Think of the Samsung Galaxy S5 Active (released May 2014, listed at $659 without contract by AT&T) as a stronger, tougher cousin of the Galaxy S5 (released April 2014). The Galaxy S5 Active dropped its predecessor S5’s fingerprint sensor, a security feature to augment the usual password protection. The effectiveness of the current fingerprint technology deployed by smartphone makers is debatable. (See “Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone fingerprint sensor hacked,” The Guardian, April 16, 2014.) For most people, the thought of their fingerprint data falling into the wrong hands is probably worse than a stolen password. So I suspect not too many people will be up in arms over the loss of the fingerprint swipe in the S5 Active. Ruggedness and sturdiness, on the other hand, is a desirable trait for smartphones, because we now bring our devices along to record once-in-a-lifetime events, sometimes in less-than-ideal environments. With the S5 Active, Samsung attempts to tackle what has long been the Achilles’ Heel of mobile electronics—the vulnerability that comes with their compactness.
From the Galaxy S5 Active’s home page, Samsung taunts you to do what you might normally not do while carrying a phone: “Run in the rain, camp in the desert, dig in your garden.” This is a phone designed to meet IP67, an Ingress Protection standard set by the International Electromechanical Commission. It has also passed MIL-STA-810G, a subset of the military standard for ruggedness as established by the U.S. Military. So you should reasonably expect the device to survive the stresses and bruises of urban adventures and outdoor activities.
I’m no Indiana Jones, and certainly don’t plan to travel to Syria or Iraq to test the Active S5’s combat readiness (even if Ubergizmo pays for the trip). But I can mimic the activities of an urban warrior by jogging around Golden Gate Park with the test unit, dropping it to the ground, and exposing it to dirt and water. Day to day, I’m a normal phone user with perhaps more than average travel (part of being a tech writer). I use the phone primarily to stay in touch with friends on social media and colleagues on email. I use it to watch a movie or read news on long flights. For someone like me, the ruggedness is nice to have, but not a necessity. For those who routinely go river-rafting, head into the wood to hunt, or scale a rocky cliff for fun, it’s an attractive feature—perhaps even critical.
Measurements: 5.72 x 2.89 x 0.35 inches
Camera: 16 Megapixel front facing, 2 Megapixel rear, 4 x digital optical zoom
Battery: 3.85 Volt, Lithium Ion, 2800 mAh
Connecivity: WiFi, Bluetooth, USB
Processor: 2.5 GHz Quad-Core
Display: 1920 x 1080 touchscreen, Super AMOLED, with 16M color depth
Design (Very Good+)
At 5.72 x 2.89 inches, the Galaxy S5 Active gives you a generous screen for a smartphone—noticeably larger than the iPhones 4s and 5s. The display gives you comparatively larger text and images, making apps like Facebook, Google+, and Kindle much easier to view. The grids along the sides give you a sturdy grip. A phone crashing onto hard surface at an angle usually cannot survive without serious injury (shattered housing and cracked screen are the common results). The S5 Active is designed to minimize shocks from such drops with hard-rubber nubs around the corners. The on-off button and volume controls are within easy reach when holding the device in a natural position.
Part of the price you pay for the Galaxy S5 Active’s ruggedness is in weight. At 6 oz, the S5 Active is slightly heavier than the Galaxy S5 (5.11 oz) and significantly heavier than the iPhone 5s (4 oz). So if you’re prone to talk on the phone for extended period, pocketing the phone and using a headset with microphone is recommended for the S5 Active.
The larger screen makes a difference with movies with sweeping landscapes and sprawling battle sequences. One drawback, however, is the placement of the speakers at the back of the phone. Since the sound is projecting away from the viewer, some of the subtleties of the sound effects are lost. The best way to mitigate it is to watch movies with earplugs or headphones instead of the built-in speaker.
The full HD display at 1920 x 1080 resolutions gives images and videos crisp colors and definition. Describing the S5 Active’s Adaptive Screen, Samsung writes, “Whether you’re out in the sun or travelling by train, the 5.1-inch display will automatically adjust brightness and contrast levels to keep whatever you’re looking at vibrant, clear and rich with color.” In my tests, however, the automatic adjustment doesn’t appear to make a remarkable difference in some situations. For example, I turned off the light in my room midway in a movie to observe what happens. In this case, the image quality remains consistent regardless of the ambiance light change. But walking from the shaded side of the street to the sunny side didn’t prompt sufficient automatic adjustments—whatever they are—to make the screen remain visible. I recognize all backlit display technologies have a limit in how much they can cope with sun glare. But for a model marketed as the outdoor person’s device, the S5 Active’s Adaptive Display doesn’t seem adaptive enough.
Battery (Very Good)
To test the battery drain, I let a movie (it was Transformers: Dark of the Moon) play at 20% screen brightness, with adaptive screen adjustment on. At the end of 60 mins, the battery has been reduced by about 16%. Under normal usage, full day of intermittent web browsing, Facebook browsing, texting, photo shoots, and YouTube viewing drains less than 15%.
Software (Very Good)
One of the problems with the iOS devices is a lack of transparency into its storage structure. To my knowledge, there appears to be no easy way to dissect and understand the mysterious “Other” quadrant in the Apple iPhones that lump together all ill-defined content stored on the device. To add to the frustration, the “Other” segment seems to swell and thin with no good explanation, often taking up GBs of storage. By contrast, the Galaxy S5 Active’s Android OS-based My Folder gives you a good view of the space taken up by different content types.
The Smart Remote feature in the phone is a handy alternative when you cannot find your real TV remote. With a few steps, you can use your Galaxy S5 Active to turn on, turn off, and change channels on your TV. The Smart Remote app displays a list of available shows on the phone screen and gives you a summary of them—something your TV remote cannot do.
Two apps in particular cater to the targeted urban hikers and outdoor adventurers. Activity Zone comes with Elevation, Compass, Flashlight, and Stopwatch, all rolled into a single app. S Health measures steps walked, calories burned, calorie consumed, heart rate, and so on.
I started the step counter and kept it running during a jog in the park. It worked quite well in collecting the approximate steps, along with calories I supposedly burned (which I took as permission to have a guilt-free hamburger for dinner). The heart rate monitor, however, is a bit tricky. To measure, the app requires one to remain quiet and stationary, which is difficult to do if you’re jogging. My guess is, the app developers envisioned the user getting his or her heart only at the end of an exercise, but not during it—a faulty assumption, in my view.
To keep certain content exclusive to you (like an ill-advised photo of you dancing on a bar counter), you can tag them to be available only in the Private Mode. To locate it, go to Settings > Personalization > Private Mode.
Camera (Very Good+)
The built-in camera gives you high-resolution images, with autofocus activated by the touch of a finger. At 16 Megapixel, the S5 Active’s camera offers higher resolution than the iPhone 4s, 5s, and 5c’s 8 Megapixel camera. The built-in filters let you snap photos in the Beauty Face, Panorama, and Dual Camera modes. The last one lets you shoot a photo with both the front and rare cameras. The rare camera view shows up by default as a virtual stamp, superimposed over the front view. The Beauty Face Mode adds a subtle airbrush effect to the shot, resulting in smoother edges.
In GFX T-Rex (used for measuring graphics performance), Geekbench Multithread (used for measuring processor performance), and 3DMark (used for device-to-device comparison of graphics rendering), the Galaxy S5 Active shows just a sliver of advantage over its predecessor S5. In device-to-device comparison, the Galaxy S5 Active and the S5 outperform the Google Nexus 5, and dramatically outperform the LG G3. In battery test comparison, both the Galaxy S5 Active and the S5 are identical. Both score 2800 mAh, to be outperformed by the LG G3’s 3000 mAh score. That tells you that S5 Active won’t give you dramatically better visuals or faster application response compared to what you’d get with the S5. The S5 Active’s improvement is primarily in its sturdy form factor and specialized apps for active lifestyle.
Ruggedness (Very Good+)
After consulting with Samsung, I got the green light to do some drop tests, water-dunk tests, and dust sprinkling with the Galaxy S5 Active on loan. The device was designed to survive a four-foot drop onto flat surface, said Samsung PR. So I started off with a few drops onto my carpeted floor from about my chest’s height (I’m 5 ft. 6. inch). Then I did a few more on my kitchen’s hard floor. In all incidents, the design of the outer shell with its protective nubs around the corners held up. In one drop, the back panel slid out of place slightly from impact, but which easily snapped back in place with a push.
Even though Samsung PR said in the labs the phone survived 30 minutes under water, I placed it in a bucket of water for only a minute. I figure that’s much more consistent with ordinary household accidents with kitchen sinks. After fishing out the phone, a few dabs with a paper towel brought the Galaxy S5 Active back to normal. Be sure to keep the charging port flap firmly closed, though. If that opening is exposed when the device gets wet, the water could prove fatal to the electrical circuits inside.
For dust exposure, I intentionally dropped the Galaxy S5 Active on the ground while jogging in the park and sprinkled a few clumps of dirt on it. It had no effect on the device’s operations or integrity. All these lead me to believe you can confidently carry the S5 Active along in your outdoor activities and off-the-beaten-track adventures. I’m sure a series of unfortunately accidents could still cause catastrophic failure (for example, an accidental drop pops open the phone’s back panel, then it falls into a stream with its electrics exposed). But the phone should survive ordinary mishaps.
Overall (Very Good)
We usually think of smartphones as delicate devices, prone to crack from accidental drops or die from unintended water contact. The Galaxy S5 Active raises the bar for ruggedness in smartphones without sacrificing screen space or functionality. The special apps that come with the device show the designers put some thoughts into assembling some useful tools that would fit into the lifestyle of those who would use a sturdy phone. Aside from the ruggedness, the phone can stand on its own as a reliable mobile device for text, photos, messages, and social media. The FHD screen makes it a decent multimedia player for visual, but it’s undermined by the back-facing speaker. The Samsung Galaxy S5 Active is a good reliable mobile phone for anybody, but especially for the sporty, active users.