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September 11, 2017

Samsung Galaxy S8 Active review: Come for the ruggedness, stay for the battery

by John_A

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Samsung’s ‘Active’ line continues to carve out its own little niche for fans of high-end rugged phones.

The quick take

Don’t think of the Galaxy S8 Active as a legitimate improvement over the standard GS8 — because it isn’t. Think of this as the best rugged phone choice for those who want something really tough but don’t want to compromise on performance, display, camera or other features. Yes, it has a massive improvement in battery life, but in the name of sturdiness, it also loses all of the design that makes the Galaxy S8 so desirable in the first place.

The Good

  • Complete Galaxy S8 experience
  • Great battery life
  • Can take a beating
  • ‘Shatter-resistant’ screen
  • Flat screen can be preferable

The Bad

  • Too big and heavy for most people
  • No particular differentiation outside of casing
  • More expensive than standard GS8
  • Screen more susceptible to scratches
  • Exclusive to AT&T (for now)

See at AT&T

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The internals

Tech Specs

Operating system Android 7.0 Nougat
Display 5.8-inch Super AMOLED, 2560 x 1440 (506 ppi)Gorilla Glass 5Shatter-resistant
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 835
Storage 64GB (UFS 2.1)
Expandable microSD card
RAM 4GB
Rear camera 12MP Dual Pixel, 1.4-micron pixels, f/1.7, OIS
Front camera 8MP, f/1.7, auto focus
Battery 4000mAh
Charging USB-CFast chargingFast wireless charging
Connectivity Wi-Fi 802.11ac MIMOBluetooth 5.1NFC, GPS, Glonass, GalileoWi-Fi Calling, HD Voice, Video calling
LTE Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 20, 28, 29, 30, 38, 39, 40, 41, 66
Water resistance IP68
Security Fingerprint sensorIris scanning
Dimensions 151.89 x 74.93 x 9.91 mm208.09 g
Colors Meteor Grey, Titanium Gold

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Every bit a GS8

Galaxy S8 Active Things you’ll love

The thing you’ll love most about the Galaxy S8 Active is that it’s simply a Galaxy S8 at its core. Every spec, every feature and every component is the same. That means you’re getting great performance, a whole boatload of software features and a camera that’s still in the conversation with the best in the industry. It’s water- and dust-resistant, of course, but that doesn’t come at the cost of any fewer ports — you still get a headphone jack and flap-less USB-C connector. You also get to look at a beautiful Super AMOLED display with great brightness, even outdoors, which I’d expect you’d want for a phone that’s this rugged.

The GS8 Active even keeps components like wireless charging, which you sometimes expect to lose with such a thick outer casing. That package of specs and features is a far shout from what you expect to get in most “rugged” style phones.

There is one spec change, though: the battery is now 4000mAh, a full 1000 larger than the Galaxy S8 and even 500 larger than the Galaxy S8+. As you’d expect, this offers excellent battery life. I ended most days with roughly 20-30% battery remaining, despite taking no measures throughout the day to limit usage or save precious capacity. That’s awesome when you compare it to the standard Galaxy S8, which offers acceptable battery life but not a whole lot of runway for heavier days.

Samsung is also touting one other differentiator, which ties right into the “Active” name, and that’s a “shatter-resistant” screen. You can, apparently, drop the phone from five feet onto a hard surface and have a guarantee that it won’t shatter. That’s pretty neat.

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Not for everyone

Galaxy S8 Active Things you’ll hate

In terms of actually using the Galaxy S8 Active every day, there isn’t a whole lot to dislike. The one real downside of the GS8 Active is its overall size. It’s wider, taller, thicker and heavier than the standard version — and not subtly, but dramatically. It’s over 10 grams heavier than the Galaxy Note 8, and its size kind of slots in between the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ — that’s big, considering its screen size is the same as the GS8.

That size bump just makes the Galaxy S8 Active tougher to hold and use, even compared to the slippery Galaxy S8. It also isn’t all that good looking when you set it alongside the sleek and smooth standard version.

But there’s also one thing you can’t see that you may find spoils your experience. That “shatter-resistant” screen rating is accomplished by putting a special film on top of the standard Gorilla Glass 5 screen covering. Similarly to what we saw on the Moto Z2 Force, this covering is extra susceptible to scratches in daily use — it’s not scratching the glass, but instead the plastic on top. This is one of the trade-offs necessary when you have a screen that won’t shatter when it’s impacted.

The other big downside of the Galaxy S8 Active is its initial exclusivity to AT&T. Not only does that limit its availability to one of four major carriers — to say nothing of international availability — but it also means you get the typical AT&T treatment on the phone. That means roughly 10 pre-installed bloatware apps that you don’t want or need (thankfully you can disable or uninstall most of it), and some superfluous changes to the software for no apparent reason. Thankfully the GS8 Active isn’t supposed to be exclusive to the carrier forever — but we don’t know when that period will end.

Whether by AT&T’s doing or not, the Galaxy S8 Active is also quite expensive. At $849, it’s $100 more than a standard GS8 and the same price as the Galaxy S8+. If you choose to buy the GS8 or GS8+ unlocked, you’ll save roughly $175 with the former and $50 with the latter. That’s a big premium to pay for a phone that is very much the same in terms of overall experience and features.

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Get it for rugged, not for battery

Galaxy S8 Active Should you buy it?

Power users who are always hunting for the biggest possible battery will undoubtedly be drawn to the idea of a high-end phone like the Galaxy S8 with an extra-large 4000mAh battery. And yes, the Galaxy S8 Active provides that — it is, in terms of features, software and performance, every bit the same as a standard Galaxy S8. But in order to get that 4000mAh battery, you have to give up quite a bit of what makes the standard Galaxy S8 so appealing — primarily, its entire hardware design.

The battery improvement is a big plus; but the design is an even bigger minus.

The Galaxy S8 Active is massively heavier and larger in every dimension than the Galaxy S8, and even loses its hallmark curved glass screen. That last part may also seem like a bonus — but the added width and thickness makes up for it in terms of poor ergonomics. With its super-thick and tough exterior, the Galaxy S8 Active doesn’t look, or more importantly feel, like a Galaxy S8 anymore — and that is, after all, a big chunk of what you’re paying for when you buy one.

No, I wouldn’t recommend someone who wants a Galaxy S8 consider a Galaxy S8 Active just for the battery. The downsides of its size, shape, design and price just aren’t worth it. But I would absolutely recommend this phone to someone who must have a “rugged” phone to survive the daily demands of their life or job, and doesn’t want to compromise in terms of the software, features, camera or experience of the phone in the process.

See at AT&T

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