Samsung Galaxy S8 Active

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 . 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.

Specs and performance

  • 4GB of RAM never felt like too little
  • The Snapdragon 835 cruises along
  • 64GB is plenty of space for apps, with a microSD slot for everything else

I’m not an insane smartphone multitasker, going from app to app to app for hours on end. For my uses, the Galaxy S8 Active was ready and able. Once on the home screen, whatever app I needed opened in a flash, so I could get in, get my business done, and get on with my day.

Putting the Galaxy S8 Active through its paces in Geekbench 4, it scored a single-core CPU score of 1,824 and a multi-core score of 6,130. A second test resulted in slightly higher scores of 1,862 for single core and 6,383 for multi-core. While these are fast, they lag behind our tests of the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy Note 8 and my own tests of my OnePlus 5. All the same, it never felt slow loading apps and switching between them, so it’s hard to give the benchmark scores too much thought.

Thanks to the high-quality display and high-performance Snapdragon 835, the Galaxy S8 Active handled Android games easily, loading them up in what felt like reasonable times, and playing with no noticeable slow-downs. Video also ran smoothly, with the display continuing to demonstrate its greatness, though it wasn’t comfortable to hold the phone up for long streaming sessions. The speaker at the base of the phone was enough to fill a quiet room with tunes, but isn’t a bluetooth speaker replacement for bike commuters, as it can’t compete with even a single passing car. 

Interface and reliability

  • App Drawer is readily organizable, but starts off messy
  • Bixby is all too easy to access, while Notification Shade is too hard
  • On-screen buttons get in the way
  • Doesn’t make improvements on stock Android

Anyone coming from another Samsung smartphone is going to feel plenty comfortable with the interface of the Galaxy S8 Active, as will the larger Android community, too. While it no longer has the physical buttons at the bottom of the device, it replaces them with on-screen buttons. Thankfully, it even allows you to switch the position of the Back and App Switch buttons in case you’re used to having them the other way around. One unfortunate problem with the onscreen buttons is that they sometimes appear on top of buttons in apps, rather than pushing up the app’s content.

The App Drawer is easier than ever to access, with a simple swipe up or down on the home screen to open it. But this is effectively where my issues with the interface begin. Apart from the App Drawer causing the phone to stutter when opened, it came poorly organized, with apps randomly grouped or ungrouped. YouTube and Play Music had their own places in the App Drawer while a folder dedicated to Google apps also existed (which surprisingly held Play Movies & TV). The same went for Samsung Pay and a Samsung folder.

Organization issues can easily be resolved by simply reorganizing, but when first getting started with the phone, it was troublesome trying to find some basic apps. The ability to colorize folders is a nice touch anyone who wants to organize apps in the drawer rather than on the home screen.

The redundancy of App Drawer access methods, swiping either up or down, may not have been an issue if it weren’t for the size of the screen. Pulling down the Notification Shade, which is a key feature of any Android phone, requires reaching all the way to the top of the 5.8-inch screen. Even with my large hands, it wasn’t a comfortable reach to make one-handed. And the Galaxy S8 Active is a real stickler, as swiping down from even the notification bar isn’t high enough – it has to be the very top of the screen or nothing. If the Notification Shade was accessible with a swipe down anywhere on the home screen, the Galaxy S8 Active would be far more comfortable to use.

Coming from Motorola and OnePlus phones with an experience closer to stock Android, the choices Samsung made with its software didn’t feel like improvements to the experience.The further I got into using the phone, the more the redundancies and awkward design of the phone stood out and worsened the experience.

Biometrics and Bixby

Fancy ways of unlocking phones using biometrics are all the rage right now, and Samsung has added iris scanning as an alternative to its fingerprint scanner. The Galaxy S8 Active features both, and neither is pleasant to use. 

At first, the iris scanner simply required too many steps to be useful. First, I had to turn on the screen, then tap to let the phone know I wanted to scan my eyes, and still had to get the alignment right. Samsung has settings that make this process smoother, taking out one of the steps, but it took some digging, and left the iris scanner feeling only slightly less slow.

The Galaxy S8 Active still has the fingerprint scanner like the last generation, expect now it’s awkwardly on the back. It’s nearly impossible to reach from a normal grip on the phone, and it makes it easy to smudge the camera lens. Making matters worse, it seemed to have a tendency to respond slowly. These biometric unlock methods made this otherwise zippy phone feel rather clunky to use.

A fingerprint sensor on the side of the phone may have been a better option. The Galaxy S8 Active is a thicker phone than its siblings, and it seems like a scanner could fit on the side, but that’s where Samsung’s smart assistant Bixby comes in and continues to be a let down.

Bixby brings the redundancies in the Galaxy S8 Active to a peak, with not one, not two, but three ways of activating Bixby. The first method is using the dedicated button on the left side of the phone, which is painfully easy to press on accident while struggling to press the fingerprint scanner on purpose. The second method of activating Bixby is simply to say, “Hey, Bixby” or “Yo, Bixby,” or whatever else. The third way to activate Bixby is the worst.

Swiping between pages on the home screen of the Galaxy S8 active is an easy way to accidentally swipe over to the Bixby page, which the Bixby button also directs you to. Once on the Bixby page, you can’t simply swipe back to the home page. Instead, you have to press the Back or Home buttons. Why can’t you swipe back? The truth is you can, but it took me a while to realize it because landing on the Bixby page makes the Galaxy S8 Active momentarily crumble under the weight of things Bixby is loading in (even after cleaning out the default clutter, like Giphy). 

So, while Bixby is meant to help, it does anything but and can be a bit unresponsive in the first second after swiping to the page. Sometimes it freezes for a second before even showing that you swiped over to Bixby. Never mind that the Bixby camera didn’t recognize much, and Bixby understood everything I said about as well as I understand Samsung’s choice of fingerprint scanner placement.

  • 12MP rear camera, video up to 4K@30fps; 8MP front camera, video up to Quad HD
  • Crisp and vibrant photos in high to medium light, but noisy images in the dark
  • Handy movable shutter button
  • 4K video recording stuttered and had glaring compression

The Galaxy S8 Active camera is the same shooter you’ll find on the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8 Plus, making it one of the best mobile phone cameras on the market. Pair that with the long-lasting battery of the S8 Active, and you’ve got a great photography experience. 

The camera interface is also easy to use at a basic level while still offering access to a pro shooting mode, though different shooting modes are somewhat hidden, requiring a swipe on the camera screen with no clear indication they’re over there. Being able to add a second shutter button anywhere on the screen also made the camera easier to shoot with one-handed.

The bright screen of the Galaxy S8 Active makes it easy to see what you’re shooting even in direct sunlight, and the camera is capable of great shots, capturing plenty of detail and vivid colors. It can capture dim scenes fairly well, too, for evening or shaded shots. However, it still struggles with dark scenes, with images getting a lot of noise.

The 8 megapixel front-facing camera offered decent clarity, and included some goofy Snapchat-style filters so you can send silly photos or videos to your less-trendy friends. It’s also capable of recording video at Quad HD resolution

The rear video camera offered impressive image quality, and it shoots in 4K at 30 frames per second. I caught an Of Montreal concert while reviewing the Galaxy S8 Active, and even in the dark settings, I was impressed with what the video camera was able to capture. Sure, there was noise in the images, but it captured insane lighting changes really well, and the audio was actually crisp without the usual levels of distortion you’d get from a smartphone microphone at a concert.

Unfortunately, the 4K video recording experience didn’t continue to impress in other tests. I took a panning skyline shot, and the motion didn’t appear smooth. The camera occasionally even jerked around, like it had stuttered while processing the footage. I tested it again, turning image stabilization off to see if it had an effect, and it improved the stuttering some, but still left some odd blurring in the panning motion. One video I recorded at the concert managed to rotate itself 90 degrees while saving. Compression in the video was glaring in some of the video, raising the question of why I should even bother recording in 4K.

Battery life

  • 4,000mAh battery
  • Ready for binge watching
  • Quick Charge fills it up around 1% per minute

One kink that needs no resolving is the insane battery life of the Galaxy S8 Active. It may stutter opening Bixby, and take some time to unlock, but with a 4000mAh battery, the Galaxy S8 Active is probably not going to die on you – no matter what you do with it during your day.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m a relatively light mobile user. I pull my phone out frequently to accomplish a brief task, like sending a message or checking a notification. A few times in a day I might scroll through the news or Facebook. And I’ll often use it with the screen off to listen to music of podcasts. 

Given that low level of usage, the Galaxy S8 Active didn’t punish me for forgetting to charge it overnight. It didn’t punish for forgetting a second night in a row, either. It’s not as though I tried to save battery either. I left Wi-Fi and GPS on all the time. I forced the screen to stay at its maximum resolution. And I kept the brightness at max, though turning on adaptive brightness to save my eyes. 

When it came time to start my battery test, which involves a timed charge from 0% to 100%, I had a hard time making this thing die. I put on videos at full brightness, I toyed around with the camera and I even ran a quick benchmark. Roughly 3 hours later, the phone was still alive, even though I’d started this process with it already around 40%. 

Once it was finally down for the count, charging the powered-down Galaxy S8 Active with the included quick charger was surprisingly fast. Starting from 0%, it hit 17% in the first 15 minutes, and then added on another 16% every 15 minutes until the phone mostly full. It slowed down slightly in the last 25%, but still reached 100% after just 103 minutes.

From 100%, I tested the battery drain by running the phone with all the usual radios running, and played a 90-minute video off internal storage with the screen at full brightness. That test only managed to bring the battery down to 88%. This means I could have played the video twice, for a total of 3 hours, just to get the phone close to having 3000mAh of charge remaining. Why does that matter? Because the standard Galaxy S8 starts with just 3000mAh.

For my issues with the software, the hardware in the Galaxy S8 Active is nothing to complain about and has me wishing more phones opted for thicker chassis to fit in 4000mAh batteries.

The Galaxy S8 Active is a solid performing smartphone, as should be expected from a sibling of the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy Note 8. It sacrifices the incredible aesthetics of the Infinity Edge display in Samsung’s latest flagships for a reinforced metal edge and a behemoth 4,000mAh battery. 

It includes Samsung’s great camera, with a surprisingly good microphone for recording concerts (get ready, Snapchat and Instagram). But it did struggle with some odd issues during 4K video recording that weren’t encouraging as 4K content becomes the new mainstream. 

Every photo taken on the phone served as an opportunity for the Galaxy S8 Active’s vibrant and pixel-dense Super AMOLED display to dazzle. Samsung continues to prove that it makes amazing smartphone displays, even if the S8 Active’s screen installation is a dull affair with no curved glass and plenty of bezel.

For all the power, performance, and features it includes, the Galaxy S8 Active suffers from slow-downs when opening the App Drawer of all things. The slowdown is even more marked when sliding over to the Bixby page, proving Samsung’s overcommitment to Bixby extra problematic, especially with how easy it is to accidentally launch Bixby.

Since these issues are software-related, it’s possible Samsung can resolve them with updates. But for now, they stand in the way of a positive experience using the phone, and make it easy to forget just how smoothly the rest of the phone operates.

The hardware issues of the Galaxy S8 Active come down to unfortunate placement, as the Bixby button is all too easy to press when you don’t want to and the fingerprint scanner is too difficult to press when you do want to. 

Who's this for?

For all its faults, the Galaxy S8 Active has heard one cry from mobile users everywhere. A cry that many smartphones ignore. That’s the cry to forget about being the thinnest phone ever and just give us all more battery. The Galaxy S8 Active is thick, and that lets it pack a 4,000mAh battery. That battery is more reason to call this the “Active” model than any other aspect. 

An active person might not get around to charging their phone every night. They might take lots of pictures out on their adventures, and even record video. And the S8 Active is ready. Ironically, the S8 Active battery is also a good fit for inactive people, as it’s ready for long movie or TV streaming sessions.

Should I buy it?

If battery and performance come first, then the Galaxy S8 Active is a fine choice. For marathon phone users, the inconvenient unlocking methods and accidental Bixby launches will easily be overshadowed by the general performance speed of the phone and how long its battery lasts.

For anyone that wants the best of everything, it’s hard to recommend the $850 Galaxy S8 Active. Even if it’s designed more rugged, it’s hard to say just how much better that is than a standard Galaxy S8 with a case, which has the added advantage of being removable and replaceable. With the Galaxy S8 often hitting prices as low as $570, the Galaxy S8 Active comes at a considerable premium.

Though the Galaxy S8 Active is a fine phone when taken alone, it doesn’t stand out as a great pick unless having a case is a serious non-starter for you. The S8 Active goes to show that Samsung can’t have every new phone it releases be the best phone at the same time.

Mark Knapp
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