I am sure most of us saw or owned a phone before the smartphone era when the devices were thicker and a lot less compact, suitable mainly for calling and rarely for occasional basic gaming, but tough enough to handle a few drops to the ground.
Then came the touchscreen phones (which were still tough enough) and later the smartphones took over the world, now with larger screens, smaller width, higher specs and, as expected, a higher price tag. This made choosing the best rugged phone a lot harder, since the smartphones came with a major disadvantage: if before, dropping your phone wasn’t the cause of great stress, smartphones are not as drop resistant as their predecessors.
UPDATE: The AGM Glory Pro 5G has been added to the best rugged smartphones list.
Some screens won’t survive from falls even below 3 feet and there are stories on the web that some phones screens shattered simply by being carried inside the pocket (some previous models from Apple). So, for the people that don’t want to treat their cell phones like jewelry and don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a device that can shatter at any time, I have compiled a list of the best rugged smartphones that, although not indestructible (no phone can ever claim that), are as close as one can get to the perfect drop proof, shockproof and waterproof smartphone.
But, before that, you need to understand that the rugged smartphones are not really a homogeneous group and that, in reality, they are divided in a manner to be suitable for two main audiences: the ones that work in an industrial environment or in constructions and need a fully rugged, durable and no-compromises phone (where the internal specs are not a high priority) and the ones that need a mid-to-high-end smartphone which will survive the occasional fall (even face first) and that can handle splashes or even full submerges underwater (usually, active people who regularly practice different types of outdoor sports).
1. CAT S62 PRO
The Cat S62 Pro continues the legacy left by the S61 and the S60, both very popular rugged smartphones, suitable for construction workers, being able to withstand even the harshest environments, while maintaining the elegant look of modern smartphones. One of the main selling points of the series was the thermal imaging camera and, while, the CAT S61 wasn’t a radical change from its predecessor, the CAT S62 Pro has made some significant improvements in this department.
Indeed, the thermal camera has a far better sensor (FLIR Lepton 3.5 instead of the Lepton 2.5 of its predecessor), there are four more thermal pixels (therefore a sharper image) and there is now a new MyFLIR PRO app with additional features. But, while it has gained on one end, it has lost on another since the manufacturer decided to remove the indoor air quality sensor, as well as the laser-assisted distance measurement. The internal hardware has also been improved (although nothing too radical) and there is now a better camera – this is important considering that unlike the Panasonic Thoughpad series which focuses exclusively towards the industrial aspect, the CAT smartphones have always also catered to the consumer market.
The Cat S62 Pro doesn’t look as refined as some flagship smartphones, but it still went quite far away from that rugged look (that some Chinese brands are still sporting, such as Blackview), so expect a full glass front, a metallic frame and a plastic rear panel. The case has maintained those rounded corners from the previous models (minus the top CAT logo) and it’s also fairly larger than its predecessor, measuring 6.24 x 3.02 x 0.47 inches – what’s interesting is that it’s also lighter, weighing 8.75 ounces.
The back of the phone is covered by a rubber finish which, similarly to its predecessor can’t be removed to give you access to the battery and, to access the microSD and SIM card slots, you need to remove the tray located on the left side of the device. The buttons from the edges are big, firm and easy to press (there is also Programmable key that, when pressed, can be configured to send your location to a list of predefined contacts and, on the bottom, there’s a USB port, while on the top, there’s the audio jack, both protected by small covers).
The Cat S62 Pro is built to be able to withstand a lot of punishment. The manufacturer says that the device is drop proof, so it can endure drops from 6 feet onto concrete thanks to its reinforced die cast frame (it was dropped on every side and corner) and the smartphone is also MIL Spec 810H rated, which means that the CAT S62 Pro was tested against drops, vibration, wind, rain, sand, salt mist, extreme temperature (between -13 and 131 degrees F), high altitude, as well as humidity and it survived. Also, on the front, the edge slightly protrudes creating a bit of a lip around the display, so, along with the Corning Gorilla Glass 6 protection, it should ensure that the screen won’t shatter if dropped face-first.
The Cat S62 Pro is also IP68 and IP69 rated, which suggests that it could be submerged under water down to 10 feet for 60 minutes, but the tests show that the device will only survive for 35 minutes and only down to 5 feet. One thing that’s missing is the physical buttons, which, from my point of view are still very much a necessity in a harsh environment, since you won’t always be able to use the screen. Yes, there is a Glove mode, but nothing beats the good ol’ physical buttons.
Besides the fact that it is a tough smartphone, the appeal of the S62 Pro remains the built-in thermal imaging camera and, considering that the rugged phone has an improved sensor, the thermal camera will capture better images. To be more specific, the Lepton 3.5 sensor has four times the thermal pixels than its predecessor (160x120p) and the output is at 1440 x 1080 pixels. Additionally, the camera can now detect heat sources from up to 10 feet away and the temperature range is between -4 and 752 degrees F (the same as its predecessor). The multiple modes (filters) are still there and they can measure the temperature of multiple spots, retroactively pinpoint a temperature in the image and they can even ‘see’ in environments where there is lots of smoke.
We already talked a bit about the front of the phone, but you need to know that the S62 Pro features a 5.7-inch IPS LCD capacitive touchscreen display, with a resolution of 2160 x 1080 pixels, a pixel density of 424ppi and 18:9 aspect ratio (it finally jumped on the wide screen bandwagon). The resolution is more than enough for a screen of this size and the viewing angles are solid. Also, the black levels aren’t really that deep (no way close to the AMOLEDs), but the images are equally sharp as on its predecessor (and that’s a good thing since it was already a decent display).
On the inside, the S62 Pro comes equipped with an octa-core Qualcomm SDM660 Snapdragon 660 chipset (quad-core 2.2GHz Kyro 260 Gold CPU and quad-core 1.8GHz Kyro 260 Silver) which is an improvement over the Snapdragon 630 chip of the CAT S61, but still not the most inspired decision since this chip is not that energy efficient and doesn’t really provide that much power over its predecessor (at least a SD712 would have been better). There are also 6 GB of RAM (two more GB from the previous generation), an Adreno 512 GPU (instead of the Adreno 508 of the S61) and 128GB of storage memory (don’t forget that you can also add up to 256GB using the microSD slot). The S62 Pro runs on Android 10 and there is a planned upgrade to the Android 11 (a firmware upgrade on a rugged smartphone? that’s new). The software is almost stock version that will definitely appease most users as it doesn’t annoy with additional useless apps (that sometimes are uninstallable).
On the rear side of the phone, there’s a 16-megapixel camera with dual-LED dual-tone flash and the FLIR thermal camera (which we already talked about). On the front, you can find the same 12-megapixel secondary camera. The problem with the main camera is that even if it shoots decent photos most of the time, it just isn’t on par with other similarly priced phone cameras: it shoots noisy photos if the room isn’t bright enough and in low-light or during the night, the performance doesn’t get any better (something which, unfortunately, has become to be expected from a rugged phone).
Furthermore, the Cat S62 Pro is equipped with a non-removable 4,000mAh battery (no wireless charging available) and this is another unfortunate decision that the manufacturer has made since the CAT S61 has a 4,500mAh battery. Taking into consideration that the SoC on the S62 PRO is not that power efficient, expect about one day and a half with some light and medium use; to get from 0 to 100 % using the provided charger, it will take about 2 hours.
Verdict: The S62 Pro is equipped a lot better than most other smartphones in this list, it has lots of features and it also looks a lot better than some industrial-focused handsets (still not near the flagships, but still modern enough for a rugged phone). In terms of ruggedness, the S62 Pro excels in every aspect, it is waterproof, dustproof and can handle lots of drops and, additionally, you also get the awesome thermal imaging camera (which hgas now gotten even better). This means that it takes the first place in our list.
2. Sonim XP8 Rugged Smartphone
This year we seem to get spoiled by the manufacturers of rugged mobile phones, so, besides the new line of CAT rugged smartphones (which includes the S41 and the S61), we now get the Sonim XP8, the successor to the widely popular Sonim XP7 which was released more than 4 years ago (this gap is an interesting, not-really-consumer-friendly approach from the California-based company) and it seems that the new device has retained pretty much everything that made its predecessor great, but it has also enhanced some of its core elements to make it more suitable for 2019.
The Sonim XP8 is not aiming at the general users, but at a very specific niche audience that mainly includes the construction workers, the electricians, the people that work at chemical plants and especially it is aimed at those that are the first responders while working in hazardous and emergency-type conditions – this is enhanced by the FirstNet Ready certification (FirstNest gives the first responders access to a congestion-free broadband LTE network where the data can be quickly send a received, therefore ensuring that more lives can be saved and it ensures an overall better public safety). Furthermore, Sonim has also kept the Push-To-Talk function (the AT&T proprietary EPTT), which can prove to be a reliable tool in case of emergency or when the user needs a walkie-talkie-type of service (such as while hiking).
I couldn’t really call the Sonim XP7 an attractive phone, but it was a designed in a way to ensure that the device will be waterproof, it will survive falling on all kind of surfaces and that it can be used in dangerous environments. The Sonim XP8 follows on the same footsteps, so it’s quite similar design-wise because it kept the top protrusion for the antenna, but it has lost the octagonal shape and gained a more squarish look with soft rounded corners (the smartphone is also a bit thinner than the XP7, measuring 5.98 x 3.12 x 0.7 inches and it has also gained some weight – it now weighs 11.81 ounces).
Other elements that sets this device further apart from the regular Android or Apple handsets are the ‘analogue’ front-facing buttons (Back, Home and Recent), the aforementioned PTT button, the top Sonim XPand Connector (very useful addition which allows the user to connect various modules to the phone and expand its capabilities: the available modules include the Laser Barcode Scanner or the Channel Select module), the Sonim SecureAudio Connector (for any external speakers) and the red Alarm key (when pressed, it automatically sends the GPS location and the user should immediately be contacted by the emergency centre). Some other features that were the norm for a long time and are now turning to be something quite exotic are the removable battery and the microSD card, but Sonim is also guilty of removing the 3.5mm headphone jack (it did at least go for the USB type-C connector for charging the battery).
On the front side, Sonim decided to put a 5-inch ISP LCD display which has a 16:9 aspect ratio, 441 ppi pixel density and a resolution of 1080 x 1920 pixels. Although the display can’t compare with the flagship models (despite having a similar price tag), it is still a massive improvement over the 4-inch display of the Sonim XP7. Furthermore, for basic media consumption, the display will do just fine, but there is a noticeable red tint and the colours don’t pop out as much as on an AMOLED display. Covering the screen and protecting the entire front side (expect for the buttons), there’s the Corning Gorilla Glass 3 which will do a good job protecting against scratches and, considering that the display may be vulnerable if the users drops the phone face-first, Sonim decided to surround the screen with a raised, protective lip and the display itself seems to be puncture-resistant (as marketed by the manufacturer). Also on the front area, there are two 100 dB+ speakers (with noise cancellation) which, as expected, are very loud and surprisingly clear.
Note: You can still operate the smartphone even if you have wet fingers or gloves.
The Sonim XP7 is able to withstand a lot of abuse and the XP8 doesn’t lower the bar. The handset is IP68, IP69 and IP69K rated, so it can be submerged underwater up to 6.5 feet for as long as 30 minutes (and it will withstand direct water sprays); it can also survive corrosive chemicals and oils, extreme pressure and can withstand a lot of falls before taking actual damage (it’s Military 810G and Non-Incendive Class I, II & III rated). So, similarly to its predecessor, the phone is not indestructible but it is one tough piece of work (probably one of the most durable smartphone available right next to the Panasonic rugged handsets).
Inside the case, the Sonim XP8 is equipped with a Qualcomm SDM630 Snapdragon 630 SoC (octa-core Cortex-A53 clocked at 2.2 GHz), 4 GB of RAM, an Adreno 508 GPU and 64 GB of storage memory (you can add up to 128 GB using the microSD card slot). As you can see, Sonim has made significant progress in the hardware performance department as well (the XP7 had 1GB of RAM, an Adreno 305 GPU and a Snapdragon 400 chip), so the phone will feel more responsive, it will allow some light gaming and the multitasking will be handled with ease. It will also allow for a decent experience with the Android 7.0 Nougat (yes, Sonim decided to no implement the latest Android Oreo and I wouldn’t put my hopes up on seeing any future updates – the rugged smartphones will usually be stuck with the Android version with which they were released and this is not necessarily a bad thing for the Sonim XP8 because a total upgrade may pose some risks in terms of stability and the targeted audience may not appreciate any radical changes).
Moving on to the cameras, we can see that the Sonim XP8 sports a 12-megapixel rear camera (uses the PDAF technology and it can film 1080p videos at 30 fps) and a 8-megapixel front camera suitable for selfies. Just like almost all other rugged smartphones, the rear camera performs decent at best in good light but under-performs in low-light, but, let’s be honest, you won’t use the Sonim XP8 as your main shooter anyway. Now let’s have a look at the battery. The XP7 had a quite impressive 4800mAh battery that could deliver up to 48 hours of normal usage and the Sonim XP8 aims to top that with its equally impressive 4900 mAh removable battery which, similarly to its predecessor, it will take about two full days of medium to high use until you’ll need to recharge the battery (the XP8 features the Fast battery charging tech Quick Charge 4.0).
One last appealing ‘feature’ is the three year warranty. Just like the XP7, the Sonim XP8 will be replaced if it breaks, without questions asked.
Verdict: The Sonim XP8 does feel like it is indestructible and, even if it made significant improvements in both looks and performance, it still isn’t entirely suitable for the wider audience (and I’m not sure that it tries to). That being said, the Sonim XP8 is definitely one of the most rugged smartphones available in 2022 and its mid-range performance will be enough for most of its users, while it will also be a great addition to not only workers in tough environments, but for people that practice outdoor sports as well.
3. AGM Glory Pro 5G Rugged Smartphone
AGM has been building rugged smartphones for a bit over half a decade and what stood out the most for these devices was the attempt to retain a design that’s as close as possible to the regular smartphones. Things changed over the last couple of years and now CAT, Samsung and Kyocera are building decently looking smartphones, while also keeping that necessary ruggedness intact. In a strange turn of events, AGM completely deviated from its initial philosophy and the latest AGM Glory Pro is not a device that you’re going to mistake for a mainstream flagship smartphone, despite carrying a hefty price tag. There are no annoying logos on the front (as Blackview did a few generations ago), so we do get a fairly clean look, with only the display that’s surrounded by a surprisingly thin bezel, for a rugged smartphone.
The solid rubber frame that goes around the smartphone is also not that intrusive, having only a slight deviation at the corners to ensure that the smartphone will survive if dropped at that angle (as it usually happens). If you turn the AGM Glory Pro on the other side, it’s a completely different story, because we get a large circular area where the manufacturer positioned the cameras (which kind of looks like the design of the Leica phone) and in the middle, there is a protrusion to embed a large speaker. And this has been one of the main selling points because it can reach up to 110dB which is very loud, but, in my tests it didn’t offer a clear sound (as I would have liked). Still, it is undoubtedly a very loud speaker, if only it would have been positioned a bit differently (like on the front..). From the speaker, there is a piece of plastic that goes to the top of the rugged smartphone and it ends with two powerful lights.
Additionally, on the rear panel, there are various protective areas, as well as a fingerprint reader that is very inaccurate if you move the finger at a slight angle and then there’s wireless charging. I think this is an important element that AGM has added because I have rarely seen it on other rugged smartphone and it works quite well, reaching up to 15W (as seen on my test with the Vebach 30W wireless charger).
On the frame of the AGM Glory Pro (which apparently is made of 10% weaved-in fiberglass), there is a multi-function red button that does not support SOS functions, but it does have the Push-to-Talk option built-in for simulating walkie-talkie communication.
There’s also the usual volume rocker, the Power button and the not so usual now 3.5mm jack along with an USB-C charging port (the last two being covered). There is also a microSD card slot that supports up to 512GB. In terms of ruggedness, the AGM Glory Pro does check most boxes. There is the IP68 and IP69K rating which means that besides the complete protection from dust, the smartphone is also pretty much waterproof. And yes, you can put it underwater down to 5 feet for 30 minutes. Additionally, there’s the MIL-STD-810H certification and the tests that were revealed by AGM are the protection against drops on concrete, high temperature spray-downs and the ability to remain operational when the temperature goes as low as -4 degrees F to 60 degrees F. There is more because thanks to what AGM calls the Arctic Battery, the rugged phone can keep going at -40 degrees F for an hour.
I didn’t have the means to test it at that temperature, but I did put the smartphone in the freezer at -10 degrees F and the battery went from 94% to 90% over the span of ten hours. Besides these protective features, there is also the lip that surrounds the display and, while it works, I would have liked it to be higher in order to be even more effective. And I don’t know why there is no Gorilla Glass protection on a rugged smartphone that costs quite a bit of money. That’s redeemed by the use of a thermal camera. Indeed, there are four cameras on the back of the rugged smartphone, one is the 48-megapixel main shooter which works well along with the 2-megapixel macro camera.
Then there’s the 20-megapixel night vision camera that uses 2 infrared LEDs and the last is the thermal camera which works similarly to what we’ve seen on the CAT S62 Pro. Despite having a better resolution, it’s not that great with the image processing, but still, it shows the temperature, it can see probably more than 20 feet ahead, so it does work as intended. It’s also quite fast and doesn’t lag as much as I have seen on other smartphones. That’s mostly due to the internal hardware.
Don’t expect it to be flagship-level, because it is actually built as a veritable mid-range. There’s a Qualcomm Snapdragon 480 5G SoC, an Adreno 619 GPU, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of flash storage. I ran some benchmarks in the full review and the performance is somewhere in the lower-end mid-range realm, but I have also ran some actual games which showed a different story. Besides some occasional dropped frames, everything was smooth and stable, even the more demanding titles. The display is 1080p (2340 x 1080 pixels to be exact) and it’s a large 6.53-inch LTPS TFT panel which gets quite bright, reaching up to 860 nits. So it’s going to be fine outdoors, in the sun. The AGM Glory Pro is equipped with a 6,200mAh non-removable battery which delivered almost 18 hours of SOT with the brightness set to 50%, so it’s going to easily go past two days on medium use.
The rugged smartphone does come with Android 11 which is very stock-like and, unfortunately, the users will be stuck with this version for the entire time since AGM does not upgrade their rugged smartphones to a newer Android version. Also, be aware that the warranty is limited to 1 year and you should always check the type of support you will receive in your area.
Verdict: The AGM Glory Pro 5G is definitely a better smartphone than its predecessors in terms of ruggedness and overall performance. Sure enough, it is a mid-range smartphone on the inside, but the exterior is what will make the difference when you’re working in an industrial environment. AGM has added as many elements that it could in order to persuade users away from other brands, so we also get a thermal camera, the loud speaker, the black and white night vision, the wireless charging and the powerful dual-LED flash light. If it wasn’t for the software and hardware support, this would have been the perfect rugged smartphone, but it’s still fairly attractive in its current form as well.
4. CAT S48C Rugged Smartphone
Although not really a new device anymore, the CAT S48C is the latest addition to the series of rugged smartphones from Bullitt (with the license from CATerpillar to use their name) and it’s also the first device from the manufacturer to become available in the US stores due to the partnership with Verizon and Sprint. This is not the only mid-range rugged smartphone that the manufacturer has made available, since the CAT S41 remains very relevant even in 2022 and truth be told, besides some slight improvements hardware-wise, the S48C and the S41 aren’t such different devices. Both the aforementioned smartphones seem to favor a ‘return to basics’ approach, where you get a good enough display and a decent software experience, as well as a tough exterior, so, when put next to the flagship CAT S61, there is no thermal imaging or an air quality monitoring, but every other rugged element is definitely there.
From the design point of view, the CAT S48C does not bring anything revolutionary to the table, the smartphone retaining a similar look to the other CAT handsets, featuring a thick rubberized case (retaining the same octagonal shape), covered by a black finish and with narrow longitudinal canals on the rear and the lateral sides which will offer a better grip. Unlike many other rugged smartphones directed towards constructions or industrial workers, the front and the rear of the smartphone are surprisingly clean, lacking those unnecessary screws or additional metal plates that won’t add much in terms of protection, but the sides are a lot more busy due to some white plastic strips and the buttons. The front side of the CAT S48C maintains a minimalist tone until it gets interrupted by the three physical buttons, Back, Home and Recent Apps which are very useful in an oily environments.
Furthermore, on the top side, just like the CAT S41, the CAT S48C has a 3.5mm headphone jack and a microphone, while on the left side, there’s a Power button and a gold Programmable key (can be configured to launch the camera, the torch or for enabling the Push-to-Talk function). On the right side, you can find two buttons dedicated to the Volume control (when pressed along with the power key simultaneously, it will take a screenshot and, when the camera app is on, press either volume up or down to take a photo), as well as two thick covers for the SIM tray and the SD card – on the bottom, there’s a single loudspeaker and the USB port covered by a protective layer of plastic (the manufacturer finally decided to implement the better type-C standard). As can be expected from a rugged smartphones, the CAT S48C is IP68 certified, which means that it is dust-proof and you can submerge the rugged smart phone underwater down to 5 feet for about 30 minutes (the protective covers are there for a reason, so make sure to seal them tight after you access the slots to ensure that the device will remain resistant to water and dust).
But that’s not all, because, similarly to the Panasonic Toughpad FZ-E1, the CAT S48C carries the Military Standard 810G (MIL-STD-810G), which ensures that the smartphones will survive drops onto concrete from up to 6 feet, even if the phone will fall face-first, due to the protruded outer lip all around the front side that should ensure that the screen survives unscathed – I would still be very careful not to hit the screen on sharp objects since in that case, it will shatter. The rugged smartphone can also handle thermal shocks and salt mist spray, as well as vibration and pressure (which does make it a reliable companion in an industrial environment). There are some additional features which add both to the ruggedness and to the comfortability factor: the case has a really good grip and it doesn’t feel like it will slip out of your hand at any time (it measures 5.9 x 3.0 x 0.5 inches, so it’s pretty much identical to the CAT S41 – it also weighs 9.1 ounces).
The CAT S48C has implemented the wet finger/glove-on technology, which, along with the physical buttons, ensures that the phone is operable no matter the conditions. The CAT S41 was lacking the fingerprint sensor and it seems like the CAT S48C is also deprived of this now banal feature (and the CAT S48C is not a cheap device by any means). Besides the size, the display is another element that is shared with the CAT S41, so, we’re dealing with a 5 inch TFT display with a resolution of 1080 x 1920 pixels, the pixel density is (approximately) 441 ppi, it has a 16:9 aspect ratio and the screen is protected by the Corning Gorilla Glass 5, which should provide a reliable protection against scratches (but nothing more). The display is quite colorful, with balanced black and white levels, but, while it is very bright, it is also very reflective (so, in certain conditions, it may be hard to see what’s going on on the screen).
Inside the case, the CAT S48C is very different from the S41, being equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 (quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 CPU clocked at 2.2GHz and quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 CPU clocked at 1.8GHz), an Adreno 508 GPU, 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage memory (which is the only available option, but you do get the possibility to add up to 256GB using the microSD card slot). The Snapdragon 630 is a decent mid-range chip which means that the phone will handle multitasking well (the 4GB of RAM will have a say into this matter), the apps do open immediately and the multimedia experience is satisfactory, but it will perform as a mid-ranger when it comes to gaming (which means that you should have no problem playing most of the available mobile games). Furthermore, the CAT S48C interface is built on top of the Android 8.1 (Oreo) and it is upgradeable to the version 9.0 – unfortunately, not that many manufacturers bother keeping their rugged smartphones up to date. The software experience should have been pretty similar to other CAT phones, but it’s not: while the CAT S41 has a clean interface, with little to no bloatware, the CAT S48C is filled with carrier-specific apps and no, you can’t uninstall them, these applications can only be disabled.
The rear camera is the same as on the CAT S41, so it’s a 13-megapixel rear camera with LED flash, phase detection autofocus and HDR mode, but on the front, the camera has suffered a downgrade to a 5-megapixel sensor, but it’s still plenty suitable for selfies (both of these cameras can shoot photos underwater). The rear camera does a better job than last year’s S60 camera, so the photos are more colorful and will do a decent job in good lighting, but in low light conditions, the photos will have a high amount of noise and blur. So, the cameras are still the Achilles heel for any CAT phone and their performance is not really on par with what other devices from the same price range can offer. Another area where the CAT S48C is inferior to the S41 is the battery which, instead of the expected 5000 mAh, it’s just a 4000mAh battery (non-removable Li-Ion) that has become a new standard with the flagship, non-rugged smartphones on the market. Still, the S48C can last up to 14 hours of continuous video streaming; as expected, there is no Qi wireless charging support.
Verdict: Once again, Caterpillar has managed to create a reliable rugged smartphone, suitable for both an industrial environment and for active people that don’t want to worry whether their smartphone will survive their outdoors adventures. By stripping away the thermal camera, the manufacturer wanted to widen up the audience for both the CAT S41 and the CAT S31 and the great battery life and the improved ruggedness will likely appeal to the large majority of people, but I feel that the uniqueness factor has been lost and, similarly to the ‘normal’ smartphones, it is of paramount importance to stand out from the crowd in any way possible.
5. Panasonic Toughbook FZ-T1 Rugged Smartphone
The Panasonic Toughbook FZ-T1 is part of the latest fully-rugged handheld series from Panasonic and I know that when thinking about the toughest phones, most people will point to the Samsung Active series (or some other Chinese brands), but Toughbook devices are simply on another level in terms of ruggedness. I found it a bit amusing when Panasonic was referring to its 5-inch handsets as tablets that can make phone calls (which is not really wrong) and the Toughbook FZ-T1 is now a handheld and the Wi-Fi/4G version has all the functions of a normal smartphone. The way it is built and the additional features it has, clearly sets it apart even from the rest of the rugged smartphones and the closest device that I could find is the Cat S61 (due to its thermal imaging camera).
I held myself back for a while to include this product for more than a couple of reasons: it is unfortunately not suitable for the usual consumer and it’s specifically built for industry workers (mostly due to the integrated barcode scanner). That’s right, the Toughpad FZ-T1 features a thick case (which measures 3.0 x 6.1 x 0.7 inches including the barcode reader section – significantly slimmer than the N1 model), a fairly rounded back panel to keep the device comfortably in your hand and the black matte finish does help with the grip (so you don’t drop it). On the front of the device, just above the display, there’s a small battery indicator (when it’s red, the battery level is 10% or less), the ambient light/proximity sensors and the microphone.
Underneath the display, there is a mono speaker (can go up to 95dB) and a microphone – yes, the three physical buttons (Back, Start and Search) are now gone and replaced by the on-screen alternative. I think that all rugged smartphones should keep the physical buttons and not migrate towards a display-only approach, but I’m willing to give Panasonic a pass due to the glove mode (allows you to use the phone with thick gloves) and rain mode (makes sure that there are no misoperations if the display gets we – (the process involves limiting the touchscreen multi-touch usability from 10 fingers to just one finger).
The sides of the Toughbook FZ-T1 are a combination between the gray plastic that stretches towards the front bezels and a black rubberized material (this combo does help move the Toughbook FZ-T1 slightly outside the industrial look).
Furthermore, on the left side, a protective cover hides the microUSB port (there is no USB-C), on the top, there’s a 3.5mm headset jack which sits next to a 1D/2D barcode reader, while on the right, there’s the Power button, a programmable Side button and the volume buttons (on the bottom of the device, there is an expansion bus for attaching an optional cradle – useful in an industrial environment where you can easily misplace the device). The rear side of the FZ-T1 is quite interesting since there is a slightly inflated portion towards the top (to accommodate the barcode reader) with the camera embedded within it, while towards the bottom, there is a latch which, once operated, will expose the removable battery.
The large part of the front side is occupied by the 5-inch display, which has a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels (a bit disconcerting for a 2-year old rugged phone), a pixel density of around 294ppi and up to 500cd/m2 brightness levels (seems to be the same as on the far older Toughpad FZ-E1). Yes, the display is outdated and I know that the focus was more towards functionality and less about entertainment, but even so it’s a bit ridiculous considering the price tag (the CAT S61 is also fairly industrial, but has a far batter display). That being said, the pixel density is low, the colors aren’t really as vibrant as what other cheaper phones from the competition have to offer and the viewing angles aren’t that great. Now, since this is a rugged device, it is expected that the screen won’t shatter easily and this is true for the most part since it can be dropped from 10 feet without taking any damage (the thick border that surrounds the display plays an important part) and it will survive without problems a lot of drops (yes, even face-first ones – it’s surprisingly difficult to destroy this device).
Furthermore, the Toughbook FZ-T1 is also MIL-STD-810G certified, so it can handle both high and low temperatures (the operating range is between -4 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit), explosive atmosphere, humidity, sand and dust, vibration (including loose cargo transportation), shock, freezing rain, acidic atmosphere and more. As expected, the Toughbook FZ-T1 is also waterproof and dust resistant, being both IP66 and IP68 rated, so you can submerge it down to 5 feet underwater for about 30 minutes. Inside the case, the Panasonic Toughbook FZ-T1 is equipped with a quad-core Qualcomm 210 MSM8909 chipset (the clock rate can go up to 1.1GHz), an integrated Adreno 304 graphics card, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of eMMC storage memory – you can add up to 64GB by using a microSD card. The device is also compatible with the following wireless and Voice&Data standards: IEEE802.11 a/b/g/n/d/h/i/r, Bluetooth, 4G LTE, HSPA+, UMTS, EDGE, GPRS and GSM. Seeing these specs, it does feel like Panasonic took a significant step backwards since the Qualcomm Snapdragon 210 MSM8909 is the entry-level SoC for Android smartphone, so the performance is not going to be that great (some resource-heavy apps are not going to work properly, but multi-tasking is decent due to the 2GB of RAM and especially thanks to the display resolution); the Adreno 304 paired with the 720p should be fine, but even so, most games will not run smoothly.
The ToughPad FZ-T1 uses Android 8.1 Oreo and it’s an interesting choice, considering that past devices from Panasonic relied on the Windows Mobile and it made sense since it had a better integration with various software from tech and industry companies. The Android OS is going to feel more comfortable for most users and I suppose this handheld rugged device doesn’t really need any special apps – as with other manufacturers of rugged smartphones, Panasonic doesn’t seem to like to update the OS on its devices.
The FZ-T1 is equipped with an 8-megapixel rear camera (with LED flash and auto-focus) and no, there is no front-facing camera on this smartphone (a bold decision, considering that even in an industrial environment, people may want to make video calls).
The rear camera will take reasonable photos in good lighting and especially outside in a sunny day (although there was a bit of overexposing), but indoors and during the night, the photos were blurry and full of noise. Overall, this is a tablet-level camera and won’t really satisfy if you want to use the phone as a main camera on holidays (not that anyone would want to do that) – it should be fine for scanning QR codes or for photographing schematics or other type of documents.
One of the most important aspects of any smartphone or tablet (rugged or not) is the battery life and truth be told, I was expecting a large battery, something similar to the Toughpad FZ-E1 (6200mAh), but no, the FZ-T1 has a 3,200mAh battery which is both replaceable and hot swappable. Panasonic claims that the battery can last up to 12 hours when scanning barcodes three times per minute (mixed with some light WiFi use and cellular calls). Furthermore, the Toughbook FZ-T1 should take about 2 hours and a half for charging the battery from 0 to 100% (depending on the ambient temperature, it can take more).
Verdict: Why isn’t the Panasonic Toughbook FZ-T1 the first in the list you may ask, since it’s such a great rugged device? Well, because it doesn’t really follow the same guidelines as the usual smartphones (or tablets, for that matter) and, while it’s true that rugged cell phones, in general, are more niche devices, the Panasonic Toughbook FZ-T1 is even more narrow into the targeted audience. To be more specific, this belongs in a warehouse with industrial workers and I highly doubt I’ll ever see an active person running with this mammoth strapped to their arm. That being said, the Panasonic Toughbook FZ-T1 is pretty much the pinnacle of ruggedness, having a screen resistant to shock, the case can handle pretty much everything you throw at it, it has some awesome features (suitable for an industrial environment), but there are some minuses, since software is a bit outdated, the camera is nothing to brag about (and the front-facing one is completely missing), the device is quite thick and the most important negative is the incredibly high price.
6. Samsung XCover Pro Rugged Smartphone
Apparently, the Active series wasn’t as successful as Samsung may have wanted and, despite its reasonable popularity, the series has been abandoned after the S8 Active. And while the premium rugged smartphones have been left behind, Samsung has been focusing more towards the entry-to-mid-level market where the Chinese-made rugged smartphones have been reigning for a while now. Of course, I’m talking about the XCover series which has been revived about two years ago with the release of the 4S which wanted to replace the original two-year-old XCover 4. And now, Samsung has also made available a slightly better equipped rugged phone called the Galaxy XCover Pro (which hopefully, may be able to fill in that Active-shaped hole in our hearts).
That being said, the XCover Pro has left behind the large bezels of the XCover 4S and it does look a lot more like a modern smartphone. We’re still dealing with a plastic case which is decently compact (by the new standards) – it measures 6.30 x 3.02 x 0.39 inches and there’s a rubber-like frame that goes around the device, allowing for a firm grip. The rear side of the smartphone is also designed to prevent the device from sliding from your hand thanks to a special texture, but make no mistake, it’s still plastic (not that Samsung made any attempt at hiding it). On the plus side, you can remove the back panel and yes, you can replace the battery which is very unusual for a smartphone released last year. While it doesn’t follow an all-glass design, the XCover Pro still looks far more modern than the XCover 4S and that’s mostly due to the reduction in bezel size and the manufacturer even went for a hole-punch camera.
I did notice the orange XCover button is still there (it’s a programmable key) and that the volume rocker has switched sides so, along with the Side key (Power and fingerprint reader), it now rests on the right side of the smartphone. I do think that the rugged smartphones should always have physical buttons since it’s easier to operate in harsh environments, but the manufacturers seem to know better, so the Samsung XCover Pro relies on the three on-screen keys for the UI navigation. At least they didn’t go for the on-display fingerprint reader and left it on the side of the smartphone – it’s very accurate when your fingers aren’t dirty, sweaty or covered by gloves (so the actual targeted audience will most likely not use this function at all). It’s worth noting that the rubber-like frame does protrude a little bit on the front in a way that it forms a protective lip around the display (there is also Corning Gorilla Glass 5 for protection against shattering).
Additionally, the XCover Pro is IP68-rated, therefore it is fully protected against dust ingress and it will also survive immersions under water down to 5 feet for up to 30 minutes; it’s also MIL-STD-810G compliant and it seems that Samsung prides itself with the fact that the device survived after being dropped on a plywood impact surface from about 5 feet. Even so, I would still be at least a bit careful when using the XCover Pro, especially in a challenging environment since it may not do that well with corrosive substances and other types of destructive agents. It should still be fine if you’re working in constructions or any similar fields. The front side of the Samsung XCover Pro is almost entirely covered by the 6.3-inch IPS LCD display which is far better than what its predecessor had to offer (although some would argue that a display of such size is very vulnerable in harsh environments).
The IPS display features a 19.5:9 aspect ratio, a resolution of 1080 x 2340 pixels and 409 ppi pixel density which is far above the laughable 294ppi and 720p resolution of the XCover 4S (I don’t know what Samsung was thinking releasing such a device in 2019). The brightness level is about 560 nits which is very similar to the XCover 4s and it’s a fair performance, but it still falls short of the 750 nits of the CAT S31. Inside the case, the XCover Pro is equipped with an octa-core Exynos 9611 chipset (a quad-core 2.3GHz Cortex-A73 and a quad-core 1.7GHz Cortex-A53 CPU), a Mali-G72 MP3 GPU, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage memory and there’s also a dedicated microSD card slot to add up to 1TB. The Exynos 7785 is an alternative to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 712, so it should do decently fine with most applications (including multitasking – the 4GB are definitely enough for most use cases) and if you’re going to try some games, the Mali-G72 MP2 GPU is actually quite fast and should be able to render any 3D game with relative ease (if anything, the CPU is going to be the bottleneck with some apps).
Overall, this is a respectable upgrade over the XCover 4S and it’s nice to see that Samsung has decided to release the XCover Pro with the Android 10 version. As expected, the XCover Pro can be upgraded to Android 11 and Samsung has mentioned at some point that it wants to support the refreshed XCover series for a long time. If true, it’s something to be praised considering that lots of rugged smartphones manufacturers seem to dread to offer support for their newly released devices at least for a while. Of course, Samsung has added its own skin over the Android version, but, while it’s true that the One UI 2 is not that heavy, some bloatware is still present to ruin your pure Android experience.
In terms of cameras, the Samsung XCover Pro is equipped with a 24-megapixel rear camera with an f/1.7 aperture (PDAF, Dual-LED flash, HDR and Panorama) which can shoot 1080p videos at 30 fps (along with an 8-megapixel wide-angle camera) and on the front, there’s a 13-megapixel secondary camera with an an f/2.0 aperture. As you can see, Samsung has upgraded both lenses if we’re to compare them to the XCover 4S and it seems that the rear camera does a good job outdoors during the daylight with the colors being very lively (as well as a balanced contrast). The wide-angle shots were also fine, but a tad darker. In low light, the picture loses a bit of its sharpness (some noise will inevitably creep in), but the colors were still decent and a fair amount of detail was still here which makes it a decent mid-range camera.
I was very concerned by the decision to use a 2800mAh on the XCover 4S, but it seems that Samsung saw the wrong of its ways and equipped the XCover Pro with a proper 4050mAh removable battery. This way, while the display brightness was set at 60%, the battery offered a bit over 11 hours of screen on time and you should manage to recharge it from 0 to 100 percent in about 2 hours (15W quick charging technology).
Verdict: The Samsung XCover Pro is definitely a decent mid-range rugged smartphone, having a good protection against shocks, water and dust and it also looks like a smartphone, while the competition sometimes feels like it’s trying to sell toys. But how does it fare against the likes of Kyocera, CAT or Sonim? Well, the verdict remains the same as with the Active series: the smartphone is suitable for active persons that like to jog or go biking and it will survive in a construction site, but not so much for people that work in industrial environments.
Mark is a graduate in Computer Science, having gathered valuable experience over the years working in IT as a programmer. Mark is also the main tech writer for MBReviews.com, covering not only his passion, the networking devices, but also other cool electronic gadgets that you may find useful for your every day life.