Hands On with the Samsung Galaxy S7 Active
Samsung is back with another semi-rugged variant of its flagship smartphone. The Galaxy S7 Active is tougher than the standard S7, but offers most of the same specs and features. If you need a phone that's built stronger than most, the S7 Active fits the bill. It's more than enough phone for the outdoorsman, field worker, and, well, the downright clumsy.
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Samsung's Active series of smartphones have long targeted those who need a more robust piece of hardware on their hip. The Active line has generally been a bit more resistant to abuse than the standard model, as well as safe from a brief soaking. Samsung put itself in an awkward position this year with the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, both of which are already waterproof. Just how much more resilient can the S7 Active really be?
The S7 Active stops short of the full ruggedization you might see on handsets from Kyocera or CAT. Those devices often have huge profiles thanks to generous layers of hardened rubber. Samsung knows most people don't like to carry around massive bricks all day long. The Active, therefore, comes across as an S7 that's buried in a really good case.
The S7 Active has an entirely different chassis when compared to the standard model, but most under-the-hood elements are identical. The S7 is formed by two pieces of glass and a metal frame. The S7 Active replaces the entire rear of the phone with a metal chassis that is covered by hardened rubber on the top and bottom edges, and a gel-covered polycarbonate backplate. The rubber-protected corners are thicker to provide extra protection from drops. It's larger than the S7 in every dimension. Most notably, it is 20% thicker at 9.9mm and 20% heavier at 6.52 ounces.
It's important to point out that the S7 Active has earned the mil-spec 810G rating. That means it is can handle a significant amount of abuse, including drops, vibration, temperature extremes, fog/humidity, and so on. Samsung says the glass is more resistant to breakage than the standard model, but didn't say how. The phone also has an IP rating of 68, which means it can handle a good long swim. (The standard S7 has an IP68 rating, too.)
What the S7 Active gains in strength, it loses in visual appeal. The phone has a very busy design, with the glass, rubber, metal, and gel surfaces all offering their own texture. AT&T lent us the camouflage version of the phone, which has green-colored metal and a digital camo pattern on the back. The accents are mostly gray. The gray version of the phone is more uniform (and more appealing to me) since all the colors match. The beige variant (for the desert?) is just butt-ugly.
The 5.1-inch, quad HD screen is impressive. The glass panel has the exact same layout and design of the standard S7, down to the placement of the sensors and camera. In fact, the only real difference is the addition of two physical buttons at the bottom of the screen. I'm not a fan of the physical buttons, but I understand why Samsung needed the hardware "back" and "multitask" keys (for underwater use). The center button is smooth and doubles as a fingerprint sensor, while the other two keys have patterned textures to make them easier to find. All three offer excellent travel and feedback.
There are two buttons on the left edge: the volume toggle and a user-programmable action key. The buttons have great profiles and perfect travel and feedback. The action button has a subtle texture to set it apart from the volume toggle. You'll find the screen lock / power button on the right edge of the phone. I had no trouble locating it with my thumb. It works well. A tray is positioned below the screen lock button and it holds both the SIM and micro SD memory cards.
Rather than switch to USB Type-C, Samsung kept the micro USB port for charging. This way, the S7 Active will be compatible with Samsung's Gear VR headset, which uses micro USB. The speaker is on the bottom, too. On top, you'll see just the headphone jack. I'm thankful Samsung was able to waterproof the phone without requiring hatches to cover the ports. Relying on hatches can lead to trouble, and the hatches often add unwanted bulk.
Like the standard S7, the rear panel of the S7 Active is sealed up tight. There's no access to the battery, but you're not going to need it. Aside from the brute strength of the S7 Active, the other defining feature its a 4,000mAh battery, which is 33% bigger than the battery in the regular model. This battery supports rapid charging and wireless charging. Samsung claims the S7 Active will deliver two full days of battery life. We'll see.
There's absolutely no question in my mind: the S7 Active is far tougher than the S7. The S7 is a beautiful handset, but its two-sided glass design leaves it feeling delicate and vulnerable. That's not the case with the S7 Active, which feels strong and impermeable. Both phones require trade-offs. The S7 is sleeker but more fragile, while the S7 Active is bulkier but more resolute.
On the software side, the S7 Active is identical to the S7. It has the same processor, camera, RAM, storage, radios, and other innards, and runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow with the latest software tweaks from Samsung. Of course, AT&T mucked it all up with its ridiculous bloatware. The incessant DirecTV ads are truly egregious. We didn't encounter any performance issues in our initial appraisal of the phone. It appears to run as quickly and smoothly as the regular S7.
Anyway, that's it for our initial impressions. We're hard at work on a full review of the phone and should have that for you soon.
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Incessant DirecTV ads?