the firm's flagship smartphone. The camera and screen may not be quite as stellar, but if you can get over that and the slightly larger dimensions it's certainly an attractive proposition.

Sure it doesn't have the same sultry design of the HTC One, but remember you're getting a water resistant mobile with the added benefit of a microSD slot, removable battery and just one annoying flap which trumps the Xperia Z.

Its solid build and additional heft makes the S4 Active feel like it could take a number of bumps and go on trips we'd think twice about taking our HTC One or iPhone 5 on, but at the end of the day there's no escaping the plastic finish.

Interface

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active rocks up with Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean on board, which isn't quite the latest version of Google's platform (that honour goes to Android 4.3), but it's not far off and we'd expect 4.3 to land sooner rather than later.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

This being a Samsung phone however means it's not the pure Android experience, with the firm's substantial TouchWiz UI slapped on top of Google's platform which does bring some handy functions alongside a number of bloatware applications.

As we mentioned in the introduction the Galaxy S4 Active certainly has the power to run Android without issue with a beefy 1.9GHz quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM in charge of ensuring everything stays smooth.

That means general operation on the S4 Active is almost identical to the that of the Galaxy S4, resulting in a slick interface with almost no lag at any point. You can zoom between homescreens, applications and browser tabs with minimum effort - even in the bath!

The physical keys below the screen do slow you down from time to time as they're not quite as responsive as the set up on the stock Galaxy S4, but it's not a huge issue.

The 5-inch display ensures everything looks glorious, although thanks to the TFT screen technology colours aren't quite as vibrant when compared to the Super AMOLED offering on the S4 - but there's very little to pick between the two.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

With a full HD resolution images and text are just as sharp and you'll be more than happy with the S4 Active on the visual side of things as it's right up there with the best of them.

Hit the power/lock key on the side to access the lock screen and you'll note the "inspired by nature" water ripple effect on the Galaxy S3 has been replaced by a bead of light.

This light source will follow your finger round the screen when you hover it a few millimetres above the display.

While it may be a pointless feature there's no denying it makes for a fun little game. How far away can you get your finger and have the S4 Active still register it? Can you move your finger faster than the phone can cope with? Hours of fun.

Dive into the settings can you can choose whether to have app shortcuts at the bottom of the lock screen and decide if you want the "Life Companion" text to stay or go - you can edit this to say whatever you like. It's all a great deal of fun.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

If you've used a device such as the Nexus 4 or Nexus 7 then you'll know that you can swipe sideways on the lock screen to access over lock screen widgets and apps on stock Android.

You can also do this on the Galaxy S4 Active, but you'll need to head into settings again and check the multiple widgets box.

Swipe you're finger across the screen and the solar glare signals the unlocking process has been successful, turfing you onto the homescreen.

Now if you've used an Android phone before, and especially a Samsung one, then everything is as you'd expect. There are a multitude of screens for you to flick through, where you can add, remove and edit apps and widgets to your hearts content.

Pinch on any homescreen and you'll see an overview of all of them. You can have up to seven in total, but you can delete extra ones if you want.

Hold down on any free space on a homescreen and you'll be able to add apps, widgets and folders as well as change the desktop background - allowing you to personalise your Galaxy S4 Active.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

The stock Android multi-tasking menu is present on the S4 Active, just hold down the home key to get it up on screen.

While the column of app thumbnails which you swipe sideways to close remain the same, Samsung has added three on screen buttons at the base of the display - quick links to the task manager and Google Now as well as a "close all" option which we found rather handy.

There's another way to access Google Now too, by holding down the menu key below the display on the S4 Active. This is much quicker than having to dive into the multitasking page.

Google Now is Android's answer to Apple's Siri personal assistant which offers up various bits of information such as the weather for your current location and transport details home.

It can be handy at times and if you let it snoop through your emails then it can pull up some cool related content about flights and what not - although its spooky accuracy about your life and location may put some people off using it.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

If you fancy a slightly more Siri-like conversation with the Galaxy S4 Active double tap the home button to launch S Voice - Samsung's answer to the Cupertino based firm's assistant.

You can then ask various things such as "call X", "send a text to Y", "what's the weather like?", "open calculator" and while we didn't find that the Galaxy S4 Active had any issues understanding us, it did take a good five to 10 seconds to process each request.

This delay meant that a lot of the time it was quicker to actually perform the action with our fingers, making the inclusion of S Voice a little pointless, although there's obvious advantages when it comes to driving and other hands free activities.

The trusty Android notification bar is present and correct, but it hasn't escaped Samsung's TouchWiz overlay on the Galaxy S4 Active with handy quick settings and a brightness bar included.

You can customise the quick settings you have displayed and while only five appear on screen at once you can slide sideways to scroll through more - there are 21 quick settings in total for you to choose from.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

To edit which quick settings you have in the notification bar hit the button in the top right of the screen to view the ones currently on show and then tap the pencil icon at the top of the screen to drag and drop the various settings in and out of the bar.

It's a simple process and allows you to have your most used functions front and centre, although this is something which will appeal more to the power users out there.

Samsung has also played around with the Android settings menu in its latest version of TouchWiz, dividing it up into manageable tabs: connections, my device, accounts and more.

This makes it easier for users who are not so familiar with the Android interface, but those who have spent some time using other devices running the same OS you may be a little thrown at first.

While it took us a while to find a couple of things it didn't take us that long to get our heads round it all.

The slowness of S Voice was the only real lag we experienced on the S4 Active and in general it performs impressively and there's very little to difference between it and the S4 in terms of day to day performance.

Contacts and calling

Contacts

HTC has been the king of Android contact integration for a few years now but its Korean rival is hot on its heels in second place and the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is certainly no slouch in this department.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

The Contacts app is, unsurprisingly, the place where you'll find all the details of your buddies stored and while the layout is very similar to other Android handsets with a profile picture to the left of the names, there is some neat integration.

First up you can add a number of accounts to the Galaxy S4 Active to pull in contacts from all over the place including various email addresses, Facebook, ChatOn, Google and WhatsApp to name a few. There's no Twitter option though.

Once you've signed into the accounts you wish the S4 Active to go in search of contacts on it then makes a pretty decent attempt to match up various profiles from all the mediums.

If your friends have ridiculous names on Facebook then the S4 Active probably won't link the profile to the contacts you have stored in Google's cloud for them, but joining manually is simple.

Just tap on the contact in question, hit the connections section in their card and then select the other instances of themselves to link together.

The S4 Active even displays handy little icons of the accounts you've joined to a person, so you can easily see if you've missed anyone.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Back on the main contacts page there's an handy alphabet down the right hand of the screen allowing you to jump to a particular letter to save you scrolling manically down your huge contact list, plus there's a search bar at the top of the page if you'd rather tap in a name.

Next to that search bar is the button to add a new contact and there's no surprises here, just the standard data entry form you find on pretty much any phone these days allowing you to enter a multitude of information on your new found friend.

Unlike with some Android handsets when you tap through to a contact's card the Galaxy S4 Active won't pull through status updates or photo galleries from that person's social network.

All you get are their contact details and any additional information such as date of birth if you happen to have that data available. It's clean and functional, if not a little boring in places.

A handy feature which appears on all Samsung smartphones is the ability to call or text a contact by swiping across their name in the contact, calls or message lists.

Swipe from left to right over a contact and the Galaxy S4 Active will load up the dialler and call that contact, swipe in the opposite direction and it'll open up a new text message pane with the contact already added at the top.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

It's something we find extremely useful and we use it a lot, as it makes things just that bit quicker than having to tap through a level or two before getting to the action you require.

You don't just get the list of all your nearest and dearest in the contacts apps though, there are three other tabs at the top of the screen: phone, groups and favourites.

The first one is simply a shortcut to the phone app on the S4 Active, but more on that below, while the other two are sub sections of the contacts app.

Favourites are straight forward, hit the star icon in any contact card and they'll be added to this panel, allowing you to quickly get to the people you communicate with the most.

Groups meanwhile allows you to assign contacts to certain, well groups, such as co-workers, family or friends. It's another way to organise your contacts and is aimed at helping you keep on top of everyone, although in practice we didn't use this function.

Calling

It's more bread and butter stuff when it comes to calling with the Phone app your one stop shop for all your dialling needs, however as we've mentioned Samsung's clever swipe to call function lets you get on the blower straight from the contacts and text messaging apps.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Fire up the phone app and you're transported to the dialler, complete with smart dial and contact suggestions plus there's a button to transform your boring old voice call into a fancy pants video call. Snazzy.

It's not just the numeric keypad that you get in the phone app on the S4 Active though, with a call logs list, favourites tab and links to the Contacts app all present at the top of the screen.

Everything is self explanatory really, and when you get into a call you have the usual buttons on screen including end call, dialpad, speaker and mute, however there is an additional button of the Galaxy S4 Active called noise cancelling.

If you find yourself in a noisy environment hit this key and the S4 Active will do its best to dial down the surrounding hullabaloo so the person on the other end can actually hear.

In practice we found it did make our speech slightly easier to hear, but overall the call quality on the Galaxy S4 Active was pretty good so it's not the end of the world if you forget to engage this setting.

The S4 Active didn't have any issues finding and holding onto signal, and we didn't experience any dropped calls during our review period.

Messaging

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is a high-end smartphone and therefore it's capable of all manner of text based communications from SMS and emails to social media and IM.

At the most basic level is the text messaging client which has been given just a minor spruce up by Samsung's TouchWiz UI, with the inclusion of profile pictures on the main page and in the message stream.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

If you've used an Android phone before then you'll be more than familiar with the layout and workings, and even if you haven't it's a simple, intuitive app which is easy to get your head around.

A nice feature in the message stream is the ability to increase and decrease the font size using the volume rocker switch on the left of the Galaxy S4 Active, perfect for anyone with poorer eyesight or seeing a whole message on screen at once.

As we've mentioned already in this S4 Active review, you can quickly call or message a contact from the main text messaging screen - a quick swipe left or right over a contact's name will see the Galaxy S4 Active jump you to the dialler or message reply screen.

When it comes to email the Galaxy S4 Active has inherited the reworked client found on the Galaxy S4, which will be music to the ears of any Galaxy S3 or Galaxy S2 owners out there who will have experienced a torrid time with the offering on those handsets.

You can add as many email accounts to the client as you wish and it gives you the option, in the slide out menu on the left, to view all your messages in a combined inbox or on a per-account basis.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

We found it easy to use and with a helpful set-up wizard for the major email accounts you shouldn't have too much trouble getting started on the Galaxy S4 Active.

There's another email app in the form of Gmail on the S4 Active too, which as you may have guessed gives you access to your Google email and nothing else.

Google has reworked the Gmail app over recent years and it's now an attractive and relatively easy to use offering which provides enough functionality for you never to require the other email app if you want to stick solely with your Gmail account.

Social networks are big business these days and the two core offerings - Facebook and Twitter - see their official applications pre-loaded onto the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active.

This allows you to get straight into the action without having to go via the Play store first, and there's plenty of sharing options throughout the TouchWiz interface allowing you to post content to both networks with the touch of a button.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Samsung has also included its own instant messaging platform on the Galaxy S4 Active in the form of the ChatOn app - its attempt to take a chunk of the market away from the likes of WhatsApp, iMessage and BBM.

While the app itself is well appointed and straight forward to use the reality is very few people actually use it and you'll struggle to pool together even a small number of friends who are signed up to it and, more importantly, actually use it.

This makes ChatOn's inclusion a little redundant in our eyes and you'll probably banish it from the homescreen pretty soon into your S4 Active ownership.

Of course all this messaging capability is nothing without an input method and the stock keyboard on the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active isn't a bad offering.

The S4 Active ditches the stock Android option in favour of a slightly tweaked TouchWiz version which sees a row of numbers added on top of the normal QWERTY layout - made possible by the additional real estate afforded to you by the 5-inch display.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Travel between keys is acceptable and the screen was responsive to our various pokes and prods, although we found the accuracy and next word prediction engine not quite as sharp as SwiftKey's.

The extra girth on the S4 Active means it's a little trickier to hold for one handed for typing, and we found ourselves having to employ both mitts in order to get up a decent typing speed.

If you're not a fan of tapping the screen and prefer the swiping gesture then the "continuous input" option in the S4 Active's keyboard settings menu will be welcome relief, allowing you to slide your digits between characters to create words on screen.

For anyone who hasn't used this method of text input before it can feel rather unnatural, but if you're prepared to put in some decent practice you can type very quickly one handed.

It's certainly not the worst mobile keyboard we've come across, but if you're someone who does a lot of typing then we'd still recommend downloading a third party alternative from Google Play, with our top pick being the aforementioned SwiftKey.

Internet

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active comes packing two internet options, the stock browser and Google Chrome which both offer up a very similar experience.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

It's a little puzzling why so many Android handset manufacturers put two browsers on their phones and it can lead to confusion over which one should be used.

In short we'd say use the one you feel most comfortable with as you'll get a very similar experience either way.

The Samsung built browser offers up a simple, if not slightly boring looking interface with back/forward keys accompanying the URL bar, tab button and bookmarks shortcut at the top of the display.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Not enough mobile browsers have the back and forward keys in the main navigation bar and it's something we're pleased to see on the Galaxy S4 Active.

Tabbed browsing is a great way to get around the web these days, especially if you're viewing multiple websites and Samsung has given the tabbed view a little overhaul with all your open tabs appearing in a vertical list which is reminiscent of the card view in Google Now.

From the window manager screen you can easily open and close additional tabs, while over in the bookmarks bar adding new sites is as simple as tapping a button.

The browser syncs with your Samsung account, so if you've owned a Samsung handset previously and have saved bookmarks on it then you'll be able to pull them through to the S4 Active.

Sadly there's no option to pull from cloud data from Google to the stock browser, so if you want to sync up your desktop experience with the S4 Active you'll want to use the Chrome app.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Hit the physical menu key below the screen while in the main internet browser and you'll find more options become available including saving the page you're currently viewing for offline reading - perfect if you want to read an article on the train home and know signal will be patchy.

Offline reading is a really useful function, but one that does not feature in the Chrome browser, so that's worth bearing in mind when you come to choosing between the two clients.

You can also toggle incognito and desktops views from this additional menu as well as jump into your history to check up on what you've been browsing.

All three functions are also available in Google Chrome and so too is the "Share" function, allowing you to post a site to a social network or send it to someone in a text or email from within both browsers.

In terms of speed the Galaxy S4 Active isn't a slouch, loading mobile websites in three to four seconds, while busy desktop sites such as TechRadar.com take just six to seven seconds to fully render in Chrome.

Mobile sites take the same amount of time to load in the standard browser, but we found desktop sites tended to take a couple of seconds longer here and while Chrome displays a zoomed out view of the page, the stock web browser zooms in on desktop sites meaning lots of scrolling is required from the off.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

It's a minor point, but puts another check in the Chrome column when it comes to choosing between the two.

Thanks to the full HD display on the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active text and images are crisp and clear, making for an easy on eye browsing experience and while colours may not be quite so vibrant as they are on the Super AMOLED toting Galaxy S4, you won't be disappointed here.

Annoyingly though neither browser supports auto text reflow, meaning if you zoom in on an article you'll find yourself scrolling sideways as well as down as the S4 Active won't readjust the text to fit the screen.

The main browser does adjust text slightly allowing you to zoom in with a double tap to give you a full width viewing experience, but zoom in anymore and you'll be going sideways once again.

Camera

One of the main concessions made on the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is in the camera department, where the 13MP snapper from the Galaxy S4 has been replaced with an 8MP version.

For those all important "selfies" there's a 2MP camera on the front which isn't too shabby, plus it means things such as Skype video calls are also possible on the Galaxy S4 Active.

While the downgrade in sensor may be a disappointment to some there is still comfort in the fact the S4 Active sports the same myriad of options in the camera app giving you a wealth of picture taking ability in your pocket.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

The UI and shooting modes are borrowed straight from the Samsung Galaxy Camera, just hit the mode button to bring up the scrolling wheel of options.

You can view all the options at once by hitting the button in the bottom left corner of the screen if the wheel is a bit too much, and we found it was much easier to find what we wanted in this exploded view.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Standard options such as Night, Panorama and Sports modes are pretty straight forward, but Samsung's "innovation" comes into play with some of the more left field options such as Sound & Shot, Beauty Face and Animated Photo.

A unique mode to the Galaxy S4 Active is Aqua, optimising the performance of the camera for taking pictures underwater.

As you might know, touchscreens don't work particularly well underwater but dive into the settings menu of the camera app and you can swap the volume rocker switch from a zoom control to a shutter key for some submerged action.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Of course you'll have to tinker with all the settings before you take your S4 Active for a splash, as once submerged there's no going back.

If you're someone who likes taking photos of people then Best Photo and Best Face will likely be attractive options for you to use, with the former taking a eight snaps for you to then select the best one to keep.

The latter is a similar concept, but focuses on the face only and it's capable of picking out several faces in a picture. This is great for group shots as once you've taken the picture you can select each person's face and choose from five snaps to find their best smile.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

These functions are all well and good, but you have to actually remember to turn them on when you come to take the photo, as the Galaxy S4 Active can't do these things on auto-mode.

This is a little annoying as often we forgot to put the mode on, and the times we did the added process meant our subjects weren't quite as we'd hope they'd be.

We found that most of the time auto mode was good enough, be it taking in a city landscape or going up close and personal with dinner.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Something we found irritating on the camera app was the shutter sound, with the only way to turn it off being to put the whole handset on silent - very annoying. Next time Samsung, just have a toggle in the settings menu. Thanks.

We were thoroughly impressed with the camera on the Galaxy S4 and while the Galaxy S4 Active doesn't quite reach the same heights as its namesake, it doesn't do a bad job.

In well lit areas inside and out the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is capable of taking some glorious photos, with a good level of detail and decent level of colour saturation to make any part-time shooter proud.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Up close macro mode works a treat - and automatically too - with the S4 Active not seeming to struggle when it came to focussing on objects.

It wasn't all plain sailing with the odd grainy picture experienced and some blurring in a handful of shots, but considering the S4 Active has less of an impetus on the camera situation compared to its 13MP brother you won't be disappointed with what it can do.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

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Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

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Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

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Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

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Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

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Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

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Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

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Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

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Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

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Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

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Video

Even though the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active has seen its camera downgraded from the original handset, it can still capture video footage in full HD, 1080p.

If you fancy capturing some footage head over to the camera app, and unlike previous iterations where you had to switch between camera and video mode on the S4 Active there's a record button on screen next to the shutter key, allowing you to get straight to it.

While recording you can tap to focus if you want the S4 Active to concentrate on a particular object, but if you're not bothered it will auto-focus as you move around.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

If you want to use the LED flash as a light while recording then you'll need to make sure you have the flash turned on before hitting record, as there's no way to toggle the light when filming.

Something you can do while you shoot however is take photos, so if something amazing happens during your filming you can also capture it as a still image at the same time. It's a handy little feature which only makes it onto a handful of devices, so we're pleased to see it here on the Galaxy S4 Active.

You can also zoom in and out while recording, but quality suffers the further you go in thanks to the digital zoom so it's probably best avoided if you can.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Options are greatly limited on the video recording side of things, but you can add the same effects available in camera mode to your films.

Select the up arrow at the bottom of the screen (when held in landscape) to open up the effects window, and from there you can choose between eight options including posterise, sepia and black and white.

The final product isn't too shabby and if you've managed to film in a relatively well lit area then the Galaxy S4 Active will produce pretty decent results, but it can struggle in darker areas and the LED light will only help you so much.

Media

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active has all the hallmarks of a high-end smartphone and therefore its media capabilities are up there with the best of them.

It gets an instant leg up on the likes of the HTC One and iPhone 5 thanks to the inclusion of a microSD slot allowing you to build on the 16GB of internal storage slapped inside.

And if you're a media hungry then you'll be thankful for the microSD inclusion, as a good 6GB of the internal storage is taken up by the Android Jelly Bean operating system and pre-installed apps, giving you just 10GB to actually play with.

The microUSB port at the base of the S4 Active means it's easy to hook it up to your computer and transfer over files using the simple drag and drop process, and of course you can always pre-load a SD card and bung it in the phone instead.

Music

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

To enjoy your tunes on the go you'll want to head to the fully equipped Music app where you'll be greeted by a well appointed setup offering you a wealth of options at your finger tips.

At the top level you get the usual list of tracks, sorted by title, artist, album and playlist, making it super easy to find what you want and the presence of album art makes everything look a whole lot nicer.

Tap a song and it will start playing with a bar appearing at the bottom of the screen allowing you to see what track you've selected while continuing to browse your collection.

Hit the bar and you'll be taken to the now playing screen where all the usual options are present including play/pause, skip, shuffle and repeat. You can also favourite tracks by hitting the star icon just below the album art.

You can view the queued tracks in the playlist you're listening to by hitting the icon in the bottom right corner, while a simple volume slider resides in the top right, flanking a device selection option in the opposite corner.

From here you can select to stream music to or from another device, allowing you to share your music with others or listen to a track which lives on your computer.

There are more options at your disposal too, just press the menu key below the screen and you'll be greeted with more to play with. Select "music view" and the music bar transforms into a frequency chart of the song, so you can follow the peaks and troughs of your favourite track as you listen along - although it doesn't tend to match up with what's actually playing. Strange.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

There's even more if you hit settings, where you can select from a variety of sound setups via SoundAlive or adjust the speed of playback.

Smart volume will monitor each track and adjust the volume of the Galaxy S4 Active to ensure they are all equal - saving you from any nasty audio shocks when a club banger follows a heart-felt Ballard.

The music app also comes with handy notification bar and lockscreen widgets, giving you control over your music playback from pretty much anywhere on the Galaxy S4 Active - which is all very nice.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Google Play Music also makes an appearance on the S4 Active, but we'd recommend sticking to the main Music app as it offers up a much better experience.

You can always add to your music library on the go by purchasing tracks from the Play Store or via Samsung's rival media store - Samsung Hub.

Samsung Hub is an iTunes-esque offering of music, movies, TV shows and books. There's a decent selection and combined with Google Play's offering you're well equipped to expand your musical horizons on the Galaxy S4 Active.

Playback via a half decent set of headphones is very good and if you're lucky enough to own a waterproof pair you can always take the S4 Active swimming.

The rear speaker on the back of the S4 Active has been given some love since the Galaxy S3, with a less tinny sound - although it's still not the best quality and doesn't match Boomsound on the HTC One.

Video

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

With a full HD, 5-inch display the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is well equipped for video playback and it doesn't disappoint.

We dubbed the Galaxy S4 "head and shoulders above the rest" when it came to video playback and while the S4 Active doesn't quite reach the same heights thanks to the lack of the Super AMOLED technology, it still gives a decent showing.

Unlike many smartphones these days the Galaxy S4 Active comes with a dedicated video player app pre-installed and while it may not be awash with features, it is at least clean, simple and functional.

The Galaxy S4 Active likes to show off its processing power when you fire up the video player app, as all the thumbnails of the videos you have on the handset start to play at once - given you an excellent little preview of what you have at your finger tips.

The frame rates are greatly reduced in order to do this which makes everything a little jumpy, but that's not really a bad thing and it's an impressive feat to behold.

On the main player window you're not overloaded with options, but it does offer up a few extras above play, pause and skip - the main one being pop out play.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Pop out play lets you stick the video you're watching into a little window on screen and then go about using the Galaxy S4 Active however you want, be it replying to an email or browsing a website.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

There is a couple of seconds delay from clicking the button to the app closing and the video window appearing on your homescreen. It's not a big deal and once up playback is smooth even when you start dragging the window round the screen.

As we've alluded to already playback quality is smashing, with beautifully crisp textures making for an excellent movie viewing experience, but colours are not quite as vivid as they are on the Galaxy S4.

This is just another minor issue though and it shouldn't put you off watching video on the Galaxy S4 Active.

As with music, if you fancy something new to watch you can visit Google Play or the Samsung Hub to purchase or rent a new movie or TV show. You can even instantly access the video section of the Samsung Hub from the Video app by sliding your finger from left to right.

Photos

Where do you go to view all your photos? To the gallery of course, which itself is a pretty standard affair with thumbnail previews of all your snaps displayed nicely for your viewing pleasure.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Tap on an image and you'll have options to share it via social media or a communication method and stream it to a larger screen.

What you may be more interested in is the edit option which takes you to a well stocked photo editor where you can do things such as crop, rotate and apply effects to your snaps.

Effects include favourites such as vignette, sepia and vintage, while the sticker section lets you deface any image with various bits of clip art - one for the kids then.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

You can also get creative and select the drawing option if you wish to add some annotations, or if your picture is looking a little rough round the edges there are various frames for you to choose from.

In short there's plenty going on in the editor and it's something you should definitely take a look at if you do end up plumping for the Galaxy S4 Active.

Battery life and connectivity

Battery life

Battery life is one of the most important factors when it comes to smartphones these days and when you have a full featured powerhouse in your pocket you want to be able to push it to its limits without it limping to the charging mid-afternoon.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active comes packing a 2600mAh which is the same as the well performing juice pack found in the stock Galaxy S4, so we're off to a good start here.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

With general day to day use, including phone calls, text messaging, social networking, web browsing and music streaming our Samsung Galaxy S4 Active managed to see us all the way to bed time, although just a sliver of battery remained most nights.

We did find that some extended gaming on the S4 Active would drain the battery quite substantially, partly thanks to that big, full HD 5-inch display constantly being on and if you're planning a gaming session you'll want to make sure a power point is near by.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

On the morning commute listening to music and doing some web browsing and social media activity saw the battery drop 15% in around one hour which isn't overly fantastic.

The screen is by far the biggest drain on the S4 Active's battery, but if you keep the brightness low and don't leave it on all the time it will last for a whole day as the background updates and syncing do little to affect life.

One of the handy things with the Galaxy S4 Active is its removable battery, which means you can easily swap out a flat for a fully charged unit - but if you don't go overboard with your usage you shouldn't have to worry about that.

We ran our battery life test which sees a 90 minute video played, with the screen on full brightness and background updates on applications turned on. On the Galaxy S4 Active the battery dropped by 24% to 76%, which isn't as good as the HTC One, Sony Xperia Z or Galaxy S4.

If you're really struggling for battery life then you can always turn on the Power Saving Mode - there's a toggle in the quick settings of the notification bar - to eek out some precious extra life from your S4 Active.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

We're a little disappointed that the S4 Active's battery life isn't as good as the Galaxy S4's and we experienced hitting the red line several times during our test. It's still just about acceptable and if you're careful you shouldn't need to worry about the handset lasting.

Connectivity

With the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active being a top of the range device it sports a plethora of connectivity options to ensure you're always connected.

The usual suspects are all present including Bluetooth 4.0, which uses less power than previous versions to save on that precious battery life, and Wi-Fi allowing you to jump online at home, in the office or when you're in the presence of a hotspot.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

You can also transform your S4 Active into a wireless hotspot itself, allowing you to share your phone's web connection with other devices such as tablets and laptops - great if the Wi-Fi fails at the venue you're at.

The Galaxy S4 Active can take advantage of the superfast 4G network if it's available in your area, boosting the load times of web pages, allowing for super slick streaming and letting apps download in a flash.

Make sure you keep tabs on your usage however, as data can quickly rack up and you may find yourself with a nasty bill come the end of the month if you haven't kept an eye on what you're doing.

NFC, or near field communication if you prefer its full name, is still finding its feet but it is slowly making its way onto more and more smartphones and the Galaxy S4 Active is one of those, and complete with S Beam it's easy to share content wirelessly between other enabled devices.

And lets not forget GPS which lets the Google Maps app, among others, pin-point your location with impressive speed and accuracy ensuring you never get lost again.

All these connection options can be quickly turned on or off in the Quick settings in the notifications bar which makes linking up with other devices even easier.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

An added extra is hidden behind the rear plate of the Galaxy S4 Active and comes in the form of a microSD slot, allowing you to build on the relatively mediocre 16GB of internal storage stuffed inside.

A microSD card is a great way of getting content onto your shiny new Galaxy S4 Active without having to actually physically connect it to a computer, but should the mood take you can always pick off the rubber flap over the microUSB port on the base of the handset and dig out a USB cable to form a physical connection.

Maps and apps

Maps

As with any Android phone these days the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active comes equipped with the excellent Google Maps which offers a fully fledged and highly detailed mapping solution at your finger tips.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

We've sung the praises of Google Maps in numerous reviews so we're not going to get carried away with it here, but it short it works very well on the Galaxy S4 Active.

It was able to pin point our location within a couple of seconds most of the time and maps rendered quickly on the large 5-inch display meaning we could see where we were and where we needed to go instantly. The location lock on the Active isn't as speedy as the Galaxy S4, but it's not far behind.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Panning and zooming round the maps is a fluid experience on the S4 Active with its quad-core processor making mincemeat of the lay of the land.

Maps look great and detail is crisp and clear on the full HD display which comes in handy when you turn on layers such as Public Transport and Traffic which can clutter the maps on smaller, lower resolution screens.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

A great USP of Google Maps is Streetview, allowing you to get down onto road level and really scope a location out as if you were actually there - perfect it you're tracking to track down a particular address in an area you're not familiar with.

Another benefit of the full HD display on the S4 Active is it's great for the free, built-in turn-by-turn satellite navigation, with directions appearing clear on screen.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

We found the Galaxy S4 Active was able to track our movements as we hurtled up the motorway without issue and it certainly does enough for you not to require a separate sat nav unit.

Apps

When it comes to apps on the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active you've got two stores to choose from, although there's only really one which is actually worth using.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Alongside the stalwart Google Play store Samsung also adds its own application delivery client in an attempt to rival the search giant's offering, but to be honest we don't see the point.

The "cleverly" named Samsung Apps is the Korean firm's attempt to steal some revenue from Google, but the selection falls flat in comparison with a much smaller number of applications .

While it may filter out some of the chaff which inundates the Play store we still much prefer Google's offering over Samsung's and we'd recommend banishing Samsung Apps from the homescreen.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Google Play has come on leaps and bounds since its incarnation as the Android Market and now with over 900,000 applications at your finger tips you'll find pretty much everything you need for your Galaxy S4 Active.

Something which goes hand in hand with any Samsung handset is bundled apps and the Galaxy S4 Active is no exception with the full range of additional software from the Korean firm, with varying degrees of usefulness.

S Translate

S Translate is Samsung's take of Google's Translate app, allowing you to translate between languages, either spoken or written, with ease.

It's easy to use and surprisingly accurate when it comes to understanding what you're saying when you're in speaking mode.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

The only black mark against S Translate is the languages it supports, with just 10 programmed into the app. Compare that to the 70+ languages in Google Translate and its limitations become apparent.

That said it does cover some key tongues and it could well get you out of a sticky situation, as long as you have an internet connection - so beware of expensive roaming charges if you're using it aboard.

Optical Reader

The Optical Reader application is a glorified barcode scanner app of yesteryear, with it able to also scan QR codes, text and contact details.

Once again it appears Samsung is taking another leaf out of Google's book as Optical Reader seems to mirror the search giants Goggle's application.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Put the S4 Active up against a page of text and the app will be able to recognise words and provide a dictionary definition for them - handy if you come across something particularly tricky on a restaurant menu.

The contact capture feature is a useful tool for the business minded among you, as it can read a business card and pull off all the relevant details including name, phone numbers and email addresses into a new contact form.

It's not always perfect, but it can save you a decent amount of time if you're in a hurry.

WatchOn

The WatchOn app is one of the few bundled applications that we really like on the Galaxy S4 Active, purely for the reason that it lets us control our TV, set top box, DVD player, Blu-Ray player and AV receiver with our phone. And that's pretty darn cool.

Thanks to the infra-red receiver plonked on top of the handset you can programme the S4 Active to work with pretty much any TV and set top box around.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

It's easy to do as well, with a handy step by step guide within the WatchOn app walking you through the process. You can even step up different rooms so you can have your whole house controlled from the palm of your hand.

Once set up you get basic controls to turn your device on and off, adjust the volume and change the channel. There's a keypad which allows you to type in a particular channel number if you want to hop directly to one, plus the source key lets you switch inputs allowing you to jump to your DVD player or games console.

There are more in depth options for some devices such as set top boxes, allowing you to access the TV guide as well as providing the four colour keys which are vital to perform some actions.

We did find that there were a couple of buttons missing from the app which would have improved the user experience further, but overall we loved the remote functionality of WatchOn.

The WatchOn app also provides a TV guide of its own, dedicated to your region and it can offer up selections of shows you may like to watch based on your preferences.

Samsung Link

The Samsung Link application will be useful for anyone who wants to access content from their computer on their handset, or wants to stream from the Galaxy S4 Active to a big screen - be that a TV or computer monitor.

You can access photos, videos, music and documents on any internet connected device with the help of Samsung Link, allowing you to store all your media in the cloud making it available pretty much anywhere.

Thanks to the DLNA streaming support within the S4 Active you can also wirelessly share what's on your handset with other enabled devices, be it a tablet, TV or laptop.

To ensure you never lose any of those precious photos you take on your handset Samsung Link can automatically upload the snaps to the cloud or your computer to ensure they're in a safe place just in case something untoward happens to your phone.

S Health

The fitness market is growing and the number of applications aimed at helping you keep fit and stay healthy are growing by the day so it's no wonder Samsung has got in on the act with S Health.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

S Health comes preinstalled on the Galaxy S4 Active and aims to keep you fit and healthy my monitoring your vital statistics such as weight and height alongside your work out schedule and diet to give you various goals to aim for.

If you want to keep things simple you can just fire up the "Walking Mate" function - so a pedometer - to make sure you're hitting 10000 steps a day (or however many you want to do). There's even a handy homescreen widget to keep you updated on the number of steps you've done.

For those of you looking for something a little more intense however then the S Health also has you covered with a wide range of activities to choose from.

Select the workout you're going to perform, cycling for example, and the S Health app will be able to monitor how many calories you've burnt.

Overall S Health is an intuitive application which will be great for anyone looking to do some exercise, but anyone who's more invested in workouts may want to look at third party options which provide greater detail and more options.

Smart Screen and Air View

The arrival of the Samsung Galaxy S4 saw a new set of features embedded into the handset which focussed around you using your eyes and waving your hand to control certain features on the smartphone.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

These features have made their way onto the Galaxy S4 Active as Samsung looks to peddle its Smart Screen and Air View technology for all its worth, even if some of it feels gimmicky.

Smart Stay

First up in the "Smart Screen" section of the settings menu is Smart Stay which will ensure the screen won't turn itself off while you're looking at it.

Usually if you have the screen timeout set to 30 seconds it will turn off to save power after that time if you don't interact with the handset.

There are some exceptions which overruled this setting, such as when you're watching a movie, but if you take longer than the allotted time to read a website then your phone will be turning the screen off.

Smart Stay tracks your eyes and as long as it sees you still looking at the screen the Galaxy S4 Active won't switch the screen off as you read.

It's a handy feature, but one which doesn't really come into play all that often and you can also tweak your screen timeout setting to solve the same problem - or you know, just tap the screen with your finger.

Smart Rotation

We found Smart Rotation more useful, as we're forever checking our phone in bed and having it constantly spin between portrait and landscape view is extremely annoying.

Using the old eye tracking tech again, Smart Rotation mointors what angle your head is at and then decides which orientation would be best suited to your position.

We found it worked really well in well lit areas, but if we came to check our phone in a dark bedroom the Galaxy S4 Active struggled to actually see us.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Smart Scroll

While a case can be made for the previous two features, it's much harder to justify the existence of Smart Scroll on the Galaxy S4 Active.

As you may have already guessed from its name Smart Scroll allows you to move up and down pages by tilting your head (or the S4 Active).

While this may sound like a fun feature to pass the time with, in reality it's found lacking as it's only compatible with the email and internet apps - and Chrome doesn't support it.

This meant that for the best part of usage Smart Scroll wasn't even available to use and once you get to a web page or email we found it much quicker and easier to use our finger to scroll. Not to mention you look a little odd nodding at your phone.

Smart Pause

Rounding off the Smart Screen is Smart Pause which comes into play when you're watching videos.

Turn it on and if you take your eyes off the screen when a movie is playing the Galaxy S4 Active will automatically pause playback so you don't miss anything.

Now this sounds like a good idea in principle, but in practice it's annoying as there's a good second delay between you taking your eyes off the screen and your video being paused.

We also found that we never looked at the screen for the full duration of a video, even YouTube clips, so our wandering eyes meant playback was forever stopping and starting. This one is best left switched off.

Air View

Moving away from your eyes and back to your fingers Air View allows you to garner more information from your Samsung Galaxy S4 Active without having to actually touch the screen.

It all sounds pretty fantastical, but it does work - although don't get your hopes up too much for something amazing to happen.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

In practice what it allows you to do is enlarge a photo in the gallery, read the first few lines of an email or text message, or zoom in on text in a web browser.

Once again it feels like innovation for innovation's sake, as none of these process are particularly complicated and can be accomplished with a couple of finger taps.

Hands on gallery

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Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review

Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is pretty much a run of the mill Galaxy S4 with a slightly chunkier, water resistant body and for that we applaud it as it delivers a great user experience.

Sure the camera and the screen aren't quite up to the S4's quality, but if you're willing to make those seemingly small sacrifices then you'll more than likely thoroughly enjoy the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active.

However if you're looking to spend top dollar on a smartphone why accept second best when you can have the fully fledged Galaxy S4 for the same price? We wonder if water resistance really is a big enough pull to make the S4 Active a worthwhile alternative.

We liked

There is a lot to like about the Galaxy S4 Active, with the water and dust proof case making the handset far more hardy than a lot of the top end devices currently on the market.

If you like the look of the Galaxy S4 but fear for its safety in your overly active lifestyle then the S4 Active will be an seriously attractive option - and we can certainly recommend it in this case.

The only other handset which can match the rugged credentials of the S4 Active is the Sony Xperia Z, although being covered in glass front and back makes it feel far more fragile.

While the 5-inch display may not sport the Super AMOLED technology of the S4, the full HD resolution still makes for an excellent visual experience which is only really bettered by its namesake and the HTC One.

Some may find Samsung's TouchWiz interface overly oppressive, but for the most part its much improved on past versions and runs smoothly of the S4 Active.

The addition of a wide variety of quick settings, versatile lockscreen and some great native apps such as the music player make it a winner in our book.

We disliked

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We have to say we were disappointed with the battery life on the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active, as it fails to live up to its brother's billing and also falls behind the likes of the HTC One, Nokia Lumia 925 and Xperia Z.

Generally the S4 Active will just about see out a whole days usage, but as soon as you start doing some intensive gaming or a mega email session the battery starts suffering - mainly due to that whopping 5-inch display.

That 5-inch screen means the Galaxy S4 Active isn't exactly the smallest handset on the market and add into the mix the extra girth from the dust and water resistance and you may find yourself struggling with one handed use.

We certainly found two hands were usually required when it came to typing, and the large physical keys require more pressure than you'll be used to on other, touch based handsets.

While for the most part the Galaxy S4 Active provided a fast and fluid user experience, it was slightly slower in a couple of areas such as mapping and the pop up play transition. This odd considering it has the same power as the normal Galaxy S4. Not a huge issue, but something worth mentioning.

Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active finds itself a little in no mans land, and it's a difficult one for us to recommend outright.

If you're in the market for a super powerful smartphone which you can take on extreme activities, swimming and in the bath then sure the Galaxy S4 Active is the best around, but that's a pretty limited market.

When it comes to the best high-end smartphone around there are a number which trump the S4 Active in terms of style, portability and features and if you're shelling out a lot of money surely you want the best?

So if you're in the market for a top end smartphone then we'd say it's worth taking a look at the Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, Sony Xperia Z and even the Nokia Lumia 925 or iPhone 5, but if you fancy something a little different then you won't be disappointed with the Galaxy S4 Active.

And hey, chuck it in a bucket of water and your mates will be seriously impressed (honest).

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