Review: Samsung Galaxy S4 Active for AT&T
Samsung is pitching the Samsung Hub hard on the Active. Though it has offered its content store on devices for years, Samsung really means it this time. The Samsung Hub is featured much more prominently on the Active and competes directly with Google's own offering. The Samsung Hub can be used to purchase/rent music, movies, books, and games.
The top-level navigation tools within Samsung Hub look gorgeous. You slide the screen side-to-side to see featured music, video, book, and game content; here, the images/fonts used are clean, crisp, and pleasing to look at. Touch anywhere on these top-level navigation screens to dive down into each individual content store. This is where things get messy. Browsing for content is a horribly clunky experience that made me want to tear my hair out.
Browsing through the music store, for example, it shows just a few featured artists/recordings on the main screen. You can't go far beyond this screen without stumbling into the search tool, which is finicky. My searches generally turned up no results, or thousands of results. Further, the selection/availability of titles was sorely lacking.
To be quite honest, the app is so clunky to use and the selection so inconsistent, I can't imagine why anyone would want to skip Google's content store (which also has limitations) in favor of the Samsung Hub. Samsung told me that music purchased from its Hub is free of DRM, but movies are limited to playback on other Samsung devices, be they tablets, laptops, or TVs. At least the content you buy from Google can be played back on a larger range of devices.
The Active also includes the bare-bones MP3 and video player apps, as well as the stock YouTube app. These are your best options if you choose to listen to music or watch videos you've stored on a microSD cards.
AT&T's Live TV app is installed, as well. AT&T's mobile TV app, which is a for-pay subscription service, streams live and recorded TV over AT&T's network. Performance depends on a having a solid connection to the network. LTE dramatically improves performance here. Considering all the other free options on the Active, why anyone would bother to use this service is beyond me.
Group Play is a feature that only works with other Active and GS4 variants, so it won't be of much use to most people unless their whole family or friend circle has jumped on the GS4 bandwagon. It essentially allows one Active owner to play some music and have others connect to and stream the same song at the same time. Samsung showed us how it works in a demonstration with about six handsets. The software is dead simple to use and relies on Wi-Fi Direct technology to hand-shake and pair everything. With music playing on the host device, everyone can hear it in unison, and it creates an immersive surround-sound effect. The app has a cool visualizer, too, for added ambiance. Other than at a party or family get together, I can't imagine this feature being very useful, but it is pretty neat.
Samsung Link is slightly more useful than Group Play in that it connects the Active to other DLNA-compatible devices for playing back more types of media. It offers a really simple set of screens to help users connect their Active to their TV, stereo system, etc., and stream music, photos, and movies to those devices. I found the software significantly easier to use than previous iterations and I had no trouble pairing with my Samsung TV.
The last component of Samsung's new living room push is WatchOn. This multi-functional app wants to be your TV remote and content guide on steroids. First and foremost, WatchOn acts as a remote control for your television set, cable box, and home theater. The IR blaster is hidden in the top of the Active. The process to setup the remote app so that it properly controls your gear is very simple and requires but a few steps. The IR blaster is somewhat finicky, though, and requires you to aim pretty carefully at the devices you want to control in order to work.
Beyond the basic remote functionality, WatchOn includes a massive content guide (powered by the Peel engine) that lets Active owners view their TV show data, search for shows, schedule recordings, see what movies are available for streaming on which services (Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc.), and more. It also lets you place-shift whatever is on the main TV to the Active so that program can be watched even if you leave the room. WatchOn has a recommendation engine that learns user behaviors over time, and will suggest things like, "Hey, your favorite show is on now, check it out," along with similar content it thinks you might like.
There's also one more feature that's specific to Samsung Smart TVs and the Active. In households with a Samsung Smart TV, the Active owner can be in another room and, through their home network, log into the Samsung Smart TV to see what content is being played on that particular TV. Samsung pitched it as a way for parents to keep tabs on what the kids are watching.
Having the TV remote alone is a very useful feature. Personally, I don't have much immediate need for all the powers of WatchOn, but I see the value it offers for those who want to place/time-shift their content.