Samsung Galaxy S8 Active Review

Samsung Galaxy S8 Active

Posted: , by Corey Gaskin Corey Gaskin



Interface and Functionality

Samsung Galaxy S8 Active Review

Samsung’s come a long way with its UX since the days of TouchWiz. The Samsung Experience, as it’s now called, first debuted on the Galaxy S8 six months ago upon its release, and since then we’ve settled in with the creature comforts that this affords. We like the overall aesthetic, iconography, and smoothness in the UI; things look good, and they move well.

Samsung apps, which include mail, messages, and the browser, among others, are generally useful and well-thought out, though not always as feature-rich or well-integrated as their stock Android counterparts. Samsung’s browser, for instance, is in some ways more intuitive and perhaps better laid out than Google Chrome, but existing Chrome users will need to download an extension for Chrome on their desktop in order to sync bookmarks with Samsung’s browser. This detracts from the overall seamlessness, and can deter some from using it altogether, especially when Chrome has these features built-in and saved to your Google Account.

Samsung’s email app, on the other hand, is missing key features like the ability to delete emails in-line from the notification center, though it too has an otherwise useful app layout with functions to match. In the end, you’ll likely end up using either stock Android, or other third-party apps for at least a couple of these, as Samsung’s execution doesn’t exceed the alternatives enough to warrant a switch from one ecosystem to another. Though its execution isn’t poor enough that a good portion of users won’t simply use what’s given to them by default. It seems a bit of a net-zero for Samsung overall.

While we admit the UI looks good, and zips along nicely, we tend to appreciate one particular feature the most: an effective and intuitive settings search. We know, just reading those words gets us all jazzed up too. It may not be the sexiest feature, but it may well be the biggest improvement Samsung offers over its competition and its own previous UIs. Unlike most other Android flavors, The Samsung Experience’s settings search can actually find all the settings related to the query you’ve entered. A search for “screen” returns any setting, or description of a setting, with the word “screen” in it. Results include the Always On Display, lockscreen settings, general display settings, and even a section for related settings, which are often times quite useful to jump to when you’re on a particular subject. We know this sounds small, but it’s not.

Android has long struggled with offering myriad features and deep customization while still keeping these options organized and accessible. Samsung has improved, and evolved in both. Not only does the settings layout look better, but the capable and intuitive search will bring you what you desire in a matter of taps. Unfortunately, this is a level of functionality lost on most other Android platforms, and is immeasurably useful to those who know what they’d like to change, but don’t want to search through every menu and sub-menu to change it. Want to tweak the Always On Display but don’t know if it’s in “Display” settings or “Lockscreen and Security”? Just type “Always” in the search bar and get right to where you need to go. No more hunting or menu memorization required.

Bixby and Activity Zone

Bixby’s also made some strides since its debut, which was also on the Galaxy S8. We’re now finally able to speak to Bixby via the dedicated button, doing so in a walkie-talkie-esque hold-the-button fashion, as opposed to other assistants which only require a single long-press (but then again, no other assistant has its own dedicated button.) You can also call up Bixby with the hot phrase “Hi Bixby” and use it to manipulate most any aspect of your device. We’re glad to finally have a more complete Bixby on the S8 Active since we (and everyone else) missed it at launch for the S8.

All works pretty well with Samsung’s assistant – sorry, butler – at last providing us with useful and mostly accurate control over the phone, just using our voice, as Samsung promised. You can of course tell Bixby to set an alarm or reminder, turn off Wi-Fi or another setting, or ask general information questions. Such commands have become status quo with voice assistants. But this button-beckoned-butler uses its tailored integration to the fullest, endeavoring to make using your phone as close to a hands-free experience as possible. While not perfect – in need of a bit of maturation and fine-tuning, especially with word recognition – Bixby gets pretty darn close, ultimately besting Google Assistant and Siri in the level of engagement between the assistant and the device running it.

For instance, you can say “Hi Bixby, open the voice recorder and start recording” or “Take a slo-mo video” and your phone will do exactly those things. The same goes for a number of third-party applications, as well. “Hi Bixby, search Yelp for a Mexican restaurant” is a great example of a useful query which is completed so quickly that you may never type another Yelp search again. You can also pretty much navigate the entire phone by just telling Bixby what to do. If you start by saying “Hi Bixby, turn on Wi-Fi calling” the butler will fetch the setup screen for Wi-Fi calling, which in this instance produces a disclaimer from AT&T with a “Next” arrow at the bottom. You can then simply say to Bixby, “Next” and it will proceed as though you tapped the Next arrow. We found this to be the case even if “next” wasn’t an option, but there was a screen to progress to. Otherwise, Bixby is accurately reading all clickable options on the screen, and will recognize your selection by voice, even if many options exist – an impressively well-integrated feature which can have a number of use-cases.

The biggest issue you’ll face with Bixby is it’s hearing problems. Speech recognition is probably the most inconsistent we’ve seen among voice assistants, which is a shame considering the potential it has. Teaching Bixby when it gets something wrong is easy and well executed, but it doesn’t learn right way. Unfortunately, it seems to be sending these corrections off to the labs for further processing. Better on-board learning and speech recognition is a must here in order for Bixby to thrive.

Something we missed from our S8 Active was the ability to make complex quick commands like those we saw on the Note 8. Quick commands bring another level of automation to your experience by triggering multiple actions based on a phrase of your choice. We looked forward to telling Bixby “Good Night” and watching Do Not Disturb and the Blue Light Filter enable, as an alarm is set at our pre-specified time – all in matter of seconds, with no further input from us beyond our initial quick command phrase. But, inexplicably, we could only create quick commands for one action per phrase on our S8 Active. As far as we could tell all software was up to date on our unit, unfortunately leading us to believe that Bixby’s experience will vary by model, even aside from model-specific features, like the S-Pen’s Bixby translate feature, for instance.

As many voice assistants are, Bixby is constantly improving and gaining new functionality, so we expect voice recognition to improve and third-party app integration to expand, hopefully sooner than later.

Bixby on the S8 Active also adds a card named Activity Zone to the assistant’s dashboard. Here you can get instant readings from a barometer and compass, as well as quick toggles for the flashlight and stop watch. Tapping the card opens Activity Zone’s full screen, which adds weather and Samsung Health to the suite of activity-oriented apps. Though the flashlight is somewhat unnecessary, since a quick toggle for this already exists in the notification center, we found the compass to be a useful addition. In general, we suppose it’s not a bad idea to have all these apps accessible from a single Bixby card, especially since it would appear that Bixby has stolen the hardware shortcut for Activity Zone which existed on the S7 Active, known simply as the Activity Button. Though reports of an update to disable the Bixby button on certain devices have been circulating, there’s no indication on the S8 Active that this button can be re-mapped to bring back the beloved Activity Button.

Processor and Memory

Being an AT&T exclusive (for now) the Active runs solely off the Snapdragon 835, whereas global variants of the regular S8 use Samsung’s Exynos chips. There’s usually very little difference in performance of the two anyway, but especially with the SD 835, you’re quite unlikely to long for more power. Add four gigs of RAM to the equation and you’re in for a treat. Just like the regular S8, navigation is smooth and prompt. Apps launch quickly and without issue, no matter how many tasks are open. We only sometimes encountered stutters or force closes when setting up Bixby initially, but as the day wore on, Bixby began to conform to the rest of the phone's blazing performance norms. No surprises here, as the same hardware setup in the original S8 delivers just the same kind of fluid, swift performance we originally witnessed in March.


As mentioned, this is an AT&T exclusive as of the time of this writing, so don’t expect full compatibility on any other network, but you do have LTE-A Pro Cat 16, which means that S8 Active is properly equipped to utilize gigabit LTE in the coming years. Otherwise, the Active has all the same standards as the regular S8, including Bluetooth 5.1, NFC/MST for mobile payments, and wireless charging.


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PhoneArena rating:
Display5.8 inches, 1440 x 2960 pixels (568 ppi) Super AMOLED
Camera12 megapixels
Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, Octa-core, 2350 MHz, Kryo 280 processor
4 GB
Size5.99 x 2.95 x 0.39 inches
(152.1 x 74.9 x 9.9 mm)
7.34 oz  (208 g)
Battery4000 mAh, 32 hours talk time

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