Smartphones

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active (SGH-I537) Review

by Christopher Willhoite

Several months ago, I upgraded my Android smartphone. I went from a Samsung Galaxy S3 to a Galaxy S4…Active. But am I happy with my choice now? And was it really an upgrade? Before I elaborate, please note:

This review is NOT about proving/disproving how “active” the phone is. Those test results are abundantly available online. After all, this review is tardy to the Active’s launch-party (June 21, 2013 in the US).

Nor is this review heavy on specs; it’s less numerical and more organic. Several clinical breakdowns can also be found online, but not so much here.

Additionally, with two Samsung phones under my belt, as well as an HTC, I critique Samsung’s approach to Android, plus the industry’s growing trend of, well, growing.

Why I chose the Active and how it has since fared:

The Active is touted as being water/dust resistant. Yes, that did factor into my criteria. But these days, I’m hardly the outdoorsy type. So, for me, the elemental resilience was less mandatory and more about insurance. Many horror stories involve phones unwittingly diving into the porcelain pond, or succumbing to any manner of hazards. While my previous devices have thus far been spared, I figured ‘twas better to be safe than sorry. Apparently, Samsung empathized, designing the mainline S5 with those qualities, making them standard for their S5 series and likely will beyond. But the S5 was not an option for me at that time. Had it been, who knows what would’ve happened?

While I might never push my phones to their physical limits, the Active has offered me some peace of mind.

What initially attracted me to the Active was its physique. Among the uniformity of the Galaxy line, it’s quite distinctive. I was fine with my S3’s body (and thus the S4’s), but my repertoire needed zing. The Active looks and feels meaner, and has better definition. I was beguiled by its industrial design. Disappointing, then, discovering just how skin-deep all that is. Either way, ruggedness would’ve merely been another bit of insurance.

Oh but how naïve I am when first I perceive. Ultimately, all my slate smartphones receive a case. The Active—for all its appeal—was treated the same. Even my first Android, the HTC Inspire 4G, was encased in plastic and silicon. I initially hyped its metal construction, but the material soon became moot. Unless my phone’s a true workhorse, I’m always going to use a case with my slate. So, in terms of form, what actually matters is the case, if you use one.

But I was also attracted to the Active’s front-facing physical buttons (Home, as well as Menu and Back). At least they’re more functional. If submerged, softkeys—along with the touchscreen—become unresponsive, leaving physical buttons the more ideal implementation. Yet, as previously stated, my rationale was different. On my S3, I grew tired of accidently hitting the seamless softkeys during normal use. I also turned their lights off to conserve battery, so under dark conditions, my inputs were hit or miss. On my Active, however, when it’s dark or my attention is fixed upon the screen, I can easily sense the physical buttons out.

Sadly, they’ve proven somewhat fickle. Pushing them at any angle might mean my inputs are unreciprocated. Trying to hit them precisely with one hand—especially with a large phone—is unwieldy. Compounding the matter, they require extra force; nothing excessive, but it’s more than a gentle, quick tap of a softkey. Knowing what I know now, the front-facing physical buttons might’ve been a deal-killer.

Was the S4 Active really an upgrade to the S3?

Seems like a silly question: the next line should naturally improve upon the last. Yet when spinoffs are factored in, that improvement blurs. Then there’s the human factor, which supersedes technical comparisons altogether for personal needs and taste. I already explained why I specifically chose the Active, a spinoff. But I chose Samsung again, looking at the S4 line to give them another chance.

Cameras: Both S3 and S4 Active have 2MP frontal cameras. However, while the S3 has a rear camera at 13MP, Active’s is only 8MP. It does, however, compensate for that with underwater shooting mechanics.

Admittedly, I seldom use the cameras on my phones. And while the technological downgrade does disappoint me, the picture quality is still adequate when I do take pics. Arguably, 8MP could be the sweet spot for small lenses (especially when underwater), while 13MP might encourage artifacts. Then again, I’m just an amateur photographer. The underwater feature might be wasted on me, but I’m sure someone else will find it useful, and likely fun.

Screens: Both S3 and Active use Gorilla Glass 2, while the mainline S4 uses GG 3. I stayed even there; fine by me since my Active didn’t cost more than the S3.

But what could be seen as a downgrade here is the Active’s TFT LCD display. The S3 and the other S4 models all feature Super AMOLED displays. Without expanding too much, Super AMOLED has deeper black and uses less energy. However, there is a benefit to LCD: higher visibility under direct light. An active lifestyle would shed more light on the screen, especially from the brightest source in our solar system. So LCD makes since, even for my rationale. I had trouble seeing my S3’s screen whenever I was outside, including in a well-lit car. With the Active, I really can see a clearer display.

But Samsung went backwards by implementing an older LCD technology, which is less energy efficient even within its own display-class. Dwindling battery-life could be a concern outdoors, depending upon how active you are, and how active the phone is.

Misc.: The Active features a ‘Torch light’ with a physical trigger. When the screen is off, holding down the Volume + button will activate the flash LED. The phone acts more like an actual flashlight than an afterthought reliant upon a touchscreen.

This feature would’ve been nifty if it was consistent. With or without a case, activating the LED in this manner is hit or miss for me. Might as well just unlock the screen (at least with swipe or secured pattern), and tap the ‘Assistive light’ widget. Except, a widget that was standard in the S3 line and the mainline S4 and S4 Mini, was nixed altogether for the Active. I ended up downloading a third-party widget, which luckily cost nothing and was ad-free. Furthermore, if you’re listening to music, the ‘Torch light’ feature is negated, the Volume + is nothing more than a means to increase volume. The potential of this feature is ultimately hampered. A dedicated physical button should’ve been implemented, especially since they excluded the widget.

The Sum Total

Technically, the Active is an upgrade to the S3. It has a bigger screen, increased battery life, and faster processor than the S3 line. Plus, its version of TouchWiz is higher and the OS updates are more up-to-date. And technically, the Active is very similar to the mainline S4. If it were to remove its light armor and weather-stripping, add 5MPs to its rear camera, reinforce its screen with Gorilla Glass 3 instead of GG2, and use Super AMOLED instead of LCD, you’d basically have an S4.

So the Active is sort of like a half-leap, an S3.5 rather than a full increment. In some ways it matches the S4, while in others it stays on par with the S3. Thankfully, it dips no lower (which display is better: Super AMOLED or LCD?). I understand, even forgive these decisions: it’s a spinoff, which also excels in a specific area. By default, spinoffs are outperformed by their flagship. And to charm consumer’s wallets and still add unique attributes, Samsung held back in certain aspects. Surprising how little they compromised.

The Active is a nice phone with a bit of built-in insurance. As I stated earlier, I never tested its water/dust resilience; never had to. That feature does, however, provide great peace of mind. As a whole, the phone still meets my criteria where it counts. But for OS updates, I have to wait behind the mainline S4…running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600, which in turn waits behind another mainline model running on Samsung’s Exynos chip; yep, messy and time-consuming. And I miss having an FM radio in my phone, which not even my S3 had. However, the Active does have the advantage over the obsolescing S3. Actually, it could even be getting a lollipop in early-to-mid 2015.

Yet I’ve become somewhat embittered. My honeymoon with the Active is over, and some of its quirks have started to irk me. Grounds for divorce? Well, it’s complicated. The Active is only partially to blame: the industry itself is leaving my desires in the dust. And there are “quirks” that are entirely Samsung’s fault, which have begun to affect all their phones post Ice Cream Sandwich.

My Opinions on Samsung & the Industry

Size: The Active is bulky, both in my hand and in my pocket. And it’s slightly bulkier than the mainline S4, which itself is large. Whether encased or naked, the same sentiment applies: the phone is unwieldy. After many months of holding the Active, I find myself pining for my smaller S3.

Yet other Android manufacturers have enlarged their models, too. Some do offer the ‘Mini’ variant, including Samsung. Alas, their specs also shrink in the process. My phone, whatever brand, should be both spry and one-handedly navigable. Even my long fingers feel coerced into performing gymnastics; pulling down the Notification Shade is quite the balancing act. Sure, I could use both hands, and I’ve done so. But I’m old-fashioned, still clinging to the wristwatch paradigm: my phone goes with my rarely-used hand, which thus frees up my regularly-used hand. Essentially, I could multi-task in the real world while multi-tasking on my phone. Dropping everything but my phone because it demands attention is counterintuitive.

Further belittling the growing-trend, I’ve minimized my UI over the course of three Androids. I learned to utilize my Drawer and Status Bar, keeping my Homepage uncluttered. Many apps I’ve deemed useless or redundant are completely hidden. I now manage with one Homepage, the Drawer button, a couple app shortcuts, and a weather widget. While I like how prominent my wallpaper is, that my screen is a piece of functional art, there’s still so much wasted space. I love ‘air in my notes’, yet the dimensions only prove to me how decadent the size-increase has become.

Will phablets become the standard size? Will phones like the S4 soon be considered ‘Mini’? Or will this trend eventually start retrogressing?

Android’s allure is choice: the ability to tailor one’s UI; to choose between various manufacturers (both hardware and their UIs), downloadable music vendors…and which size best fits you. Freedom. You also get more software features for less than what the competition is asking, but I digress. I’m aware of the growing-trend’s appeal: viewing videos, navigating webpages, Multi-window…they all benefit from a larger interface. And there’s the cliché: “Bigger is better.”

Yet, by and large, I’d still prefer a more compact, streamlined experience but with comparable power to the mainline devices. When tech is concerned, smaller usually means advanced. When a portable is concerned, smaller is by definition essential. Some things are better on a bigger screen, and that’s where TVs and PCs/laptops/tablets should intervene. ‘Should’; again: choice. Nowadays, though, finding both portability and power in an Android seems almost a fool’s errand.

But what’s on the inside counts. And spending some quality time with two Samsung devices, I’ve felt just how cold their touch has become.

TouchWiz: Since receiving Jelly Bean, TouchWiz broke Android; and my heart. Oversimplified? Overdramatic? Perhaps, but I’m unhappy with the way Samsung’s UI looks and behaves. And they really did gut a standard Android feature that I cherished.

On the surface, the UI appears fairly straightforward, even cheery. Going deeper, however, reveals a rich array of choices to tweak; or turn off. Considering the time and effort required of programmers to accommodate OS updates and spinoffs, TouchWiz might seem more than a touch unwise. Other UIs like HTC’s Sense, LG’s Optimus, and Sony’s “Xperia” (no official name), also require extra maintenance, but none more so than Samsung’s TouchWiz. There are certainly features aplenty in each, and to compete in a crowded market, companies should differentiate themselves. However, Samsung apparently wants to appease every demographic possible. Ironically, that strategy can also repel consumers, including myself. While TouchWiz is very polished, there’s just a glut of, well, stuff. Granted, to sustain an industry, gimmicks will inevitably appear to help stave off diminishing returns.

Forgive my blasé attitude, but ‘Motions and gestures’, ‘Smart screen’, and ‘Air view’ are to me *yawn* unimpressive. To some, intuitive and fun, yet I found them impractical for everyday use. Besides, I prefer tactility. The ‘Recommended apps’ feature, however, is nifty, which provides shortcuts in the Notification Shade. Sadly it’s only available when ‘Earphones’ are plugged in, and is little more than a redundancy to the Multi-window menu. Certainly there’s a market for all these features, and they’re fine considering I can ignore/disable them. Still, the UI is heavy and more prone to glitches and slowdown. Then there’s the overall aesthetic. Call me cynical, but TouchWiz’s vibrant design is a tad cartoony for my tastes, especially regarding a tool such as a phone.

There’s always Google and Motorola phones for the stock experience. But without SD-card support or a cost-reducing contract, vanilla is a flavor I cannot afford to savor. So, I’ve resorted to using a third-party UI, or launcher. Not only do launchers provide a fresh skin, they also provide many features absent from first-party UIs. I was able to relieve much of my vexation. I even regained the ability to hide apps, which Samsung has discontinued of late. Oh but no third-party launcher, app, or keyboard can fix my ultimate woe: the lack of a proper spellchecker.

To be clear, I’m referring to the red underline which appears beneath a misspelled word. And by tapping the misspelling, a dropdown menu appears with a list of possible corrections. This is separate from ‘auto-correct’ or ‘predictive text’, which I refuse to use as they hinder me rather than help.

Only Samsung and a third-party ROM (requires root) can fix this heinous issue. But Samsung’s touch is cold; offended by Jelly Bean, they’ve forbidden this handy feature. And why should I root my phone and risk bricking it? This spellchecker is a standard part of Android. Nay, it’s ubiquitous across various platforms: word processors, web browsers, feature-phones, and other smartphones (Blackberry, Windows Phone, and iPhone); every Droid/Android OEM except Samsung. They changed after Ice Cream Sandwich, and I believe TouchWiz is guilty. I’m baffled and hurt.

Samsung insists on leaving behind what I cherish most. The future of TouchWiz looks so cold to me now, and not even Lollipop will bring back the ubiquitous spellchecker. Likewise, the industry continues its growing-trend. I’m unsure what awaits me after my Galaxy S4 Active. But, for now, I’m looking elsewhere to find true peace of mind.

What are your thoughts on the Active?

Is TouchWiz treating you right?

How do you feel about the growing-trend?

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Headphones Headset

Runaways: Stereo Bluetooth Wireless Headphones/Headset From MEElectronics Review

by Christopher Willhoite

Portable cassette and CD players have become antiques. Even the dedicated Mp3 player has succumbed, albeit partially.  Yet tech inevitably changes, shrinks, and sometimes multiple devices merge into a cohesive whole. Smartphones and tablets have replaced many devices, alleviating the ‘take it or leave it’ dilemma. And among these innate features is music.

So, thinking in those terms, I searched for headphones that would work in concert with my smartphone. I caught up with a pair of Runaways.

To be fair, earbuds are generally packaged with feature/smartphones, thus you might want to save your cash and use those instead. But if you’re a detractor of earbuds, headphones are vital to a personal and considerate listening experience.

Runaways come in various colors, and I favored the “vinyl black and vintage red” option. All models are adjustable and foldable.

The first real detail I noticed was their lightweight feel. They certainly sit comfortably atop my head and press my ears gently. The cushy padding on the speakers and headband also helps. Still, the pair is prone to slippage; bobbing your head is relatively safe, but head-banging or leaning over too far is inadvisable. Otherwise, Runaways stay put reasonably well, maybe jiggling a bit when jogging. They’re also sturdier than they seem; minor bumps and falls were benign in my usage. Alas, after nearly a year of repeated use, the hinges have loosened. At least all the padding has remained intact.

Pairing my Runaways with my Androids was an easy process (Samsung Galaxy S3 and Galaxy S4 Active); the manual was concise, the process quick and painless. And they should pair with just about any relatively modern Bluetooth host. MEElectronics states Runaways can also pair with Blackberry, Windows, and Apple products. I did experience the occasional hiccup when syncing, though I’m unsure which is at fault: the Runaways, my smartphone, outside interference…yet resyncing is a cinch and the second time is usually the charm.

The musical fidelity via Bluetooth is fairly crisp. I listen to an eclectic variety (Classical, Bluegrass, Jazz, Metal, Electronica, etc.), and I’ve been satisfied throughout. My music files are mostly in MP3 & WMA formats, their bitrates both high and low. Audiophiles might disagree with my opinion of the fidelity, but Runaways are for the average listener. Thankfully, though, the headphones are more than just casual. They can be converted into a wired device via a 3.5mm audio cable included in the box. The analog link offers higher fidelity but with other advantages:

+battery conservation (both for the headphones and host devices),

+connection with non-Bluetooth hosts (rendering dongles pointless if even possible on the hosts),

+choice of length (via third-party cable),

+easy, one-part replacement if the cable is damaged (I’ve thrown away entire headphones because their cables inevitably wore out).

That versatility and longevity elevated my opinion of Runaways. Among my prospects, they alone offered such a luxury. Yet music (or video audio for that matter) is only part of their capabilities: They also serve as a Bluetooth headset.

Located within its right phone is a discreet mic. The call-quality is clear for both caller and receiver. The headset aspect for the Runaways seems wireless-only. It can relay calls when wired, but my smartphone is no longer hands-free as I must rely upon its mic. Theoretically, however, an audio cable with mic should work, though I’ve yet to try. If successful, it would enhance the Runaways capabilities, and add to its wired advantages.

Accepting a call is easy, but placing them can be tricky. A multifunction key handles power, play/pause, and calls (accept/disconnect). When you hear an incoming call, just press the key and you’re promptly connected. Redialing the last call you placed is simple, too, just double-press the key. To truly place hands-free calls, however, you need activate voice dialing. Here’s the trickiness: pressing and holding the key until it emits a beep activates voice dialing, but it must be released immediately or the headset shuts down. Attempting to activate voice dialing can easily become a long-press, which is how On/Off is achieved.

Acclimating is doable, but I’m perplexed by MEElectronics’ decision. All keys on the Runaways are rockers (e.g. the Volume key has a dedicated – end and a dedicated + end). So far, so good. Power and call functions were also assigned a rocker. And that would’ve been fine, too, if each ends were dedicated, yet they both behave the same way. The complexity for placing calls could’ve been simplified if its rocker were actually utilized; the labels at each end suggest that’s the direction MEElectronics intended. Even then the best setup would’ve included a separate button for power. At least when voice dialing is initiated, my commands are promptly relayed to my smartphone.

Outside noises are adequately muffled. Yet because the pressure placed on the ears is slight, I do experience some interference. While the immersion factor is iffy, I never felt compelled to turn the volume up too high. Still, this was a trade-off for physical comfort; perhaps a safety feature as well, keeping the user alert. But if I were chasing actual immersion, I would’ve instead caught up with a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Conversely, interior sounds from the Runaways are self-contained when worn, so those around you should be unbothered.

Whether as a headset or as headphones, I found the Bluetooth range amazing. So much so, I sometimes forget about my smartphone, leaving it behind. Three rooms and about fourteen or fifteen normal steps later, the signal finally becomes choppy (results will of course vary). Aside from that, the quality remains consistent. And I’ve utilized this range. While my smartphone is charging, tethered to a wall, I’m free to wander off a ways, enjoying my music while equipped to answer calls.

Alas, my ringtones for callers are replaced on the headset’s side with its own generic ringtone. Odd, considering Runaways do faithfully relay my smartphone’s low-battery alert and text/email ringtones. Even odder for Runaways to emphasize those communiqués when headsets are incapable of responding to them. Yet as a headset—by definition capable of answering calls—Runaways are unable to relay contact-specific ringtones for callers. To discover who’s calling me, I’m either reduced to answering blindly; or reduced to being within earshot of my smartphone. A trifling concern, perhaps, but if that relay system were reversed, Runaways would’ve been more informative.

Runaways also feature their own low-battery alert. I can stay charged for several days with moderate use, but the alert is jarring and overly persistent. The beeping after a period of inactivity while turned on is comparatively pleasant.

Overall: I use my Runaways frequently, and after a year, they’ve endured rather nicely. But aside from their build-quality, aesthetics, price, and twofold nature (headphones/headset), it was their wired/wireless duality that really sold me.

My major disputes with the Runaways (their multifunction key and their inability to relay contact-specific ringtones) are manageable. I think if there were any objective deal-breakers, those would be them. Still, my Runaways comfortably serve my needs. They also fold up somewhat neatly, and the included drawstring pouch is useful and a quality bonus.

Which do you prefer: headphones or earbuds? Why?

Would you catch a pair of Runaways?

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