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Samsung Galaxy S4 Active can take a splash, or two

10:36 PM, Jun 25, 2013   |    comments
The Galaxy S4 Active.(Photo: Eli Blumenthal USA TODAY)
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By Edward C. Baig, USA TODAY

NEW YORK - Samsung has already made a splash with its feature-rich smartphone the Galaxy S4. Now it is hoping to generate enthusiasm for a Galaxy S4 variant that can survive one, in most circumstances.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active has arrived just in time for summer. Samsung is marketing the phone as the perfect handset for the beach, pool or to go camping.

Unlike your standard Galaxy S4, the Active version is certified to be water-resistant and dust-resistant. While it is not billed as a ruggedized phone per se, it does have a protective scratch-resistant 5-inch Gorilla Glass display, though that's not uncommon these days. Suffice to say, this isn't one of those homely phones with lots of visible extra padding.

In my tests over a few days, the phone withstood whatever wet obstacles I threw at it - dunking it in a bowl of water, pouring water over it, shooting it with a powerful water gun. That is, until it didn't. My first test unit met its match - and demise - in a swimming pool.

Active is but one of the new Galaxy products that Samsung has been flooding the market with of late, and it's perfectly understandable if you can't keep them all straight.

On Monday, Samsung unveiled three new Galaxy Tab 3 tablets. On Wednesday, Google starts selling the unlocked $649 Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition. Available in the Google Play store, it runs Google's own version of Android.

That's not all. Samsung introduced a stripped-down Galaxy phone called the S4 Mini - pricing and availability still to be determined. The South Korean tech giant has also recently unveiled the 16-megapixel Galaxy S4 Zoom with a 10X optical zoom. Think of the S4 Zoom as the offspring between an actual camera and traditional phone.

All of these developments follow the very introduction of the flagship Galaxy S4 smartphone itself, which only began to hit stores in April. The phone is now available from all the major U.S. carriers and a few lesser-known operators, too.

It's hard to argue with giving consumers a bevy of choices. The possible risk to Samsung is in confusing potential buyers and having folks overdose on the popular Galaxy brand name.

AT&T is Samsung's exclusive U.S. partner for the Galaxy S4 Active that I've been testing. The phone costs $199.99 with the customary two-year contract, same as AT&T charges for the standard S4.

At that price, you might ask yourself, "If I'm shopping for a Samsung Galaxy S4 anyway, why not go for Active and enjoy some of the protections it provides?" You can certainly go that route. After all, the Active and the regular Galaxy S4 have similar specs and similar, but not identical, designs.

Both have quad-core processors, 1920 x 1080 high-definition displays (Super AMOLED in the case of the regular S4), and run the Jelly Bean version of Android. And they both start you off with 16 gigabytes of memory, expandable via microSD by up to 64 GB.

The promised battery life (up to 17 hours of talk time, nearly a fortnight of standby time) is similar. The phones can also tap into fast LTE networks, if available.

The Active is a hair thicker and, at 5.29 ounces vs. 4.59 ounces, a bit heavier than its sibling. It has three raised physical buttons below the display on the front, compared with a single physical button on the standard S4.

On the standard S4, the micro USB port is exposed. Given Active's water-resistant properties, however, there's an attached port cover over the micro USB on that handset.

Still, there are tradeoffs: For starters, if AT&T is not your preferred wireless carrier, you'll have to pass on the Active, at least for now. Judging by side-by-side pictures, the rear-facing 13-megapixel camera on the standard S4 is slightly better than its 8-megapixel counterpart on the Active. Both have LED flashes and 4X digital zooms.

While the Active includes many of the gee-whiz-y tricks of the regular S4 - including the ability to pause a movie by looking away from the screen, sharing pictures with another device by tapping the two together or answering a call with the wave of your hand - it doesn't have every last feature. There is no dual-camera mode, for instance, which on the standard S4 that lets you simultaneously shoot pictures with the front and rear cameras, showing, say, an image of a beaming parent when Junior scores a goal in soccer.

Active does include an Aqua mode camera feature that is meant to let you take underwater pictures in the pool - obviously, the S4 wouldn't have that mode. The phone is supposed to be water-resistant to a depth of 1 meter for up to 30 minutes. A warning sticker on the back of the Active reminds you to firmly seal the battery and USB covers before use and to press against the AT&T logo on the back of the phone to make sure, something I thought I did.

Though touch-screen controls are disabled underwater, you can use the volume keys to snap photos and videos, though in bright sun it was difficult to actually see what I was trying to shoot. Shortly after I took the phone for a dip (in not very deep water), the display went kaput - at least for several hours. It lit up just long enough to indicate that I had power, but I couldn't actually keep the display on and use it.

Roughly a day later, the screen came alive again, but the phone was still exhibiting finicky behavior, presumably because of water damage. The touch-screen was messed up and the device acted as if headphones were plugged in when they weren't. If this were my actual phone, I'd return to the store for a replacement.

The appeal of the Active is to have a stylish, capable and popular phone that pushes the limits on how and where you might use the device. Alas, when it came to meeting those limits, Samsung's phone didn't quite go deep enough.

The bottom line

Samsung Galaxy S4 Active from AT&T

www.att.com/galaxys4active

$199.99 with two-year contract

Pro. A Galaxy S4 that is water- and dust-resistant.

Con. Not every Galaxy S4 feature is present. Phone didn't survive swimming pool test.

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