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What Makes a Mobile Device Rugged?

Updated Nov 03, 2023

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Business owners and their staff conduct many aspects of their operations on mobile phones, tablets and laptops. Couriers use mobile devices to scan packages when they reach their destinations. Warehouse staff use them to count inventory. Farmers even use smartphones’ GPS to ensure the most efficient harvest.

But the typical consumer device isn’t designed to withstand conditions within the toughest working environments. For that, you need rugged (or ruggedized) devices. Learn about the different types of ruggedization, and see our roundup of the best rugged devices and rugged cases on the market today.

What is a rugged mobile device?

Rugged devices are those that are designed to be durable, dust-resistant, shockproof, and water-resistant or waterproof. They have long battery lives and tough outer shells that protect these devices if they’re dropped or otherwise compromised.

There are three levels of ruggedization:

  • Semi-rugged devices have the same components as non-rugged models but are better protected. An example of semi-ruggedization would be a spill-resistant laptop keyboard.  
  • Fully rugged devices are often tested to military-grade specifications and are ideal for construction sites. They can be dropped from greater heights, are impervious to water and dust, and can withstand extreme temperatures. Their components are more durable, too. For example, you’re more likely to find a solid-state drive than a mechanical hard drive in fully ruggedized devices.
  • Ultra-rugged laptops, tablets and smartphones are designed to withstand the absolute worst conditions. They are pretty much indestructible and can operate in sandstorms and blizzards. Unsurprisingly, ultra-rugged devices are the most expensive.
TipBottom line

If you and your staff regularly use phones and other devices away from the office, consider one of the best mobile device management solutions to manage and secure data that can be accessed remotely.

How are rugged devices used in businesses?

Rugged devices are beneficial for businesses across a range of industries because they have a lot of practical uses. Consider these examples:

  • Construction: Think about the heights at a construction site. Surely you’d want workers who are hundreds of feet off the ground to have work phones with full ruggedization in case the devices are accidentally dropped from above.
  • Restaurants: Maybe you run a restaurant that relies on tablets for quick order taking. Proper ruggedization can prevent costly damage if waitstaff or patrons inadvertently send the devices crashing to the floor.
  • Education: It’s increasingly common for schools to supply or require students to use personal laptops or tablets in the classroom. Parents and educators who invest in such equipment need the most durable and resistant devices possible. After all, kids aren’t exactly known for treating things carefully.
  • Healthcare: Because of their long battery life and ability to withstand the harshest conditions, rugged devices are ideal in a number of medical situations, such as when a hospital loses power or first responders are rescuing people during a natural disaster.

How should business owners evaluate rugged devices?

Now you know what rugged devices are and some of their uses. But what should business owners keep in mind as they explore this type of technology? Justin Lake, co-founder of Skyllful (formerly Venado Technologies), a mobile app development and consulting company, pointed out that “the value in ‘rugged’ devices isn’t limited to the durability of the hardware.” Instead, he prefers to think of the rugged-device category as commercial or enterprise devices “because the companies producing them better understand the needs of their business clients,” he said. “Consumer devices are designed for single-person ownership, whereas more durable and reliable enterprise devices are often built with multiple shifts in mind.”

These devices offer replaceable batteries, multiple charging docks and other relevant accessories, and those accessories are designed and tested to work together under tough conditions, Lake added.

Did You Know?Did you know

You can take out insurance policies on business mobile devices whether they’re rugged or not. Certain types of business insurance cover accidental damage and theft. Some insurers will even get a new device to you the next day.

If you’re looking for a professionally credentialed source for rating the performance of so-called rugged phones, focus on one designation that mobile companies and their customers trust the most. 

“There are a number of ratings systems to help buyers determine the true ‘ruggedness’ of a mobile device to ensure that the term isn’t used solely for marketing purposes, and a Mil-Spec designation is at the top of the list,” said Rob Chamberlin, co-founder of DataXoom, a mobile virtual network operator.

Falling under the ultra-rugged category, a Mil-Spec designation means that a device can handle environmentally hostile work environments, including excessive heat and cold, dust, humidity, vibration and shock.

“Mil-Spec guidelines were originally established by the U.S. Department of Defense and are considered the gold standard for accurately assessing a mobile device’s capabilities,” Chamberlin said. “Most Mil-Spec devices are significantly larger and heavier than their consumer-grade counterparts. Since the market for these devices is rather small relative to the consumer marketplace, Mil-Spec devices tend to have less ‘bells and whistles’ and are upgraded less often than consumer-grade mobile devices.” 

That said, Mil-Spec-credentialed rugged devices are “typically much more expensive as well – a factor that can sometimes be a detriment to potential buyers,” Chamberlin warned. 

What are the best rugged mobile devices?

If you’re in the market for a rugged smartphone, we’d recommend considering the following options:

Caterpillar Cat S42 H+

Caterpillar is a premium brand in the construction equipment sector, but the company’s rugged devices are certainly not premium-priced. The Caterpillar Cat S42 H+ is an attractive phone with an expandable 32GB of storage; a bright, 5.5-inch display; a 13MP rear camera; and a 5MP front camera. It’s also waterproof and drop-tested, and it has ingress protection against dirt, dust and sand. [In the construction business? View our guide to growing your construction firm.]

Oukitel WP17 2022

Chinese manufacturer Oukitel is best known for its portable power stations, but the company has also been in the smart device market for years and currently has 12 rugged phones for sale. The WP17 is a suitably equipped model at a similar price to the Caterpillar Cat S42 H+. It’s waterproof to IP68 standards and dustproof to IP69K. It has 128GB of storage, which is expandable, and features night-vision technology.

Samsung Galaxy XCover Pro

Samsung manufactures and sells more smartphones than any other company. The 2022 Galaxy XCover Pro features a whopping 512GB of memory storage and is MIL-STD-810G certified. The phone can withstand drops from nearly 1.5 meters and is IP68 waterproof-rated. However, the device is compatible only with Verizon and AT&T.

Conquest S16

The Conquest S16 is an explosion-proof mobile phone designed for use in fire safety, oil drilling, volatile-substances storage, and the coal, gas, chemical and pharmaceutical industries. It’s around three times the price of the rugged phones listed above, but it has a great aesthetic, a large yet manageable screen, a powerful camera and long battery life (700 hours in standby mode).

Blackview BV8800

Blackview is another major Chinese manufacturer of midpowered rugged devices. It has a standby time of 1,000 hours and a talk time of 65 hours. It’s waterproof and dustproof and, like the Conquest phone, offers infrared imagery in pitch-black conditions. You can fit two SIM cards into the phone or use the spare SIM slot to expand the memory from 128GB to 256GB.

TipBottom line

If you use ruggedized devices to connect to the internet, do it securely with VPN remote access. 

What are the best rugged cases?

If you want to protect the mobile equipment you already have rather than buying a brand-new mobile device, you could choose a rugged phone case instead. Check out our top picks below, but bear in mind that putting a case on a phone will not necessarily make it waterproof or dustproof.

OtterBox Defender

OtterBox Defender cases have protected phones dropped from heights of up to 23 stories. The edges come slightly past the front of the phone, meaning you don’t need an additional protector for the screen. Defender cases are made from silicone-coated plastic for better shock absorption. 

Spigen Tough Armor

With a hard polycarbonate layer on the outside and shock-absorbing foam on the inside, the Spigen Tough Armor is a bestselling case for Samsung phones (from 2020 onward), iPhones (from 12), Google Pixels (from 4A 5G) and the OnePlus 9/Pro.

Ballistic Tough Jacket

The Tough Jacket has 8-foot drop protection built in, although it’s been able to achieve much more during testing. Cases are available for a wide range of iPhones and Samsung phones. As with the OtterBox case, the sides stretch slightly farther than the edges of the phone, so it protects against drops on all sides.

Catalyst waterproof cases

Catalyst has earned top honors from iPhone Life magazine for “best rugged gear.” The company makes 100% waterproof, drop-proof cases for iPhones and Samsung devices. Catalyst says the new series of cases doubles the waterproof rating, thus making them completely waterproof to 33 feet. 

Brian O’Connell contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article. 

Mark Fairlie
Mark Fairlie
Contributing Writer at
Mark Fairlie has written extensively on business finance, business development, M&A, accounting, tax, cybersecurity, sales and marketing, SEO, investments, and more for clients across the world for the past five years. Prior to that, Mark owned one of the largest independent managed B2B email and telephone outsourcing companies in the UK prior to selling up in 2015.
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