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Rugged Smartphone 2017 Buying Guide

Sam Dunn

Our buying guide helps you find the toughest and most durable smartphone.

Based on the number of smartphones you see with spiderweb-cracked screens, you might think every model out there was an expensive and fragile waste of money, particularly if you're active on a jobsite. Drops and bumps, water sprays, dust, extreme temperatures, and vibrations are all threats to an otherwise essential technology tool.

Luckily, not all smartphones are delicate flowers. There are strong options available for construction contractors, engineers and skilled tradespeople who cannot afford to compromise on ruggedness. Whether you need something weatherproof, impact-resistant, optimized for multimedia, ready for collaborative projects or all of the above, you just need to know where to look.

What makes a smartphone rugged?

To call a phone rugged, not to mention waterproof or water-resistant, it should have a variety of certifications to its name. That means a third party has conducted tests to prove whether the device can withstand some pretty serious abuse. There are generally two types of these certifications: IP and MIL-STD.

The IP (Ingress Protection) rating on a smartphone is published by the International Electrotechnical Commission, which determines if a device performs after exposure to dirt, dust and water. The ratings for dirt range from 1 to 6, and 1 to 8 for water. The max rating for particulates would be IP6, and a max rating for liquid would be IP8. That would mean an IP68 phone is completely resistant to dirt damage and can be left underwater indefinitely, at a depth determined by the manufacturer.

The MIL-STD (Military Standard) specs are set by various arms of the U.S. Military and Department of Defense. The numbers associated with MIL-STD indicate far more than just protection from water and dust. For instance, MIL-STD-810Gs certifies that something can withstand nuclear radiation, drops onto concrete, and exposure to rapid freezing or heat. These certifications can be much more nuanced, but most commonly in rugged smartphones, you'll note they are listed under an umbrella designation of MIL-STD-810G, which has a number of subcategories.

It is worth noting that a smartphone lacking one of these certifications may still be able to take a beating. For instance, companies such as Panasonic and Xplore are more focused on making sure their devices can be dropped than they are on them being able to handle really cold weather.

Best rugged smartphones

The Kyocera Brigadier ($399, Verizon) is MIL-STD-810G certified to offer protection against dust, shock from a 6-foot fall onto concrete, vibration, temperature extremes, blowing rain, low pressure, solar radiation, salt fog, humidity and water immersion. Plus, it's an IP65. The Android phone sports a bright sapphire crystal and a 4.5-inch display, and it's usable with gloves.

If you've roughed it on a worksite, you're well acquainted with Caterpillar. But did you know it made phones? The CAT S60 is a state-of-the-art smartphone with the soul of a backhoe. Its durability rates beyond the military standard; this die-cast phone can withstand a fall of nearly 6 feet and hourlong water submersion of just under 50 feet. The S60 also features a built-in thermal imaging system – the very first of its kind in a mobile device – allowing users to pinpoint nearby temperatures and see clearly in low-visibility environments.

The Sonim XP7 ($579) is another smartphone to consider for jobsites. It's more 'tank' than entertainment center, and it comes with a three-year, no-questions-asked warranty. Its Gorilla Glass 2 screen doesn't match the Brigadier's for imperviousness, but it runs Android and is IP69 rated.

The Crosscall Trekker-X3 was built to live outside. It is IP67 rated, meaning it can survive a full range of outdoor conditions. It does far more than deliver your email and apps, too. It comes with a built-in thermometer, hygrometer, barometer and magnetometer. The box it comes in doubles as a wireless charger.

Durable yet budget-friendly smartphones

Particularly when you're purchasing without a contract, pricing for rough-and-tumble phones can be prohibitive for small and midsize businesses. But when value is a must, attractive options remain.

For instance, the Samsung Galaxy Rugby Pro offers military-grade durability without threatening your SMB's bottom line. This 4G LTE device uses Samsung's S Beam technology, which allows quick file sharing between other nearby Samsung devices, making it ideal for cooperative efforts in the field.

For those looking for a sneaky-good value, the Kyocera Hydro series is one to watch. These phones aren't just waterproof – functionality continues even with wet hands, a wet screen or both. This phone is available through pay-as-you-go services such as Cricket Wireless and MetroPCS.

The Samsung Galaxy S7 Active is a year old, and an S8 Active is undoubtedly on its way. But that's one way to save some cash. It is IP68 rated and features a shatter-resistant display, meaning it should hold up to drops of 5 feet or less onto a flat surface. You can even opt for a camo-green model.


Image Credit: AnastasiiaS/Shutterstock
Sam Dunn Contributing Writer
I am an editor, copywriter, and producer with six years of digital media expertise. As a copy guy, my focus has been IT, particularly information security, enterprise communications, and the modern landscape for data centers. Recent clients have included Palo Alto Networks, nDash Co., Garland Technology, and Jibo.