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printed October 19, 2017
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Review: Samsung Galaxy S8 Active

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Oct 12, 2017, 10:30 AM   by Eric M. Zeman   @phonescooper

Samsung's Galaxy S8 Active is a rugged version of the company's flagship Android smartphone. If you favor form over function, the Active delivers in spades. It includes all the great features of the S8 and packs them into a far tougher form factor that doesn't require a case. More importantly, the S8 Active makes huge gains in the battery department. Here is Phone Scoop's in-depth review.

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Hardware 

Is It Your Type?

The Galaxy S8 Active is a ruggedized version of the Galaxy S8. Though it carries over most of the S8's great features, the S8 Active is a much more robust handset and it includes a significantly bigger battery. If you spend a lot of time outdoors and need a handset that goes like the Energizer bunny on steroids, the S8 Active is one to consider.

Body

Samsung has developed a ruggedized version of its flagship handset each year since the 2013 Galaxy S4 Active. The idea is to create a tougher device that's more able to handle the rigors of daily use by those who don't necessarily sit in cubicles all week long.

From an outward perspective, the S8 Active looks nothing like the S8. Where the S8 is sleek glass, the Active is chunky plastic; where the S8 is the ultimate in hardware refinement, the Active is blunt and a bit of a throwback.

Body  

The Active has thick bezels around the screen, a rigid metal frame that wraps around the exterior, a hardened plastic rear panel, and rubber bumpers at the four corners. While it's not quite a brick-shaped device, the S8 Active is blocky and industrial in appearance. I do like the color combinations. Our review unit is is a deep bluish gray with black accents, though a gold option is available too.

The size comparison between the S8 and Active isn't even close. The Active is taller, wider, thicker, and heavier than the S8. The thickness and weight are what disappoint me the most. We're talking 34% heavier, and it's noticeable. You can still fit the Active into most hands and pockets. The S8 Active is still a better fit for hands than the S8+ or Note8, which are both much taller. Just for the heck of it, I put a UAG rugged case on the S8 and it was still smaller and lighter than the Active. There are definitely phones bigger than the Active in the market, though few are heavier.

It's not all metal-and-glass, but you can't ding the Active's build quality nor hardiness. The metal frame encircling the outer edge is thick and crazy strong, the rear panel is hardened plastic, and the glass is protected thanks to a rim formed by the metal frame. It's easy to write off plastic as cheap, but the rear plate of the Active feels like it's bulletproof. All of these components are fitted together tightly; there are no gaps in the seams anywhere. As noted, the phone is semi-rugged (to military specs) for protection against abuse. Apart from the sturdier frame, four rubber bumpers stretched over the four corners provide excellent cushioning in the event of a drop. Samsung says the shatterproof screen should be safe from drops up to 5 feet. Certainly, drops from waist height onto concrete, asphalt, tile, and other surfaces weren't a problem when I tested it.

The curved screen and nearly non-existent bezels are what define the S8's sultry profile. There's nothing svelte about the Active's flat-faced front surface. The bezels surrounding the Active's display are a few millimeters thicker than the S8's all the way around. The result detracts from the idea of the original S8's Infinity Display; the screen may be tall with rounded corners, but the Active looks pretty much like any normal phone. The Active doesn't use physical buttons and instead relies on software controls for the Android system.

Two buttons are located along the Active's left edge. The top button is the volume toggle. It's only about an inch long, which makes it somewhat easy to accidentally press up when you mean to press down, and vice versa. It has a great profile, however, and travel and feedback are excellent. The second button is dedicated to Samsung's Bixby personal assistant tool and it also has good travel and feedback. The lock button is where you expect it to be, on the Active's right edge. It works as well as the other side keys. Samsung tucked the nano SIM and microSD memory card tray in the phone's top edge.

Like the S8, the Active includes a standard headphone jack, USB-C port, and speaker on the bottom edge.

Samsung created some sort of polycarbonate material to form the rear panel of the S8 Active. It has slight ridges along the outer edges and a softer, stone-like pattern across the majority of the flat section. It is slightly, slightly spongy.

The fingerprint reader and camera array are near the top edge of the phone. The fingerprint reader is placed immediately to the right of the camera module. Everyone griped about the positioning of the fingerprint reader on the S8, myself included. After using the S8 for a while longer, I can tell you you'll get used to it fairly quickly. The one thing that still bugs me is the reader's proximity to the camera module. This ensures you're going to get fingerprints all over the lens, hurting photo quality. That's why the camera app regularly reminds you to wipe the lens clean.

In addition to being rugged, the S8 Active is waterproof, though so is the S8. The two phones share the same IP68 rating, which means you can let the S8 Active sit in 1.5 meters of water for up to 30 minutes. I tested this and found the phone suffered no damage after spending some time at the bottom of my local river.

Screen

The S8 Active forgoes the curved glass of the S8, but still has a 5.8-inch display with an (tall / narrow) 18.5:9 aspect ratio and 2,960 by 1,440 pixels. The Active relies on a Samsung-made Super AMOLED display. The resolution is second-to-none and the S8 Active delivers razor-sharp text, images, and graphics. The display is very bright and easy to use indoors and out. Viewing angles are very good.

Samsung allows you to dial down the effective screen resolution to save battery life.The middle option is only slightly less amazing than the phone's full resolution. (The middle option is actually the default out of the box.)

The full resolution (Quad HD+) is really only necessary for virtual reality. I checked out the S8 Active with Samsung's latest Gear VR headset. The VR experience is excellent, and that's just one of many reasons why the S8 Active is so good.

The shape of the display is well-suited to running two apps at the same time. This split-screen mode does look better on the larger S8+ and Note8, though it's still functional on the S8 Active.

Display  

Signal

The S8 Active is an AT&T exclusive and it even drops support for some (non-AT&T) LTE bands when compared to the S8, which is a shame. I tested the Galaxy S8 Active on AT&T's network in and around New York City and was mostly impressed.

The S8 Active always remained connected to the network, even when the signal was weak. The phone consistently delivered fast speeds.

The S8 Active was able to connect all calls on the first dial. It maintained calls over long distances at highway speeds, and didn't drop any calls while I tested it. The cellular radio does its job well.

Sound

Phone calls made via the S8 Active's earpiece sounded good. I'd rate calls as average when compared to other AT&T handsets. The earpiece delivers clear voices that have a pleasant tone. I didn't have any trouble hearing calls in coffee shops, on city streets, or other noisy spaces. People I spoke to through the phone said I sounded very good.

The S8 Active supports WiFi calling. Setting this service up hardly takes more than a few seconds (as long as your carrier supports it) and delivers a small but noticeable upgrade to audio quality when in use.

The speakerphone is decent. During my tests I found I could keep the volume at about 60% for quiet, indoor use, but outdoor noisy spaces require you to crank it up. Distortion mars clarity when you push the volume too much.

Ringers and alerts are loud enough to get your attention, and the vibrate function always made me take notice.

The S8 Active does not include the specially-tuned AKG earbuds that come with the S8, and this is a shame.

Battery

Battery life is probably the most important differentiator between the S8 and S8 Active. The Active's battery rates a massive 4,000 mAh, or 33% bigger than that of the S8. (This probably accounts for the lion's share of the Active's weight gain.)

The Active delivers superb battery life. The huge power cell pushes through 1.5 days consistently, and sometimes stretched to nearly 2 full days on a single charge. Few mainstream phones available today offer as much battery life. The Active easily outlasts the larger S8+ and Note8.

The S8 Active includes Samsung's trio of power-consumption modes: off, mid, max. Mid reduces some behaviors, and Max really restrains the phone. Moreover, each mode can be customized to a certain degree (tweak brightness, CPU output, notifications, etc.) so you get exactly what you want/need out of them. You can also take control of individual apps to make sure they aren't draining power in the background.

The S8 Active supports Quick Charge 3.0 and rapid wireless charging. It will take longer (than the S8) to charge, however, due to the bigger battery. When plugged into the included wired charger, I found the S8 Active charged from 40% to 100% in 80 minutes. Wireless charging took a bit longer using Samsung's rapid wireless charging pad.

Battery  

Bluetooth, GPS, NFC, WiFi

The S8 Active paired with phones, cameras, headsets, speakers, PCs, and other Bluetooth devices without issue. The Bluetooth software made the process painless. Calls sent to mono headsets sounded decent, while calls routed to my car's hands-free system were a bit below-average thanks to some distortion. Music pushed to a stereo speaker sounded amazing.

The GPS radio worked perfectly with Google Maps and other location-based apps. Maps was able to pinpoint me rapidly, and location was as good as 10 feet. The S8 Active makes for a fine point-to-point navigation device.

The S8 Active ships with Samsung Pay, which is one of many apps that can take advantage of the phone's NFC. The S8 Active is also compatible with Android Pay. I mostly used the NFC radio to assist in pairing with Bluetooth accessories, which it did well.

Last, the Galaxy S8 Active packs dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac WiFi. This means the S8 Active is compatible with faster versions of WiFi.

Software 

Editor's Note: The S8 Active runs nearly identical software as the S8 and S8+, so some of the below text has been carried over from our earlier reviews of those devices. Rest assured, we thoroughly re-tested every facet and feature of the S8 Active.

Lock Screen

The S8 Active includes an Always On display, which means you can always see the clock, date, battery percentage, and notifications. The notifications can range from simple badges to the full text of incoming messages. Samsung offers plenty of ways to tweak the Always On display.

Lock Screen  

The easiest way to turn the screen on is to press the screen lock button on the right side of the phone. This brings up your wallpaper, full notifications, access to the Quick Setting menu, and lock screen shortcuts. You can also reach this screen by pushing the new “home button”. Samsung replaced the physical home button with a software key on the front. It's a little square that sits at the bottom of the display. It's always visible, part of the Always On display. A simple tap won't do it; you need to hard-press or double-press the button.

You can set a PIN, pattern, or password for security. You need to wake the phone and then swipe up on the screen to access these locking methods. The same is also true of the iris scanner and facial recognition tool. Once you've woken the display and swiped up, using the iris scanner is pretty quick. The iris scanner, in particular, can read your eyes in less than a second. However, if you're in near total darkness or out in super bright sunlight the iris scanner doesn't want to work well. It's better if you don't wear glasses.

The facial recognition tool is inconsistent. It was able to read my face about 60% of the time. That's still too high a failure rate. Moreover, researchers suggest it can be fooled by a photo of your face. The steps for recording your irises or face are simple enough. Each offers a rich tutorial to walk you through the process.

Using any of these five locking methods (PIN, pattern, password, iris, face) takes too much time. You have to wake the screen, swipe to reach the lock, then interact with the lock. Three steps is two too many.

Iris Recognition  

Use the fingerprint reader on the back. It's easy to record multiple fingerprints and, once you get used to the reader's location, it's by far the quickest and most consistently simple way to unlock the phone. Grab the S8 Active, touch the fingerprint reader, and the phone skips the lock screen / unlock screen entirely and goes straight to your home screen.

Home Screens

The Galaxy S8 Active ships with Android 7 (Nougat) on board and the latest build of Samsung's user interface skin. It's highly configurable, and sometimes annoyingly complex.

Samsung ditched the app drawer, sort of. Instead of a dedicated apps button, you'll find if you swipe the home screen up or down the app drawer will appear. Samsung's solution is elegant in its simplicity, even if it's not intuitive at first. After a day or two, though, I found the swiping gesture to be quick and easy. You need to be nimble-fingered about it; if you press too long or too hard you might accidentally perform a different action.

The app drawer is organized alphabetically by default. The entire drawer can be arranged however you wish, including folders. Samsung allows you to hide unwanted apps, but I found only a couple could be removed completely. AT&T bloatware is significant, though the bulk of it can at least be hidden from view.

Home Screen  

The Quick Settings panel has clean icons and blue-on-white coloring. You can customize the Quick Settings panel to a small degree. The main settings screen is really nice. Like the Quick Settings panel, it uses clean colors, sharp fonts, and bright backgrounds to facilitate readability.

You can spend hours and hours customizing the S8 Active. For example, the phone offers access to Samsung's themes. Only a couple are pre-installed, but you can download more. Some themes are free, some cost a few dollars. All of them change the entire visual experience, from the wallpapers to the icons to the fonts and colors.

Then there are the small tweaks. How many apps do you want on the home screens (4x5, 5x5, 6x5)? How big do you want the icons to be (small, medium, large)? Which font do you want? Do you want icons with or without borders? Care to re-arrange the software buttons at the bottom of the screen? You can.

App Drawer  

You can multitask on the S8 Active by running two apps at the same time in separate windows. Not all apps are supported, but those that are have a distinct icon (two rectangles on top of one another) to indicate their compatibility with the tool. It works fine and takes maybe 60 seconds to master. The S8 Active's extra-tall screen really helps here.

A good number of third-party apps already support the new aspect ratio on the S8. Those that don't have extra black space at the top and bottom on the S8 Active, though you can elect to stretch them out if you wish.

The S8 Active includes Easy Mode, which gets rid of the “complicated” home screen panels and app drawer in favor of larger icons and fewer screens through which to navigate. This tool is meant for people who may be new to smartphones, or for those who have seriously bad eyesight.

You can use a number of different hand gestures to control the phone. For example, you can capture a screenshot by swiping the edge of your hand across the display, or call the displayed contact by bringing the phone to your ear. Incoming calls can be muted by placing your palm on the screen or turning the phone over.

The S8 Active drops Samsung's Edge Panels entirely. This feature, available to the S8, S8+, and Note8, is designed for curved-edge screens, which the S8 Active lacks.

The Galaxy S8 Active is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor with 4 GB of RAM. This is Qualcomm's best. The S8 Active crushed everything I asked it to. Every app on the phone runs quickly and smoothly, screen transitions are fluid, and the phone practically begs for a real challenge. Even running it for an hour in the Gear VR didn't seem to task the processor much.

Camera

Several options open the camera, including a double-press of the screen lock button and the lock screen shortcut. The camera jumps to life in a blink.

The main viewfinder is fairly typical: tools on the left, viewfinder in the middle, shutter buttons on the right. Swipe the viewfinder up or down to switch to the selfie camera, swipe right to open shooting modes, swipe left to open Instagram-style filters. The camera has separate picture and video buttons, which make it easy to snap photos when shooting video. The controls on the left allow you to toggle the flash and HDR to on, off, or auto.

Camera  

As far as the shooting modes are concerned, the S8 Active includes auto, pro, panorama, selective focus, slow-motion, hyperlapse, food, and virtual shot. Sadly, there's no mode for shooting under water.

The “pro” mode lets you tweak most of the camera's core settings, including exposure, white balance, autofocus, color, shutter speed (up to 10 seconds), and ISO. It's a little difficult to use. Adjusting the settings requires you to slide your finger up and down the right side of the screen, which is where the control bar appears. If your finger is off just a little bit, however, you'll accidentally swipe yourself into selfie mode and lose the pro mode entirely.

The S8 Active's camera builds in masks, stickers, filters, and other extras for enhancing your pix before you share them on social media. The “masks” tool includes a decent variety and lets you adorn your face with the ears/snout of a dog, cat, bat, deer, rabbit, sheep, and other animals. Moreover, opening and closing your mouth when using a mask generally causes it to animate in some entertaining way. The stickers are rather simple black-and-white affairs. The phone has at least 16 different filters. These tools are available when using both the main camera and the selfie camera.

Camera Filters  

Last, the camera includes Bixby Vision. Once enabled, the Bixby Vision shooting mode turns on Bixby's artificial intelligence to help you figure out what you're looking at. Bixby Vision can read/translate text, read QR/barcodes, and help you shop with location-based suggestions.

The camera, like every other app on the phone, performs incredibly well. It's fast through and through.

Camera Settings  

Photos/Video

The S8 Active, with its 12-megapixel sensor, optical image stabilization, and f/1.7 aperture, takes incredible pictures.

I used it around town for a weekend and on a quick trip into NYC. Like the S8 and S8+, which share camera features, the S8 Active got the job done beautifully. Focus was sharp, white balance was accurate, and exposure was spot-on. The S8 Active's camera impressed me in every way.

The S8 Active has a powerful 8-megapixel user-facing camera with screen-based flash, autofocus, and an f/1.7 aperture of its own. The selfie cam does a really, really good job. Seriously, putting autofocus in the user-facing camera goes a long way to improving the sharpness of selfies, particularly in low light. As noted above, you can make use of the masks, stickers, and filters when using the selfie cam, as well as the “beautification” tool.

On the video front, the S8 Active captures resolutions up to 4K. The best features — HDR capture, video effects, tracking autofocus — aren't available when shooting in 4K or 2K. The S8 Active's video camera does an excellent, excellent job. Video is sharp, rich in color, and properly exposed. My only complaint would be about the grain I saw in some low-light environments. The HDR mode helps mitigate this a bit.

Nearly everyone should be happy using the Galaxy S8 Active as their main device for capturing photos and videos.

Photo Samples  

Bixby

The small key on the left side of the S8 Active activates Bixby. Samsung recently made it possible to deactivate this button, though it cannot be remapped to perform any other action. After fully testing the feature, I've decided Bixby is not for me. It's simply not as useful nor as convenient as Google Assistant.

On first launch you'll be asked some simple questions to get started. The Bixby screen includes cards that present a lot of information about you and the stuff you typically do. For example, it details the weather, your next calendar appointment, and highlights from your Twitter and Facebook feeds. This is really no different from competing services from other handset makers.

More than just launching apps, Bixby allows you to interact with apps by calling up their menus and settings so you can, ostensibly, do everything that particular app can do all through voice commands. You have to have an incredible amount of familiarity with each app and its organizational structure to fully take advantage of this. I struggled to get Bixby to really do complex tasks. At best, I could get it to do things like open the email app and create a draft email to a specific contact. Don't get me wrong, that's helpful, but it's not all that different from what Google Assistant can do.

Bixby  

Activity Zone

The Activity Zone app is specific to the S8 Active. It keeps track of weather and includes a barometer, compass, flashlight, health and stopwatch. On older Active handsets, you'd launch the Activity Zone by pressing a dedicated hardware button. On the S8 Active, you have to poke the home screen shortcut or ask Bixby to launch the app.

As much as I like having these tools, the app is basic at best. It's quicker to use the Quick Settings shade to reach the flashlight, and Bixby or Google Assistant are much faster at launching timers. The barometer is a nice addition, and it appears to be accurate at gauging elevation. Nearly every phone has a compass, so this is hardly a unique addition.

Activity Zone  

Wrap-Up 

The Samsung Galaxy S8 Active is a solid piece of hardware that would be impressive if the S8 hadn't preceded it. The S8 is more attractive in every way, and feels better in the hand thanks to its slim profile and comfortable weight. The Active makes up for the size increase with its rugged exterior, which is able to handle loads more punishment than the S8.

Many of the S8's best features are intact in the Active, such as the signal/call quality, display, powerful software, excellent camera, and accessory-friendly design thanks to the memory card slot and headphone jack.

What really sets the phone apart is battery life. Few handsets in the market today can push through more than a day and a half on a single charge. This feature alone may make the Active a worthy purchase.

If you need a sturdy device that handles punishment, survives long hours in the field, takes excellent pictures, and performs well across the board, then by all means opt for the Galaxy S8 Active. More to the point, if you want a device that has the case already (and permanently) applied, then opt for the Active.

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