With the same inner hardware and same 3GB of RAM, the S6 and S6 active run identically. Without hardware clues, it would be impossible to tell one from the other. The hardware does lend itself to one slight distinction however, the S6 active runs a bit cooler thanks to its plastic build.
This is not to suggest the S6 runs hot, but it certainly does get a bit warmer than the S6 active when stressed.
The S6 active is only available with 32GB of storage and has no microSD card slot. That would have been a killer addition, seeing as Samsung ditched it on the S6 as well. But at least the S6 comes with the option of 32, 64, or 128GB of storage.
Going back to the Active key, it’s by default set to launch Samsung’s Activity Zone, which is a hub for basic information like the weather and commonly used features like flashlight and stopwatch, as well as Samsung Milk Music, which is a gussied-up version of Slacker Radio. Activity Zone is great and proves useful. We especially like the compass, barometer, and flashlight settings — it can blink out Morse code! Milk Music isn’t so bad either, and its music stations dedicated to yoga, running, walking, weightlifting, and dancing make it worth at least trying.
The S6 active ships with Android version 5.0.2 Lollipop, as well as Samsung’s TouchWiz UI. While it remains one of the thicker Android skins, TouchWiz has a few features of note, including a split-screen multitasking mode. Of course, crapware is present, with both Samsung and AT&T contributing to the app bloat.
That leads us to what is perhaps the biggest drawback of the Samsung Galaxy S6 active. It’s an AT&T exclusive, leaving Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint customers out of luck unless they switch carriers. It also leaves us a bit worried about its OS support. Samsung has a mixed record of keeping Android up to date, and a carrier exclusive would likely be lower priority than handsets on multiple carriers and in more hands.
Camera performance matches the S6. Here’s what we wrote about that:
Even with its improved build, lively screen, and blazing performance, the best aspect of the Galaxy S6 is probably its main camera. It has a 16-megapixel sensor with optical image stabilization and an f/1.9 aperture. In practice, this is far and away the best camera Samsung has ever put on a phone, and immediately stands as one of the best smartphone shooters on the market today.
Another difference between the two S6s is in battery capacity. The S6 has a 2550mAh battery, while the S6 active has a 3500mAh battery. We complained that the S6 battery life was merely “average,” so this is a huge improvement. Alas, the S6 active battery is sealed in and not user-replaceable.
In terms of real-life usage, this is the type of phone you can charge every other day. Even with heavy use, it outlasted the workday. It lasted 9 hours and 25 minutes streaming Netflix over Wi-Fi continuously, with the display brightness set to max before stopping. Even then, it still had 10% battery left.
The S6 active also has Samsung’s power saving mode to extend battery life, and supports fast charging, which can bring a dead phone up to 50% battery in 40 minutes with the right charger, according to Samsung.