Review: Samsung Galaxy S6 Active for AT&T
There is no shortage of media apps on the Active, that's for sure. By default, the phone comes with Google's Play apps for buying and consuming movies, books, TV shows, and magazines. It also supplies the native YouTube app, as well as basic music and video apps for playing side-loaded content. I rather like the music player, but the movie app is somewhat bare-bones.
Samsung installed its own Milk Music app on the Active. This uses Slacker's back-end but has a user interface created by Samsung. It's actually pretty cool and the selection of music is solid. You have to pay to get an ad-free experience. Samsung also stuck its Milk Video service on the Active. Milk Video is kind of like YouTube Lite, but highly curated.
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Other media apps include AT&T Mobile TV, which streams video content over the network. It works best via LTE.
Last, there's a separate app called Peel, which acts as both a TV remote control and content guide for your cable provider. (HTC uses this same app on the One M9.) It's really, really easy to set the app up so you can control your home theater equipment. The Peel engine is pretty good for scouring through your cable provider's content, but also includes options from streaming services, such as Hulu and Netflix.
Samsung completely overhauled the camera application and that's a good, good thing. The app is so much cleaner and easier to use than Samsung's older camera software. There's no dedicated camera button out of the box, but you can program the Activity key to open the camera with a long press, if you want. You can also set the camera to launch — even when the phone is locked — with two quick presses of the home button. It springs to life spritely.
The shutter buttons are on the right and the settings and other tools are on the left. Gone are the design-heavy icons and elements, which have been replaced with simpler, black-and-white icons. In addition to a large shutter button, the controls on the right also include a separate button for capturing video, one for accessing your photo gallery, another for switching to the selfie camera, and one more for accessing the different shooting modes. On the left, the settings strip includes toggles for the flash, HDR, timer, and effects. The strip also lets you access the camera's full settings menu. Some of the tools in there let you adjust aspect ratio and image size, set location tags and review behaviors, and so on.
If you tap anywhere on the screen, it will focus on that spot but you still need to press the shutter button to take a picture. If you press-and-hold, it will focus on that spot and also use it to set the exposure.
Rather than besiege users with 50 different shooting modes preinstalled on the phone, there are only seven: normal, pro, bokeh, panorama, slow-mo, timelapse, and virtual shot. All the old shooting modes from Galaxy S phones of years past (Shot & More, Sound & Shot, etc.) are available for download from Samsung if you want them.
The normal shooting mode is for those who want to simply point-and-shoot. The pro mode is for those who like to take more control over options such as white balance, focal distance, ISO (or speed), exposure, and so on. In fact, these tools are only available in the pro mode.
The other effects behave as they do on other phones, but the virtual tour tool is pretty unique. When in this mode, you walk around a still object (like a car, or a statue) while recording a handful of shots. You can then send that collection of images to others, providing them with a virtual tour of whatever the object is. They can pan through the images to see what it is like from all sides. I don't really find this all that useful. Sending a short video clip makes more sense to me.
Then there are the different selfie modes. Samsung made it (sort of) easier to take selfies when using the front camera. Let's face it, getting that perfect shot of yourself and touching the screen can be awkward. With the Active, switch to the front camera and aim the phone at yourself. You'll see a circle appear around your face. This means the camera recognizes that a person is in the frame. Then place your finger over the heart rate sensor on the back of the phone to take the picture. It's easier to do in real life than it is to explain it. The bummer is that it doesn't always work.
The selfie camera also includes a wide-angle mode for those group shots, and an interval mode for taking four photos in quick succession. The interval shot mode is to help get the best possible selfie. You pick to keep the one you like best once the shots are all taken.
Lastly, the Active includes an Aqua Mode. Since the screen won't respond to touch when the device is underwater, selecting this mode lets you capture pictures by pressing the Activity key and capture video by pressing the up volume toggle. It also attempts to correct the colors unique to underwater scenes.
My favorite aspect of the camera is its speed. It is always lightning quick to do everything. Camera applications can sometimes be a drag on processors, but the S6 handled the app just fine. It was quick, speedy, fast.
I like the overhauled camera software very much.
The Active has a 16-megapixel sensor and an aperture of f/1.9 to let in more light. It's a very capable camera and performs beautifully. I was very pleased with the results I achieved with the camera. Focus, exposure, and white balance were almost always spot-on, even in challenging spaces with lots of bright and dark spots. I hardly saw any grain. Colors look fantastic. It really is a great smartphone camera and can cover most of your needs. I'd say it's almost as good as the iPhone 6 / 6 Plus camera, and leagues better than the HTC One M9 camera. With the Galaxy Active in your pocket, you shouldn't ever need to worry about missing those special moments as they occur.
The selfie camera has a 5-megapixel sensor and it, too, is highly capable. My ugly mug never looked so good. People who are big fans of themselves will be really happy with the Active's selfie prowess.
The video camera can capture video up to 4K resolution, and also includes quad HD, full HD, 720p HD, and VGA options. It's probably best to ignore the 4K setting unless you have a 4K TV or display handy. Shooting with the quad HD setting lets you use every pixel on the phone's screen when playing the video back. The resolution is crazy good.
Whichever resolution floats your boat, the S6 delivers sharp, accurate video. I was impressed with the results. The video camera is good enough to cover most of your potential video needs.
Like many phones these days, the Active has both Google's Photos gallery app and one created by Samsung. The Samsung gallery is actually rather decent. It makes organizing photos a snap thanks to clear and easy controls for sorting and moving them around. When viewing individual photos, a control strip along the bottom lets you access sharing and editing tools. The sharing dialog box closely resembles the one in the Google Photos app, but adds a couple of options for mirroring the screen to nearby devices, sending the photo to your TV (via DLNA, and also printing them.) These functions all worked well. The editing tools aren't as advanced as the one in Google's app, but they are a breeze to use. There's an auto-adjust function as well as rotate and crop. There's a really neat collage creator for piecing together a handful of images, and a more in-depth editor for adding effects and changing things like contrast, brightness, color saturation, and so on.
Want to save your photos online? There are at least three ways. First, the Google Photos app can be set to automatically upload your images. Second, Samsung will store them if you set up an account. Third, Microsoft OneDrive is available if you prefer to store your photos on Microsoft's servers rather than Google's or Samsung's.
AT&T is one of the worst offenders when it comes to bloatware. AT&T is, however, allowing Active owners to delete some (but not all) of its third-party add-ons. Some of the bloatiferous apps include AT&T Live, AT&T Locker, AT&T Navigator, AT&T Mail, AT&T Mobile Locate, Smart Limits, Usage Manager, Mobile TV, Digital Live, and AT&T Mobile Transfer. Let's not forget Amazon, AT&T FamilyMap, the Galaxy App Store, Keeper, Lookout, Uber, and Yellow Pages. You're allowed to get rid of about half of these. The Active has about 22 GB of storage available for end users.
You shouldn't have any trouble with the Active's Bluetooth radio. It connected to everything I threw at it, including headsets, speakers, other phones, smartwatches, PCs, and my car. I made some calls with the Active through my car's hands-free system and they sounded quite good. Music sounded awesome blasting from my best Bluetooth speaker thanks to the aptX profile.
The generic internet browser app is still making its way onto Android smartphones and I don't know why. It's not a bad app, but there's no point in including both it and Chrome. That gripe aside, the two browsers each do a fine job of rendering web sites on the phone's screen. I thought speeds were particularly speedy over AT&T's LTE network. Web sites look fantastic on the quad-HD display.
The lock screen offers a large digital clock and the weather, if you want them. You can choose to leave the home screen blank, have just the clock, or the clock and weather. I wish the white clock were a bit easier to read.
The GPS radio worked fine and was very quick to pinpoint my location. It functioned well with both Google Maps and AT&T Navigator application. Maps is great for getting yourself from place to place, and even better when it comes to searching for nearby points of interest. AT&T's app is functional, but not as feature-rich as Google Maps. It does, however, respond better to dynamic driving conditions. I don't think it's worth the extra monthly fee.
Samsung's good ole' S Voice, S Finder, and S Health apps are available if you care to use them. S Voice is Samsung's voice-activated assistant, but it's nowhere close to being as good as Google Now (or Siri or Cortana, for that matter). It functions OK for doing basics, like making phones calls.
S Finder is Samsung's phone-based search tool. It will help you discover anything on your phone. It's available from the notification tray.
S Health is Samsung's health and fitness tracker. It's actually quite good. You build yourself a little profile and can then track workouts, your diet, set goals, and stuff like that. The heart rate monitor works, but only when you stand still. That means no checking your rate mid-workout.
The S6 Active has a series of tools packaged together into a single dashboard called the Activity panel. A short press of the Activity button on the left side of the phone opens the panel. There are six core apps: weather, barometer, S Health, compass, flashlight, and stopwatch. You can also turn music on/off for workouts.
Each of the Activities can be expanded and used on the full screen. I was surprised at how accurate the barometer was; it pinpointed my elevation exactly. The compass was very responsive after it was correctly calibrated. I also like having quick access to the flashlight and stopwatch. The stopwatch has a few options. I like that it will read the time aloud if you want it to.
The flashlight can be a solid light or blink in several patterns. You can alter the brightness a fair degree. The coolest part? It has a Morse Code translater. You type a message into the flashlight app and the phone will translate the message into Morse Code and then start dot-dot-dashing the message through the flashlight. Neat!
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Samsung's newest semi-rugged handset, the Galaxy S6 Active, is a large and powerful phone. It's waterproof, dustproof, and comes with dedicated activity apps.
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