It's easy to see the Samsung Galaxy S6 Active as a niche device for outdoorsy, Bear Grylls types. But we see it as an ideal complement to the Galaxy S6 – offering a few compromises but also a few key advantages over the best flagship you can buy today. We go hands-on to compare the two Galaxy handsets.
The Galaxy S6 Active is indeed a rugged phone – with a thick, rubber and plastic body that makes it at least as sturdy as a "regular" phone wearing something like an Otterbox. And unlike most smartphone cases you buy, the GS6 Active is also water and dust resistant. It's significantly more water-resistant than last year's Galaxy S5, with the Active offering IP68 certification – meaning it can soak indefinitely in 3 m (9.8 ft) of water.
The standard Galaxy S6 has no certified water or dust resistance, and, with its glass back, isn't nearly as likely to survive a drop or other rough use without taking some damage.
In return, the regular GS6 gives you a slim and sexy body, with glass back and aluminum edges. After using it for three months, we still can't get enough of wrapping our fingers around this beauty. And if you want to crank the sex appeal up to 11, the otherwise identical Galaxy S6 edge is even more attractive (with a dual-curved screen) for an extra US$100.
Once you get past the vastly different bodies, you'll see that the two have a lot in common. Same stunning 5.1-inch, Quad HD display – which is still our pick for the best smartphone display we've seen (just edging out the LG G4). The same 64-bit, octa-core Exynos processor lives inside, along with 3 GB of RAM – delivering incredibly snappy performance. And they both have the same camera, which takes outstanding shots and launches faster than any other phone camera we've seen (jumping from sleeping phone to snapped pic in under two seconds).
Both are also wireless charging enabled, as well as fast-charging enabled – which can get an almost-dead battery back to a respectable state faster than on non-fast-charging phones.
Perhaps the biggest advantage the Galaxy S6 Active has, though, is its battery life. The standard model has good uptimes, but the Active supplies the kind of insane battery life that many people wonder why they can't get out of their slim and sexy flagships (even though common sense dictates that you can't push light/thin boundaries and battery life boundaries at the same time).
In our battery benchmark, streaming video over Wi-Fi with brightness at 75 percent, the Galaxy S6 dropped 11 percent per hour. That isn't a bad result at all (it's 21 percent better than the iPhone 6 scored in the same test). But the Active only dropped 5 percent per hour – the best result from any smartphone we've reviewed.
There are many reasons to consider the Galaxy S6 Active, but battery life is probably at the top of that list. It sets the two phones up as perfect complements. People who lean towards beauty and elegance have the GS6, and those who wonder why smartphone-makers don't give battery life more attention have the answer to their prayers in the Active.
Another trade-off in making the Active's rugged body is its navigation buttons. The regular S6 has a fingerprint sensor/home button flanked by two capacitive touch keys (back and recent apps). But the Active cuts the fingerprint sensor and makes all three buttons (home, back and recent apps) physical, plastic ones. They have a firm, "chunky" feel to them that's satisfying to press, but they do lose the elegance of the GS6's setup.
Software is identical, apart from perhaps carrier add-ons, as well as an Activity Zone app that lives on the Active (it even has its own launch button on the side of the phone). Activity Zone houses quick shortcuts for things like a compass, barometer, weather, flashlight, a stopwatch and fitness tracking.
If you're into the burgeoning virtual reality movement, then keep in mind that the standard GS6 works with the Oculus-powered Gear VR, our pick for the best VR headset you can buy today, while the Active doesn't.
If the Galaxy S6 Active were available on all carriers, we might put it right next to the standard GS6 as one of the first phones shoppers should look at. The yin to the GS6's yang, the Lennon to its McCartney, the Shaq to its Kobe.
Unfortunately, the Active is an AT&T exclusive in the US, so unless you're already on the nation's second-biggest carrier (or feel like switching), then it isn't even an option. That's too bad, because the Active could be much more than a niche variant of a popular flagship. Its amazing battery life and rugged without looking like a tank build could make it a great alternative for customers all around the world, and on all carriers. Maybe next year.