Samsung Galaxy S7 active Review
Samsung's ruggedized cousin to its flagship Galaxy S smartphone has more to prove this year than ever. With the Galaxy S7 returning to a water-resistant body and picking up a larger 3,000 mAh battery, is there still a market for a separate Galaxy S7 active? Samsung thinks it can convince us of as much, and between no-compromise performance and the inclusion of hardware features that have historically skipped past Active models, the manufacturer's pulling out all the stops with this year's Galaxy S7 active. Let's see just how successful it's managed to be.
- Galaxy S7 active
- Micro USB cable
- Fast charging adapter
- Quick-start guide
- SIM tray ejector
Can't be a rugged phone if you don't look the part
The Galaxy S7 active's design, unlike that of the S7, doesn't count on aesthetically pleasing qualities, but purely practical ones. Really, the first thing users should feel when gazing upon the handset is a sense of security, its layout simply oozing reliability. And largely, Samsung succeeds. The phone's bulky plastic exterior has the appearance of a rubberized bumper, though to the touch the material is much firmer; it feels like a smartphone bonded to a relatively high-end case. Thankfully, it's not quite plastic all over, and the presence of metal edges up and down the phone's sides remind us that we're still dealing with a premium flagship-level handset.
Those metal flourishes continue around back, protecting the GS7 active's main camera (and to a lesser extent, its flash/sensor package), but around here in particular, plastic dominates. The handset's textured back panel means well, but it doesn't quite succeed in providing the sort of grip that would really keep our mind at ease. Considering the extra bulk the phone has over its non-Active namesake, that's a bit of a problem, leaving users to balance the extra durability against the perception that the GS7 active's threatening to slip from their fingers.
Looking past that, Samsung's built the phone solidly enough, and plenty of pleasantly clicky buttons – from the hardware Android trio to the special Active Key – all manage to feel responsive and reliable. You've got your choice of three color options for the handset, and while the green camo look isn't going to be for everyone, the more neutral titanium gray and sandy gold shades offer some more professional-appearing alternatives.
A familiar screen does itself one better with shatter-resistance
Maybe our biggest complaint about the phone's screen is that it isn't quite the space-filling impressive panel of the GS7, as the Active model's added bulk results in a bit more pronounced bezel around the display. That's a minor issue, though, and one largely outweighed by the display's many positives, including the useful always-on mode with time, date, and charge details.
Interface and Functionality
Smart shortcuts deliver real usability gains
TouchWiz used to get a lot of flack for introducing unnecessary bloat on top of stock Android's comparative sleekness, but Samsung's been doing much to redeem itself in recent years. Truthfully, if you pick up the Galaxy S7 active expecting some kludgy, slow, mess of a UI, you're going to be pleasantly surprised. Dare we say that it's actually adding something quite nice to Android these days, with easy access to tons of system settings, in addition to legitimately useful features like its split-screen view. Sure, Android N will turn split-screen on its toes, but for now, Samsung's got a perfectly useable implementation of its own.
The Galaxy S7 active's Active Key adds a new layer to the interface beyond what you'll get on the Galaxy S7 itself, providing fully customizable quick-launch access to your most-used apps. With separate app options corresponding to a short press, long press, and double press, Samsung squeezes a lot of functionality out of a single button. And really, there's nothing inherently rugged or “active” about the key; this would make a nice addition to Samsung's mainstream Galaxy S flagship, should the company ever feel so inclined.
Even when you're not using the Active Key, shortcuts afford speedy access to critical apps; more than once we managed to snap a blink-and-you'll-miss-it photo thanks to the phone's double-tap-home shortcut for its camera – even from lock.
As configured out of the box, the Active Key takes you to Samsung's Activity Zone, which you can think of a bit like a widget hub: one tap of the Active Key and you've got at-a-glance access to weather, a compass and elevation gauge for your orienteering challenges, and convenient access to S Health, where you can track steps, assess your stress level, and track pulse and blood oxygen saturation with the phone's sensors. Some of those are more useful than others, but they're all just as easy to pull up.
One big change for this year's Active model is the fingerprint scanner that's found itself embedded in the home button of flagship Galaxy S and Galaxy Note devices for the past couple years has finally migrated to Samsung's rugged phone. Recognition occasionally took a few goes before authenticating a stored finger, but most of the time a clean, head-on scan was successfully matched in the blink of an eye.
Processor and Memory
Best-in-class components refuse to let this phone down
All too often companies get to cut corners with rugged models; it wasn't that long ago when water-resistance was such a stand-out feature that it could almost forgive major performance trade-offs. But thankfully that's no longer the case, and Samsung very much does not make any sacrifices when it comes to the Galaxy S7 active's silicon.
The phone's powered by the same top-shelf Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 chip you'll find under the hood of the standard GS7, with an equally capable 4GB of RAM ready to have you juggling all your favorite apps with ease. The phone's available in a single 32GB storage option, but with microSD support (thanks to a combination SIM/storage expansion tray), you can easily push that capacity much higher, at least for media storage purposes.
Suffice it to say, you should feel confident throwing even the most demanding mobile titles at the Galaxy S7 active (though users without a microSD card should start planning early about just which apps they want living on their phone – that 32GB won't last forever).
Fully equipped to interface with your world
The Galaxy S7 active's ability to access mobile networks is a bit of a mixed bag. The hardware's certainly well equipped to handle what you can throw at it, with support for over a dozen LTE bands in addition to a trio of 3G bands and the standard legacy support. But for all the phone is technically capable of doing, you're only going to be operating this puppy on AT&T's network – at least as its primary home. That's right: once again, Samsung's Galaxy S active phone is a carrier exclusive.
But looking past its mobile data for a moment, the GS7 active's also well equipped with Bluetooth 4.2 LE for interfacing with your accessories, supports high-speed 802.11a/g/b/n/ac/i/r Wi-Fi, and offers NFC for things like mobile payments or quickly connecting with new devices. There's even that magstripe emulation hardware for use with legacy retail terminals through Samsung Pay.
The Galaxy S7's acclaimed camera makes a welcome return
Samsung had a lot of convincing to do when it decided to dial-back the Galaxy S7's camera from the GS6's 16MP component to a new 12MP shooter, but the loss of pixels sure feels like it's worth it. That very same camera's back for the GS7 active, and it continues to impress here.
But a good camera module only takes you so far, and even the best sensor and lens in the world can't do much to help an app that makes you feel walled-off from all the hardware's features. Luckily, that's relatively far from the case with the Galaxy S7 active's camera app, which is both clean-looking and intuitive while hiding some powerful functionality just under the surface.
Common options like HDR and flash settings are easily toggled right from the main UI, and a “pro” mode augments those with shutter, aperture, white balance control, and more. Samsung offers a number of custom modes for things like panoramas, slow-mo shots, and even shooting underwater.
After all, this is a water-resistant smartphone, and while its capacitive screen won't do you much good while submerged, remapping shutter controls to hardware buttons allows you to direct the action even from below the waves.
As pretty as the phone is robust
The “dual-pixel” tech Samsung employs captures ample amounts of light, allowing you to pull off what we found to be quite satisfactory shots even in dim indoor environments with no flash needed.
Occasionally, though, the camera seemed to have more light than it knew what to do with, and especially on overcast days, outdoor shots ran the risk of looking washed-out.
Optical image stabilization for the main camera helps keep your scene sharp, and even when shooting from the hip at moving subjects we were pleasantly surprised at the camera's ability to keep up. An automatic high-dynamic-range mode helps out with complicated exposures – and maybe most importantly, works so fast as to feel seamless.
The 5MP front-facer isn't nearly as impressive as the rear camera (though how could it be?), but just because it doesn't “wow” doesn't make it any less of a perfectly workable selfie cam – just keep your expectations in check.
Ample high-res options for your UHD recording needs
The Galaxy S7 active supports video recording up to a 4K-class 3840 x 2160 resolution at 30 frames per second. If you don't need quite so high-res videos, another impressive option is a 60 fps mode in 1080p.
Unfortunately, both high-res and high-frame-rate video recording bring with them some trade-offs, and neither supports features like HDR, video effects, or tracking auto-focus; furthermore, the 60fps mode loses the ability to snap still pics alongside video, and the 4K mode does without digital stabilization. That limits the usefulness of both as “everyday” video recording options, but we're still grateful they're there (even with their limitations) when we need them.
Just as with the Galaxy S7, the quality from all these filming modes leaves little to be desired, and Samsung's software is smart enough to make filming a point-and-shoot experience. The downside to that is that extra manual controls still aren't present for video, and the GS7's wobbly shutter still impacts panning shots.
Don't judge a speaker by its grille
The Galaxy S7 active doesn't make a point to be a rich multimedia handset first and foremost, and while its speaker grille keeps the same design as the Galaxy S7's, it looks positively tiny and lost among the expansive plastic of the Active handset's rugged build. Still, we have to credit Samsung for giving us a speaker that's loud and resistant to distortion even at higher volume levels.
Combined with that bright, saturated AMOLED screen, and you've got a phone that's not about to let you down when it comes to video playback. Like so many other of the GS7 active's features, this is one that picks up an extra boost from the phone's rugged design; sure, many phones make it easy to share a video with your friends, but if you can do so while feeling confident that if you drop the phone you're not about to shatter its screen, that's a real bonus.
Perhaps as much a test of AT&T's network as the Galaxy S7 active's hardware itself, phone call quality was quite acceptable, maintaining strong voice fidelity right up until that point when a one-bar call became a no-bar call. Even when losing connectivity briefly, things sounded good right up until the end, and audio quality didn't betray the weak signal. That's especially nice to see for a phone whose use cases suggest it will often be taken out on the fringes of coverage as its owners engage in all their “Active” pursuits.
Big potential meets big appetites
The “Galaxy S Active” name isn't just synonymous with rugged, water-resistant construction – it also spells bigger batteries. And while that was true for last year's Galaxy S6 Active with its 3,500 mAh battery, this year Samsung's outdoing itself with a hefty 4,000 mAh component.
The only problem is just how thirsty the smartphone is for that juice, and even without the phone being pushed particularly hard we noticed battery life slipping away faster than we'd expect. You should still manage to get through a solid day of operation without breaking too much of a sweat, but it's a little disappointing that a battery this size isn't a guarantee of multi-day power.
Samsung delivers in a big way, but will we be buying?
Samsung's Galaxy S Active phones have long held their own against the mainstream Galaxy S handsets, and that's more true this year than ever before. With performance that's right on par with the Galaxy S7, the same killer features like that incredible camera, and not having to sacrifice things like its fingerprint scanner, the Galaxy S7 active delivers without giving too much away in the process.
Is that $100 worth a bigger battery and a shatter-resistant display? That's going to depend on several factors, from how much you love the handset's style and color options, to just how favorably you view AT&T (and its network). Considering the stock GS7 is water-resistant this year, there are bound to be users who would rather slap an impact-absorbing case on a regular Galaxy S7.
But those who do chose to take the GS7 active route aren't likely to feel let down by their decision. Maybe the phone's chief failure is that it could do even more to distinguish itself from the GS7, but with a bigger battery, more robust hardware, and little in the way of compromises, this is one upgrade that's seriously worth your consideration.