Review: Samsung Galaxy S4 Active for AT&T
Aside from the outer shell, the Active's display is one of the few elements that differentiates it from the standard GS4. Where the standard GS4 uses a Super AMOLED panel, Samsung opted for an LCD screen on the Active. It has the same 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution. This was a necessary change given the device's rugged and water-resistant nature. All that said, it is an impressive screen. Text and images look razor sharp, colors looked great, and there's plenty of brightness for outdoor viewing. I will say that the screen's brightness controls required more manual adjustment. If left in auto-brightness mode, it sometimes wouldn't compensate enough for certain lighting situations.
The Active performed well on AT&T's network in the metro NYC area. I found it to be on par with other AT&T devices tested in the same region. For example, it displayed the same signal strength that the HTC One did in most locations where I tested it. I was able to connect calls on the first dial and the Active didn't miss any calls, and didn't drop any calls during my review period. It was able to connect calls even in areas with the weakest coverage. It performed similarly well for data. The Active nearly always offered quick browsing speeds, and when under LTE it absolutely screamed.
Oh man, the Active's call quality completely nose-dives compared to the standard GS4. It's way below par. Not only are calls muffled and flat, but the earpiece doesn't produce nearly enough volume. I thought the quality of calls was rough at best. I heard echoes, interference, and tonal issues. The earpiece was incredibly disappointing, considering how awesome the regular GS4 is. It's just not loud enough, not even with the "Extra Volume" feature enabled. It is possible this can be attributed, in part, to the extra rubber membranes necessary to waterproof the speaker components, but even that doesn't excuse the poor performance I experience. The Kyocera Torque, for example, is also waterproof and does a much better job of making phone calls. The Active offers noise cancellation, but it only improves outbound sound. Speaking of which, people with whom I spoke through the Active said I sounded tinny and far away. The speakerphone performs just as poorly as the earpiece does. Call quality is sketchy, and it's not loud enough. Ringers and alert tones can be heard in most environments. The Active can be set to boost the ringer volume when it senses the device is in a pocket, a feature that works well. I thought the vibrate alert was both strong and very noisy. It’s not silent, which isn’t ideal at, say, a theater.
The Active sports the same 2,600mAh battery that the standard GS4 does. Over the course of several days, I found that it provided about one full day of battery life, but not much more than that. I spent about half of my review period in regions covered by AT&T's LTE network, so it's good to know that the Active will keep its charge even under 4G. The Active will do well for most people, but it will need to be plugged in each night.