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Battle of the waterproof phones: Samsung Galaxy S4 Active vs. Sony Xperia Z

Finally, rugged phones that take a beating and look good doing it

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Galaxy S4 Active, Xperia Z hero (1024px)
Galaxy S4 Active, Xperia Z hero (1024px)

A waterproof smartphone is a nice idea, but they’ve always been kind of terrible. Casio has been making its line of Gz’One rugged smartphones for years, but they’ve always been a disappointment in one way or another, with slow processors, disappointing screens, and outdated software. Outside of the Japanese market, where every smartphone is waterproof, you had to make a choice as a consumer: buy a top of the line smartphone and deal with getting a clunky or cumbersome case (and the constant fear of dropping or soaking your phone), or buy a subpar smartphone that's ready for the elements.

But this summer, new phones from Samsung and Sony mean that you don’t have to make such a compromise. Sony's Xperia Z is finally making the long trek over from Europe, and will be available from T-Mobile starting on July 17th for $99 down. Likewise, Samsung’s Galaxy S4 Active — the waterproofed version of the immensely popular Galaxy S4 — is available now from AT&T for $199.99. Both phones offer big, high-definition displays, fast processors, good cameras, and perhaps most importantly, slim and lightweight designs that belie the fact that they are actually waterproof. Do these new devices portend a world where all of our smartphones are waterproof? And does having a waterproof phone really make that big of a difference in everyday use?


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Samsung GS4 Active

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Active


Samsung’s Galaxy S4 will likely be the most popular Android smartphone of the year, and for good reason. It’s got great performance, a great display, an excellent camera, and more software bells and whistles than you probably have time or desire to count. But AT&T’s exclusive S4 Active is arguably a more interesting device: it offers the same exact experience as the standard S4, but can take the same level of abuse as Sony’s Xperia Z.

there's really no reason not to get the S4 Active over the S4

The S4 Active even looks better than the standard edition, assuming you don’t get it in the not-quite-right shade of blue that my review unit came in (AT&T also offers a much nicer grey option). The S4’s two capacitive menu and back keys have been replaced with hard keys on the Active, and the back of the phone features rubberized endcaps with decorative rivets to denote a slightly more rugged appearance.

The S4 Active handled dunks and splashes with aplomb, performing just as well wet as it does dry. But the best thing is that nothing's different: despite its added abilities to withstand water, the S4 Active offered virtually the same experience as the standard S4, which is commendable to say the least.

The only notable difference between the devices is in the camera resolution — the S4 Active has an 8-megapixel shooter as opposed to the higher-res 13-megapixel camera on the S4 (the display on the S4 Active is an LCD instead of the AMOLED used on the S4, but I couldn't find any difference between the two panels in use). But in practice, the pictures it shoots are just as good as the regular model, and the camera app includes all of Samsung’s weird shooting modes. Same can be said for rest of the S4 Active’s software: it’s not missing anything you’d find on the standard model. In fact, if you are an AT&T customer, I’m hard-pressed to find a reason to choose the standard S4 over the S4 Active.

Sony Xperia Z

The Sony Xperia Z

T-Mobile’s version of the Xperia Z is virtually identical to the global edition we initially saw at CES in January and reviewed shortly after, save for the fact that it has support for T-Mobile’s nascent LTE network and comes with a smattering of T-Mobile apps preinstalled. That means that all of the positive features have carried over — the handsome-if-ergonomically-challenged design, impressive battery saving features, and of course, water- and dust-proof construction.

Unfortunately, it also comes with all of the Z’s negative qualities, such as its dated software, poor viewing angles, and not quite flawless performance. Still, we called the Xperia Z the best phone Sony has ever made back in March, and that holds true today. And the fact that it’s the only waterproof smartphone in T-Mobile’s lineup, the Z might still be compelling option next to better phones such as the HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4, and iPhone 5, even though it is very late to the game.

Don't use it underwater, But don't be afraid to use it anywhere

Sony’s claims of waterproofing — backed up by IP55 and IP57 ratings, industry standards to let you know that a device is water- and dust-proof — certainly held true in my tests. I was able to dunk the phone in the pool (causing more than a few palpitations in my friends that were with me), pull it out, and immediately start using it as if nothing happened. Shooting video underwater also worked without an issue, provided that I started recording before the phone was submerged. As David learned in his review of Sony’s also-waterproof Xperia Tablet Z, these devices aren’t really usable underwater, because the screen sees water droplets as fingertips and can start acting haywire. It became a briefly amusing game to see if I could make the screen do what I wanted simply by aiming water droplets at it.

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The future is waterproof

The phone of the future is waterproof

So what does it take to make a waterproof smartphone in 2013? Both the Xperia Z and the Galaxy S4 Active are as thin as any other modern smartphone — waterproof phones used to require chunky, heavy housing, but that's clearly not the case anymore. Still, though, there are a few concessions to keep out the liquids: all of the ports (headphones and Micro USB) on the Xperia Z are protected by fiddly flap doors, while the S4 Active gets away with just a flap door on the charging port, leaving the headphone jack easily accessible. Having to fiddle with a flap every time you need to charge your phone is annoying. It could be easily resolved by integrating wireless charging into the device, but neither the Z or the S4 Active have wireless charging — hopefully that’s something we’ll see in future revisions.

Compromises required to make phones waterproof are going away

Additionally, these phones aren’t designed to go deep underwater or withstand freezing temperatures and extreme force as older rugged devices have been able to. They're not totally rugged and durable — just much more so than most high-end phones.

The point, however, is that it doesn’t seem to take much to make a phone waterproof these days. Seal up the ports, microphone, and speakers; add a gasket to the battery door if you have one; and perhaps coat the internals with a waterproof nanocoating, and you’re done. The days of needing a clunky rugged smartphone to protect against the elements may be behind us, and now normal people don’t have to baby their phones as much as we’re used to.

The regular S4, with one nice add-on

The takeaway from these two phones is simple: I was able to have a waterproof phone without feeling like I was missing out on a high-end smartphone experience. I can take it to the pool or the beach, spill beer on it, and not have a heart attack when my daughter grabs it out of my hands and drops it in a puddle.

And I didn’t have to rely on a cumbersome and ugly case to have that kind of worry-free security. Between the two, I’d choose the S4 Active, since it offers a better camera, faster processor, and a more comfortable shape. Unfortunately, if you aren’t a T-Mobile or AT&T customer, you don’t really have a great option for a waterproof smartphone that can run with the best of them right now, but that will likely change in the future.

Given that Sony and Samsung have been able to make waterproof smartphones without giving up all of the other features that people are looking for, I’d be surprised if we didn’t see more waterproof options on the market next year. Until then, I’ll be on the beach sipping a Mai Tai and Instagramming pictures of my feet underwater.

A decent phone, but the only waterproof game in the T-Mobile town

The takeaway from these two phones is simple: I was able to have a waterproof phone without feeling like I was missing out on a high-end smartphone experience. I can take it to the pool or the beach, spill beer on it, and not have a heart attack when my daughter grabs it out of my hands and drops it in a puddle.

And I didn’t have to rely on a cumbersome and ugly case to have that kind of worry-free security. Between the two, I’d choose the S4 Active, since it offers a better camera, faster processor, and a more comfortable shape. Unfortunately, if you aren’t a T-Mobile or AT&T customer, you don’t really have a great option for a waterproof smartphone that can run with the best of them right now, but that will likely change in the future.

Given that Sony and Samsung have been able to make waterproof smartphones without giving up all of the other features that people are looking for, I’d be surprised if we didn’t see more waterproof options on the market next year. Until then, I’ll be on the beach sipping a Mai Tai and Instagramming pictures of my feet underwater.

Today’s Storystream

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