Samsung Galaxy S8 Active Review: Practically Indestructible

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Samsung's Galaxy S8 is the best smartphone you can buy right now, but it has one glaring flaw: a glass back. It looks damn good, but the glass also makes the S8 prone to slipping off any slightly tilted surface. And if you don't have a good grip on it, the phone could also slide right out of your hand and onto a hard floor.

So Samsung introduced an Active version of the S8. For a $100 premium, the $850 S8 Active offers military-grade protection from the elements in addition to all the features that made the original S8 so great.

Is it worth the extra cost and added bulk? I put the S8 Active through its paces to see how it stacked up to the Galaxy S8.

Design: Now this is tough

As soon as you unbox the Galaxy S8 Active, you can see why Samsung promises the device will survive a 5-foot drop and a water bath of up to 5 feet deep for 30 minutes. The company essentially wrapped an extra-strength smartphone case around the S8's body, which adds some heft to what was once a svelte phone. The S8 Active is 7.6 ounces, compared with the 5.5-ounce original, and it's just a bit larger all-around. A metal frame and textured-plastic back keep the S8 Active protected from the elements (and from humans).

The S8 Active is not the best-looking phone, especially compared to the original S8. At first, I wondered why a person wouldn't just buy a rugged case for outdoor adventures and save the money. But for some people, daily life requires more than a case, either because of a demanding job or extreme clumsiness.

A friend of mine falls in both categories; her career requires manual labor, and she destroys phones just by looking at them. (This is a person who literally ran over her iPhone with a car — by accident, of course.) She retired her last Galaxy Active device and bought an S8 back in May. The screen is already shattered after it slipped out of her grip. After I let her take the S8 Active for a spin, she very reluctantly gave it back to me.

Credit: Keith Agnello/Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Keith Agnello/Tom's Guide)

The S8 Active might not survive being run over by a car, but I knocked it off tables and casually tossed it down flights of concrete stairs, and it suffered only a few nicks and scratches around the case. I winced every single time, yet the screen remained intact. The water resistance is less impressive now that it's become a more common smartphone feature, but it's still useful if you're really clumsy in the bathroom or around pools.

Credit: Keith Agnello/Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Keith Agnello/Tom's Guide)

The S8 Active isn't totally impervious to the elements. I managed to scratch its screen after tossing it in my bag and letting it roll around in there all day. I'm actually frightened to see what's at the bottom of my purse that can scratch this phone, when a few staircase tumbles worthy of a scene in "Death Becomes Her" couldn't do it.

Display and Camera: Prepare to be amazed

The S8 Active has a 5.8-inch display with rounded corners and almost no bezels. Basically, it's almost exactly the same as the original, and looks just as good.

Credit: Keith Agnello/Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Keith Agnello/Tom's Guide)

The Active's 2560 x 1440 AMOLED display reproduces 209.5 percent of the sRGB color gamut, compared with the S8's 183 percent, and offers incredibly accurate color, too, with a Delta-E score of 0.45 compared with the S8's 0.28. (Numbers closer to 0 are better.)

I think watching movies on a smartphone screen is something akin to blasphemy, but the S8 Active's 18:5:9 aspect ratio offers a more immersive experience than other phones this size. Even when I had to stretch YouTube videos, such as The Dark Tower trailer, to fit the display, the colors were rich and true to life.

Credit: Keith Agnello/Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Keith Agnello/Tom's Guide)

The S8 Active's 12-megapixel rear lens and 8-MP front-facing camera are identical to the standard S8's camera system, and just as good. I wish Samsung had put a dual-lens camera in the Galaxy S8 lineup instead of holding it for the Note 8 (the best camera phone you can buy right now), but you'll still capture astonishingly detailed and perfectly lit images, even in harsh daylight. Samsung's photo-processing software is second to none.

Software: Bixby gets active

Samsung made the S8 Active's gesture-driven interface just as intuitive to use as the standard S8's, including advanced features such as one-handed mode and a quick-launch camera. Samsung's digital assistant, Bixby a rival to Google Assistant and Apple's Siri gains new capabilities on the S8 Active.

Samsung added an Activity Zone on the Bixby home screen, which gives you quick access to your daily health stats, plus a compass, flashlight and stopwatch. I prefer to keep track of my step count and calorie burn on a fitness tracker, which is with me more often than my phone, but your usage may vary.

The S8 Active does come preloaded with some AT&T bloatware. On the device we tested, there were nine AT&T apps, including DirecTV, DirecTV Remote, an antivirus app called Lookout and a DriveMode app to keep you from being distracted by calls and texts while driving. With 64GB of storage space (expandable up to 256GB), you still have plenty of room for your own apps.

Performance: Crushing it

Like the S8 and S8+, the S8 Active runs on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 processor. It's a beast. Whether I was cruising the web with multiple tabs open or sending troops to battle in Clash of Clans, the S8 Active didn't stutter. Its multicore score of 6,328 in the Geekbench 4 test of overall performance was actually higher than the standard S8's score of 6,295.

The Galaxy S8 Active's graphics power held its own against the original S8 on 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited test, scoring 36,254 compared with the S8's 36,508.

Battery life: Long

The S8 Active isn't just tougher than the S8; it also lasts longer on a charge than the original model. The rugged version sports a 4,000-mAh battery, compared with the S8's 3,000-mAh battery, so you can squeeze at least an extra half-hour out of the device. On the Tom's Guide Battery Test (continuous web surfing on 4G LTE), the S8 Active lasted 11:06, compared with the standard S8's 10:39, while the S8+ and its 3,500-mAh battery lasted 11:04. That feat lands the S8 Active on our list of smartphones with the best battery life.

Credit: Keith Agnello/Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Keith Agnello/Tom's Guide)

We used AT&T's network for the S8 Active, because the device is locked to that wireless carrier, and T-Mobile's network for the regular S8 and S8+, so there could be some variation between the networks.

Bottom Line

The Samsung Galaxy S8 Active is perfect for people who truly torture their phones. It offers the same great display, camera and performance as the original S8, and it can withstand heaps of abuse. Most of us can get by with a less-expensive phone and a solid smartphone case, but if you're willing to pay a premium for extra protection — and you like AT&T — the S8 Active will be a reliable partner.

Caitlin is a Senior editor for Gizmodo. She has also worked on Tom's Guide, Macworld, PCWorld and the Las Vegas Review-Journal. When she's not testing out the latest devices, you can find her running around the streets of Los Angeles, putting in morning miles or searching for the best tacos.