A Guide to Rugged Mobile Phones

By Ted Needleman | Posted October 05, 2016

You don’t have to work on a construction site to benefit from buying a rugged mobile phone. Accidental drops, cracked screens, and even a spin in the toilet can wreak havoc on a standard smartphone—and bring your ability to conduct business to a sudden stop.

If you’re in the market for a new smartphone, you have lots of choices. But when it comes to selecting a rugged phone, one that will stand up to the rigors of day-to-day abuse, the choices narrow considerably. In this guide we'll discuss what constitutes a rugged phone, and then we'll look at three examples of rugged mobile phones suitable for small business use.

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How Tough is a Rugged Phone?

A heavy-duty case provides sufficient protection for many smartphone calamities. Drop- and water-resistant cases are popular, plentiful and, for the most part, they work well. But they don’t provide the same level of protection as a smartphone that's designed to operate in rugged conditions.

Rugged means going beyond protecting the phone from damage if it slips out of your pocket or lands in a puddle. That enhanced level of protection can mean the difference between picking up the phone up and wiping it off, or going without a phone while it's repaired or replaced. For many businesses, that delay can mean lost business and/or customers who are unhappy because they can't reach you.

Cracked cases and broken screens happen with some regularity—people drop, sit on, or just generally mistreat their phones. This is especially common in the business world, where heavy smartphone use is de rigor with frequent calls, texts, and emails, all of which present the opportunity for a phone to be mishandled and damaged.

And while there is no specific formal definition of a rugged phone, the vendors that offer these models usually state that their devices meet the requirements of Military Standard 810Gas well as IP68certification, which requires that a phone to withstand submergence in 2 meters (about 6 feet) of water for 20 minutes.

Military Standard 810G defines protection against a long list of common hazards including dust, shock, vibration, temperature extremes, blowing/icing/freezing rain, low pressure, solar radiation (from being left out in the sun), salt, fog, humidity, immersion, and temperature shock (going from hot to cold or reverse in a short period of time). The standard also includes gunfire shock, ballistic shock, explosive atmosphere, and a number of other categories you don’t typically find in civilian life.

3 Top Rugged Phones

We reviewed three rugged mobile phones designed to take more than the average amount of abuse; the Bullitt Mobile Caterpillar S60, the Kyocera Duraforce Pro, and the Sonim Technologies XP7. All three of these rugged phones are suitable for use in harsh environments, though each appeals to a somewhat different audience.

We don’t have the test facilities to certify that these phones meet their claimed specifications. Instead, we gave each phone to an associate who works in the welding and repair business to carry and use for two weeks. Upon return, the phones were somewhat scratched, worse for wear, and looked like they had run the gauntlet; but each still worked just fine.

Bullitt Mobile Caterpillar S60 rugged phone

Bullitt Mobile Caterpillar S60 Rugged Phone

Price:$599 (street)

At slightly less than 8 ounces, the Cat S60 weighs twice as much as an iPhone 6. It’s fairly large—measuring 5.8 x 2.9 inches and a chunky ½ inch thick—due to the ruggedized case and to the extra room required for enhanced internals.

As with all of the rugged phones, the Cat S60 meets many of the Military Standard 810G specifications, especially in the areas of shock and drop resistance. It can withstand a drop of six feet without damage, and it comes with a break-resistant Corning Gorilla Glass 4 touchscreen. The company claims that the rugged phone is waterproof in up to 15 feet of water for one hour, so you won’t have to worry about mud, puddles, or rain damaging the S60.

The Cat S60 runs Android's Marshmallow 6.0 and includes all of the standard Android apps and widgets. Other features include GSM capability, video capture at 30fps, a 3800 mAh battery that provides up to 30 hours of talk time, and a bright 4.7 inch display that you can operate with gloves on, though thick gloves will cut down on the precision of touch gestures.

In addition to standard cameras (14MP in the rear, 5MP in front, sensitive to visible light), the rugged phone's most unusual feature is a FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) sensor that lets it "see" heat. The infrared sensor responds to temperatures between 20 degrees centigrade and 120 degrees centigrade (68 degrees Fahrenheit to 280 degrees Fahrenheit).

You can superimpose the thermal image and the visual light image so that the composite image shows temperature gradations on the image captured by the standard camera. You can set the camera to show the thermal image in several different color schemes, and pick up to three spots on the image to show the exact temperature at those points. Using the infrared readout allows the phone to "see" through dust and even detect hot spots inside a wall.

Obviously, infrared thermal imaging isn’t something that every rugged phone user needs. The target markets for the S60 include construction, first responders, mechanics (to see temperature differentials in motors and other parts), electricians and builders (to see shorts and hot spots in the walls) and similar professions.

If you don’t need the thermal imaging capability, Cat offers less expensive rugged phones without the FLIR sensor and software.

Kyocera DuraForce Pro rugged phone

Kyocera DuraForce Pro Rugged Phone

Price:$399 (street price at AT&T)

Rugged phones tend to be heavy side compared to a standard iOS or Android smartphone. The Kyocera DuraForce Pro weighs in at a hefty 8.1 ounces, but that’s not all that much more than an iPhone or Android phone in a heavy-duty case. And while the DuraForce Pro is a good-looking phone, it's a handful at 5.84 x 2,89 x .51 inches.

The Pro runs Android's Marshmallow 6.0, and it sports an impact resistant 5-inch screen with 1,920 x 1,080 pixel resolution. Like the other rugged phones we tested, the DuraForce Pro meets many of the Military Standard 810G specifications, as well as IP68 dust and waterproof standards. Kyocera claims that the Pro can withstand immersion for 30 minutes in 6 feet of water (we tested it in our kitchen sink and assorted puddles of water and mud).

The DuraForce Pro offers enhanced PTT (Push To Talk) capability when networked with other phones having this capability and a 3240mAh battery providing up to 20 hours of talk time. Other features include 13MP and 5MP cameras, and it can shoot 135 degree wide format video above and underwater, making the phone a good choice for anyone who enjoys the outdoor life.

Even if your business doesn’t subject your phone to extraordinary abuse, the DuraForce Pro will be a good-looking dependable, rugged phone at a reasonable price. And you won’t have to coddle it while on the trail, shooting the rapids, or snorkeling a coral reef

Sonim Technologies XP7 Rugged Phone

Price:$749 (street price at Group Mobile)

There’s nothing fancy about the Sonim XP7, the sturdy workhorse of the rugged phone world. For starters, it runs an older version of Android (4.4 Kit Kat), which means that it can’t handle some of the newer Android apps; keep this in mind if you use work-related apps.

Sonim Technologies XP7 rugged phone

A smallish 4-inch screen with WGA (480 x 800 pixel) resolution means that watching YouTube videos takes backseat to work-related applications. And you won’t find a high-resolution video camera; just an 8MP rear and 1MP front camera.

What the XP7 does have is toughness, even for the rugged phone market. Sonim claims the phone will withstand a 6.5 foot drop onto concrete. It also offers a 4800mAh battery that provides up to 40 hours of talk time between recharges and PTT capability if you have a network of compatible phones.

Sonim lists agriculture, defense, security, utilities, and public safety among its target markets, and the company doesn’t make it easy to purchase the XP7 if you're not in those industries (don’t worry: if you want one, you can find someone who will sell it to you). And if you're in the habit of breaking smartphones, the XP7 might be a good choice regardless of your line of work. It can take pretty much anything you can throw at it.

Have Rugged Phone, Will Travel

Most of people who buy rugged phones work in professions where their tools take a beating. But rugged phones are also suitable for anyone who loves the great outdoors where you want a phone that can withstand the rigors of camping and hiking, drops on rocks, and inadvertent mud baths.

It's nice to have a smartphone that can withstand the dangers of everyday life, but a rugged phone's true value is the confidence it provides. You can rest easier knowing that your business won’t fall out of communication due to a damaged phone. These three rugged phones can take a lot more abuse than a standard smartphone, which makes them a good addition to your business toolkit, and a reasonable and realistic purchase.

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Ted Needleman published his first review in 1978. Since then, he has written several thousand hardware and software reviews, columns, articles on using technology, and two books. He has no intention of stopping any time soon.

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