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Galaxy S5 Active Reviewed: A Samsung Smartphone for the Sporty and Klutzy

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor
Yahoo Tech

The Samsung Galaxy S5 is one of the best smartphones there is. Like most smartphones, though, the S5 is fragile. Drop it from too high up, and the S5 will crack like a Fabergé egg. Repairing it will cost you nearly as much as a new one.

If you want the quality and features of the S5 but don’t want to worry about it breaking the first time it slips out of your hand, you could get a bulky case. Or you could grab Samsung’s new Galaxy S5 Active.

Designed for sporty outdoors types, the S5 Active features a more robust design than your standard Galaxy S5, as well as an “Activity Zone” app for the active (more on that later). But active or not, the phone should prove especially valuable for the klutzes among us, including yours truly.

Available exclusively through AT&T, the S5 Active will cost you $199 with a two-year contract, the same as a regular Galaxy S5. 

Beefier, but a bit bulkier

Samsung S5 Active phone

Like its predecessor, the Galaxy S4 Active, the S5 Active gets a ruggedized body that makes the handset more durable. Its beefier exterior means the Active meets military specifications for everything from extreme temperatures to shocks and vibrations.

That doesn’t mean you can put this thing in the oven and expect it to survive, but it should be able to withstand being left in a hot car, or a cold car overnight, without issue.

The main draw of the Active, though, is its ability to survive a drop. Samsung says the handset can withstand a drop of up to 4 feet onto a flat surface and keep on ticking. That’s a potentially fatal fall for many other smartphones.

Like the standard S5, the Active can also be submerged in 3 feet of water for up to 30 minutes. You can take photos underwater by using the volume key, though you can do that with the normal S5 as well.

S5 Active phone under water

In order to make the Active water-resistant, both the S5 Active and the standard S5 get an annoying USB port cover that you have to flip open whenever you want to charge your phone. It seems like a small inconvenience, but over time, having to dig your fingernail into the cover to pop it open will begin to wear on you.

The S5 Active is a hair taller and thicker than the regular S5, but at 6.0 ounces, the Active is nearly an ounce heavier than the 5.1-ounce S5. That’s fairly weighty for a smartphone.

To put that in perspective, the HTC One M8, which sports a 5-inch screen (compared with the S5 Active’s 5.1-inch screen), weighs 5.6 ounces, while the 4-inch iPhone 5s weighs in at a mere 3.9 ounces. Neither of those phones, though, can take the kind of abuse the S5 Active can.

Looks and display

S5 Active in camouflage

To sell the Active’s more durable nature, Samsung has given the handset a slightly more bro-centric design. That includes hard plastic bumpers on the phone’s four corners and a series of faux rivets on its removable back cover. There’s even a camouflage color option, just in case you need to hide out in the woods like Rambo but still want to play Candy Crush Saga.

Samsung has replaced the soft-touch Back, Home, and Recent Apps buttons found below the standard S5’s display with physical buttons to make using the phone while wet a bit easier. Unfortunately, that also means that the Active loses the fingerprint sensor found on the S5’s Home button.

But where it loses a fingerprint sensor, it gains an “Active Key.” Found on the phone’s left side above its volume rocker, the Active Key opens the S5 Active’s Activity Zone app. Hold the button down, and it will also launch the Active’s camera app.

S5 Active in profile

Samsung has also given the S5 Active a heart-rate sensor, found directly below its camera flash. And though that’s useful for the actively inclined, it can read your heart rate only if you remain still and quiet. 

The Galaxy S5 Active’s display, like the normal S5’s, is one of the best on the market. At 5.1 inches, the Active’s 1080p screen is both sharp and colorful, and it’s a full inch larger than the iPhone’s 4-inch display.

As for battery life, it’s good. After messing around with the S5 Active for a solid five hours, it still had enough juice to last the rest of the day. That’s about nine hours of use. Samsung says the handset can last up to 12 hours when on the 4G network, which might be a bit of wishful thinking.

Working out the bloatware

The S5 Active’s standout app is its aforementioned Activity Zone. Designed to be a one-stop shop for fitness fanatics, the app’s home screen provides you with your elevation and atmospheric pressure, as well as a compass and a stopwatch.

The app also includes a flashlight that uses the Active’s camera flash to light up the world around you. And, if you’re ever trapped on the side of a mountain, you can set the flashlight to blink to get a potential rescuer’s attention. There’s even a Morse code setting that lets you type out text and make the light flash your message. 

Samsung also lets you add app shortcuts to Activity Zone. So, if you’ve got a Fitbit or other fitness tracker, you can add its associated app for easy access.

Samsung’s smartphones have long been known for coming with a lot of bloatware — nonstandard apps that nobody really likes. But with the S5 Active, as with the S5, Samsung has cut back on the amount of extra software it throws at you. That means wonky features like Smart Scroll, which was a way of letting you scroll down webpages by tilting the phone, are nowhere to be found.

As a result, the S5 Active’s interface, which runs on Google’s Android 4.4.2 operating system, is far cleaner than its predecessor’s. And if you do want to grab something like Smart Scroll, Samsung gives you the option to download it via its Galaxy Apps store.

Some of the Galaxy-specific software is actually good. I am a fan of the S5 Active’s Notifications Drawer and the included quick settings menu, which makes it easy to enable and disable features, such as the phone’s WiFi and Bluetooth radios. You can also dim or increase the brightness of the display with its brightness slider, which is incredibly helpful. 

Still, there are a number of apps that are simply unnecessary. For example, there are two different Web browsers: Chrome and Samsung’s proprietary browser. Why would I need both?

There are also 10 AT&T-specific apps, including AT&T Navigator, which costs $9.99 per month for spoken directions and voice control, a feature Google Maps offers for free.

The camera
If you’re shooting photos in decent lighting, the Galaxy Active’s 16-megapixel shooter will capture some of the best shots you can take with a smartphone. In low-light situations, though, the iPhone 5s’ 8-megapixel camera still takes the crown.

Photos taken in a dimly lit room without a flash looked grainy and distorted when shot with the Active. Images shot using the iPhone at the same moment looked clean and crisp.

If you’re taking pictures outside on a sunny day or in a well-lit room, the S5 Active will fire off some great shots. As Samsung cameras tend to do, though, photos taken with the Active tended to have a slightly bluish hue. The iPhone 5s’s images, on the other hand, were far more natural looking. 

Samsung adds a host of different shooting options to the Galaxy S5 Active, including Auto, Beauty Face, Dual Camera, Shot & More, and Virtual Tour. Beauty Face is meant to smooth out facial features to make your selfies look cleaner, while Dual Camera switches on both the front and rear cameras at the same time so you can take a picture of something and get your reaction to it in one shot.

Shot & More takes a series of photos that you can then edit, and Virtual Tour takes pictures as you move around a set location then strings all the photos together into a quick movie that helps give the viewer perspective of the area. It’s a cool feature, but it’s unlikely that the average consumer will ever have occasion to use it. Most people will likely never use anything other than Auto mode.

With its stronger chassis, gorgeous display, and activity-centric apps, the Galaxy S5 Active is an exceptional smartphone. Not only does it include many of the features that make the Galaxy S5 such a winner, but it can survive the spills and falls of everyday life as well.

 If you’re looking for an Android phone that can take a decent beating and don’t mind a little added weight, the Samsung Galaxy S5 Active should be on your radar.

Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley or on Google+ here.