Sink or swim? Samsung’s ‘whatever-proof’ S4 Active hides behind a watery warranty

att will replace water damaged galaxy s4 active samsung in

If you’ve seen so much as a single ad or video of Samsung’s new Galaxy S4 Active, you’d know one thing right off the bat: It’s meant to survive anything life throws at it – water, dust, mud, flour, more water, Fruit Loops, whatever. It’s Whatever-Proof; it’s ‘Summer-proof; and if you’ve seen Samsung show it off, you’d think it was designed exclusively for underwater photography. It’s even called the ‘Active,’ which implies that it is meant for just about anything (whatever), and those fancy rivets on the back of it scream “I’m a durable phone.” The problem is, it’s really not. 

If you drop your S4 Active from six feet onto concrete, there’s a good chance it will break – just like any other smartphone. And if you really make use of it’s Aqua Mode and get into underwater photography, at some point, the Active’s water-resistance is going to fail you. We love the GS4 Active and gave it high marks for being priced the same as a regular S4 but having some clear (limited) protection benefits. So why, then, are Samsung, AT&T, and others advertising and marketing it as the underwater rugged master of Android phones? 

The warranty doesn’t cover water damage

The Galaxy S4 Active has an IP67 rating. This rating means it is dustproof and can survive a 1-meter submersion into water for up to 30 minutes. It may very well last longer, but this is what it’s rated to do. This should simply give a “peace-of-mind” feeling to buyers that their phone won’t die if it starts raining, but Samsung and AT&T have marketed the phone as an aquatic companion. It’s Aqua-mode is advertised as a way to take pictures and video underwater. In other words, Samsung wants you to use this smartphone in the water, which is weird, considering you can’t even use the touchscreen well underwater. But it’s also completely nuts. You don’t want to actively put the Active underwater because it’s warranty doesn’t cover water damage.

You should never use the Aqua Mode on the Galaxy S4 Active. If it breaks, you’re on the hook.

This is a total red flag. Samsung will not honor the warranty on your device if it’s damaged from underwater use, something that Samsung and AT&T are encouraging you to do in multiple ads and demonstrations. In the event that your device has a crack in the case, a faulty rubber seal for the battery compartment, or in any way allows water into the compartment, you’re toast. There’s no real way to know if your device will survive until you dunk it, and Samsung is not legally assuring you in any way. You should never use the Aqua Mode on the Galaxy S4 Active. If it breaks, you’re on the hook.

AT&T manager claims Active may have water issues

On July 28, a man claiming to be a manager for an AT&T store posted an alert to Reddit, urging users to be wary of the possibility of a seal failure on the Galaxy S4 Active. If the seal around the replaceable battery compartment fails, the device will get waterlogged, shut down, and never work again. In the manager’s experience, there appears to be a sort of “Achilles heel” within the smartphone. Even if you have been properly trained to seal the battery compartment and use the rubber USB cover, the rubber seal around the Micro USB port can still leak, letting water get inside your smartphone’s battery compartment. While testing underwater, his device broke, and he noted several recent customers who had similar issues.

We spoke with the manager, who discussed it anonymously for fear of losing his job. He told us that AT&T’s own internal communication platform had red flags about the Galaxy S4 Active, noting that employees must be explicit about properly sealing the case for water resistance, and that they must not remove the sticker on the S4 Active that explains to customers how to properly seal it. There is clear concern revolving around the most-prized feature of the Galaxy S4 Active.

We reached out to Samsung and AT&T, who told us that “The Galaxy S 4 Active has been designed and certified to meet IP67 standards,” and that “as part of our standard customer care policy, Samsung and AT&T actively monitor for quality and will investigate questions of specific individual devices if they arise.”

The store manager also told us that they don’t actually carry cases in his store for the S4 Active unlike most of their devices, and most customers don’t want to buy cases for their Galaxy S4 Actives either. This is because they think the S4 Active is a rugged device, when in reality it’s only water and dust resistant. Without a case, your Galaxy S4 Active is just as susceptible to drops as your Galaxy S4. In fact, dropping your Galaxy S4 Active into a pool of water can break the seal, letting water get into the battery compartment and causing the device to fail. (Read our guide to the Best Galaxy S4 Active Cases.)

Sony is in hot water, too

Sink or swim Sony Xperia Z water resistanceWe’re picking on Samsung, but Sony is in the same boat. It’s new Xperia Z is also marketed as a water-resistant device, but has a warranty that does not cover water damage. And the Xperia Z has even more points of failure. It has so many potential leak spots, that when you pull them out, the thing looks like a scared R2D2.

The Sony Xperia Z has an IP57 rated device, meaning it is rated just as well as the S4 Active for being submersed in water, but it is not completely dust resistant. It can handle some dust, but it can’t be dunked in flour. But Sony doesn’t seem to advertise its phone as Whatever-Proof. It’s only claiming water resistance. Sony didn’t include a dedicated underwater photography mode, but it has promoted underwater capabilities.

Still, for a phone that’s waterproof it’s ironic that Sony also will not cover water damage due to a fault in the seals or valves that help keep the device water-resistant. While Sony is definitely trying to be more realistic than Samsung, it still has faults.

Galaxy S4 Ac…cident-resistant is a better name

The Galaxy S4 Active is a great phone. We found it as good as a standard Galaxy S4, but rated it higher due to its resistance to water and dust combined with its price, which isn’t any higher than the regular S4. We used it underwater and did not have the issues that the AT&T manager noted, but we were testing a review unit that we did not have to pay for ourselves.

The problem is that Samsung and AT&T are marketing risky behavior and a false sense of protection. The GS4 Active may be called ‘Whatever-Proof’ and ‘Summer-Proof,’ but it is only built for a tame person. It can’t survive a fall any better than most phones; it shouldn’t be used underwater; and we don’t recommend burying it in the sand.

Take what you will of the Galaxy S4 Active, Xperia Z, or any other device out there that notes being water-resistant, dust-resistant, or even rugged – just remember that there are actual specifications that back up the claims manufacturers make. If the claims don’t match the specs, that’s a problem. Buy the GS4 Active if you’re on AT&T, but get a case for it and don’t use the Aqua Mode.

Stay tuned: Tomorrow we go into what it takes to make a rugged phone

Co-written and co-reported by DT Mobile writer Joshua Sherman.