Review: Samsung Galaxy S8 Active
Editor's Note: The S8 Active runs nearly identical software as the S8 and S8+, so some of the below text has been carried over from our earlier reviews of those devices. Rest assured, we thoroughly re-tested every facet and feature of the S8 Active.
The S8 Active includes an Always On display, which means you can always see the clock, date, battery percentage, and notifications. The notifications can range from simple badges to the full text of incoming messages. Samsung offers plenty of ways to tweak the Always On display.
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The easiest way to turn the screen on is to press the screen lock button on the right side of the phone. This brings up your wallpaper, full notifications, access to the Quick Setting menu, and lock screen shortcuts. You can also reach this screen by pushing the new “home button”. Samsung replaced the physical home button with a software key on the front. It's a little square that sits at the bottom of the display. It's always visible, part of the Always On display. A simple tap won't do it; you need to hard-press or double-press the button.
You can set a PIN, pattern, or password for security. You need to wake the phone and then swipe up on the screen to access these locking methods. The same is also true of the iris scanner and facial recognition tool. Once you've woken the display and swiped up, using the iris scanner is pretty quick. The iris scanner, in particular, can read your eyes in less than a second. However, if you're in near total darkness or out in super bright sunlight the iris scanner doesn't want to work well. It's better if you don't wear glasses.
The facial recognition tool is inconsistent. It was able to read my face about 60% of the time. That's still too high a failure rate. Moreover, researchers suggest it can be fooled by a photo of your face. The steps for recording your irises or face are simple enough. Each offers a rich tutorial to walk you through the process.
Using any of these five locking methods (PIN, pattern, password, iris, face) takes too much time. You have to wake the screen, swipe to reach the lock, then interact with the lock. Three steps is two too many.
Use the fingerprint reader on the back. It's easy to record multiple fingerprints and, once you get used to the reader's location, it's by far the quickest and most consistently simple way to unlock the phone. Grab the S8 Active, touch the fingerprint reader, and the phone skips the lock screen / unlock screen entirely and goes straight to your home screen.
The Galaxy S8 Active ships with Android 7 (Nougat) on board and the latest build of Samsung's user interface skin. It's highly configurable, and sometimes annoyingly complex.
Samsung ditched the app drawer, sort of. Instead of a dedicated apps button, you'll find if you swipe the home screen up or down the app drawer will appear. Samsung's solution is elegant in its simplicity, even if it's not intuitive at first. After a day or two, though, I found the swiping gesture to be quick and easy. You need to be nimble-fingered about it; if you press too long or too hard you might accidentally perform a different action.
The app drawer is organized alphabetically by default. The entire drawer can be arranged however you wish, including folders. Samsung allows you to hide unwanted apps, but I found only a couple could be removed completely. AT&T bloatware is significant, though the bulk of it can at least be hidden from view.
The Quick Settings panel has clean icons and blue-on-white coloring. You can customize the Quick Settings panel to a small degree. The main settings screen is really nice. Like the Quick Settings panel, it uses clean colors, sharp fonts, and bright backgrounds to facilitate readability.
You can spend hours and hours customizing the S8 Active. For example, the phone offers access to Samsung's themes. Only a couple are pre-installed, but you can download more. Some themes are free, some cost a few dollars. All of them change the entire visual experience, from the wallpapers to the icons to the fonts and colors.
Then there are the small tweaks. How many apps do you want on the home screens (4x5, 5x5, 6x5)? How big do you want the icons to be (small, medium, large)? Which font do you want? Do you want icons with or without borders? Care to re-arrange the software buttons at the bottom of the screen? You can.
You can multitask on the S8 Active by running two apps at the same time in separate windows. Not all apps are supported, but those that are have a distinct icon (two rectangles on top of one another) to indicate their compatibility with the tool. It works fine and takes maybe 60 seconds to master. The S8 Active's extra-tall screen really helps here.
A good number of third-party apps already support the new aspect ratio on the S8. Those that don't have extra black space at the top and bottom on the S8 Active, though you can elect to stretch them out if you wish.
The S8 Active includes Easy Mode, which gets rid of the “complicated” home screen panels and app drawer in favor of larger icons and fewer screens through which to navigate. This tool is meant for people who may be new to smartphones, or for those who have seriously bad eyesight.
You can use a number of different hand gestures to control the phone. For example, you can capture a screenshot by swiping the edge of your hand across the display, or call the displayed contact by bringing the phone to your ear. Incoming calls can be muted by placing your palm on the screen or turning the phone over.
The S8 Active drops Samsung's Edge Panels entirely. This feature, available to the S8, S8+, and Note8, is designed for curved-edge screens, which the S8 Active lacks.
The Galaxy S8 Active is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor with 4 GB of RAM. This is Qualcomm's best. The S8 Active crushed everything I asked it to. Every app on the phone runs quickly and smoothly, screen transitions are fluid, and the phone practically begs for a real challenge. Even running it for an hour in the Gear VR didn't seem to task the processor much.
Several options open the camera, including a double-press of the screen lock button and the lock screen shortcut. The camera jumps to life in a blink.
The main viewfinder is fairly typical: tools on the left, viewfinder in the middle, shutter buttons on the right. Swipe the viewfinder up or down to switch to the selfie camera, swipe right to open shooting modes, swipe left to open Instagram-style filters. The camera has separate picture and video buttons, which make it easy to snap photos when shooting video. The controls on the left allow you to toggle the flash and HDR to on, off, or auto.
As far as the shooting modes are concerned, the S8 Active includes auto, pro, panorama, selective focus, slow-motion, hyperlapse, food, and virtual shot. Sadly, there's no mode for shooting under water.
The “pro” mode lets you tweak most of the camera's core settings, including exposure, white balance, autofocus, color, shutter speed (up to 10 seconds), and ISO. It's a little difficult to use. Adjusting the settings requires you to slide your finger up and down the right side of the screen, which is where the control bar appears. If your finger is off just a little bit, however, you'll accidentally swipe yourself into selfie mode and lose the pro mode entirely.
The S8 Active's camera builds in masks, stickers, filters, and other extras for enhancing your pix before you share them on social media. The “masks” tool includes a decent variety and lets you adorn your face with the ears/snout of a dog, cat, bat, deer, rabbit, sheep, and other animals. Moreover, opening and closing your mouth when using a mask generally causes it to animate in some entertaining way. The stickers are rather simple black-and-white affairs. The phone has at least 16 different filters. These tools are available when using both the main camera and the selfie camera.
Last, the camera includes Bixby Vision. Once enabled, the Bixby Vision shooting mode turns on Bixby's artificial intelligence to help you figure out what you're looking at. Bixby Vision can read/translate text, read QR/barcodes, and help you shop with location-based suggestions.
The camera, like every other app on the phone, performs incredibly well. It's fast through and through.
The S8 Active, with its 12-megapixel sensor, optical image stabilization, and f/1.7 aperture, takes incredible pictures.
I used it around town for a weekend and on a quick trip into NYC. Like the S8 and S8+, which share camera features, the S8 Active got the job done beautifully. Focus was sharp, white balance was accurate, and exposure was spot-on. The S8 Active's camera impressed me in every way.
The S8 Active has a powerful 8-megapixel user-facing camera with screen-based flash, autofocus, and an f/1.7 aperture of its own. The selfie cam does a really, really good job. Seriously, putting autofocus in the user-facing camera goes a long way to improving the sharpness of selfies, particularly in low light. As noted above, you can make use of the masks, stickers, and filters when using the selfie cam, as well as the “beautification” tool.
On the video front, the S8 Active captures resolutions up to 4K. The best features — HDR capture, video effects, tracking autofocus — aren't available when shooting in 4K or 2K. The S8 Active's video camera does an excellent, excellent job. Video is sharp, rich in color, and properly exposed. My only complaint would be about the grain I saw in some low-light environments. The HDR mode helps mitigate this a bit.
Nearly everyone should be happy using the Galaxy S8 Active as their main device for capturing photos and videos.
The small key on the left side of the S8 Active activates Bixby. Samsung recently made it possible to deactivate this button, though it cannot be remapped to perform any other action. After fully testing the feature, I've decided Bixby is not for me. It's simply not as useful nor as convenient as Google Assistant.
On first launch you'll be asked some simple questions to get started. The Bixby screen includes cards that present a lot of information about you and the stuff you typically do. For example, it details the weather, your next calendar appointment, and highlights from your Twitter and Facebook feeds. This is really no different from competing services from other handset makers.
More than just launching apps, Bixby allows you to interact with apps by calling up their menus and settings so you can, ostensibly, do everything that particular app can do all through voice commands. You have to have an incredible amount of familiarity with each app and its organizational structure to fully take advantage of this. I struggled to get Bixby to really do complex tasks. At best, I could get it to do things like open the email app and create a draft email to a specific contact. Don't get me wrong, that's helpful, but it's not all that different from what Google Assistant can do.
The Activity Zone app is specific to the S8 Active. It keeps track of weather and includes a barometer, compass, flashlight, health and stopwatch. On older Active handsets, you'd launch the Activity Zone by pressing a dedicated hardware button. On the S8 Active, you have to poke the home screen shortcut or ask Bixby to launch the app.
As much as I like having these tools, the app is basic at best. It's quicker to use the Quick Settings shade to reach the flashlight, and Bixby or Google Assistant are much faster at launching timers. The barometer is a nice addition, and it appears to be accurate at gauging elevation. Nearly every phone has a compass, so this is hardly a unique addition.
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