Your options are extremely limited if you want a flagship smartphone that’s also rugged.
There’s only one real tough phone to consider: the Samsung Galaxy S7 Active. That’s it. Every other rugged smartphone out there doesn’t even compare.
Starting with the Galaxy S4 Active, Samsung’s always followed its flagship Galaxy S smartphones with a tougher Active version. Last year’s Galaxy S6 Active was the toughest phone yet. But while it improved on the Galaxy S6 with a more durable dust-proof, shock-resistant and water-resistant body and a significantly larger battery that lasted longer, it still had to drop features like the fingerprint sensor.
Samsung has partnered with AT&T once again for the S7 Active, which is exclusive to the carrier. It was the same scenario with the S6 Active and sucks if you’re on another carrier. (It’s really time for carrier exclusives to die.)
A fortified Galaxy S7
The S7 Active joins the S7 and S7 Edge. On a specs and performance level, it’s identical to the S7. The phone’s rocking the same amazing Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor with 4GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage (expandable via microSD card).
It’s the same fast and powerful phone as the S7 and S7 Edge.
Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow is still wrapped in Samsung’s own TouchWiz skin. It’s the same fast and powerful phone as the S7 and S7 Edge. Of course, since it’s an AT&T exclusive, it also comes with a whole bunch of pre-installed bloatware apps you can’t remove.
It also has the same 5.1-inch QuadHD resolution Super AMOLED display. The screen glass is made from super tough Corning Gorilla Glass 4 and it’s every bit as sharp and crisp as the S7’s. It’s even got the same always-on display, which can display a clock or calendar on the lock screen without turning the entire screen on.
To shield the screen even more and make it “shatter-proof,” Samsung’s fortified the display with a polycarbonate layer on top. There’s a small gap between the protective top layer and the actual display underneath, but it won’t affect usage.
The S7 and S7 Edge pulled ahead of the competition with its IP68 rating, which means they are dust-proof and can be submerged in up to five feet of water for up to 30 minutes. I was hoping for even deeper water-resistance and maybe some serious pressure protection.
The S6 Active didn’t have a fingerprint sensor for some reason even though the S6/S6 Edge did. Thankfully the S7 Active does have one. It’s the same fast and responsive one as on the S7 and it even works when your fingers are wet — something Apple’s Touch ID sensors on its iPhones can’t do. The two physical buttons on each side of the home button/fingerprint sensor are also clicky — excellent for, say, when you’re wearing gloves.
I tested out the “Green Camo” version, but AT&T also offers a “Sandy Gold” and “Titanium Gray” version that’s less G.I. Joe and more normcore. Samsung apparently picked these colors to appeal to moms (and dads) who have to take care of kids; growing kids are more prone to bumping into you and making you drop your phone, they say.
The S7 Active still looks like its got an Otterbox case around it. Sure, the shock-absorbent bumper is rounder and the lines have been cleaned up, but it’s still a tank of a phone. The screen’s the same size as the S7, but it’s as tall as the S7 Edge which has a larger 5.5-inch display. The S7 Active is also noticeably thicker than the other two S7 phones.
The chunkier design also means it’s not compatible with the Gear VR headset. Womp womp.
Samsung didn’t cut any corners with the cameras. The 12-megapixel camera with f/1.7 aperture and dual-LED flash and the 5-megapixel camera with f/1.7 aperture are identical to the S7 and S7 Edge’s. Autofocusing is the fastest on any camera, picture quality is excellent and low-light performance is superb. Optical image stabilization helps with shaky hands and it can record videos in 4K.
The Active key
Since the S5 Active, the Active model has come with an “Active” key on the left side of the phone above the volume rocker. This button, which is no longer blue, but easily identifiable by its texture, is for launching shortcuts to apps you assign to it.
It has three modes: single press, double press and long press. By default, a single press launches the Activity Zone, which contains bite-sized information like the weather, barometer data and compass.
A double press launches Emergency Zone, a distress board that can call 911 or send an emergency message to a designated contact. For the latter, Emergency Zone immediately logs your location, starts recording audio and snaps a photo from both cameras. When you hit “Send SOS Messages,” your emergency contact will have all of that critical information to assess the situation.
Here’s a re-enactment of me falling to the ground. Assuming I can muster enough strength to launch the Emergency Zone and hit the SOS button, my emergency contact will immediately know if I need assistance or not:
Location and attacker
Audio recording and victim
Long press on the Active key and it’ll launch DirecTV. Eww, right? Fortunately, you can change it to a more useful app.
You can add any app to the single and double press and even allow the Active key to work when the screen is locked.
I’m a big fan of the Active Key and while it’s what makes the Active phones special, I would love to see a shortcut key on the regular versions.
Insanely long battery life
The S7 has a 3,000 milliamp-hour (mAh) battery and the S7 Edge has a 3,600 mAh battery that lasts a day and a half.
The S7 Active has a 4,000 mAh battery — the largest of the three phones. During my testing I frequently got two days of battery life before needing to charge the phone again. And just like the S7, the battery can be fast charged to about 60% from 0% in about 30 minutes and supports fast wireless charging.
Big, beefy and awesome
Not much has changed since last year in terms of design. The S7 Active is a tank compared to the S7. It’s not designed for everyone and its exclusivity on AT&T more or less means many people who might want it won’t be able to get it because they’re on another carrier.
On top of being an AT&T exclusive, the phone’s also pretty pricey: $795 in full (or payable in monthly installments). That’s how much the S7 Edge with the larger screen costs. It’s also $100 more than the regular S7.
The S7 is the right Samsung phone for 95% of users. The remaining 5% who don’t mind the size, want the even bigger battery and are on AT&T — well, the S7 Active is the phone you’re looking for.
Samsung Galaxy S7 Active
All the power of the S7 • Massive battery • Excellent cameras • Handy Active shortcut key • Tough body with shatterproof screen
Exclusive to AT&T • Pricey
The Bottom Line
The Galaxy S7 Active is the only rugged phone worth buying. It’s really too bad it’s only available on AT&T.
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