The Galaxy S6 Active takes Samsung’s flagship smartphone and adds waterproofing, protection against drops, a larger battery and unique physical buttons. As the name suggests, it targets active people. Well, I’m active—can it stand up to my abuse?
Before we get started, you should know that I’m no gadget expert. If you want to read about pixel density and processor speeds, Eric did a great job checking those out in his review of the regular Samsung Galaxy S6. I’m Gizmodo’s resident adventurer, so in addition to being able to hunt and gather, I’m also really good at breaking stuff. This review will focus on the Active’s ability to withstand water and wild animal attacks and things of that nature.
No scratches, no dirt stuck in the micro-USB port, no damage or problems whatsoever.
Active vs S6
The Active differs from the sissy version in seven important ways:
- The S6’s swanky new glass-and-metal design is replaced by old-fashioned plastic, with a camouflage pattern on its back. This includes bumpers on the corners to protect it from falls and a raised ridge around its screen so you can rest it face-down on a flat surface without putting the glass in contact with that surface.
- Battery capacity increases from 2550mAh to 3500mAh. For the first time on a Galaxy, neither the S6 or Active allow you to remove their batteries.
- You lose the fingerprint scanner, but gain physical buttons for home, back, apps and get a new “Active” button on the side, which is user-programmable.
- The old S5 and S5 Active were rated to IP67-level waterproofness (3.3 feet for 30 minutes). The S6 loses that waterproofness, but the new Active is upgraded to IP68 (5 feet for 30 minutes.)
- Whereas you can purchase the S6 in 32, 64 or 128GB flavors, the Active is only available with 32GB of storage.
- The Active is only available on AT&T.
- The Active includes a unique suite of software called “Activity Zone” that’s supposed to help you navigate, track your fitness and which is supposed to make access to handy things like the flashlight and stopwatch a little easier.
Other than that, it has all the same hardware and software upgrades the S6 receives. Including wireless charging compatibility, a 5.1-inch 577 PPI, 2560 x 1440 AMOLED screen, Samsung’s own Exynos processor, and a new version of TouchWiz — Samsung’s version of Android — that’s now less annoying.
Why Does It Matter?
This is the only ruggedized version of a current generation flagship smartphone on the market. If you want a phone that’s fast, powerful, takes great photos and won’t self-destruct should you be so clumsy as to drop it from hand-height or expose it to a teensy bit of moisture, then the Active is your only option.
Well, that’s not quite true. You could also just put a rugged case on a different phone. So we should actually say that if you want a phone that’s fast, powerful, takes great photos and won’t self-destruct, and you don’t want to use a case, this is your only option.
As we discussed last year, ruggedized phones aren’t necessarily the solution. A ruggedized phone can never hope to offer as much drop protection as a cheap case nor as much weather protection as a $4 LokSak.
One of these things is an expensive lifestyle accessory, the other a lump of black plastic, that actually costs $100 more. Glasses are the Salt x Aether collaboration.
It’s not good. A cheap black plastic chassis wraps the phone’s perimeter, studded with fake metal rivets. The back is an expanse of textured, camo-patterned plastic. Where the S5 at least had a nice optional green camo, the S6 only uses either a white snow camo, the blue urban camo you see above, or a plain grey finish. Tacky, tacky, boring.
On the front, the screen appears to be surrounded by the same patterned-plastic bezel as the S5 Active. None of this feels or looks upmarket or expensive. If the idea is to allow you to skip the protective case, then why not give you a phone that looks better than a case? As it stands, an iPhone 6 in a clunky plastic case will still feel more luxurious and credible than this thing.
As Eric noted in his S6 review, Samsung has taken drastic steps to make TouchWiz approximately 6,422 times less annoying. But, it still sits there, making what’s otherwise an elegant, simple, fast operating system bloated, slow and frustrating. Just not so much as before.
Half an hour or so spent re-arranging apps and re-defaulting everything to its Google alternative gets rid of the most offensive Samsung and AT&T nonsense, but you can’t delete their worthless app bundles from the phone. That means, a week after getting it, that I’m still hunting down the causes of random, annoying notifications and still replacing the occasional automatically-launched bloatware app with its superior, available-for-free alternative from the Play Store. Since you can’t delete them, it also means this “32GB” phone actually only offers users 24.45GB of storage space.
And as on the S5 Active, Samsung’s Activity Zone software suite remains utterly pointless. Features like weather forecasts and fitness tracking are impotent and much better realized again by totally free, third-party apps.
Let’s see: a weather app that’s not as powerful as Google’s own, an altimeter and barometer that rely on cell data, a worthless bundle of fitness tracking apps, a compass that actually works, a flashlight that’s not as good as the one on my keychain, a stopwatch that’s actually handy and a whole bunch of cheesy music options from a service I’ve never heard of or used and can’t be bothered to sign up for...do you really need quick access to any of this? Or want it on your phone at all?
Following some big injuries a few years ago, I’ve become one of those weird people that tracks every rep of every lift in the gym and every calorie and macronutrient that enters my body. So, I can report in frustration that Samsung’s bundled software is vastly inferior to stuff that’s (again) freely available in the Google Play Store. Its food-tracking functionality, for instance, can’t scan barcodes and doesn’t have the same vast database of popular brands and restaurants that free, third-party rivals have had for years. So it’s harder and more time consuming to use while giving you inferior data. Tracking my lifts in Google Spreadsheets is way faster and way easier. But hey, Samsung will suggest a playlist suitable for a variety of activities from a streaming music service called “Milk” that I’ve never heard of. I’ll keep listening to my own music on Spotify, thanks.
Also, the barometer and altimeter rely on cellular data, so they stop working the second you enter the mountains.
Luckily, you can customize the function of that “Active” button to do anything you want instead of activating Samsung’s stupid apps. It also works as a physical shutter button for the camera which—combined with the waterproofing—means you can actually take underwater shots with the phone. You won’t actually be doing that as even snorkeling will take you deeper than the 5 feet it’s rated for, but it does mean the you can operate the camera when the screen’s very wet (as in heavy rain) or when you’re wearing gloves.
With two taps of the home button, the phone wakes up and instantly launches the camera. Combined with the physical shutter button, that makes it the fastest phone camera I’ve used. And that means you’ll be able to capture Wileys doing cute stuff or snag photos during brief glimpses of wildlife, even while wearing gloves. It’s my favorite feature.
And it’s fast. Combining that dedicated shutter button with a new, simplified camera app that launches just by pressing the home button twice, the Active is probably the fastest shooting smartphone out there. The 16MP camera also takes excellent photos, with noticeably improved low-light performance over the S5.
Samsung has also fixed my single biggest complaint about the S5 Active: physical buttons that would wake the phone constantly in my pocket, launch its emergency dialer, and dial 911. It did this hundreds of times in the six months I carried it. Without rooting the S5 and replacing TouchWiz with stock Android, there was no way to prevent this. So far as I can tell (by turning the volume all the way up and listening for the virtual key presses), the new S6 Active has not woken accidentally even once, and it definitely has not dialed 911. Samsung seems to have achieved this by adding some physical resistance to the button presses, while reducing the time the lock screen stays awake. Simple, but it works.
Another annoyance of the S5 Active that’s been eliminated is the cover over the micro-USB port. That was flimsy and annoying, requiring you to pry it out with a fingernail, and it attached to the phone only with a hairs-width of rubber strap. Lose it and your S5 Active was no longer waterproof. With the S6 Active, they’ve simply given it a waterproof port. So far, no problems with that getting clogged with dirt, even after kicking it around in the sand for a few minutes.
One important thing hasn’t been fixed, though:
The screen on the S5 Active after falling approximately 18 inches onto a pebble. The S6 Active does not offer any additional protection.
The S6 is power hungry, with an ultra high-res display and super-fast processor. Luckily, the 3500mAh battery is a beast. Even with heavy use, you’ll easily get a day and a half out of it. In Power Saving Mode, which dims the screen and slows processor speed, you should be able to squeak through 48 hours of regular use.
And man, that AMOLED screen is bright and beautiful. It’s also the easiest smartphone screen to read in direct sunlight. Little benefits like that are what actually makes this a good phone for outdoor use.
I’ve bricked two iPhones with accidental water spills or submersions. Read: dropping them in a toilet. That will never happen to the S6 Active and you don’t even have to make sure the port is properly sealed.
The excellent camera is now operated by a slick, easy, simple app. It launches instantaneously with a double tap on the home button (even while the phone is sleeping) and fires off beautiful photos rapidly thanks to the option of using the Active button as a shutter.
No longer dials 911 constantly from my pocket.
Wireless charging is actually really neat, while plugging it into the quick-charging cable noticeably speeds charge times.
Even in simplified form, TouchWiz remains vastly inferior to stock Android. It’s presence also reduces the frequency and speed with which operating system updates are available; it’s already a little bit behind, since it doesn’t come with the latest Android 5.1.1, instead using 5.0.2.
The bundled apps are utterly worthless. There is no justification for their presence whatsoever, and they eat up valuable and now non-upgradeable storage space.
With all the black plastic and now-tacky fake camo patterns, the S6 Active looks like someone with a crew cut and denim shorts would have worn in their belt-mounted cell phone holster in 2004.
The small PIN-lock buttons can be slow to use, frequently requiring more than one attempt to make it through the lock screen.
Nowhere near as survivable as a good phone case.
Should You Buy It?
Probably not. A case would make any phone of your choice more rugged and more waterproof while allowing you to avoid TouchWiz and AT&T and possibly even giving you more upmarket looks.
But, if you like Samsung, can live with the looks and don’t want to just put an S6 in a case, then this phone does address most of the S5 Active’s flaws. And the huge battery is really nice to have. Just don’t drop the screen on a pebble—that’ll be the end of it.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.