Samsung Galaxy S7 Active Review: Durable Greatness

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Editor’s Note: After originally posting this review, reports surfaced about the Galaxy S7 Active failing to work after prolonged exposure to water. We retested the phone and updated the review to reflect our new test results.

Thanks to the Galaxy S7 Active, "rugged" is no longer a dirty word. Sure, this sporty take on Samsung's flagship is all about taking a beating, with a military-tested design that you can slam on the floor or dunk into a pool of water with no problem. But the S7 Active ($795 via AT&T) also manages to be a great smartphone in its own right, retaining the S7's rich display and excellent camera within a revamped design that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to take out on the beach. Even more important, Samsung’s latest phone has one of the longest-lasting batteries we've ever tested. While it's annoying that the phone is only available through a single carrier and it carries too much bloatware, the S7 Active is one of the best durable smartphones you can buy.

Serious Durability

The MIL-STD-810G-tested Galaxy S7 Active is built to take a beating, with a shatterproof screen designed for surviving 5-foot drops and an IP68-rated body that can be submerged in up to 5 feet of water for 30 minutes. Naturally, our first instinct was to toss the phone all around our office building and throw it in a bowl of water.

Once I got my hands on a review unit, I tossed the device down a 12-step staircase multiple times, and the only real damage I noticed were a few scratches on the back. I then dropped the Active from 5 feet onto both marble and concrete multiple times, and while I cringed watching a brand-new phone hit the floor face-first, I was relieved to see nothing but a tiny nick near the top of the screen.

Some initial Active models didn’t quite live up to all of Samsung’s claims of water resistance, though the phone maker seems to have resolved those problems. We placed the phone in our foot-tall fish tank for a half an hour, and it kept ticking. At a separate, pre-launch event, I watched my colleague Sherri Smith gleefully spray an S7 Active with a water gun before proceeding to use the phone without a hitch.

After we published our review, though, Consumer Reports said that the Galaxy S7 Active didn’t live up to the more extreme aspects of its durability claims — namely, that its tests found the phone couldn't survive being submerged in nearly 5 feet of water for 30 minutes. We retested using our original review unit, leaving the phone at the bottom of a chlorinated pool at a little less than 5 feet for 30 minutes. That S7 Active stopped working, unable to boot up and with a damaged screen that looked washed out and off color.

We tested once more with a second Galaxy S7 Active. This time, the phone continued to work after its 30 minute dip in nearly 5 feet of water. Samsung says it identified a problem at its manufacturing facilities that caused some phones to not be sufficiently waterproof; it says it fixed the issue and will replace water-damaged phones that are under warranty. Given the results of our latest rounding of testing, we’re confident Samsung has tackled the issue.

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Design— Attractive Ruggedness

The Galaxy S7 Active is unmistakably a rugged device, but that doesn't stop it from looking almost as good as its flagship counterpart. Gone are the unsightly screws that held together the S6 Active's back panel, creating a seamlessly sporty design that no longer looks like it should be restricted to a hiking trail or construction site.

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's Guide)

The S7 Active's soft, rubberized edges feel great, and its textured back panel makes it easy to grip. Unlike the standard S7, the Active has physical Back and Recent Apps buttons, which could prove useful for when you need to navigate while your phone is soaked. Also unique to this version is the Active key, which gives you instant access to the phone's Activity Zone app for fitness and hiking. The phone packs a microSD card slot, allowing you to add up to 200GB of storage.

The S7 Active ships in three colors — Sandy Gold, Titanium Gray and Green Camo. While I enjoy the subtle, pixelated camo pattern on our green model, I also appreciate that Samsung offers gold and silver options for folks who want a rugged phone that doesn't look like it was dug up on a battlefield.

Weighing 6.52 ounces and measuring 0.39 inches thick, the S7 Active is fairly beefy for a modern smartphone. The shatterproof Droid Turbo 2 has a slightly sleeker design (0.3-0.36 inches), but can't be submerged like the Active can. Naturally, the Active isn't nearly as thin as the standard Galaxy S7 (0.04 inches) or competitors such as the iPhone 6s or LG G5, but it looks slick for a device of its kind.

Always-On Display

The S7 Active's 5.1-inch, 2560 x 1440 display is now always-on, allowing you to quickly check things like the time, date and battery life without unlocking the device. Always-on mode is designed to drain just 1 percent of the battery per hour, so it doesn’t drain the Active's already-epic battery life.

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's Guide)

You can customize the always-on display to show various types of clocks or calendars, as well as toggle one of several color patterns to glow behind them. If you're the minimalist type, you can instead opt to have a subtle image appear on the screen when it's locked, such as a bed of stars or a doodle of some trees.

The Active's screen is perfectly suited to binge-watching TV and movies; when I watched a trailer for X-Men: Apocalypse, I noticed the finer details of everything from Magneto's stubbly face to the complex patterns on the titular bad guy's costume. But while Cyclops' optic beams and Psylocke's plasma sword were awesomely vibrant, colors generally looked a bit too saturated, especially compared with the more natural-looking tones I experienced on my iPhone 6s Plus.

The S7 Active's display offers somewhat subpar brightness, registering 334 nits on our light meter. That's better than the Droid Turbo 2 (300 nits), but less bright than the LG G5 (354), the iPhone 6s (452 nits) and the average smartphone (434). The S7 Active’s also disappointingly dimmer than its standard S7 counterpart, which notched 487 nits.

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's Guide)

Fortunately, the S7 Active's AMOLED display proved just as rich as its non-rugged counterpart, reproducing 180.6 percent of the sRGB color range. That tops the iPhone 6s and Droid Turbo 2 (both near 100 percent), as well as the LG G5's 123.7 percent.

The Active's screen wasn't quite as accurate as it was colorful, with a Delta E rating of 3.59 (closer to 0 is better). The Turbo 2 (2.37) and LG G5 (2.68) performed a bit better, while the iPhone 6s proved nearly perfect (0.3).

Camera: Low-Light Standout

A rugged smartphone's camera should be able to capture great outdoor and low-light shots, and for that purpose, the S7 Active's is one of the best. Retaining the same 12-MP dual-pixel camera that makes the standard S7 our current favorite camera phone, the Active took rich, detailed photos, even under less-than-favorable weather conditions.

Credit: Michael Andronico

(Image credit: Michael Andronico)

Despite it being a gloomy day, the Active did a great job highlighting everything I saw at a Union Square farmers market, from each little dent in a batch of orange potatoes to the bright reds and greens of a batch of apples.

Credit: Michael Andronico

(Image credit: Michael Andronico)

The Active's camera was just as adept at capturing foliage. A bush of big green leaves looked vibrant in my photos, and I could pick out every little raindrop that landed on each leaf. Likewise, the purple petals in a batch of peonies really popped.

Credit: Michael Andronico

(Image credit: Michael Andronico)

Low-light performance is the Galaxy S7’s calling card, and the S7 Active is no different. When I took some evening shots from my balcony, I could clearly see the Manhattan skyline in the background as if it were late afternoon. A set of plants on my balcony looked somewhat dark and blurry at night, but once I turned flash on, the Active illuminated every little rock, leaf and clump of dirt in each pot.

Credit: Michael Andronico

(Image credit: Michael Andronico)

A dimly lit bakery filled with chocolate-based delights was pretty dark in person, but you wouldn't know by looking at my photos. The various jars and boxes I captured looked well lit, and I had no issues making out the small text on them. Finally, when I took some shots of a friend in a low-lit movie theater, I could still make out the details of his face and cartoony T-shirt pretty easily.

Credit: Michael Andronico

(Image credit: Michael Andronico)

The Active's front 5-MP camera takes impressive selfies, capturing individual stubs of hair on my beard while doing justice to my skin tone and plaid blue shirt. You can cake on some digital face powder using the phone's Beauty Mode, as well as use the Slim Face and Large Eyes tools if you always wanted to look more like an alien.

Speaking of tools, the S7 Active packs Samsung's usual roundup of special camera features, including panorama, live broadcast to YouTube and slow motion. You can use selective focus to highlight either the foreground or background after you've taken a shot, as well as fire up dedicated modes for shooting food, marine life and sports.

Performance: Fast, But Not Flagship Fast

Packing a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor with 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, the S7 Active was pleasantly speedy throughout my time with it. Apps opened near-instantly, and when I browsed the web while simultaneously watching YouTube in dual-window mode, I didn't experience a hint of slowdown. The brutal, console-quality action of Mortal Kombat X played wonderfully on the S7 Active, allowing me to dismember my opponents without any nasty lag.

The S7 Active scored 5,004 on the Geekbench 3 performance test, performing better than the average smartphone (3,145), the Droid Turbo 2 and the iPhone 6s but trailing the LG G5's 5,357.

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's Guide)

Samsung's phone took 4 minutes and 30 seconds to convert a 204MB from 1080p to 480p, which is much better than our average (7:52) but not quite as quick as the LG G5 (3:31).

The Active took rich, detailed photos, even under less-than-favorable weather conditions.

Graphics tests told a similar story. The Active's 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited score of 20,907 is better than average (14,279), but not as impressive as the LG G5, the iPhone 6s or the Turbo 2, all of which scored above 25,000.

Battery Life—Best-in-Class

Samsung says that the S7 Active's 4,000-mAh battery is the largest battery on any smartphone, and it sure performs like it. The sporty smartphone lasted a whopping 11 hours on our battery life (continuous web surfing over LTE), crushing the Droid Turbo 2 (8:52), the LG G5 (7:57) and the iPhone 6s (6:46).

The phone also outlasted its standard S7 and S7 Edge counterparts (8:43 and 10:09, respectively), but was ultimately trumped by the Nexus 6P's 3,450-mAh battery, which lasted a colossal 12:25.

On top of lasting all day, the S7 Active charges superquick (up to 50 percent in 30 minutes) if you're using a fast-charging cable, such as the one included with the phone. Even better, you can charge the device cord-free using a wireless charging pad, such as the ones sold by Samsung or found at select Starbucks stores.

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Custom Themes and Split-Screen

The S7 Active touts Samsung's usual TouchWiz interface, which puts a glossy sheen over the phone's Android M software. Navigating the phone is a breeze, largely thanks to a robust Quick-settings menu that lets you instantly toggle features such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Airplane Mode once you swipe it down from the top. Swiping from the left lets you catch up on the news via Flipboard -- something I appreciated as someone who uses that app daily.

If you're not digging TouchWiz's default look, there are a ton of cool free and paid skins available in the phone's theme store. Whether you prefer sci-fi-esque patterns or a Snoopy-themed phone, you shouldn't have a hard time finding something you like.

If you like your phones bloatware-free, the S7 Active might drive you a little nuts.

One of the phone's best UI features is Dual Window mode, which lets you split the screen between two apps. Not every program will work in Split screen, but considering that you can watch a YouTube video on one half of the display while jotting down notes in another, it's pretty handy to have.

Apps: Staying Active and Safe

At the center of the S7 Active's app library is the Activity Zone, which serves as a digital Swiss army knife for those out on a hike or run. Accessible with a quick tap of the Active Key, this program lets you check the weather, track your elevation, and pull up a compass or turn on a flashlight if you get lost. You can also view your steps taken via S Health and turn on a stopwatch to track your times.

Should you find yourself in danger, you can double-tap the Active Key to pull up the Emergency Zone. This app lets you dial 911 with a single tap, as well as send out a pre-written SOS message to any emergency contacts you've saved. You can even have the app record both of your camera feeds as well as your voice while you call for help.

If you like your phones bloatware-free, the S7 Active might drive you a little nuts. There are dedicated folders chock-full of Google and Samsung apps, where you'll find such typical fare as Hangouts, Chrome, S Health and S Voice. But the AT&T folder is the real bloatware culprit here — aside from featuring roughly eight separate carrier apps, it also contains apps for Uber, Amazon, Kindle and Yellow Pages. That's great if you use all that stuff, but it presents an annoying layer of junk if you don't.

The S7 Active offers two options for mobile payments: Samsung Pay and Android Pay. Both services let you store your credit cards so that you can pay for goods with your phone, but while Android Pay only works at stores that support NFC payments, Samsung Pay can work at just about any register that takes credit cards by emulating a physical card swipe.

Pricing and Availability

Unfortunately, Samsung's Active series continues to be locked down to AT&T. You can get the phone on AT&T's Next plan for $26.50 per month, which allows you to upgrade after 24 payments. If you want to be able to upgrade after a year, you'll have to pay $33.13 per month. Those looking to buy the phone upfront can do so for $794.99.

The standard Galaxy S7 retails for $694.99 from AT&T, so you're paying quite a bit extra for durability. Another durable phone we recently tested, the Cat S60, survived the same deep water test, and while it isn’t as stylish as the S7 Active, it’s less expensive at $599 and works on all GSM networks. The S7 Active costs the same as the $794.99 Galaxy S7 Edge, so you basically have to decide whether you want one of the sexiest smartphones on the market or one of the most rugged.

Bottom Line

The Galaxy S7 Active is incredibly resilient, with a virtually unbreakable design (especially with Samsung fixing some early manufacturing woes) and an 11-hour battery that won't drain out on your next adventure. It'd be easy to recommend the Active based on its shatterproof, waterproof design alone, but what really makes the phone special is the fact that it's still a Galaxy S7 — which means a great display and a fantastic camera.

Motorola's Droid Turbo 2 offers rugged-phone fans a sleeker design, but it can't handle being underwater like the Active can. Samsung's sporty handset is a bit expensive, especially compared to the durable Cat S60, and you can get Samsung's excellent S7 Edge for the same amount of money. However, if serious durability in a good-looking phone is your priority, the S7 Active is hard to top.

Michael Andronico

Mike Andronico is Senior Writer at CNNUnderscored. He was formerly Managing Editor at Tom's Guide, where he wrote extensively on gaming, as well as running the show on the news front. When not at work, you can usually catch him playing Street Fighter, devouring Twitch streams and trying to convince people that Hawkeye is the best Avenger.