Samsung Galaxy S8 Active review: A flagship for the clumsy and adventurous

Every year, Samsung likes to spice up their Galaxy S family with a ruggedized version of their current flagship. It offers the best of Samsung’s hardware, all of their software features, but with a tough-to-break frame and serious water and dust proofing. This year, we got the Galaxy S8 Active.

This one’s tricky, though; Samsung went all in on design this year with the Galaxy S8, offering only curved phones with on-screen buttons that don’t seem like they play nicely with rugged, durable devices. Would that translate well into a Galaxy S8 Active that needs to be able to withstand drops, spills, and extreme activity?

Let’s find out.

Design

The Galaxy S8 featured a top notch design with incredibly premium materials and a slightly curved display with almost no bezels. It’s easily one of the best examples of Samsung’s mobile design chops.

That is design is, well, not here on the Galaxy S8 Active.

Okay, so the general design of the Galaxy S8 is still here, it just gained a few pounds and forgot to wear nice clothes. Like its non-active sibling, the Galaxy S8 Active still has all the same buttons and ports and scanners in all the same locations.

You’ll find the power button on the right side of the device, with the volume button and other power button Bixby button on the left side.

The back of the phone houses the camera, LED flash, and horribly placed fingerprint scanner.

Yep, no changes to the fingerprint scanner here. It’s still incredibly inconvenient to reach, and I’ve yet to comfortably put my finger on it automatically. I’ve reverted to almost exclusively unlocking the phone with the PIN.

The bottom of the phone is where you’ll find the USB-C charging port and a headphone jack that wasn’t harmed in the making of this phone. Samsung still hasn’t worked up the courage, I guess.

You’ll also notice the sides of the phones have tiny little screws near the bumper. I’m not sure if Samsung was going for a more industrial look, but my personal opinion? It looks pretty silly.

To top it off, this phone is thick. Samsung also didn’t even try to make the screen curved on this variant, so the phone loses that slim advantage, and it’s immediately noticeable. It feels like a brick in hand, but for anyone wanting a rugged flagship with a big battery, that’s definitely a good thing.

The phone’s back sports a very textured, grippy material. It doesn’t feel quite as slick as other phones in this price range, but the material is also much easier to hang on to. Combined with the thickness of the chassis, it’s clearly designed for simple one-handed use to minimize drops. The plain screen (instead of a curved display) also helps make the phone easy to handle.

Overall, it’s very clunky and jarring next to the regular Galaxy S8, but that’s the point, so I can’t fault Samsung too much here.

Hardware

 Samsung Galaxy S8 Active
AnnouncedAugust 07, 2017
ReleaseAugust 11, 2017
Display5.8-inch (2960x1440) Super AMOLED w/ Corning Gorilla Glass 5
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 835
RAM4GB
Storage64GB w/ microSD card slot
Rear Camera12MP w/ LED flash, optical image stabilization, phase detection autofocus
Front Camera8MP
Battery4000mAh (non-removable)
ChargingUSB-C w/ fast charging and wireless charging
SoundBottom-facing speakers
SoftwareAndroid 7.0 Nougat with TouchWiz
ConnectivityBluetooth 5.0, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, NFC, GPS
SensorsAmbient, proximity, accelerometer, gyro, compass, barometer, fingerprint
Measurements152.1 x 74.9 x 9.9 mm
Weight208g
ColorsMeteor Gray, Titanium Gold

Performance

Since the Galaxy S8 Active has nearly identical specs to the Galaxy S8, you’ll get nearly identical performance. Seriously, you should read our Galaxy S8 review to see just how similar they are. The Snapdragon 835 paired with 4GB of RAM is a top shelf combination, and there’s pretty much nothing you can throw at it to slow it down.

Opening and jumping between apps is quick and snappy, and it’s pretty rare for anything to get pushed out of memory. Gaming performs extremely well, video playback is flawless, and your daily tasks should go off without a hitch. Samsung’s biggest issue has to do with TouchWiz slowdowns further down the line, but at least within the first few days/weeks, we can guarantee it’s a fantastic experience. Hopefully it lasts.

The screen is stellar, just like the screen on the Galaxy S8. It’s not curved, but the actual quality hasn’t dipped at all. Videos look great, your photos pop, and busy games are perfect eye candy. Speakers are decent; nothing that’s going to blow you away, which is disappointing since Samsung has been buddying up with AKG lately, but they’re definitely not bad.

Battery

Sure, the Galaxy S8 Active is really thick and ugly, but you get a positive out of that somewhere. In this case, it’s the battery life.

The Active packs in a 4,000mAh battery, which is a full 33% bigger than the 3,000mAh Galaxy S8 battery, and it makes a difference. It’s now really, really easy to make it a full day off the charger and then some without having to micromanage your screen time, and it wasn’t too uncommon to make it well into a second day without having to juice the Galaxy S8 Active back up.

There are a lot of variables with the Galaxy S8, even more so than other phones, just because Samsung includes so many extra features and things like the always-on display. Keeping the display on all the time over such a long stretch of time can certainly impact your battery life, but I like to think of this phone as offering a way for you to use all the features you want without having to worry about running out of battery before your day is over.

Software

Samsung is using Grace UI on the Galaxy S8 Active that first debuted on the Galaxy Note 7. There are a few tweaks and additional features that have been added on since, and there are a few outdoorsy, activity-focused services here, but if you’re familiar with Samsung’s newer devices you pretty much know what you’re getting into. It’s also shipped with Android 7.0 and all of the features that includes. Hopefully, we’re close to an update to Android 7.1 with an Oreo upgrade not long after that.

There’s a lot of white with tiny text throughout the OS, which seems to go against the grain of users clamoring for dark themes and night modes.  I personally like the white themes, but they can get a little blinding in low light situations.

Samsung still has a theme engine if you want to tweak the interface, and the incredible variety of different themes is a big plus.

Speaking of themes, pretty much all of the default apps are rocking Samsung’s TouchWiz aesthetic. Calendar, calculator, gallery, you name it; they all look drastically different than stock Android apps. This isn’t anything new, of course, but we’re finally really at the point where you can see just how different Samsung’s vision is for their mobile devices compared to Google’s Material Design guidelines. Samsung’s software, as a whole, is still one of the least Google-y skins on the market. From reversed navigation keys to the deep overhauls of visuals and functions, Android as we know it is buried very deep.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but vanilla Android enthusiasts still probably won’t find much to love here.

Camera

The camera on the Galaxy S8 Active has a few key differences from what was found on the Galaxy S8.

Nope, just kidding. It’s the exact same. It’s still pretty great, though, so not a bad thing.

It’s still one of the top performing cameras on the market, even without any bumps from the Galaxy S8. It’s tough to take a bad photo, and you’ll still get all the nifty camera software features Samsung has tossed in. Bixby Vision, stickers, and some pretty granular control settings are still present. The only disappointment is the lack of a real underwater shooting mode. It is a rugged, durable, waterproof phone, after all.

Closing

There’s a lot to love about the Galaxy S8 Active, mostly because there was a lot to love about the Galaxy S8. This variant doesn’t do anything radically different, so if you didn’t like the Galaxy S8, you won’t find anything here to really change your mind. If you liked the GS8 but wanted a bigger battery and a more rugged design, then this is going to be perfect for you.

Sure, you lose the curved screen, although that’s more of a design decision and you don’t lose any functionality because of it. Everything else is just like a Galaxy S8 in a bulky battery case.

The other thing to worry about here is the price. Samsung is asking a pretty steep price for the Active, running $100 more than the normal variant. $850 is expensive, even for a flagship phone, especially when there are plenty of solid rugged devices at significantly cheaper price points. The Galaxy S8 Active is much nicer, obviously, but we’re really close to the one grand mark for a smartphone, and that’s a very tough sell.

It’s a phenomenal phone with very few compromises, but the budget conscious consumers may be better off getting a solid cheaper phone and strapping a third-party case on it.

With all of that being said, this is the first year that looks like we might see the Active on a carrier besides AT&T, so for Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile customers that have missed out on previous versions, you might want to check this out just to see what all the fuss is about.

Buy it now: AT&T


About the Author: Jared Peters

Born in southern Alabama, Jared spends his working time selling phones and his spare time writing about them. The Android enthusiasm started with the original Motorola Droid and an unhealthy obsession with fixing things that aren't broken. This accidentally led to being the go-to guy for anything more complicated than a toaster, which he considers more of a curse than a blessing. Jared is enrolled in online classes at the University of Phoenix, and spends his spare time on video games and listening to music.


  • IceTrey

    I think the screws let you take off the corners.