The Best Rugged Smartphones of 2020

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 06.21.2020: The Panasonic FZ-T1 has been added to the best rugged smartphones list.

TOUGHEST SMARTPHONES FOR INDUSTRIAL AND CONSTRUCTION WORKERS

TOUGHEST SMARTPHONES FOR PEOPLE THAT PRACTICE OUTDOOR SPORTS

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. 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 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).

 

 

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1. CAT S61 Rugged Smartphone

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The Cat S61 is the successor to the relatively successful rugged smartphone CAT S60, a device which not only was suitable for construction workers and could withstand even the harshest environments, but it also did so while maintaining the elegant look of modern smartphones. It also came with a twist: the S60 featured a thermal imaging camera.

The CAT S61 isn’t a radical change from its predecessor, instead, it keeps everything that made the S60 a seriously tough smartphone and it improves some key elements: it now features a better thermal camera (one of the main points of attraction of this device), it comes with an air quality sensor and a laser measuring tool, as well as more powerful internal hardware and 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 (or at least, tried to).

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Still, you shouldn’t really expect the level of elegance of the Samsung Galaxy S9 or iPhone XS, because this is a rugged phone after all, but the S61 still looks decently well, borrowing the shape of the CAT S60 (with that small antenna bump on the top side) and making the corners rounded, the bezels narrower and it has an aluminium frame, therefore gaining a more refined design. Furthermore, the smartphone also got larger, but kept a similar width to its predecessor: it measures 5.91 x 2.99 x 0.51 inches) and it weighs about 8.82 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 (the phone needs to be sealed to be protected from the elements) 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, which, 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). Additionally, because the edges of the smartphone are smooth and rounded, it makes it easier to hold the phone and not worry about it slipping (especially because of the rubber back panel).

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The CAT S61 phone can withstand a lot of punishment. It is drop proof, so it can endure drops from 6 feet onto concrete thanks to its reinforced die cast frame and the smartphone is also MIL Spec 810G rated, which means that the CAT S61 was tested against drops, vibration, wind, rain, sand, salt fog, extreme temperature, 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 5 protection, it should ensure that the screen won’t shatter if dropped face-first. But, there is no guaranteed protection if the phone is dropped on a sharp object from a greater height.

The Cat S61 is also IP68 rated, therefore it can be submerged under water down to 10 feet for 60 minutes, making it one of the most waterproof smartphones on the market. Additionally, because it has physical buttons, it can capture photos and videos underwater, but you can’t make calls (obviously).
Besides the fact that it was a tough smartphone, the appeal of the S60 also came from the built-in thermal imaging camera and, considering that the S61 has an improved sensor, the thermal camera will capture better images (the MSX technology which allows you to capture clear HD thermal images); the temperature range is also higher (between -4 and 752 degrees F), there are now multiple modes (filters) that can be applied, it can measure the temperature of multiple spots, it can retroactively pinpoint a temperature in the image and it can even ‘see’ in environments that have lots of smoke.

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Additionally, the CAT S61 offers an air quality monitor tool which can detect the humidity in the air, the temperature, as well as solvents or other type of pollutants, but it wasn’t created to replace other, more precise sensors (such as a CO detector); the other interesting feature is the laser-based measuring tool which, after some calibration, it can be a decent addition, but be aware that it still won’t be able to replace the professional tools. The natural question is if you actually need all these features. Well, we have to remind ourselves that this is a phone made by Caterpillar, so engineers, electricians or construction workers could make better use of it: for identifying insulation gaps, to discover electrical faults and so on. But, you can also use it for fun in everyday activities like discovering the freshest piece of bread, spotting wires before drilling holes into the wall or just pretend to be the alien from the Predator movie.

Since we already talked a bit about the front of the phone, know that the S61 features a 5.2-inch IPS LCD capacitive touchscreen display, with a resolution of 1080 x 1920 pixels (a necessary increase over the 720 x 1280 pixel resolution of the CAT S60), a pixel density of 424ppi and 16:9 aspect ratio (no, it didn’t jump on the wide screen bandwagon). The 1080p resolution is 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 way sharper than on its predecessor (the screen can also be operated with gloves and when it is wet).

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On the inside, the S61 comes equipped with an octa-core Qualcomm SDM630 Snapdragon 630 chipset (2.2GHz Cortex A53 CPU) which is an improvement over the Snapdragon 617 chip; there’s also 4 GB of RAM, an Adreno 508 GPU (instead of the Adreno 405 of the S60) and 64GB of storage memory (don’t forget that you can also add up to 256GB using the microSD slot). The S61 runs on Android 8.0 Oreo and there is a planned upgrade to the Android 9.0 Pie (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 an 8-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 S61 is equipped with a non-removable 4500mAh battery (with the Quick Charge 4.0 feature), which means that you can often get around 2 days of medium to heavy use and, to get from 0 to 100 % using the provided charger, it will take about 2 hours (it’s not bad for such a massive battery).

Verdict: The S61 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 (not even close to the flagships, but still modern enough for a rugged phone). In terms of ruggedness, the S61 excels in every aspect, it is waterproof, dustproof and can handle lots of drops and, additionally, you also get the awesome thermal imaging camera, the laser measuring tool and the air quality sensor. This means that it takes the first place in our list and it can easily be considered the best rugged phone of 2020.

 

 

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2. 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 2020 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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

 

 

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3. 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).

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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 2020 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.

 

 

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4. 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).

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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).

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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).

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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.

 

 

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5. Blackview BV9900 Rugged Smartphone

Blink and you may miss a new Blackview rugged smartphone release. That’s right, not even a year has passed and Blackview has already made available a new rugged smartphone, the Blackview BV9900, a device that seems to have a special focus towards the camera department, sporting a 48-megapixel Sony ultra-wide shooter. I do appreciate the overall improvements over the previous generation (it seems to remain a very rugged smartphone, while keeping a cleaner look, there’s the aforementioned camera upgrade and the more powerful internal hardware), but it feels like the Chinese manufacturer releases a new rugged handset way too often, so it gets to immediately compete with its existing flagship model. Of course, this may be a great thing for new buyers that get a larger variety of rugged smartphones to choose from, but for those that already have a previous gen Blackview phone, it can become a problem considering the future support of older devices (and the rugged smartphones are notorious for their lack of software updates).

The other manufacturers of rugged handsets are a bit more conservative with the adoption of a new design and, instead, they prefer to maintain a sense of consistency between the new and the older models, but this has never been the case for Blackview which often pushes a completely redesigned exterior for its new smartphone. And that is also true for the Blackview BV9900 which moves away from the complicated look of the BV9700 PRO and shifts to a more simple, yet elegant exterior (quite similar to the BV9600), stripping most of the overdesigned elements from the rear panel and focusing towards creating a flat, minimalist case.

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That being said, the Blackview BV9900 has the back panel pretty much completely covered by a black textured coating and, besides the cameras and the Heart-Rate monitor + UV meter cutouts, there really isn’t much else going on (very uncharacteristic for the BV series which always had some metal pieces, but it is a sign of maturity and some clear inspiration from the CAT series of rugged smartphones).
When compared to the BV9700 Pro, the new rugged smartphone is a bit slimmer (it measures 6.16 x 3.08 x 0.55 inches) and it is also slightly more lightweight at 0.58lb (instead of 0.62 lb), but I do suspect that a Pro version will be a bit bigger and heavier. Taking into account its size and weight, the BV9900 is not harder to manoeuvre than your average flagship smartphone, although it being wider will help provide a better grip.

The device is surrounded by a metallic frame and within it, on the left side, there’s a TF/SIM card (you can add up to 2TB of additional storage) and an orange textured button (it is programmable to either quickly open a specific app or as a shortcut for some functions, such as opening the camera, taking a screenshot, opening the flashlight or triggering SOS, the latter being very important for hikers) -there’s also SHOCK PROOF written to remind you that this is a tough smartphone. On the right side, the BV9900 has kept the expected combination of buttons: a volume controller, a Power button and the fingerprint sensor (which is still fast and responsive). The display is surrounded by some thick bezels (although, they’re still narrower than on some other rugged smartphones) and on the top, the front-facing camera eats a bit from the screen estate, although pretty much without reason because it could have easily fit within the thick upper bezel.

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I liked that Blackview has kept the USB type-C port for charging on the bottom side (has a protective cover), but, while I appreciate the dual-SIM tray, I noticed that the manufacturer decided to still shy away from re-adding the 3.5mm headphone jack (which is now gone for more than a couple of generation), so the user will have to use the provided USB to jack in order to listen to music with the headphones. This, and the fact that there are no physical buttons that allow you to operate the interface are huge minuses from the convenience point of view and it really is an uninspired decision considering that this is a rugged smartphone and not some iPhone or Samsung device that tries to push some unwanted trend.

The BV9900 has kept the same IP68 protection against dust and water (it can be submerged underwater down to 5 feet for up to 30 minutes), and, just like the BV9700 Pro, it is also IP69K-rated which means that it is protected against close-range high pressure and high temperature spray downs (a requirement for many industry sectors) and it also carries the MIL-STD-810G certification (protection against vibration, high pressure, thermal shocks and more). Around the screen, the rubber edges extend a bit to form a protective lip which should ensure that the display will survive in case the user drops it face first, although such a large screen could be at risk if it would fall on sharp rocks (the Gorilla Glass 5 protection is there just for scratches and it won’t provide any additional protection). One of the main highlights of this product is that it will remain functional even at a temperature of -22 degrees Fahrenheit (-30 degrees C) and, since some tests suggests that the claim is indeed true, then it’s great news for people that either live in such a harsh environment or plan on going on expeditions where the temperature drops that low.

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On the front, the BV9700 Pro features a 5.84-inch FHD+ IPS capacitive touchscreen display (ILI7807D IC), with 16 million colors, a resolution of 2280 x 1080 pixels, 19:9 aspect ratio and a pixel density of 432 ppi (so, it’s pretty much the same display as on the BV9700 Pro). This aspect ratio will deliver a better gaming and movie watching experience and this is a feature that most manufacturers have adopted into their new smartphones, so Blackview is fully immersed in this new trend. That being said, the viewing angles are great, as expected from an IPS (178 degrees) and the 400 cd/cm2 maximum brightness should be enough for the screen to remain visible even under direct sunlight. Furthermore, the 432 ppi do make a difference and greatly improve the image quality of the screen.

While the display was left unchanged from the previous generations, inside the case, things have gotten a lot more interesting: the BV9900 is equipped with an octa-core MediaTek MTK Helio P90 chipset (MT6779V/CE – dual-core 2.2GHz ARM Cortex-A75 CPU and six-core 2.0GHz ARM Cortex-A55 CPU), an IMG 9XM-HP8 GPU (clocked at 970MHz), 8GB of RAM LPDDR4X and 256 GB of storage memory (the phone also allows the user to add up to 2 TB using a microSD card). This is a serious hardware boost from the previous generation and the chipset comes quite close to the performance of the Snapdragon 710; the GPU will behave a bit better than the Mali-G72 GPU with resource-heavy games (and this has proven to be true in practice, since the BV9900 can handle most of the newer game titles and the multitasking was smooth and without problems). Additionally, Blackview claims that it uses A.I. to boost the performance of the phone while playing games by keeping some apps disabled, but it’s just basic machine learning to prioritize the applications.

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Note: The BV9900 features NFC – the VOC sensor seems to be gone.
The Blackview BV9900’s interface is built on top of the Android 9.0 Pie OS and there aren’t that many differences when compared to its predecessor: the UI is still modified, but without much bloatware, the Toolbox is still present which includes the Compass, the Height Measurement; there’s also an air quality tool. I’m curious to see if Blackview will decide to update its phones over the years with the future Android versions, since most (if not all) rugged smartphones manufacturers dislike the idea of upgrading their devices (yes, even CAT and Sonim are guilty of this behavior), so there is a chance that the BV9900 may be stuck with the present UI before reaching EOL (which may not be that far considering the rate at which the manufacturer releases their rugged handsets).

When I had a look at the Blackview BV9700 Pro, it was one of the first rugged smartphones to add a new element that has been trending in the smartphone world: a dual-camera. The BV9900 is taking it to a whole new level, sporting not two, but four rear-positioned cameras, the first being a ultra-wide 120 degrees angle camera featuring a 16-megapiuxel sensor, followed by the Sony 48-megapixel Ultra-clear camera, a 5-megapixel depth camera and, a bit to the center, there’s a 2-megapixel macro camera. This is the first time I see such a setup on a rugged smartphone (and, to be honest, on any other regular phone), but Blackview said that the focus is a lot more towards the camera department and it does seem like the BV9900 may be in a class of its own. That being said, the cameras were able to capture some really good shots, even indoors, when the light is not the best and it outperformed every other rugged handset in terms of video quality. On the front side, there’s a 16-megapixel camera (S5K3P9-SX sensor, f2.0 aperture) which was more than suitable for selfies and for conference calls.

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Just like the BV9700 Pro, the Blackview BV9900 comes with a non-removable 4,380 mAh Lithium-Polymer battery which can deliver up to 2 days of light to moderate use and will also allow a more demanding user up to 11 hours of screen-on time. The battery can be fully charged in about 2 hours and a half and, additionally, the BV9900 supports 10W wireless charging (besides the 18W wired charging).
Verdict: I was pleasantly surprised by the many interesting and modern features of the Blackview BV9900 and I do like that the manufacturer has taken a more serious approach, leaving behind the toy-like cases, but I am not sure if a new rugged device is necessary in less than a year. Clearly, the BV9900 has made some improvements from the design point of view, as well as the cameras (which are fantastic on this model) and functionality, but it does raise some concerns about the longevity of the support for these devices.

 

 

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6. Kyocera DuraForce Pro 2 Rugged Smartphone

The Kyocera DuraForce Pro 2 is the latest handset from the Japanese manufacturer to join the rugged smartphones market as a successor to the DuraForce Pro in an effort to improve some key elements and make the device more suitable for the exigences of the 2019. But, despite people craving for an elegant, yet rugged smartphone, the manufacturers are still having a hard time to keep their devices slim and with the latest features, while also being resistant against drops or other mechanical shocks.

Samsung and Motorola have made some interesting advancements with their waterproof and dustproof Active and Force series, but it’s worth noting that Kyocera has also pushed its rugged smartphones towards a more modern design, so while the Kyocera Brigadier was already a better looking rugged smartphone than its competitors, the DuraForce Pro 2 got a bit closer to the more elegant non-rugged flagships. At the same time, it doesn’t differ that much from its predecessor even if it comes with a redesigned case and it still carries the signature look, has better internal hardware and the same iconic sapphire screen.

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As expected, you won’t find the glass and metal combination (which is definitely attractive, but fragile) and instead, you get a mix of polycarbonate and thick rubber. The case has a curved back, soft rounded corners – it’s less curved than the DuraForce Pro 2, the lateral sides protruding towards both the bottom and the top sides. Furthermore, on the rear panel, there are four patches of texturized rubber that slide towards the screen and, on centre of the rear panel, the plastic is a lot smoother.

All around the case, you can find pretty much the same buttons and ports as on any other smartphone (yes, it has a headphone jack), with every port opening being covered by protective flaps and, unfortunately, Kyocera decided to get rid of the three front buttons for Back, Home and Recent and instead, it went with capacitive buttons – this hasn’t been the best decision because the physical buttons remained operational in every type of environment (as a bonus, there are front-facing speakers). The PTT/Programmable key has been kept from the DuraForce Pro (by default, it will activate Verizon’s push-to-talk service, if you use Verizon, but you can program it to either launch any app or to automatically send help texts and the GPS location in case you get lost or are in danger), as well as the Fingerprint Sensor on the Power key (this feature has now become a standard even on rugged phones).

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Because of the curved back, the phone fits comfortably inside the palm of the hand, but the increased size over the DuraForce Pro 2 will not go unnoticed, since it now measures 5.91 x 2.89 x 0.53 inches and it’s got a bit heavier (8.57 oz). The bigger size means more screen real-estate, but bigger smarphones are usually more fragile and more prone to breaking than any other smaller handsets (until better technologies are developed, I’m not sure rugged smartphones should go over 5 inches). Another interesting aspect is that I found it hard to fit the phone in my pocket because of its thickness (so keep that in mind before purchasing).

That being said, the main attraction of any phone is the display and Kyocera has equipped the DuraForce Pro 2 with a 5-inch IPS LCD display that features 16 million colours, a resolution of 1080 x 1920 pixels and a pixel density of 441ppi (so, nothing has changed in this department). Furthermore, you get the same Sapphire Shield protection, so the display becomes virtually unscratchable and it is a bit harder to break than the traditional screens (if it falls at a odd angle, the screen will shatter into pieces instead of cracking like the usual Corning Gorilla Glass protection).
Similarly to the DuraForce Pro 2, the display is greatly improved over the dim Kyocera Brigadier, so, even for a sapphire screen, you can clearly see everything even under direct sunlight.

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Still, you should not expect the vividness of AMOLEDs or the true colours of iPhones, but the DuraForce Pro 2 does a fair job on delivering a good visual experience, with images and text being crisp and clear, the colour accuracy is reasonably good and it has surprisingly good viewing angles. What I found annoying is that Kyocera left so much space unused on the front, while the display of so many other smartphones cover almost completely the front side (except for the dreaded notch).
Note: You can use the touch-screen even if you are wearing gloves or if your fingers are wet.

Similarly to Kyocera DuraForce Pro, the DuraForce Pro 2 has a Military Standard 810G certification, so the phone should withstand low pressure, temperature shock, any contamination by fluids, humidity, solar radiation, high altitude, mechanical vibration, pyroshock, icing or freezing rain and more, which makes the handset perfect for working in industrial fields (the device is also Class I Division 2 rated, so it can be used in hazardous places without causing explosions). This should ensure a serious protection from the elements and in case you accidentally drop it, know that the screen is not unbreakable (as said before), so be aware that if you drop it on a sharp object face first, it could shatter (there is a lip around the display which will definitely help a lot with keeping the screen’s integrity intact).

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Furthermore, the phone is IP68 rated, which means that it is protected against dust and it is waterproof, meaning that it can be temporarily immersed under water. To be more precise, the DuraForce Pro 2 will allow you to go as deep as 6.5 feet for up to 30 minutes and, at the same time, there is the Underwater Mode for all the camera options (you can film and capture photos under water).
And that leads us to the cameras. On the rear side, the DuraForce Pro 2 features a main 13-megapixel camera, with autofocus, LED flash and HDR, and a secondary wide-angle 8-megapixel camera (an upgrade from the 2-MP of the previous model).

In good light, the camera can capture some really good photos, with accurate colours, a low amount of noise and an overall good exposure. In low light, the camera struggled a bit, capturing photos with a lot of noise and grain. The secondary wide-angle camera is definitely an interesting addition, because it can capture super wide-view 4K videos (and the upgrade to the 8-megapixel sensor is definitely noticeable). The front 5-megapixel camera (no upgrade here) is good for selfies, but again, it will do a decent job in good light, but not so much indoors and in low-light environments.

Another great feature that’s been developed for the DuraForce Pro 2 is the advanced echo and active noise cancellation using four microphones which have the role of counterbalancing the external sounds, allowing you to better make phone calls (even using the speaker option) or simply listening to music or videos.

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On the inside, the DuraForce Pro 2 is equipped like a mid-range smartphone, sporting an octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 chipset (octa-core 2.2 GHz Cortex-A53 CPU), an Adreno 508 GPU, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage memory, which can be augmented by 512GB using a microSD card. This hardware is specific to a mid-range handset and the performance will be as expected: great at multitasking, but not the best with 3D games that require a lot of resources. The phone also runs on Android v8.0 Oreo, but it has some pre-installed elements from Kyocera and some more from its carrier (the DuraForce Pro does not have an unlocked version, for now) – thankfully, the 4 GB of RAM will make a difference to contain the bloatware from the carrier.

Ignoring the carrier apps, the interface is reasonably clean and Kyocera added only a few native applications, such as the Outdoor Portal, which is a good tool for checking the weather, the real-time position of the moon and the sun, the correct altitude and even the tide with a fish activity rating. There’s also the Camera Underwater Mode which basically disables the touch-screen and let’s you control the phone using only the physical buttons.

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The last aspect that I would like to cover is the battery life. Just like the Duraforce Pro, the Pro 2 comes with a non-removable 3240 mAh battery which will get you through a full day of medium use (in the continuous loop video test, the battery died after almost 7 hours). The good news is that the phone comes with the UBS Type-C fast charging, so the battery will charge up to 60 % in about half an hour and there is support for the Qi wireless charging, but the charging pad is not included.

Verdict: The Kyocera DuraForce Pro 2 is definitely a better smartphone than the Kyocera Brigadier, but less of a significant upgrade over the DuraForce Pro 2 (although it does have a slightly better camera and more powerful hardware). At the same time, some improvements have been made to the overall ruggedness from its predecessor (the case it completely redesigned), but I’m not really a fan of not having the option to purchase this phone unlocked from the start and being forced to go through a carrier (which this time has added an annoying amount of bloatware). This is the main minus of the Kyocera DuraForce Pro and of course, I have already signalled all of its pluses, so if it’s not a problem for you to go through Verizon, this is a worthy smartphone for active people that like rock climbing and swimming.

 

 

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7. Samsung Galaxy S8 Active Rugged Smartphone

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Another year, another Active version of the flagship smartphone from Samsung and this time, it’s the Galaxy S8 Active. Similarly to its predecessors, the S8 Active keeps pretty much all the internal hardware of the standard S8 (which should make it the best rugged smartphone to date, from a performance point of view) and, while the exterior has lost a bit in terms of elegance, it looks surprisingly close to the original model, especially because of the new increased display real-estate (both the S6 Active and the S7 Active failed to do so). The S8 Active won’t really survive an industrial environment, but it is the perfect device for active people, so let’s have a closer look.

If you put the Samsung Galaxy S8 and the S8 Active next to each other, you will undoubtedly notice that the latter lost the full metallic body in favour of a mix between polycarbonate (for the rear side) and a metal frame with hard rubber bumpers around it. Furthermore, the corners have lost a bit of finesse and, while the main appeal of the S8 was the bezel-less approach, the S8 Active needed these larger bezels to offer an increased level of protection.

The S8 Active has also gained a bit in size and weight (it measures 5.98 x 2.95 x 0.39 inches and weighs 7.34 oz), which is perfectly normal for a rugged cell phone and because of the case construction, you do get a lot more grip than you would with the Galaxy S8 (I also felt that it sat better in my hand).

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Along the side, the S8 Active has the same buttons and ports layout as the S8: on the left, there’s the volume controller and the Bixby key (which replaces the customizable Active button from the previous generations), while on the right, you can find the Power button and on the bottom side, there’s a 3.5mm headset jack and the USB Type-C 1.0 charging port. On the rear side, besides the camera and the fingerprint sensor, the S8 Active is also equipped with a Heart rate sensor, which may prove to be useful for some people, while a simple gimmick for others.

The Galaxy S8 Active is IP68 certified, so it is protected against dust particles and it is waterproof, allowing you to submerge it underwater down to 5 feet for about 30 minutes (it’s better to use it with fresh water, since salt water is corrosive). The S8 Active is also MIL-STD-810G compliant, which means that the smartphone has been tested (and survived) 21 tests in various environmental conditions, which include extreme temperatures, shock and vibration, humidity, low or high altitude (I wasn’t able to find the exact tests that have been conducted, so far).

Taking into account the way it was designed, the S8 Active will definitely survive any drop from about five feet onto flat surfaces (such as the pavement) even at odd angles and you will, most of the time, just have to deal with some minor scuffs and nothing more. If the phone will fall face-first, there is a slight lip that will protect the display and it seems that Samsung went a somewhat similar route as Motorola Moto Z Force series and made the screen less vulnerable to damages (the screen is made of glass, but it uses a shatter-resistant plastic layer).

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That being said, on the front of the device, there’s a large 5.8-inch Super AMOLED display, with 16 million colours, a resolution of 1440 x 2960 pixels, 568 ppi pixel density (which is very little below the 570 ppi of the S8) and it is protected by the latest Corning Gorilla Glass 5. Even if last year’s S7 Active had a great display, the increased screen real-estate has proven to be a huge improvement, especially while watching videos or movies with a 21:9 aspect ratio. The panel is what you would expect from a Super AMOLED, the black levels are very deep, the white levels are proper, colours are incredibly vivid, with a lot of contrast and the display has excellent viewing angles. The display will remain visible outdoors in bright sunlight, since it can reach pretty high brightness levels (the S8 can go over 1000 nits).

Inside the case, Samsung has equipped the S8 Active the same way as the standard S8: there’s the latest octa-core chipset from Qualcomm, the MSM8998 Snapdragon 835 (with the quad-core 2.35GHz Kryo CPU and quad-core 1.9 GHz Kryo CPU), an Adreno 540 GPU, 4 GB of RAM, 64 GB of internal storage and, using the dedicated slot, you can add up to 256 GB. The overall performance was very consistent and pretty much the same as the Galaxy S8: it’s not the fastest phone on the market, but the apps loaded quickly, multitasking was no challenge for the smartphone thanks to the 4GB (could have been more) and it will run any resource-heavy game you will throw at it without problems.

The S8 Active’s TouchWiz interface runs on top of the Android 7.0 (Nougat) platform (it will undoubtedly be updated to the latest Android O) and you get the same experience as with the Galaxy S8, the only difference being the Activity Zone app which gives you access to weather info, your step count, the compass, the flashlight and so on. The UI also features Bixby, which is the equivalent of Siri and Cortana (personal assistant), you can opt to use Samsung Pay (it’s MasterCard and Visa Certified) or Samsung Health and, since we’re talking about a carrier exclusive, you’ll get some bloatware from AT&T.

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On the rear side, the S8 Active is equipped with a 12-megapixel camera, which has an f/1.7 aperture, 1/2.5″ sensor size, 1.4 µm pixel size, Optical Image Stabilization and LED flash (the camera can record 2160p videos at 30fps and 1080p videos at 60fps). While the Galaxy S7 had one of the best phone cameras of 2016, the S8 and the S8 Active have the best camera of 2017 and it has set a new standard for the other manufacturers. Outdoors and in good light, the pictures were well exposed, had accurate colours, good contrast levels and an excellent amount of detail (also, the autofocus was very fast). In low light, things did not change significantly, the pictures has a lot more detail than last year’s S7 and the colours remained natural and well balanced.

On the front, there’s a 8-megapixel camera, with an f/1.7 aperture and autofocus. Similarly to the rear shooter, the camera handles things really well, making it perfect for selfies and for video conferencing.

One important element of a rugged smartphone is the battery life and Samsung Galaxy S8 Active doesn’t disappoint, being equipped with a non-removable Li-Ion 4000 mAh battery (a significant upgrade over the 300 mAh of the S8, but the same as the S7 Active – I expected Samsung to be a bit bolder since this is not an inexpensive device). The battery will power the smartphone through two days of moderate use and I got about 11 hours of screen-on time with the brightness set to 70 percent. Furthermore, the S8 Active takes advantage of the fast charging technology (Quick Charge 2.0), so you’ll quickly get your smartphone up and running.

Verdict: Samsung is one of the world leader when it comes to building a high-end rugged smartphone and the Galaxy S8 Active is proof of that. It has a great display, a good battery life, it has a stellar performance and most important, it can survive an active lifestyle and the only shortcoming that I could think of is the price tag.

 

 

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9. Samsung XCover 4S Rugged Smartphone

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Apparently Samsung didn’t see much success with its Active series which it has now abandoned after the S8 Active, but, 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 towards the middle of this year with the release of the 4S which wants to replace the original two-year-old XCover 4, as well as capture the attention of those users that may have taken an interest on the CAT S31. At the same time, it’s worth noting that Samsung is being a bit weird since it still wants to remain in the premium market with the recently announced XCover FieldPro which does seem to be the missing S9 Active after all, but we’ll see once it hits the market.

That being said, the XCover 4S looks almost identical to the XCover 4, except for a few minor design elements, so we’re dealing with a decently compact plastic case which measures 5.76 x 2.89 x 0.38 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 around 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 definitely unusual in 2019. The problem is that the XCover doesn’t feel like a 2020 smartphone in any way and even if it’s an affordable rugged device, the huge bezels (which are unchanged from the previous generation) do not make this device any justice.

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I did notice the orange XCover button, which I did like on the Pixel 2 and it’s a customizable key, while underneath it, there’s the volume rocker; on the right side of the smartphone, there’s a single Power key and, just like on any rugged smartphone that respects itself, there are three physical buttons for the UI navigation: first, there’s the Recent key, followed by the Home and the Back key. This way, you will have no trouble using the phone regardless of the type of environment. But there is another little problem, there is no fingerprint scanner or any other advanced authentication systems in place which again, should not happen on a 2020 smartphone, rugged or not. It’s worth noting that the rubber-like frame does protrude a little bit towards the front in a way that it forms a protective lip around the front area, offering some protection for the screen (which does come protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 3 against shattering).

Additionally, the XCover 4S 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 4 feet. Even so, I would still be at least a bit careful when using the XCover 4S, especially in a challenging environment since it may not do that well with corrosive substances and other types of destructive agents. It should just fine if you’re working in constructions or any similar fields.

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On the front side, besides the three physical keys, the Samsung XCover 4S is equipped with a 5.0-inch PLS TFT capacitive display which is a bit inferior to the AMOLED screen (used by the Active series), but it should still be better than the majority of the IPS panels around (especially at the price point of the 4S). The display features 16 million colors, has a 64.3% screen-to-body ratio, a 16:9 aspect ratio and a resolution of 720 x 1280 pixels (294 ppi pixel density), so it’s not going to be that crisp and you will be able to tell apart the pixels. As a comparison within the same price bracket, there’s the CAT S31 which has the same resolution, but with a smaller display and a higher brightness level (525 nits of the 4s vs 750 nits of the CAT S31).

Inside the case, the XCover 4S is equipped with an octacore Exynos 7885 chipset (a dual-core 1.6GHz Cortex A73 and a sexta-core 1.6GHz Cortex A53 CPU), a Mali-G71 MP2 GPU, 3GB of RAM, 32GB 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 660, so it should do decently fine with most applications (including multitasking – the 3GB aren’t fantastic, but definitely enough in most cases) and if you’re going to try some games, the three-year-old Mali-G71 MP2 GPU should not struggle considering the low resolution of the display.

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Overall, there isn’t a huge upgrade over the XCover 4, but it’s nice to see that Samsung has decided to release the 4S with the Android 9.0 (Pie) version and I know that the XCover 4 is also upgradeable to the v.9.0, but Samsung says that the new smartphone should receive security upgrades for four years and that’s something that lots of rugged smartphones manufacturers seem to dread: to actually support their newly released devices at least for a while. As expected, the manufacturer has added its own skin over the Android version, but the One UI 1.1 is not that heavy and there is the built-in Samsung Knox protection which is useful against malware or any other intrusion attacks.

In terms of cameras, the Samsung XCover 4S is equipped with a 16-megapixel rear camera with an f/1.7 aperture (PDAF, LED flash, HDR and Panorama) which can shoot 1080p videos at 30 fps and on the front, there’s a 5-megapixel secondary camera with an an f/2.2 aperture. While the front-facing camera remained unchanged from the previous generation, it seems that the rear camera is better and it does a fairly decent job outdoors during the daylight (although I did notice that it tends to overexpose the photos); in low light, it did have a noticeable amount of noise and the colors did end up washed-out, while the objects lacked in details, so it’s just an entry-level camera and nothing more.

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Another element that remained unchanged from the XCover 4 is the 2800 mAh battery which was surprisingly decent considering its small capacity and of course it’s the display the element that makes the difference: with the brightness set at 60%, the battery did close to 10 hours of screen on time and you should manage to recharge it from 0 to 100 percent in about 2 hours (no fast charging here).
Verdict: The Samsung XCover 4S is definitely a decent entry-to-mid-level rugged smartphone, having a good protection against shocks, water and dust and it also looks like a smartphone (even if a slightly dated one), 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 biking and it will survive in a construction site, but not so much for people that work in industrial environments.

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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.

24 thoughts on “The Best Rugged Smartphones of 2020”

  1. I have a Note 4 with a Powerbear 7500 mah removable battery and a custom built rugged cover, it has survived a 10 foot drop onto a concrete step. Lucky it was was not the screen!. ITs not waterproof. But it has three times optical zoom on the camera. The battery life now rocks, and the battery is replaceable. I have no issues with my apps or everyday use. But I will eventually have to replace it. Right now its a game of seeing how long I can keep it going. At least for another year or two.
    I am really interested in the Samsung XCover FieldPro , it be waterproof, drop resistant and removable battery. ( Gotta have extra batteries) when hiking in the woods.I would like the optical zoom feature to be there, but it is probably not a total deal breaker..maybe. I am curious why they would not have that feature in a phone that would be used in rugged environments. Especially with hikers who would like to take good quality pictures of some of the scenic vistas they see when going in the back country. Optical zoom on my note 4 helps me take great pictures.
    Right now I am curious about Sonim XP-8 future replacement (an XP-9?) if they will keep building on the good base line of the XP-7 and XP-8. IMHO the The XP8 is best of the bunch due to its toughness and build, removable battery. Wish its camera were better and a headphone jack would be nice for connecting speakers or headphones.
    I feel Samsung it trying to catch up to Sonim (and others) market a little bit but feel that they just doing enough to qualify as a rugged phone, but could have easily put in a better camera optical zoom tech [From a note 4!! 😉 ] I also like the FM radio feature in the XP 8. It nice to be able to listen to music when your working on a boring job or working in an shop setting.
    I use the optical zoom in my Samsung Galaxy Note 4 phone in an industrial workplace, to zoom in on equipment that I cant get to without a ladder or some lifting device. To take picture of equipment data plates on the side panels of a unit. Saves me the time of getting a ladder to get up into the area to take the picture. I look the picture and with the high res camera I get all the words and information numbers I need. This is something all the rugged phone seem to miss. In industry being able to take good picture of equipment is important and being able to easily email that info by text or email to the other engineering departments is essential.
    Cats Infa-Red feature is not necessary. If you need to do those checks on the job. they give you special and more reliable, certified and consistent tools for the day to day eat checks. On equipment or power generating equipment.
    I hoping Samsung XCover FieldPro or the future Sonim XP-9 give me a really good reason to upgrade from my Note 4 ( with stylus–great when navigating web pages–I got thick mans hands and fingers) because right now there nothing out there that wants me to up grade.

    • Have you seen Samsung Xcover Pro? removable battery 4050mAh, IP68, Mil 10 standards. No buttons, quite bit screen estate, looks quite modern yet rugged and comes with 4 years of security updates.. Also has mpos

  2. Hello Mark, Great Article. I am looking for a mobile device suitable for industry work in subzero temperatures and producing longer battery life amidst the cold weather. Please share your suggestions for the Use case ? Thank you

  3. Hello Mark,

    A couple questions.

    1. Have you considered the Doogoo S60 and the AGM X2?

    2. Have you seen the link below on the Moto Shattershield? If it cracks you have to pay to have the screen replaced.
    https://forums.lenovo.com/t5/DROID-TURBO-2-by-Motorola/Warning-Regarding-your-Moto-ShatterShield-Screen-that-is-quot/td-p/3309345

    3. Have you looked the duration over which the different phone manufacturers provide security updates? It is not any good have a rugged phone exterior and weak/insecure software. A rugged phone should be characterised by a rugged exterior and strong rugged secure software platform. Samsung for example only provides updates for 2 years after the phone is announced, even though you may still purchase the phone 2 years later. Apple and Google problem provide the best security updates for their own phones.

  4. I am currently on my second cat S60 and an not real impressed the first one the speaker quit within a month and while dealing with the return I was trying out the underwater mode and the phone literally filled up with water to the point when i opened the cover for the USB port water ran out of it. Note the second one the side of the case is loose, it feel out of my pocket as I jumped over a puddle running to the car in the rain and needless to say it got wet inside.
    Another down side is it only works on AT&T/T-Mobile networks which where I live is not very reliable
    That being said I have used the infra red camera several times at work to find problems in a refrigeration system and bad electrical connections that didn’t show up on conventional meters.

  5. As a Samsung XCover 1 and 2 user I was very happy. I had put them through hell in the mountains and on exercise and they always delivered. A 2hr surf trip saw it reach its limits. I am now on my Activ’ rant. S5 Active. Destroyed a screen with a clumsy 1m drop (yes it had a protector). 2nd one from the same shop did 1 mountain trip before lens cover was damaged (it sticks out, so bad design) and so onto s6. Same issues…. lens cover on rear camera ans screen glass not upto much. The Activ have great features but really THEY ARE NOT RUGGED PHONES for the person spending time in the outdoors. My XCovers were superior, except for photos. sO PLEASE HELP. I am not a saturday sunny outdoor to the pub guy, am not an industrial oil worker but want a serious outdoor phone that will withstand serious adventure and take nice pics. Please help.

    • If you want a reasonably rugged smartphone that actually looks like a smartphone, there aren’t many options on the market, unfortunately. I see that the Samsung Active series is off the table and, while Motorola Z Force has a tough screen, the camera lens is very fragile (a rugged case may do the trick). You could also have a look at the newly released LG X Venture, but it seems to be a copy of the Galaxy S5 Active (could be better or worse, as I have not yet had the chance of testing it).

      • IMHO since the Samsung s4 nothing has really changed with smart phones, yeah sure you get a better camera but so what? i’m only going to be taking pictures of my cat for the internet with it 😀 haha

    • as a self employed welder/fabricator i have put phones to the test. i went thru 15(yes) of my first phones , i cant even remember the name. NOW i have a kyocera Duraforce Pro. it is almost a year old and still going strong. broke two screenprotectors and the original is still working. and the speakers are working fine. the superfine steel magnetic particles get in to the speakers and make them scratchy until going off completely

      • i didnt finish. anyway the camera(s) yes two of them . are really good, not perfect but really good. but if you want a tough phone, i really like the kyocera Duraforce Pro. in the welding, grinding, sometimes wet environment, it has stood up strong. only two screen protector breaks, original is fine. and the battery last more than one day , even with a camera monitor running in the background . if logged out of the camera system, will last two days, one night

  6. My husband had the Kyocera Brigade and 2-3 months in he dropped it, ironically off the back a military vechile and the screen shattered..
    the whole phone started going crazy wouldn’t turn on, wouldn’t stay on if it finally would turn on…

  7. Kyocera has been a bit of a disappointment really. I’ve had both versions, the Brigadier is the newest. Overheating is a big problem. The Brigadier will overheat quite easily. If a phone is going to say “harsh” environment, then it should work in the heat. Swimming in cool waters a couple of feet in depth is not harsh. Neither is shaking when enjoying a bike ride down hill or something similar. “Harsh” means an environment where its going to be hot or extremely cold, or sandy, or suffer through the jarring of a parachute landing. I mean, what does “harsh” mean to you? Kyocera cant stand the heat. Bottom line.

    • Kyocera claims that the Brigadier is T4-rated, therefore: “No point inside the phone will get hotter than 135°C, as long
      as the phone is kept within operating range of -30°C to 60°C”, as quoted from their website (in Fahrenheit, it’s between -4 to 140 degrees). It seems that this is their definition of extreme temperature. Did your phone overheat from the beginning or after a software update? And, did it happen only after exposed to high temperatures? Lastly, have you changed it for something better suited in extreme temperatures?

      • The phone had a software update right out of the box. I can tell yiu the phone was no hotter than 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. It kept wanting to shut down. Its useless in the heat. Manufacturers will send equipment to us all the time for free because they want us to put them through the harsh environments we operate in. I wish cell phones would be one of those things. I can tell you this, kyocera is a fail in high heat environments.

  8. according to the recent Facebook Post 17% OFF on AGM X1 for 7 days . for the price it is very a good deal. it is one of the top rugged smartphone with stunning look, perfect combination of hardware and software.

  9. The Galaxy S7 Active should not be on this list. I know, because I was unfortunate enough to buy one thinking it was a rugged phone. It is not. Screen cracked within 3 three weeks, with a glass protector on it, with very gentle handling. Not even doing anything “active” or different from any other phone I have had which lasted years. Lots of people petitioning for a class action to replace this. This is a common occurrence along with the camera lens shattering. Over $400 to replace screen (non-insured plan). The screen itself has a plastic coating which will scratch very easily and is non-replaceable.

    • During the time I had a look at the Galaxy S7 Active, it did not strike me as fragile and the screen did not shatter but, since many more people have said the same thing as you did (broken camera lens and fragile display), it seems that I may have been among the lucky ones. So, since the phone is not up to the standards of the other rugged smartphones on this list, I have moved it to Honorable Mentions (and will remove it completely if Samsung doesn’t recognize it as a manufacturing defect).

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