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Review: Samsung Galaxy S5 Active for AT&T

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Menus

Hardware aside, the Active differs very little from the GS5 when it comes to the operating system, apps, and services on board. It runs Android 4.4.2 KitKat with Samsung's TouchWiz user interface on top. It will feel familiar if you're coming from any other Galaxy-branded Samsung device.

The Active's home screen panels are completely customizable, and the app menu can display apps in an alphabetical grid, in a custom grid, or in an alphabetical list. You can make use of folders to keep the app menu (and home screens) organized.

By default, the lock screen includes a shortcut to the camera, but you can add more if you want. The lock screen can show one or two clocks, the date and weather, select notifications, and a series of different locks. The Active doesn't have the GS5's fingerprint sensor and associated unlocking tool, so you have to use a PIN, password, or pattern.

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Lock Screen  

Samsung made a jumble out of the easy-to-use settings tools provided by Google in favor of an icon-laden screen that's ridiculously annoying. I want to find and adjust settings quickly. I don't want to hunt for them. The new settings panel is far too confusing. It attempts to lump certain settings together (such as wireless radios), but duplicates the controls several times throughout. Thankfully, the settings view can be changed to a list or a tab.

Menus  

The notification tray adopts the settings panel's design language, but the effect is much different. The icons and toggles are easy to read and discern from one another. I do dislike how much junk has become part of the notification tray, though. In addition to toggles for the radios and other controls, there's a brightness slider, another row of controls, and then the notifications. The extra controls take away valuable real estate from the actual notifications.

Settings  

The Active includes Samsung's Easy Mode, which is an optional, dramatically simplified user interface. It's meant for first-time smartphone owners and helps them get over the initial hump of using a touch screen device. The phone also offers a one-handed mode, which shrinks the UI down by about 25% and lumps it into one corner. The idea behind one-handed operation is to make elements such as the keyboard, dialpad, and other controls easier to reach with your thumb. The one-handed mode can be turned on with a quick (very quick) back-and-forth swiping gesture. It took one or two practice swipes to get it correct, but once learned, it worked without issue.

Multi-Window  

The Active includes the same quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor found in the GS5. It's a beast and makes short work of any task you assign it. The Active is fast across the board and never felt slow or laggy.

Calls and Contacts

The Active's phone app is more or less the stock version of the Android dialer, but it's reskinned with Samsung's TouchWiz UI effects. It offers plenty of customization options that allow owners to make the phone's behavior suit their needs. When the dial pad is visible, tap the menu button to see an options screen for the phone. Here is where to set rejection behaviors, alerts, answering/ending calls, set up voicemail, and control the TTY functions. You can turn on/off noise cancellation, as well as dial in your own preferences for volume, clarity, and warmth.

Calls  

The contact app plops favorites in a tab at the top of the phone app. A second tab provides access to the entire contact database. The Active includes home screen shortcuts for direct access to individual contacts on the home screen panel, but there isn't a larger widget for your favorite contacts.

Contacts  

Messaging

The Active includes the native Android communication tools, which are email, Gmail, Google+, and Google+ Hangouts. Neither Facebook nor Twitter is pre-installed. Samsung's own ChatOn app is pre-installed. ChatOn is a cross-platform IM app that uses data rather than SMS to deliver messages, but the Active has the generic SMS app from Google, too.

ChatON  

AT&T's Messaging app is also included. This is a catch-all instant messaging app that bundles together IM functions and SMS into one. The idea is to give you one spot in which to manage your SMS and IM threads. It's an OK service, and accomplishes its main goal without trouble. However, in my opinion, it's a bit clunky to use, and the individual apps it attempts to replace (SMS, Hangouts, Yahoo IM, etc.) are more feature-rich.

Messaging  

My Magazine

The Active includes a new-ish app from Samsung called My Magazine. Like HTC's Blinkfeed, My Magazine consumes one of the Active's home screen panels. By default, it is set to pull down select headlines from a few different sources and create a visually pleasing magazine spread with them. You can adjust the news sources and tie in your own social networking accounts. Both Flipboard and Blinkfeed offer a much larger pool of potential content sources, though. Samsung's My Magazine is limited to generic feeds rather than specific ones. For example, there's a "Music" feed, but not a "Rolling Stone" feed. My Magazine can hook into Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Google+, Flickr, 500pix, RenRen, and SINA Weibo. If you're the type who likes to consume content from numerous sources in one feed, My Magazine gets the job done.

My Magazine  

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