The smartest, fastest, baddest do-it-all rugged phone

Highs

  • Excellent Performance
  • Excellent Display
  • Excellent Camera

Lows

  • Commands a price premium

Rating and Price

  • Rating: 10/10

The Galaxy S8 Active was released in August 2017 and was initially targeted at the high-end rugged phones market. At publishing time, the Galaxy S8 Active was priced at USD 849 (exclusively from AT&T). Even if this product was created to address the high-end market, the reality is that many products will shift segments as their price are pushed down over the years.

As we evaluate this phone, we looked for a potential competitor, both in terms of price and features. Because it is a niche market, the crowd is small. There are maybe ~20 recent phones with a MIL-810 certification, and most of those are near-obsolete and bulky. Others might be certified, but couldn’t remotely compete with the S8 Active in terms of durability. In the end, we narrowed the competition down to the LG V20, S7 Active, S6 Active and LG X Venture. As you can guess, going to previous generations saves money.

Industrial Design

Comfort

With a width of 74mm (2.91 inches) and a thickness of 9mm (0.35 inches), the smartphone feels somewhat comfortable in hand. We use U.S M-size gloves for male hand-size reference, so this will vary from person to person. The device weighs 208.1 grams (7.34 oz), and we would consider that weight to be a bit heavy for its size, but not surprising since it has additional protection.

Build Quality

The Galaxy S8 Active is quite different from its older sibling, the Galaxy S8. While they share most of the same electronics, the S8 Active has a different chassis, built to withstand things that a regular S8 handset could not even remotely handle. The Galaxy S8 Active is essentially an armored Galaxy S8.

"ESSENTIALLY AN ARMORED GALAXY S8"

The frame loses the curved screen and therefore the glass that is present on the Left/Right edges of the S8. Although beautiful, the side glass made the phone much more prone to cracks if dropped.  Instead, the Galaxy S8 Active has a strong metal rim going all round. That is the backbone of its structural integrity. This design makes the phone very hard to bend/twist and is highly resistant to edges and corner shocks.

Additionally, Samsung has added hard plastic bumpers that protect the top and bottom, including the ports and SIM/micro-SD trays. Plastic is good because that gives additional protection because repeated drops can weaken the ports, and threaten the water-resistance of the phone.

After considering how the S8 Active is designed, we estimate that the risk of breaking during a landing on a hard surface to be minimal. You can refer to our detailed LG V20 design article about how phones could be designed to avoid cracks upon drops.

Durability: MIL-STD-810 + IP68

With an IP rating of IP68, this handset is protected from elements in this as follows: Dust tight, no dust can penetrate. Up to 3-meter immersion waterproofing. In some cases, waterproofing means that “some” water can penetrate, but without harming the device.

Learn moreWhat is MIL-STD-810G? And what is an IP Rating?

The MIL-STD-810 Mil-Spec certification of this phone means that it will survive U.S military battlefield storage and transportation. This is not the same as battlefield usage, but it does reveal a certain level of resistance that many phones cannot reach.

The competing LG V20 also has a MIL-810 certification and was built around a lot of the same principles for shock-protection. However, it is not water-proof (immersion).  That said, one of the LG V20 design goals was to look like a regular phone (business-like). That is not the case for the “Active Series,” even when you get them in black or grey.

Even if several handsets pass some MIL-810 tests, you should see it as a baseline, or lower-limit. The construction of the S8 Active seems WAY more durable/resistant than the V20, or the LG G6, which also passes some MIL-810 tests.

Design Ingenuity

This handset design has excellent performance in relation to its size. From another viewpoint, the amount of battery capacity the buyer gets is one of the best for a phone of this size. The screen display-to-body ratio of 76.4% is also excellent for a rugged phone.

The S8 Active may not sound extraordinarily compact when compared to regular consumer phones, but in the “rugged handsets” world, it has a relatively slim figure and an incredibly powerful hardware. The S8 Active may have roughly the same 3D-size as the S7 Active, but it packs an additional 0.7” of display diagonal. This is a big deal!

Display: excellent

The Galaxy S8 Active display uses a Super AMOLED panel. OLED is an entirely different display technology (than LCD) that has been widely adopted in handsets mainly thanks to Samsung.

The fundamental difference between OLED and LCD displays is how light is emitted. With LCD, there is a small number of white light emitters (1-2 for handsets, 2-100 for TVs) and black pixels are possible by “blocking” the white light with a filter. Unfortunately, using a filter leads to “light bleeding” and “black color” that is really dark-gray. With OLED, every pixel emits its own light.

This also means that creating a black pixel just means leaving it OFF. As a result, black color is actually black, and other colors are more straightforward to control without using complex filters and color control technologies such as Quantum Dots and Nano Dots. You can read our complete LCD vs. OLED article which goes deeper into the details.

Anti-cracks protection

This is essentially the same OLED display as the Galaxy S8, which is pretty much the best you can get today. The chassis design does provide additional protection because the glass surface is slightly sunk under the metal rim.

That is enough to avoid a (glass) contact with concrete/marble since the odds of a perfectly flat landing on the screen are extremely small. Most of the time, contact will be made with a combination of edges and corners. Sinking the screen a little lets metal absorb the brunt of the shock, reducing the stress energy to amounts that the tempered glass can then handle.

There has been a bit of user feedback about the fact that the screen can scratch more easily then on the Galaxy S8. This is probably due to the fact that in order to make the screen less crack-prone, it has to be a little less hard, thus making it more scratch-prone.

Camera: excellent

Mobile cameras have become extremely good over time. But, it is clear that there is a significant delta between them based on cost, but also depending on technology and expertise of the handset maker. The Galaxy S8 Active benefits from all the camera goodness of the Galaxy S8/S8+/Note8 (primary) family.

"TRADITIONAL RUGGED PHONES CAMERAS JUST CANNOT COMPETE"As such, the Galaxy S8 Active has leading camera performance in both bright and dark scene conditions. This is one of the areas where traditional rugged phones just cannot compete, not even remotely.

It is important to understand that mobile photo has two foundations of great importance: Software and Hardware. The software is usually very secretive, and it is challenging to gain reliable information to understand its quality through a fair process. Also, photography is not just science. It is also art.

The camera hardware is the other aspect which is more measurable. Camera equipment is potentially a substantial limiting factor to mobile photo performance. Even if you use the best software on it, the quality of the input signal data still plays a major role in the final photo outcome.

In the Galaxy S8 Active, the camera aperture of f1.7 is excellent. The 12 Megapixel resolution should never be used as a default indicator of photo quality. In low-light situations, the high Megapixel count (>12) does not sway the outcome.

Keep in mind that the physical size of each sensor pixel (1.4 µm here) is critical as well. With higher megapixel counts, sensing pixels (sensels) may have to be smaller. Each obtains less light information, and in low-light situations, it is better for the overall photo quality to get more light with fewer (but bigger) sensels than the opposite. It is a balance that needs to be struck. Today, 12 Megapixel seem to be the best sensor trade-off between sharpness, low-light and auto-focus performance.

On a sunny day or in very bright light scenes, Megapixel could be a good proxy for photographic detail and sharpness. For example, on a sunny day, a nature photo with a higher megapixel count could show finer details. Between 12 MP, 16 MP and 21 MP differences in small details can be quite noticeable, if printed or viewed on a large and/or high-PPI display.

The presence of an Optical Image stabilization (OIS) module on the primary camera increases the odds of taking sharp images in daylight, and brighter images in low-light situations. Fortunately, all the competitors suggested here (S6 Active, S7 Active, LG V20) have OIS.

OIS helps to achieve better image clarity and higher low-light performance by offsetting minute hand-shaking motion. OIS makes it feasible to leave the shutter open longer to capture more light (more prolonged exposure). Optical and digital stabilization are completely different, with digital stabilization suitable to improve video recording smoothness

The auto-focus of the Galaxy S8 Active camera is based on AF Phase Detection technology. Phase-detection AF that was originally built into specific AF sensor chips in the DSLR days. Then it got integrated into the camera’s primary sensor. It works by having specialized AF pixels sensors that would tell if specific points in the image were in-focus.

This method is very fast, and the AF capabilities work well in most cases. AF performance is somewhat proportional to the number of hardware AF sensels. Typically, this number can go from dozens to hundreds of Phase-Detection AF points. Phase detection AF is an excellent system, which is only inferior to Dual-Pixel AF.

And it’s good that Dual-Pixel AF is present in this handset. Dual-Pixel AF, aka Dual-Pixel Diode AF is an amazing variant of Phase Detection hardware. It has all the Phase-Detect advantages in terms of speed and efficiency but is better in general.

This is made possible by splitting sensing pixel (sensels) into two small sub-pixels. By comparing what they “see” from a slightly different point of view, it is possible to know if the image at that pixel is focused (in-phase) or not (out of phase). You can read our detailed Dual-Pixel AF article if you want to know more.

Dual-Pixel AF is currently the best and fastest way to perform auto-focus on mobile. It was initially deployed on certain high-end DSLR cameras.

Battery Life (excellent)

The battery capacity of Galaxy S8 Active is 4000 mAh (vs. 3000 mAh for S8), which is great in general, and among the best in its category. With about 650 mAh /Cubic Inches, the Galaxy S8 Active is a bit better than the LG V20, and on-par with the S7 Active. Keep in mind the vast screen size difference between the S7 Active and S8 Active (+0.7 inches of diagonal).

Battery life is one of the most sought-after features of a smartphone. A key factor is undoubtedly its battery capacity — especially within the same ecosystem (Android, iOS or other).

Battery life can be affected by many factors, but the main ones are the main processor, display and wireless radios (broadband, WiFi, the location of the cell towers and much more). It is not possible to precisely pinpoint through benchmarks how much energy drain YOUR unique usage pattern will induce. However, two things are surly always good:

  • A higher battery capacity
  • Faster charging

It is not possible to predict realistic battery life by running synthetic benchmarks. Things such as display brightness, (LTE/WiFi) radio usage and distance to access points will vary too much. Also, how many apps installed and their activity cannot be estimated. Battery capacity is the best battery-life indicator for YOUR usage.

This product does NOT have a removable battery, which the norm for a smartphone nowadays. Closed batteries cannot be taken out or easily repaired, but they do allow for smaller designs and slightly larger battery size inside the same product volume.

This device has an extremely sharp display (2960×1440). This is great to look at extremely crisp images, but handling 2.19M pixels more than a 1080p/FHD (2M pixels) screen will draw a bit more power from the battery

Fortunately, this handset has an option to reduce the internal display resolution of the OS. Although the physical display still has the same number of pixels, the amount of computing is less.

Performance

You can look at detailed benchmarks below, but in our estimation, this smartphone’s performance places it in the high-end class of products.

Before you look at the charts, it is critical to understand that most benchmarks are only loose pointers, usually for CPU (Geekbench), system (Basemark OS II) or graphics performance (GFXBench). It is possible to see sharp performance gaps between different classes of devices (entry-evel, mid-range vs. high-end), but it is much more difficult to do so within phones of the same class. Benchmarks alone should NOT lead to a smartphone purchase decision.

Gaming performance numbers apply mainly to intensive applications using 3D graphics. Casual games such as puzzles and 2D games do not require this kind of performance and can run virtually on any modern smartphone.

Conclusion

The Galaxy S8 Active is a high-endurance phone that is armored, super-fast and comes with a display and camera performance that leaves competing rugged handsets in the dust. Assuming that budget is not a concern, the Galaxy S8 Active is the best phone that has a real design for durability, and extremely good handset performance in 2017.

"GALAXY S8 ACTIVE LEAVES COMPETING RUGGED HANDSETS IN THE DUST"If you cannot afford the $849 tag price (exclusive with AT&T at print time), here’s how the cascade of options look like the S7 Active (~$400) and the S6 Active ($299). Unfortunately, the LG X Venture (~$299) is sold for the same price as the S6 Active and isn’t better, so we’ll drop it.

If you cannot bear the “rugged” style, the LG V20 (Ubergizmo review link, $385) is the only “business-like” and affordable alternative that I recommend if you have a focus on durability. I don’t think that the V20 is as durable as the S7-A or S6-A.

Plenty of other phones that will look “more rugged” with bigger chassis, antennas sticking out, with features such as conduction sound (great for extremely noisy places) and more plastic around the corner. However, none that I saw could guarantee that the screen would not break if struck at the center. And of course, all that extra bulkiness adds to the size and weight. Also, most use much slower hardware and lower-quality cameras.

There are unique features that your work may require, such as an SOS button (~$325 Ulefone Armor 2 handset), infra-red/thermal camera CAT S60 (~$600). These are devices worth mentioning, but those features are so specific that they often narrow the choice to one or two handsets anyway.

Overall product rating: 10/10

Filed in Cellphones >Reviews. Read more about rugged, Samsung, samsung galaxy, Samsung Reviews and smartphone reviews.

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