Of all the high-end smartphones released in 2015 so far, the one I keep going back to is the Samsung Galaxy S6. It’s a well-rounded device with great hardware, class-leading performance, a top-notch camera, and an attractive design. It may not be the outstanding financial success that Samsung was hoping for, but it’s certainly one of the best devices released this year.
That’s not to say the Galaxy S6 is without problems. The design, while sleek and sexy, is quite slippery, and the use of glass on the front and back of the handset makes it susceptible to damage when dropped. It’s also not water resistant, unlike its predecessor, which is a disappointment for those that enjoy underwater photography or gaming while in the shower.
This is where the Galaxy S6 Active comes in. For the most part, the S6 Active is a clone of the standard S6, as it features the same 5.1 1440p display, the same Samsung Exynos 7420 SoC inside, and the same 16-megapixel optically stabilized camera. But where the S6 Active does differ from the S6 is in its design, which is much better suited to surviving drops, harsh conditions, and liquids. The Active also features a considerably larger battery, which promises to deliver far better battery life than the standard S6.
I’ll get to discussing the battery life a bit later, as the most obvious difference between the S6 and S6 Active is in the design. There’s still Gorilla Glass on the front of the Active, protecting the AMOLED display, but the metal and glass used elsewhere has been replaced entirely with thick plastic. And the plastic isn’t just smooth, minimalist plastic either: Samsung has applied all sorts of textures and contours that give the Active a seriously rugged look.
Wrapping around the edges of the S6 Active is the first piece of smooth matte plastic, with rubberized sections inserted into to the left- and right-hand edges around the variety of buttons. On the back panel you’ll see a second, indented section of plastic that surrounds the camera, speaker and flash. Normally this area comes with a fairly boring texture or camouflage pattern, but the slick titanium metal skin from dbrand applied to my S6 Active looks significantly better.
The rugged design of the S6 Active isn’t for everyone. Personally I’m not a huge fan of this style, as I far prefer the sleek metal and glass body of the regular Galaxy S6. The shape and bulk of the S6 Active just isn’t as nice to look at or hold, and for this reason it certainly won’t be winning any awards for aesthetics.
But the reason why Samsung has opted for this design is to make the Galaxy S6 rugged, tough and dependable. To do this, the company had to make the device more bulky, they had to switch out metal and glass for thick plastic, and they had to add in ridges and contours where the Galaxy S6 was smooth and flat. The result is a device that you can safely use without an external case.
This last part is key for people who normally would apply a case to their smartphone for protection. I’m not the sort of person to apply a case to a phone, because they typically don’t integrate well with the phone’s design, look tacky and cheap in comparison to the phone’s actual design, add lots of bulk, and don’t even offer very good protection. But with the Galaxy S6 Active, the case is essentially part of the handset’s design, which is a vastly superior solution for the adventurers, tradies or just the clumsy out there.
There are some limitations to how rugged the Galaxy S6 Active actually is in practice. While the back and sides of the smartphone are well protected from drops, the display on the front still seems reasonably exposed, with only a small rim around the edges protecting it from impacts with flat surfaces. I imagine if you drop the Galaxy S6 Active face down on a sharp rock, for example, the thin piece of glass protecting the AMOLED display wouldn’t stand a chance.
This is in contrast with rugged phones from companies like CAT, which produce even tougher smartphones with thicker materials protecting the display. Of course these phones typically look worse than the S6 Active, and tend to be harder to use due to added bulk and a larger gap between your finger and the display. For the non-hardcore user, the S6 Active seems a great compromise between a usable design and protection from impacts, especially if you apply a decent screen protector.
The Galaxy S6 Active does qualify for a few protection ratings. The device can handle submersion in up to 1.5 meters of fresh water for 30 minutes and is protected from dust ingress as per the IP68 rating. It also qualifies for a MIL-STD-810G rating, indicating it has passed a series of (likely Samsung-designed) tests involving protection from shocks, temperatures, vibrations, sand, and other extreme conditions.
Despite the S6 Active’s water resistant body, both the 3.5mm audio jack and microUSB port are exposed, which is a significantly better solution than flaps and covers we’ve seen in the past. There is a well-sealed nano-SIM card slot as well, just below the power button on the right-hand side, but no removable battery or microSD card slot.
Aside from the ruggedization of the body, there are a few other changes present in the Galaxy S6 Active compared to the Galaxy S6. The fingerprint scanner in the home button is gone, replaced by three physical buttons – recent apps, home and back – below the display. Oddly, when you press the recent apps and back buttons the phone vibrates as if you had pressed capacitive buttons, which gives weird and unpleasant feedback to what are otherwise pretty nice buttons. This doesn’t happen when you press the home button, which makes me think it’s a software carry-over from the regular Galaxy S6.
The other main change is the addition of a new button on the left side of the handset, above the volume rocker. This button, which Samsung calls the Action Key, can be mapped to two apps: one for a short press, and one for a long press. It’s actually a pretty convenient button to have, as you can map it to the camera, for example, allow you to quickly enter the camera app for an immediate snap.
By default, the Action Key is mapped to the Activity Zone, which includes a range of information such as the weather and air pressure info, easy access to S Health, a compass, a stopwatch, access to the flashlight, and music controls. It’s a pretty handy app for people who like to take their phone with them as they exercise or explore the great outdoors, and it’s exclusive to the S6 Active.