Review: Samsung Galaxy S8 Active
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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