Samsung Galaxy S8 Active review

Changing the best Android phone is a good way to spoil it

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Our Verdict

A lot of high-performance hardware held back by unfriendly UI and poor design choices. Only for AT&T customers who want a rugged Galaxy S8 and can’t fathom buying a case, but can spend up to $280 extra.

For

  • Battery life that forgives forgetfulness
  • Beautiful, pixel-dense display
  • A fantastic camera

Against

  • Costs more than a standard Galaxy S8 with a great case
  • 4K video is a lost cause
  • Poor button and sensor placements

The Galaxy S8 Active borrows some of the best aspects of the standard Samsung Galaxy S8, and puts them into a chassis that's more prepared for a busy and accident-prone lifestyle. The result is a long-lasting phone effectively built into its own case.

If you’re looking for a phone that offers the best performance without living on the bleeding edge of design, the Galaxy S8 Active may just be that phone. It’s ready for the occasional tumble, whether that be onto hard ground or a puddle. Brush off any dust, dirt or water, and it’s good to go.

There are some caveats, though. First, it’s $850, well above the price of the Galaxy S8, and it’s currently an AT&T exclusive for the moment. It sacrifices aesthetics big time, and its ruggedness doesn’t prevent unsightly dings and nicks. 

Great hardware and a beautiful display keep things fast and pretty, and the massive battery can keep the phone running for ages. But, it suffers from the same poor placement of sensors and buttons as the Galaxy S8, and Bixby doesn’t make everything better, so it can be tedious to use. The Galaxy S8 Active has a great photo camera, but the new fad that is 4K video recording was less than dazzling on this device.

At its best, the Galaxy S8 Active is a simple and vastly more robust repackaging of the Galaxy S8 just like in the previous generation, but it's definitely not the right fit for everyone. 

Design and ruggedness

The Galaxy S8 Active is built to look rugged. It takes the same tall display panel found in the Galaxy S8, flattens it, and reinforces its every edge with metal and plastic bumpers. 

The body is what Samsung describes as “military-grade.” It has an IP68 rating against dust and water ingress, so it can hang out in 5 feet of water for half an hour (Note: the standard Galaxy S8 is also IP68 rated). But Samsung didn’t stop the testing there, as it earned the Galaxy S8 Active a passing grade for the MIL-STD-810G military specification testing, which puts the phone through intensive temperature, dust, shock, vibration, pressure, and altitude testing. The LG G6 and LG V30 are a few other recent smartphones to carry such a distinction.

The S8 Active has an all-glass front that is shatter-resistant up to five feet if dropped on a flat surface, thanks to Gorilla Glass 5, which the normal Galaxy S8 also has. In my drop test, the phone shrugged off a five foot drop face-first onto a solid stone floor. The metal frame extends above the surface of the screen, so it should absorb the impact on flat surfaces.. Meanwhile, the rear of the phone is made to look metallic, with a concrete-like texture, but actually feels and sounds like it may be plain old plastic.

For ports, it features a single speaker grille on the bottom, alongside a USB-C port and a 3.5mm headphone jack. There’s a SIM-card slot on the top, power button on the right and volume buttons and a dedicated Bixby button on the left. On the phone’s rear side sits its 12MP camera surrounded by a heart rate sensor and a fingerprint scanner, both of which are hard to find without turning the phone over. 

In the process of making the Galaxy S8 Active more rugged than the standard Galaxy S8, Samsung sacrificed aesthetics in a big way. The Galaxy S8 Active isn’t exactly ugly (until it meets pavement), and even has a utilitarian sort of charm, but its blocky look can’t compare to the sleek appeal of the Galaxy S8 with its curved edges.

Because the Galaxy S8 Active is branded as a device capable of more survivability than your typical phone, the ruggedness of the phone deserves its own section. At first glance, the phone looks rugged, thanks to the wide metal frame and extra metal bumpers screwed on at each end.

The design ought to offer better protection than the standard Galaxy S8 or Samsung Galaxy Note 8, as the metal edges raise slightly above screen level, so they’ll take the hit on a flat surface. There’s no glass back on the Galaxy S8 Active either, so there’s less to shatter back there. I let the phone take a few tumbles that it easily shrugged off. That said, the structural integrity of the Galaxy S8 Active doesn’t help it resist scratching to the metal and plastic surfaces, which will clearly display where they’ve hit concrete. They don’t like keys either, and a solid design shouldn’t be equated with a license for carelessness for this phone – it’s not an old Nokia.

While I was making a sandwich, I let the Galaxy S8 Active play around in the sink. As could be expected, the touchscreen went haywire, and the fingerprint scanner wasn’t registering fingerprints with all the water everywhere. But after a quick pat dry, it was back in action. A notification appeared on the phone stating that moisture was detected in the port, so I and anyone else would know not to try charging the phone until it had fully dried out.

Display

On the plus side, the screen is still phenomenal, just like that of the Galaxy S8. You won’t suffer from a lack of crispness, as the Galaxy S8 Active packs in a 5.8-inch display with a resolution of 2,960 x 1,440. Oddly, the phone was set to run at a reduced resolution by default, not taking advantage of all the pixels, and actually making text and small icons blurry. This was one of the first things I corrected, letting the pixel density of the display shine.

Making the display all the better is the Super AMOLED technology, which offers incredible picture quality thanks to its high contrast ratio. And while some AMOLED displays can be a bit dim, I found the Galaxy S8 Active display was easy to see even when strolling down the street at noon on a cloudless day, though watching video content in the sun wasn’t so great.

As more top-of-the-line smartphones move away from bezels, shrinking or doing away with them entirely, the Galaxy S8 Active does feel like it’s behind the curve. This high-end display is surrounded on all sides by a noticeable bezel. And since the bezels are black, they do occasional blend in with the screen when there’s dark imagery or backgrounds on the phone’s display.