October signals the final stretch of 2017, and with Google’s event nearly a week behind us, it has also given us the last of this year’s major flagship releases. For those who tend to gravitate towards flagships, now is a great time to figure out which one is your favorite considering all the information is laid bare. Unfortunately, a common theme with flagships this year is that most have some sort of compromise, whether it’s a missing headphone jack, exorbitantly high price tag, big bezels, and sometimes an unforgiving design that might look pretty but is completely impractical for smartphone survival without a case. However, there is one smartphone that exists without such compromises: the Samsung Galaxy S8 Active.
Samsung’s Galaxy Active line has been around for 4 years now, first appearing in 2013 as the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active. The Active line features a uniform design year over year in the sense that it’s a more rugged version of whatever Galaxy S device it correlates with. Basically, it’s Samsung’s flagship device with a case built-in.
When I first received the device, I pretty much already knew what to expect. I had written an article a couple months back detailing why this was an excellent choice for a Galaxy S8 if you were in the market for one. Not only did it get rid of the glass back, but it’s also the only Galaxy S8 variant with a completely flat display; both the S8 and the S8 Plus feature slightly curved displays. As somebody who has had issues with the curved display of the S7 Edge, I tend to view the flat variants more favorably. Despite the fact that many prefer the curved displays for aesthetic purposes, the Galaxy S8 Active still looks great in my opinion. Bonus points for making it equally as bezel-less as the other Galaxy S8 variants.
In the hand, the S8 Active feels great. I will admit that the textured back, which looks sort of sponge-like, doesn’t exactly look the most appealing, but at this point in my life I’ve learned to appreciate function over design and will take the weird sponge texture over glass any day, especially as it works fantastically as a grip. The device is encased with a metal bumper, with raised rubberized bumpers on each corner of the phone. These design choices, along with the plastic coated shatter-proof glass (which is an S8 Active exclusive), give me the confidence to use the device even without a case – and I always use a case for my phones.
There is one major bummer about the S8 Active that I couldn’t get over, and that’s the location of the fingerprint sensor (which happens to be the same across all S8 variants). The S8 Active is already a handful for me with its 5.8-inch display – bezels or not – and reaching my finger up to the top half of the back of the phone is just not feasible without having to use two hands or trying to maneuver the device around, hopefully without dropping it. And then having to move it back up to hold the phone comfortably. I just opted not to use the fingerprint sensor at all, which was kind of a bummer as I love me some fingerprint scanners.
Along with the location of the fingerprint sensor, there’s another feature of the S8 family that gets a lot of flak: the Bixby button. Actually, it’s not the button itself that people don’t like; it’s the fact that you can’t customize it. I was fortunate enough to receive this review unit after the update to disable the Bixby button was added, but there’s still no way to make it do something else. I did try Bixby, and it’s not the worst personal assistant in the world, but I still prefer Google Assistant and would be much happier if I could reprogram that button to work with the Assistant – or anything, really. If I were to pay as much money as it costs to own any of the S8 devices, I would really like to be able to decide what that button was used for.
Performance of the device is excellent. The Snapdragon 835 processor and 4GB of RAM can handle just about anything I throw at it and more; it’s an excellent device for multitasking. Of course, if we’re being honest, not many people have a reason to be concerned about the performance of a flagship device within its first year; it’s the years following that might be a problem. But for now, the device operates smoothly and without issue.
The 12-megapixel camera is quick to take photos and takes pretty good shots to boot, even if you don’t mess with any settings (I left mine on default settings). The Active’s rugged housing even makes the camera divet into the device slightly, better protecting it from potential scratches from simple actions like setting it down on a rough surface. Unfortunately, autumn fell rapidly upon us here, so any otherwise photogenic plants I have around the house look pretty sickly. Interestingly enough, the phone made the flowers look way more lively in photos than they do in real life. The camera also does a good job focusing in on specified objects and blurring the background. Digital zoom still leaves much to be desired, and remains an Achilles heel of most smartphones. Indoor shots are alright; low lighting isn’t the worst and the flash in low light can wash out some features, but again, these are default auto settings and that’s only scratching the surface of the camera's options.
TouchWiz is hit or miss, depending on who you ask. I’ve grown to like it over the past year or so, taking advantage of Themes to make my device have an almost consistent night theme across the board (which everybody seems to be afraid of officially implementing for some reason) with the exception of some areas like the drop-down notifications. Samsung’s stock wallpaper selection is also nice. The nice thing about Android is that you’re never stuck with the stock launcher, so it’s a pretty easy fix if you’re no fan of TouchWiz.
Call quality over cellular data is average. I prefer Wi-Fi calling when it’s available because the sound is so much clearer, but without it’s noticeably less clear. Speaker quality also isn’t the best; the device can attain loud volumes, but the louder you get the less clear the audio becomes.
Battery life is pretty good. It easily lasts throughout the day (which for me means 7:30 a.m. to about 11 or 12 p.m.), and I’ve forgotten to charge it overnight and still managed to make it another half a day the next day. I would say that I have pretty light usage most of the time, only using social media, emails, text, reading up on the news, and maybe some Netflix or a couple of less graphic-intensive mobile games (I’m still digging Final Taptasy after a year of discovering it).
I'll admit that I did what I always do when I get a new Samsung phone and disabled or uninstalled just about every piece of bloatware that I could. Since this is an AT&T branded device, I had the pleasure of disabling carrier-specific apps as well and am still stuck with a couple at the end of the day. Many Samsung apps were disabled and replaced, but I kept a couple around. Other third-party apps like Uber and Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire come pre-loaded on the device, and those can just be uninstalled. Or kept. No judgments here.
Overall, I maintain that the Galaxy S8 Active is a great addition to the Galaxy S8 line of smartphones. It’s one of the few devices that doesn’t necessarily require a case for protection (although a case can’t hurt), kept the headphone jack, has a bezel-less display and microSD card, top-notch specs and more features than I know what to do with. The unmappable Bixby button and weird fingerprint sensor placement might be a downside for some people, but the positives of the device easily outweigh the negatives. It’s a terrific option for anybody who wants a flagship device with a more rugged design, or even just a Galaxy S8 with a flat display. Even if you’re not super rough on your device, it’s easy to love what the S8 Active brings to the table. This is the first device that I’ve reviewed in a while that I’m going to miss after I send it back.
Fortunately, this year is the first year the Galaxy S8 Active isn’t an AT&T exclusive, as it’s now also available to T-Mobile customers as well. It’s unclear whether Sprint or Verizon will sell the devices, although with a certain merger potentially on the horizon only one of those carriers might be left out. Regardless, the S8 Active isn’t as exclusive as it normally is, and that’s a step in the right direction.