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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