We go through life gasping when we drop our phones. They're costly, often slippery, fronted with glass and finely machined metal or easily damaged plastic. So we put our phones in cases, making a joke of the thinness and elegant design the manufacturer touts. Even though thepassed our with flying colors, thanks to its screen, Apple still recommends using a case (and the same goes for the ).
It might be time to stop worrying about thinness and buy a phone that's actually built to be out of the house. A new breed of rugged phones have laugh-at-the-devil hardiness without some piece of aftermarket silicone strapped around them. And rugged phones typically offer a slew of interesting features no iPhone or Samsung Galaxy replicates.
For example, theand Cat S52 lay claim to being the lightest and thinnest rugged phones, respectively (though the Cat S52 is only ). The bigger Cat S62 Pro offers a unique FLIR temperature sensor. The diminutive UniHertz AtomXL writes a new page in the rugged-phone stylebook, while the Kyocera DuraForce Ultra 5G supports the new ultrawide band 5G on Verizon, and the Sonim XP8 makes no apologies for the rugged lines that envelope a device you'll see in the hands of many first responders.
Ruggedness and water resistance
These phones laugh at being dropped on a hard floor, dunked in water or even immersed in liquid cleaner -- that last one being a pretty neat trick at a time when we're disinfecting everything. The ruggedness credential for most phones is Military Standard 810-G, which encompasses a lot of specifications but is commonly described as the ability to withstand a 1.5-meter (4.9-foot) drop without damage. All the phones in our list are rated either 810-G or the newer 810-H.
A phone's resistance to foreign matter is signified by an
Note that some of the phones in this roundup have a tethered cap that seals their USB-C jack. These caps are tedious in daily use and complicate placing the phone in a desktop charging stand unless you have the Kyocera DuraForce Ultra 5G, which supports Qi wireless charging pad, allowing the port door to stay closed while charging.
Push to Talk
With fires, power outages, floods and other unusual events becoming more usual, many people are joining local neighborhood response groups or CERT teams, which rely on radio-style communications but not necessarily with actual radios. Push to Talk over cellular apps such as Zello allow a phone to work like a walkie-talkie with anyone else running the same app. Sprint and Verizon offer similar services as plan options.
All of the phones on our list except the Cat S52 have at least one dedicated button that can be set to Push to Talk, and the Kyocera DuraForce Ultra 5G has three programmable buttons. All of the phones can map a button to Zello, the most popular PTT platform. That gives you far better walkie-talkie ergonomics than pressing a virtual talk button on the screen.
The Unihertz AtomXL is also a "real" radio. It's able to communicate with the FCC Part 90 radios, often known as "business radios", with the use of a small external antenna that ships with the phone. Technically, the AtomXL can also communicate with GMRS and FRS radios, which are often carried by neighborhood volunteers, as well as with some ham radios, but it's not FCC approved to do so. In any of these modes, it has 0.5- and 1.5-watt output power levels.
The Sonim XP8 also has true radio capability via an optional Xpand module that turns it into a transceiver on the 900MHz ISM band. That isn't likely familiar or useful to the average person, though. The XP8 isn't compatible with the FRS and GMRS radios typically carried by emergency response volunteers.
Several of the phones on our list support dual SIMs, giving them another kind of ruggedness: network resiliency. If you're willing to spend the money, having two carriers activated on a phone can mean the difference between having service or not during a crisis. Setting up a pair of technically distinct carriers on a phone can substantially reduce your odds of being offline when networks are jammed or damaged. For example, you might activate both Verizon and Made for Fi" phones, which currently only include Google Pixels and Moto G phones -- none that are rugged.
A couple of the phones on our list are available with LTE Band 14 support so they can useat times of extreme network load, like during natural disasters. You can't just sign up for FirstNet by having a compatible phone, however; you need to also be sponsored via a participating emergency services organization you're involved with.
Most of the phones we carry today make a big sacrifice in the name of design: Their speakers aren't aimed at our ears, but aim sideways out of the phone. A couple of the rugged phones on our list rectify that with front-facing speakers that blow away the meek volume levels on mainstream phones.
This is useful for PTT apps, especially when you're in a hectic or outdoor location. But note my pet peeve: Speakerphone mode is way overused today, so blare sparingly. We don't want to hear your conversation or FaceTime.
Remember when many phones had these? They made charge anxiety less of an issue. Just pop in a spare battery and be back at 100% charge in seconds. The Samsung XCover Pro and Sonim XP8 have swappable batteries as part of their ready-for-anything ethos. Even the fastest charge can't compete with this simple solution.
No more apologies for cameras and screens
Rugged phones used to treat camera and display quality as elective, but these new models leave little lacking when it comes to these features. They may not have the number of cameras found on flagship phones like theor the , but the cameras they do have are ample in megapixels and take advantage of the Google image processing built into Android. The gallery of comparative shots below is remarkable mostly in how unremarkable the photos are: They're barely different from the typical snapshot taken with a flagship phone.
All the phones on our list use toughened glass. The CAT phones have the latest
The CAT S62 Pro takes imaging a step further with an integrated FLIR Lepton thermal sensor which can measure from -4 to 752 degrees Fahrenheit with a high degree of sensitivity. If you've been temperature scanned when entering a building lately, you know that the
The CAT S62 Pro's FLIR Lepton sensor is designed for use in phones, allowing it to fully integrate into the phone's body unlike the earlier FLIR sensor in the CAT S61, which required a large top protrusion.
There's an interesting form of augmented reality in the CAT S62 Pro, achieved by blending the photo and temperature imagery via on-screen controls. Once you get the hang of it, it's a useful feature for more accurate visual indexing of a temperature to spot in the scene that can be tricky to discern in full FLIR mode.
Size and weight
While some of the newest rugged phones are almost indistinguishable from standard phones, some are still bulky and proud of it. A few stand out in the stack below, but most are similar to standard phones.
This chart shows the weight and feature differences between the phones. Overall, the Samsung Galaxy XCover Pro and Cat S52 are standouts in thin design with light, rugged construction. And remember: These don't need a cover.
|Unihertz Atom XL||Cat S52 (gray market)||Cat S62 Pro||Sonim XP8||Samsung XCover Pro||Kyocera DuraForce Ultra 5G|
Y (varies by region)
4-inch, 1,136x640-pixel, Gorilla Glass 3
5.6-inch, 1,440x720-pixel, Gorilla Glass 6
5.7-inch, 2,160x1,080-pixel, Gorilla Glass 6
5-inch, 1,920x1,080-pixel, Gorilla Glass 3
6.3-inch, 2,340x1,080-pixel, Gorilla Glass 5
5.4-inch, 2,160x1,080-pixel, Kyocera Sapphire Shield
Notably small and a real radio
Thinnest rugged phone in the world
FLIR temperature sensor
Feature-laden and tough as nails
Sweet spot for a new generation of tough phones
5G UWB, 3 rear cameras and a ToF sensor
Is rugged right for you?
If you want the latest in advanced video capture, computational photography or a laptop-class CPU, these phones aren't quite ready to replace your current device. But if you're tired of breaking phones, regularly use a PTT app such as Zello, or are big on outdoor adventures or public service volunteer work, think beyond the usual suspects next time you buy a phone. These rugged phones make the category exciting again.