If you're a fan of phones that are "beautiful", "gorgeous", and used more as a fashion accessory than a device for connectivity or production, then this isn't the smartphone for you.
The Active version of the Samsung Galaxy S4 not only adds water protection and dust tightness to the S4 range, it also added a word into my vocabulary: "ruggedised". I wasn't convinced that this was a word the first time I heard it, and now, weeks later, I am even more convinced that it should go. But nevertheless, "ruggedisation" was apparently the process that Samsung undertook to create this device.
What it resulted in was the reappearance of three physical buttons on the front of the phone (home, menu, and back buttons), the addition of some rubber bumpers above and below the back plate of the phone, a rubber cover for the mini-USB slot, and a new rubber lining on the inside of the device that gives it its IP67 rating. In everyday terms, the phone is rated to be dust tight, and can survive being submerged in 1 metre of water for 30 minutes.
As a result of its rugged-induction process, the phone ends up being slightly heavier and larger than the standard S4, and packs a TFT LCD screen in favour of the Super AMOLED display found in the S4.
Before we step into the actual experience of using the S4 Active, it's right to point out the frame of reference upon which I approached this device.
Earlier this year, I penned a column entitled After Samsung, I crave Senselessness. In it, I detailed the form of Stockholm Syndrome that had developed inside me over the 18 months I spent using a Galaxy S2, and the crashtastic TouchWiz existence contained therein. At the time, I said that I did not want another Samsung handset again, even if it came with stock Android, and hoped for an HTC One with stock Android. Fate decided to create an HTC One with stock Android, but restrict its availability to places outside Australia, and then the thought of what I considered to be the perfect mixture of hardware and software, Nokia hardware and stock Android, was dashed when Nokia's devices division was bought by Microsoft.
So with a cache of pent-up TouchWiz hatred already filled to the brim, and an equal amount of cynicism for any Samsung device ready to go, I took on the challenge of using the S4 Active and ditching the S2.
Let's start with TouchWiz.
The best way to handle TouchWiz, in my opinion, is to avoid it at all costs.
To the uninitiated, the best way to describe using TouchWiz is to imagine a very beautiful fur coat. To some casual observers, it looks nice enough; to others, it is a repelling example of practices regarded as obscene in their eyes, be it animal slaughter for clothing or, in the case of TouchWiz, basing aesthetics on a look patented by Apple Inc. Regardless, you are forced to wear it. Occasionally, you admire the satisfactory nature of the coat; other times, the animals that were killed to create it come back to life to bite you, and continue to bite you until you club the animals back to death with a cricket bat, or the fur coat runs off into the night. When that happens, the only way to get the original coat back is to reboot it, but, more often than not, the coat will reboot itself without warning and take an inordinate chunk of battery reserve down with it.
Given this situation, as I said before, the best way to deal with TouchWiz is to avoid it altogether. The easiest way to do that is to install a replacement launcher. My personal favourite is Nova Launcher, but there are plenty of options available in the Play Store.
With TouchWiz taken care of, only one head of the Samsung hydra is gone, and there are still a number of Samsung customisations baked into the Android build on the device that you will have to choose to either live with or turn off.
Most of them are gimmicky options that Samsung uses to promote and differentiate its offerings from other Android devices. Features such as Air Gesture, which allows the user to wave their hand above the screen to scroll a page or move between images; Smart Stay, which leaves the screen on as long as the user is looking at it; and Air View, which shows helpful information when the user hovers a finger over the screen.
It would be too easy to dismiss these features wholesale as shallow marketing gimmicks, as some of them are actually incredibly useful. An implementation of Air View that I discovered serendipitously was in the voice recorder app. As a journalist, I had replaced my dictaphone usage with the voice recorder when I had the S2, but it always painful to scrub through the file in order to verify the transcription. With Air View, an overlay appears over the timeline that shows the time in the recording that you are hovering over, in much the same way as a video player hovers the time when a user mouses over the timeline. In my particular use case, this is a very good usage of gestures and the sensors available on the S4.
On the flip side, until you turn off the Air Gesture option, showing pictures in the gallery app to friends will usually result in puzzled looks from the person you are passing the phone to, as it tends to detect a person reaching for the phone as a gesture to move backwards or forwards through the gallery.
After a bit of anguish and frustration, users will hopefully find the combination of gestures that work for them. For the less technically savvy, it may result in a handing of the phone to the local family IT support person, who will hopefully make some sense of the available settings.
If you love options, oh boy, does the S4 have options. Instead of the regular continuous sheet of settings used in stock Android, Samsung took it upon itself to break the sheet into four pages of settings. And in the act of branding the various settings, created confusion. One of the sheets is dubbed "My device", and contains options for the lock screen, display, LED indicator, and language and input settings; yet, on the last page called "More", the settings for storage, battery, and about device are found.
It's one of those customisations made by Samsung that serve no real purpose other than to infuriate and confuse the user as they try to decide where to find the settings page for location services. Is it under the "Connections", "My device", "Accounts", or "More" tab? The correct answer is "More", for reasons that I do not understand and can only hope that someone, somewhere at Samsung HQ does.
The extra apps made available by Samsung are a mixed bag, as well. Having access to Polaris Office free of charge is a good thing, but being unable to remove unwanted pre-installed apps such as the HP Print Service Plugin is appalling.
Such are the ups and downs of owning a Samsung device.
One of the easiest ways to impress a user of a two-year-old phone whose battery has seen better days is to give them a new handset of any description and show them the battery usage. While the iPhone has only increased the battery capacity by 12 percent since the original iPhone, and has improved the battery usage through better software and silicon, Samsung also has the added bonus of having bigger devices that can accommodate bigger batteries.
Given the amount of sensors and the 4G capability of the S4 Active, I was expecting the phone to be a battery hog that rivalled the iPhone 5 — a device that when undergoing heavy usage while involving a 4G connection tends to drain its battery in a manner only beaten by particularly thirsty camels after a week in the desert. By contrast, the S4 Active is very good on its usage, even when pushed.
On ZDNet's totally unofficial and subjective Android battery testing system, where an Australian member of ZDNet's staff walks around Sydney continuously playing the game Ingress, the S4 performed surprisingly well. Ingress involves having the device's display always on, the 4G radios regularly polling for data, and the battery-addicted GPS always looking for updates. It's an app that used to make my S2 quiver, and you could watch the battery percentage count down minute by minute. With the S4, it handles an hour's Ingress usage quite well, and only drained around half of the battery.
Coming from a world where battling the power-saving features in the S2 was standard fare, the S4's battery is a welcome relief, and I rarely get down to less than 33 percent battery — the stage when the power-saving features begin to kick in — but be aware that I am comparing a battery that has undergone hundreds of cycles with a larger one that is only a few weeks old.
The S4 Active actually has less capacity than the regular S4, even though they have the same rated battery at 2,600 milliamp hours, which is likely due to the different screen used by the S4 Active, as the remainder of the phone's internals are identical to the S4's.
As I mentioned earlier in the introduction, this phone sports three physical buttons rather than the standard Samsung "central button with touch-sensitive buttons to the side" configuration. While the fashionistas may decry it as a move backwards, it is not terrible by any stretch of the imagination, and in fact may appeal to a particular niche in the market.
That niche is the middle-aged, not-quite-technology-competent person, the sort of person that is otherwise known as one of my parents.
As someone who often conducts "tech support" over the phone, being able to describe physical buttons would be rather more preferable than trying to describe touch-sensitive areas without markings.
When I showed one of my ancestors the device, two things stood out to them: The size and clarity of the screen, and the physical buttons.
The "ace up the sleeve" for this phone is its ruggedness. Should the phone find its way into a bucket of water, a creek, or a pool accidentally, there's every chance that it will not be any worse off — if the rating is to be believed. And one would sure hope so, given that the camera has an added "Aqua" mode for taking pictures underwater.
Having received a number of calls in recent months about a possible upgrade from a feature phone that is way past its use-by date, the preferred alternatives for them have shifted between the Nexus 4 and Galaxy Note. One suggestion was based on price, the other on not needing glasses to read the screen.
But with the S4 Active, I've finally found a solid recommendation that ticks all the boxes for my folks, and is a far better fit into their outdoor cow-based lifestyle.
For the user that is not an outdoors person, or particularly worried about nor see the need for a waterproof phone, I still feel that this phone is an attractive option — mostly due to cost.
That's a saving of AU$80 for a phone that has better waterproofing while retaining the same chip, memory, and display resolution as the S4. To be fair, the camera on the S4 Active is only 8 megapixels, compared to the S4's 13-megapixel camera, and the display on the S4 should be better, being a Super AMOLED display — but whether the display is better depends on one's circumstances — the TFT LCD on the Active allows for usage with gloves, and as someone who has lived in Canada, I can see this being a boon in the Great White North.
Although the S4 Active is well behaved at this current point in time, so too was my previous S2. It wasn't until the S2 had its Android version upgraded that the instability really set in — this is one of the main reasons that I am cautious in possessing a Samsung device again. Unfortunately, I will be unable to judge whether Samsung has improved its processes until the Active gets the Android 4.3 update. The word is that this update is due in October, but I've been spun a story about Samsung release dates before.
In a previous article involving a Lumia 925, one of the frankly ridiculous problems with the Lumia was that it did not come with a voice for its navigation program. When initially using the S4 Active to provide directions, I too received a prompt to download a new voice. Thinking it was a recurrence of the Lumia issue, I was ready to question the sanity of each and every non-Apple phone maker, until I realised that it was just wanting to upgrade the voice to a high-quality version.
Functionally speaking, it is a great idea to prompt the user the first time they open Google Maps to download a high-quality Samsung voice file to replace the bundled standard-quality file. From a user experience standpoint, prompting a user to update without using the standard voice and install a file in excess of 100MB over a mobile connection simply puts up an unnecessary roadblock.
One of the more surprising experiences when using this phone was the process of changing from the S2 to the S4 Active.
Generally, moving between handsets wasn't as painful as it could be — Google does a fair job of automatically installing the apps that you have on your other devices, even if it makes no sense to have them there due to issues like duplicate functionality with pre-installed apps, but you can easily remove any superfluous apps. The process was quicker and better than when I factory reset my S2 to clear its head out.
Switching between phones possessing SD card slots makes transferring any non-application data easy, but not having the applications that have been moved onto the SD card recognised as being installed is a disappointment. I realise that the process I've described is analogous to moving hard drives containing programs between PCs and expecting all the registry settings and internal settings to move across with them, but in an era of sandboxing and separated app packaging, it should be doable. If it is good enough for OS X, it should be good enough for a mobile operating system — it would also save on having to download some apps all over again when the device hooks up to the Google Play Store.
Although Android states that it has the capability to save "App Data" and associated information in the cloud, it was rare that any of the apps I have installed chose to used it. Maybe that's a good thing, though, as the issue of moving app data between devices can be a double-edged sword.
Does one trust Google with that sort of information? How often does Joseph Q Citizen actually move between devices more often than every two years, when a contract is up? Is the inconvenience of such a feature worth the price of allowing your data to be part of an anonymised big data collection?
It's an issue bigger than the scope of an article based on using a phone, but it is an issue that each person should think about when it comes to their own personal data protection.
Had Apple been behind the design on this phone, then you would see it promoted by Apple's revered design chief, Jony Ive, as "unapologetically rugged".
This phone is not going to win any beauty contests, nor be found accessorising any outfit on a Saturday night, but what it lacks in superficiality, it makes up for in practicality.
Should you want a good phone that also looks the part, there's an Apple Store near you that would love to have your business — it even offers phones in a variety of pastels nowadays.
A funny thing happens to your perception when you use a phone with a slightly larger screen than what you are used to: It makes going back to the device with the smaller screen feel like stepping back in time — usually because it is.
The jump between an iPhone 3G and the Galaxy S2 was stark, but the switch between the S2 and S4 Active is less so. Make no mistake, the extra screen space is nice, but is the change great enough in and of itself to warrant purchasing this phone? I'd say no, especially given that the preceding generation, the Galaxy S3, had a 4.8-inch screen compared to the S4's 5-inch display. This screen is evolutionary, rather than revolutionary.
However, when combined with its updated silicon and increased battery capacity, for people coming off multi-year contracts who do not have an S3 or iPhone 5 variant, the S4 package becomes more alluring.
In a contest with the standard S4, I'd have the S4 Active every time. It's cheaper, more rugged, and has a display that is very acceptable despite being of the technically inferior LCD variety, but that is offset by being able to be used with gloves and work underwater if desired.
Coming into my time with this device, I was extremely cautious as to whether Samsung could deliver a decent handset. At the end of it, I have few qualms with the hardware itself; once again, it is on the software side of the equation that I have question marks. If an S4 Active showed up bearing stock Android, quite a few internal discussions would happen for me.
Until then, if you want a phone that is unashamedly pragmatic and honest about what it is, then you can't go past the S4 Active.
This is a subjective article based on personal experience. For the objective viewpoint, ZDNet's first take on the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is also available.