Who it's for: Klutzes; extreme sports enthusiasts
If you're a fan of living life on the edge, or are notorious for your butter fingers, you'll want a smartphone that can take a beating. The Samsung Galaxy S6 Active, an AT&T exclusive, was built to withstand all sorts of abuse, from getting smacked against a table to being submerged in water. Like the regular Galaxy S6, the Active ($199 with two-year contract, or $695 provides plenty of processing power and an excellent camera. Samsung also designed an Activity Zone for the Active that puts the most important tools and statistics on one page. Throw in a longer-lasting battery than in the regular S6, and you've got one of the best smartphones for an active lifestyle yet.
My friends gasped in horror when I dropped the S6 Active in a crowded restaurant, but I didn't break a sweat. Thanks to its sturdy, rubbery back, the handset survived the 4-foot fall without a scratch.
Because the phone is rated at IP68 for dust- and water-resistance, your S6 Active will still work after being underwater at a depth of up to 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) for 30 minutes. That means if you drop the S6 in a pool — or worse, your toilet — you won't have to anxiously dunk it in a container of rice and hope it works after three days. I placed the Active in a 9.5-inch-deep tank of water for 30 minutes and was pleased to find the phone just as responsive immediately after I took it out as it had been previously.
Although it feels rather naked, since it's not protected by a bumper, the Active's Gorilla Glass 4 screen is tough and shatter-resistant. I was stupefied when the Active's display, after being pounded repeatedly on the edge of a table, showed no signs of wear or damage.
The phone also survived being tossed on the floor, down a flight of stairs and against a wall.
The display survived my bashing it angrily against a stair banister with excessive force, but doing this a second time cracked the screen.
Despite having an open microUSB port at the bottom and a 3.5mm headphone jack at the top, the Active maintains its water resistance.
The beauty of the Galaxy S6 Active's design is that although it doesn't scream rugged, it feels very sturdy. The rubberized, reinforced back cover feels like it can take a beating, and although the Gorilla Glass 4 screen seems exposed, it was strong enough to withstand several drops and smacks against a stair railing.
Just like the Galaxy S6, the Active's body is sealed, blocking access to the battery and leaving no microSD card slot for expandable memory. But I can live with this trade-off for the water resistance.
On the right side of the Active sits a texturized power/hold button, while a dedicated Activity key and volume rockers sit on the left. These specially textured keys are designed to be easier to press with gloves on. Below the 5.1-inch display are three physical buttons for All Apps, Home and Back. Since I'm used to capacitive keys, pressing down on the Active's keys required more effort than I'd prefer.
At 5.78 x 2.89 x 0.34 inches, the S6 Active is thicker than the regular, 0.27-inch Samsung Galaxy S6 and Apple iPhone 6, but slimmer than the 0.39-inch HTC One M9 and the LG G4, which at its thickest measures 0.39 inches.
Weighing 5.29 ounces, the S6 Active is also heavier than the Galaxy S6 (4.9 ounces) and the iPhone 6 (4.55 ounces), but lighter than the One M9 (5.5 ounces) and the G4 (5.47 ounces).
The S6 Active is also smaller than what you get if you wrap your S6 in a Lifeproof waterproof case (6.1 x 3.2 x 0.6 inches) or an Otterbox Defender (opens in new tab) (6.04 x 3.27 x 0.54 inches). The latter is not waterproof.
Display and Audio
I enjoyed gawking at Chris Pratt's handsome face in a 1080p trailer for Jurassic World, thanks to the S6 Active's brilliant, 5.1-inch, 2560 x 1440 AMOLED display. Pratt's tan skin and pink lips looked vivid as he unflinchingly stared down a trio of velociraptors, and every stray hair on his hairline was crisp. The colors were even richer than on the theater screen on which I saw the movie. Viewing angles were generous, and image quality did not degrade as I moved from side to side.
Based on our light meter, the S6 Active has one of the brightest displays of the category, notching 547 nits. That's higher than the average smartphone (399 nits), the LG G4 (396 nits), the One M9 (472 nits) and the regular S6 (521 nits). Only the iPhone 6 (559 nits) shone brighter.
The S6 Active's display is also richer than the competition's, reproducing 156.6 percent of the sRGB color gamut on our colorimeter. That's more than the average smartphone (114.5 percent), the iPhone 6 (95 percent), the One M9 (94 percent) and the G4 (109.8 percent). It was just shy of the regular S6, which registered 159 percent.
While the Active displayed rich hues, it falls short on color accuracy. With a Delta-E rating of 4.9, the Active lost to the average smartphone (4.4), the Galaxy S6 (4.7), the One M9 (4.3), the G4 (3.5) and the iPhone 6 (3.0). Numbers closer to 0 mean more-accurate colors.
Crashing waves and synthesizer beats sounded crisp and distinct in Taylor Swift's "Style," and the song was loud enough to be heard clearly from anywhere in a studio apartment.
Running Samsung's TouchWiz on top of Android Lollipop, the Active's interface is almost identical to the S6's. The lock screen shows you notifications from apps, and lets you swipe to launch the dialer or camera. Also, when you swipe all the way to the left from your home screen, you see Flipboard Briefing, which puts the top news, based on your social network activity, on one page.
TouchWiz lets you install custom themes to change the way your icons, wallpaper and other interfaces look. I selected the Pink theme, and loved the cute new icons for apps such as Phone, Messages, Internet and Camera.
You might have to spend some time decluttering your apps folder. The Active comes with a truckload of AT&T apps, including myAT&T, DriveMode (blocks incoming call and message alerts to prevent distraction), AT&T Navigator, AT&T Mail and AT&T Locker for cloud storage (the carrier provides 5GB free). Most of these are redundant, and are thankfully kept away in a folder labelled AT&T. DriveMode and myAT&T each have shortcuts on one of the home screens, though. The carrier also bundled third-party apps, such as Amazon, Uber, Yellow Pages and WildTangent Games.
At least there are some goodies in the mix. There's Samsung's S Health to monitor your fitness data, the Milk Music app (powered by Slacker) and Samsung's own curated store, Galaxy Apps.
Made for fitness and outdoor enthusiasts, the Galaxy S6 Active has a custom software interface that displays information such as the Weather, altitude, steps taken (fed from Samsung's S Health app), and shortcuts to Flashlight and Stopwatch. This page is activated when you press the dedicated Activity button on the left side.
At the bottom of this screen are five icons to launch radio stations (specially created for the S6 Active) on Samsung's Milk music app.
I particularly liked the Flashlight feature that takes a message you enter, translates it to Morse code and then flashes the pattern.
Performance and Graphics
Thanks to the Active's octa-core Samsung Exynos processor, I enjoyed smooth performance on the driving game Does Not Commute with five apps running in the background.
The S6 Active smoked the competition on the general performance benchmark Geekbench 3. Its score of 5,191 trumps the iPhone 6 (2,931), the One M9 (3,818), the LG G4 (3,493) and even the regular S6 (5,120).
Taking 4 minutes and 7 seconds to transcode a 204MB video from HD to 480p, the Active is faster than the average smartphone (6:09), the One M9 (4:47) and the LG G4 (4:13), but slower than the regular S6's blazing 2:35. We re-ran the tests for the Active and the regular S6, but still saw a full minute to two minutes of difference between the two phones' times, even though they have the same guts. We've reached out to Samsung for an explanation on this and have yet to hear back.
With a 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited result of 16,218, the Active delivered better graphics than the average smartphone (15,050), but it trailed the iPhone 6 (16,558), the LG G4 (18,510), the Galaxy S6 (21,193) and the One M9 (22,804).
Packing the same 16-MP rear camera and 5-MP front shooter as the regular S6, the S6 Active really impressed. Regardless of the amount of light available, the Active shot bright, vibrant, evenly exposed pictures, although some photos in low light were out of focus or blurry.
A floral arrangement at the Standard Biergarten showed accurate orange and green hues, while individual hairs on the flowers' stems were tack sharp.
The camera was equally skilled in low light, producing bright, vibrant and clear images of my friend and I as we waited to be seated in a dark Hell's Kitchen restaurant.
In more challenging situations, such as on a Brooklyn rooftop at night, the Active had trouble focusing. The Brooklyn skyline on a misty evening looked muddy, although it was bright enough to make out individual buildings.
A picture of my co-worker in a dimly lit bar was similarly splotchy, but clear enough to see his facial features and the faint stripes on his shirt.
The 1080p video I shot of a musical quartet at the Standard Biergarten was bright and colorful. The musicians' dancing fingers and bodies swaying to the song looked smooth.
Selfies shot on the Active were vivid and sharp, accurately depicting my friend's brown hair and gray top.
Special to the S6 Active is the Aqua camera mode, which turns the activity and volume keys into physical shutter buttons for image- and video-capture, respectively, so you can use the camera underwater. This is a thoughtful feature, considering touch screens don't work well when wet. I was able to record video and take pictures when the phone was underwater just by pressing the buttons.
Just like the Galaxy S6, the Active packs modes such as Selective Focus (to let you change the focal point of your picture after you shoot) and Pro mode for advanced photographers who want manual control over settings such as White Balance, ISO light sensitivity and exposure compensation. You also get Virtual Shot, which lets you compose a 360-degree view of your subject and see all angles afterward by tilting your phone or swiping.
The S6's Selfie mode includes a Beauty slider, a software feature that makes your skin appear smoother and your face a little smaller. On a scale of 0 to 8, the default setting is TK, but you can set the intensity yourself.
One of the biggest differences between the regular S6 and the S6 Active is the latter's supersized 3,500-mAh battery. Samsung squeezed in a larger battery so the phone can last you all through your hike.
On our battery test, which involves continuous Web surfing over AT&T's 4G network, the S6 Active clocked an impressive 9 hours and 58 minutes. That's more than two hours longer than the One M9 (7:14), the G4 (7:38) and the iPhone 6 (7:40), and better than the average smartphone (8:16) and the Galaxy S6 (8:32).
Price and Configurations
You can buy the S6 Active for $199 with a two-year contract on AT&T, or opt for one of the carrier's three installment-payment plans.
You pay $23.17 for 30 months on Next 24, $28.96 for 24 months on Next 18 or $34.75 for 20 months on Next 12. You can also pay a 30 percent ($209) down payment and $17.36 for 28 months. Up front, the full price of the Active is $695 without a contract.
If you live life a little more dangerously than most, the Galaxy S6 Active is like a dependable James Bond gadget. It will work rain or shine, and it's got enough juice to last you more than a workday. Just as with the regular S6, you'll also enjoy speedy performance, a vivid display and an excellent camera. We wish other carriers offered this phone, but if you're on AT&T (or you're thinking of switching to the carrier), the S6 Active is a great option.