The quick take
The Samsung Galaxy S7 has been our nearly unanimous choice for the best phone of 2016. And once again U.S. operator AT&T (and only AT&T, we might add) has commissioned an "active" version. It sports a more destruction-proof case and a bigger battery, with a few new software features to go along with that "active" name. You won't want to abuse this phone, but it should stand up to life better than most.
- 33% larger battery than stock GS7
- Great performance
- Takes a licking, keeps on ticking
- That display is still gorgeous
- AT&T's bloatware has got to stop
- Stuck as an exclusive on AT&T
- Seam between display and body
Watch this ...
Galaxy S7 Active Video Review
Drop it, we dare you
Galaxy S7 Active Full Review
Right on cue, Samsung and AT&T roll out a more robust Galaxy S7
Another year, another Samsung Galaxy S7 Active. You might be tempted to overthink this phone. Don't. It's a Galaxy S7 through and through. Mostly the same internal specs. Mostly the same software — with a few additions. All in all, you mostly get the same experience.
Where things really differ is in the body. This Galaxy S7 is protected by a much more durable shell, and has a screen that should keep from shattering from most casual falls. Plus it's got a few built-in software features that the "active set" — whomever that is, we suppose — will find in handy, but nothing you couldn't really add to your own phone.
The real question you'll have to ask yourself here is whether you'd want to switch to AT&T to have this phone. Or if you're already on that operator, whether you'd rather have it than just strap a regular GS7 into a protective case.
Oh, and whether you want to put up with AT&T's inexcusable bloatware.
About this review
We're publishing this review after spending about four days with the Samsung Galaxy S7 Active. That's inside our seven-day window for even considering calling something a "review," but much about this phone is a known quantity. It is, through and through, a Galaxy S7 — a phone with which we already are intimately familiar. Same processor. Same camera. Same software experience.
Our Galaxy S7 Active review unit (it's the SM-G891A) provided by AT&T is running Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow (Build MMB29M.G891AUCU1APE7), with the May 1, 2016, security patch.
Bigger, beefier, more active
Galaxy S7 Active Hardware
In some ways the Galaxy S7 Active is sort of the anti-GS7, if you think about it. Samsung's flagship phone is all about sleek sex appeal. From the marriage of curves and sharp lines, to the execution of its commercials. This is space-age stuff.
The GS7 Active almost should be called something other than GS7. The look and feel of the two phones couldn't be much more different. Metal and glass gives way to something that's much more plastic. A soft-touch sort of plastic — not quite rubber feeling — and much more bulbous than the GS7 or GS7 edge. It's available in three colors — "sandy gold," "titanium gray" and "green camo." Figure the first color is great for getting lost at the beach, and the latter in the woods. (Gray? You're on your own.)
This is a larger, more robust Galaxy S7. But it is in no way awkward.
It's also a good bit bigger in all respects. Taller, wider, thicker. It weighs more. But Samsung's done all this in a way that doesn't make the phone feel ungainly or huge. "More robust" is the term that keeps popping into my head. Not quite rugged. Certainly not as huge as some of the cases you'd get from, say, Otterbox, or from a dedicated "rugged" phone by someone like CAT.
We still have physical buttons — done in the usual Samsung layout of recent apps-home-back. But new this year is the inclusion of a fingerprint reader in the home button. That's always a good option to have, even if it's not the most practical when it comes to this sort of phone, which sort of assumes you might be using it with wet or dirty hands.
Stick the GS7 Active up against the previous model (the GS6 Active, of course), and you'll see that Samsung's actually toned down that rugged look a bit. Gone are the exposed screws. The SIM tray drawer no longer is opened by a fingernail, but instead uses a paper clip-style SIM tray tool. And the tray itself has moved from the top of the phone to the side, beneath the power button.
There's nothing about this phone that's uncomfortable to hold. It's not too big. It's not too bulky. Some of the sharper edges are more rounded.
And the buttons are all in their usual places. That includes the "Active Key" that's above the volume rocker. A single press opens the Activity Zone. A double-press opens up the emergency options — to quickly call 911, or message an emergency contact.
And a long press — well, we'll get to that in a second.
You can remap any of those Active Key actions to any of your installed apps, though. That's handy as hell, even if it takes a little extra work.
The AMOLED display is still excellent indoors, and especially important in this case, outdoors. The always-on display introduced by Samsung earlier this year is on by default here. I've never found it particularly useful, though.
Water-resistant? Sure, but ...
You'll see a lot of footage of the Galaxy S7 Active spending time under water. (We for sure did our fair share of that, too.) But while the phone certainly has been hardened against the elements, it's not actually any better at swimming than the original Galaxy S7.
The Galaxy S7 Active has the exact same water resistance rating as the regular Galaxy S7.
All three phones in the GS7 class are rated IP68 for dust ingress and water immersion. That means it can spend up to a half hour in 5 feet of water, without suffering any ill effects.
As some folks have learned the hard way, that means a bath. A quick soak. Not a prolonged shower. That doesn't mean the phone can't survive a little more abuse — and we've definitely put it to that test a few times — but that's not what Samsung intends or warrants here. We're still talking about your leaving it in your pocket at the beach, or dropping it into your coffee/water/toilet/bath. That sort of thing.
Try not to get it wet. But if it does, there's a good chance it'll survive.
That MIL STD-810G rating …
The other rating you'll hear AT&T and Samsung promoting is MIL STD-810G. That's a military standard that puts devices of all types up against — well, pretty much up against everything. Pressure. Temperature. Shock. (That's physics, not electric.) Rain. Radiation. Fungus.
We didn't actively test that last one.
But we did abuse our Galaxy S7 Active more than we normally would a "regular" phone in the course of the review process.
We dropped it on concrete from pocket level. We tossed it around a bit. It went swimming. It played in the sand. It spent a little time with a 5-year-old.
And for the most part the phone held up quite nicely. It still works. It looks a little worse for wear, for sure. We've got scuffs all over the body. The display is scuffed in places. But it didn't crack. It didn't shatter. The phone very much is operable.
Our biggest concern has to do with where the glass meets the body. We got a good bit of sand lodged in there, and that worries us when it comes to future water resistance. There also were a few grains of sand around the physical buttons.
We also had a few instances after getting the phone wet in which the power button was misbehaving. But after thoroughly drying the phone, all is well. (That sort of thing isn't uncommon for IP68 devices, actually. And to be fair, skipping a phone across a tide pool isn't exactly intended use.)
You shouldn't actively torture the Galaxy S7 Active. That's a quick way to have something bad happen to your phone. But we have pretty good amount of confidence that this phone will stand up to anything stupid that someone might do to it. Basic falls and such. Quick dunks in water.
And that's exactly what this phone is meant to withstand.
Storage and battery life
Again, this is a 32-gigabyte Galaxy S7 Active, as has been the standard for the GS7 family this year. Of that 32GB, a little less than 20GB is actually available to you as a user, thanks to the system and preloads and such. (That's actually a little more than I had available when I reviewed the Galaxy S7.)
A microSD card can increase all that, of course. But as has been the case with Samsung's other phones, you'll be using external storage in the traditional sense. That is, no Adoptable Storage. But the upside to that is the the SD card can come and go as you please, making it easier to move files around.
A 4,000 mAh battery — and wireless charging — may make this the perfect Galaxy S7.
As for battery and charging, it's business as usual. The GS7 Active comes with Samsung's own Adaptive Fast Charging. Use it. A half-hour plugged in took us from 30 percent to 65 percent.
And new this time around is the ability to charge wirelessly. That's a good thing. And if you're going to do that, you might as well splurge for Samsung's wireless fast charger. The "regular" wireless charger (which Samsung has a habit of giving away for free sometimes) is painfully slow.
As for battery life, it's been exactly what we'd expect from a larger, 4,000 mAh cell powering an Snapdragon 820 processor and 5.1-inch 2K display. Take what we've learned from the Galaxy S7, and extend it a bit. I've had virtually no problem getting through a full day. I imagine some seriously hard use will cut into that, but 33 percent more capacity is 33 percent more capacity. Getting well into a second day's use (after laying around dormant all night) is definitely a possibility, but you'll still need to find a charger at some point after breakfast.
Your usage will vary, of course, depending on your app load and how great AT&T is where you are. But nobody's turning down a larger battery in this phone — which was always going to be physically bigger anyway. It's a good improvement.
Touchwiz goes active
Galaxy S7 Active Software
If you've at all seen Samsung's implementation of Android 6.x Marshmallow, you know what you're in store for on the Galaxy S7 Active. The setup process is that weird mix of Google and Samsung and carrier (in this case, AT&T), with some overlaps.
You'll get a couple of chances to restore your content — once from Google, another time from AT&T, for things like voicemail and accounts and services. And Samsung will prompt you to log in to its service as well, which you'll want to do since a fair amount of preloaded apps will want to update from there.
The Galaxy S7 Active is encrypted by default. Samsung gives you the option to require a PIN at boot as part of the encryption mechanism. We suggest you take advantage of this. And good on Samsung for pushing this at first boot.
The home screens look like Samsung home screens. There's a mix of Google and Samsung and AT&T, for better or worse. (More on the latter half of that a second.)
The biggest change as far as the software goes comes from the Active Key, a single press of which launches the Activity Zone. There you'll find a nice 2x3 card interface for quick shortcuts to the weather, barometer, S Health, compass, flashlight and stopwatch. It's pretty standard and self-explanatory stuff, and it's the sort of thing we'd like to see in all of Samsung's software, actually. There's nothing inherent to this phone that prevents it from being on other phones. The Active Key is just a shortcut.
A double-press of the Active Key launches "Emergency Zone." That gives you one-touch access (erm, after the double-press of the Active Key) to 911. You also can designate an emergency contact here, and the phone will fire off an SMS with your location, pictures from both the front and rear cameras, and an audio clip of what's going on. Nice touch.
Welcome back, AT&T bloatware
We've already discussed AT&T's penchant for loading up its phones with software you might or might not want a couple of times. First with the original Galaxy S7, and later with the LG G5, when things seemed to get even worse.
AT&T's pushing of DirectTV (and other bloatware) would be insulting if we weren't already numb to it.
Nothing's changed on the Galaxy S7 Active. The first time you pull down the notification menu you'll see a black DirectTV notification — a stark contrast against the off-white quick settings and other notifications. It's as if AT&T believes it's impossible for you to own one of its phones but not subscribe to DirectTV. The good news is you can hide this notification by hitting the little gear icon, thing turning "display remote" off.
Or, swipe over one home screen and you'll find a half-page widget for DirectTV content.
Open the app drawer and you'll note that there's only a single page of apps. That's almost commendable! Of course, that black DirectTV app icon right in the middle sure stands out.
Perhaps AT&T really wants folks to subscribe to DirectTV.
In the app drawer you'll also find an AT&T folder full of things, in the No. 1 spot. And these things include:
- Device Help
- Usage Manager
- Smart Limits
- AT&T Protect Plus
- Caller Name ID
- AT&T Locker
- Drive Mode
- Amazon Kindle
- Setup & Transfer
- Remote (DirectTV)
- YP (Yellow Pages)
At this point we can't do much more than throw up our arms and shake our head and continue to question why AT&T thinks this is good way to treat its customers in 2016. The presumption that you're either already a DirectTV subscriber or that you'll soon become one would be downright insulting if it weren't also expected at this point.
Hell, a long press of the Active Key by default launches DirectTV. It's come to that.
We don't see this changing any time soon, sadly.
We've been here before
Galaxy S7 Active Cameras
The Galaxy S7 has pretty much the best camera you can find in a smartphone today. Therefore, so does the Galaxy S7 Active.
Samsung's Galaxy S7 camera is in full effect here.
As a refresher, the rear camera is a 12-megapixel deal with an f/1.7 lens. It's got OIS. It's got a whole bunch of modes — including one for shooting underwater, using the Active Key and volume buttons instead of on-screen buttons, for obvious reasons.
It's basically still the best camera you can get in a phone. (And you can still launch it with two quick presses of the home button.)
So we're not going to spend a whole lot of time on it here. It's been covered. It's still excellent.
The bottom line
Should you buy it? Sure
We have absolutely no reason to not recommend the Galaxy S7 Active. (By the way it runs $26.50 a month for 30 months, or $33.13 a month for 24 months — that's $795 total, $100 more than the standard GS7) so long as you're fine being on AT&T. Or switching to AT&T. Point is, this phone's only available on AT&T.
And you have to be OK with all the AT&T crud that comes on the phone.
And you have to remember that this is an "active" phone. It's not, strictly speaking, a "rugged" phone. You'll still want to be a little careful with it. But it's still a lot of fun to use. It's as good and as easy as a Galaxy S7. Because it is a Galaxy S7. It's just got a bit of a case built in. You don't necessarily need to worry about it getting wet. (Of course you didn't have to worry about that with the regular GS7 either.) You can be reasonably sure that if you drop it, it'll probably still work. It might be a little worse for wear, but it'll still work.
Really, what we have here is a nice option for folks on AT&T. If that carrier's a non-starter for you, you'll get 90 percent of the same experience — save for the larger battery and a few software tweaks — with a Galaxy S7 and a sturdy case.
Video credit: Greg Riegler Photography
Additional footage by Jared DiPane, Michael Fisher and Phil Nickinson