Are you tired of damaging your phone from drops and mishaps? Smartphones are getting slimmer, wider and longer every year, but are they getting tougher? Although some flagship smartphones claim basic water resistance, none of them get anywhere near being properly ‘rugged’. Cue a new sub genre of waterproof, dust-proof, shockproof, scratch-proof and even pressure-proof smartphones that are designed for people who can no longer put up with a regular flimsy phone.
The target markets are construction workers, anyone who works in an industrial setting, and extreme sports enthusiasts, though rugged phones are also aimed at outdoorsy people who spend a lot of time in extreme conditions, whether for work or leisure.
If you've ever bought a case to protect your smartphone, you'll immediately be able to see the appeal of a phone with some armour built-in to its core design.
Bear in mind that all of the rugged phones featured here run on Android, so if you're an Apple fan, you're going to have to make do with finding a good, tough case to protect your iPhone.
So why do we need these ‘rugged’ smartphones? It’s estimated that about a third of people have, at some point or another, severely damaged a phone from everyday drops and mishaps in the last three years. That’s a lot of broken phones, and repairs (or, more likely, replacements) are always expensive.
Made primarily not to break, most rugged phones are compatible with a few international standards that you need to know about before choosing the best rugged phone for you.
The IP68 standard
‘IP’ stands for ‘Ingress Protection’ rating, and devices said to be IP68-rated can withstand dust, dirt and sand. They’re also resistant to submersion up to a maximum depth of 1.5m underwater for up to 30 minutes. Many mainstream flagship smartphones are IP68-rated; it’s not exclusive to rugged phones.
The MIL STD 810G standard
This is an extra layer of protection only offered by ‘rugged’ phones. It’s a US military specification, and it means a product can withstand thermal shocks, high and low temperature extremes, vibrations, tumbles, and salt mist conditions, so accidents don't happen.
You should also keep an eye out for Corning Gorilla Glass. A given for all rugged phones – and also many flagship smartphones – is a layer of scratch and crack-resistant Corning Gorilla glass, which is a strengthened glass that’s thin, light and damage-resistant. It’s now in its sixth generation, and you shouldn’t buy a ‘rugged’ phone unless it has this.
As a bonus, rugged phones are becoming increasingly slim – as slim as regular flagship smartphones, in fact – and yet are usually feature-packed for their target users. Think everything from snap-on batteries, GPS modules, and even augmented reality mapping to FM radios, flashlights, and thermal imaging cameras. Which is the best rugged phone for you? Read on to discover our favourite rugged phones.
THE best rugged smartphones you can buy today
The Bullitt Group manufactures a lot of intriguing ‘tough phones’, and the new S52 is one of its most impressive yet. Its sleekest ever at just 9.69 mm – so thinner than many mainstream smartphones – the S52 combines military-grade toughness (it’s MIL-STD-810G compliant) with IP68-rated dust-water resistance and an ability to be dropped on to concrete or steel from 1.5m. With a Gorilla Glass 6 screen, an aluminium chassis, metallic keys, waterproof connectors and an FM radio, the S52 will do the job, and look great while it does. It even adds a dual pixel Sony sensor-backed 12MP camera that does well in low light.
Does your phone let you see in the dark? Equipped with a FLIR Lepton thermal imaging sensor, this 6.3-inch Android phone has a unique ‘Predator’ viewing mode that allows it to see in the dark. The first of its kind, that thermal camera –– together with a Sony 48MP camera – allows the Blackview BV9800 Pro to find and photograph a heat source and translate it into a thermal image. That means identifying leaks in heat pipes, smouldering fires, and even animals – including people – in the dark. It also boasts satellite-based GPS, GLONASS, BEIDOU, and air pressure detection. The only issue is the footprint of the Blackview BV9800 Pro, which at 322g makes it among the heaviest here.
How about a phone that’s compatible with the IP69K standard? New to the rugged phone market, the IP69K rating means that a product can withstand high-pressure cleaning with 80°Celsius water fired at the phone at 80-100 ba. That’s on top of the usual IP68 and MIL-STD-810G ratings. It’s therefore ideal for construction sites, but that rare skill nevertheless adds some weight in the form of a metal frame, and at 285g the Doogee S95 Pro is a relatively bulky rugged phone. Elsewhere the Doogee S95 Pro has a modular design, with magnetic snap-on add-ons including a 3,500mAh external battery, and a 6W speaker module complete with a kickstand to prop up the phone. The Doogee S95 Pro is also the only dual SIM rugged phone on the market.
It’s only when you get wet fingers, and can’t operate your phone’s touchscreen, that you realise how restricted modern so-called ‘smart’ phones really are. Step forward the Land Rover Explore – made by the same manufacturer that issues Cat rugged phones – whose Corning Gorilla Glass 5-protected screen can be operated with wet fingers or gloves, but it does so much more. Built for outdoor pursuits, its proximity sensor, compass, accelerometer, gyroscope, barometer, GPS antenna team-up with apps for OS maps and ViewRanger app to create an augmented reality guide for identifying mountain peaks and other landmarks. It’s also impressively modular, with accessories including a carabiner to clip the phone to a belt, a battery module to double battery life, and a ceramic patch GPS antenna. Thankfully, the Land Rover design motifs are subtle; it’s the outdoors nature of this freeze, water, sand, dust, dirt, vibration, humidity and salt mist-proof phone that win the day.
Another phone with IP69K dust/water resistance, the Ulefone Armor 7 is tested to survive a drop-to-concrete from up to 1.2m as well as being MIL-STD-810G compliant. Like the Doogee S95 Pro, this phone is also equipped with 8GB of RAM, a rarity among rugged smartphones, and sports a 48MP rear camera. Waterproof, dust-proof and drop-resistant, the Ulefone Armor 7 is manufactured using an injected waterproof glue for ‘perfect sealing’. However, it’s a movie-friendly 19.5:9 aspect ratio screen, an advanced photography suite and its big, long-lasting 5,500mAh battery – which supports 15W fast charge – that help make this rugged phone perfect for travel.
Construction workers, architects on-site visits, and even hikers might want a rugged phone for the great outdoors, but who wants to forgo the joys of owning a ‘proper’ smartphone. Cue the Nokia 800 Tough, a simple feature phone ideal for occasional use. It’s built to withstand temperatures as cold as -20ºC, drops from 1.8m, and submersions in 1.5m water for up to 30 minutes. Complete with a loop designed to attach to a backpack or wrist, and big accessible buttons for easily navigating menus and answering calls with gloved hands, the Nokia 800 Tough also has an anti-slip coating and rubberised edges to make it easy to hold as well as, a flashlight, camera, FM radio, and a loudspeaker.
Want a nod to modernity? So have 4G connectivity, Bluetooth, WiFi, GPS, WhatsApp and Facebook apps (though little else), and a dedicated Google Assistant button. Available in Black Steel only.