August 30, 2020

Stop buying breakable phones: The new rugged phones are tough and hot


Phones that are rugged and waterproof — even without a case — should be the new normal.

The best features of rugged phones you need to know about

For example, the Samsung XCover Pro and Cat S52 lay claim to being the lightest and thinnest rugged phones, respectively (though the Cat S52 is only available in the US as a gray-market device). The bigger but sleek Cat S61 offers unique sensors for temperature and distance. The diminutive UniHertz AtomXL writes a new page in the rugged phone stylebook, while the Kyocera DuraForce Pro 2 and Sonim XP8 make no apologies for the rugged lines that envelop these apocalypse-ready devices.

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 810-G-rated.

A phone’s resistance to foreign matter is signified by an IP code, typically IP68. The 6 in IP68 means the phone is closed to dust and grit, while the 8 means the phone is protected against water immersion “under conditions…agreed between the manufacturer and user“, according to the International Electrotechnical Commission, which oversees the standard. That means not all IP68 ratings are the same. It can denote immersion resistance ranging from 5 feet for 30 minutes for the Samsung XCover Pro, 2 meters for 30 minutes for the Kyrocera DuraForce Pro 2 or as much as 3 meters for 60 minutes for the Cat S61. Read the tech specs before you buy, but all the phones on our list have some level of IP68 protection. The Sonim XP8 and Cat S61 achieve an IP69 rating, indicating that they can also resist direct sprays of liquid.

Some of the phones in this roundup have a tethered cap that seals their USB-C jacks. These are tedious in daily use and complicate placing the phone in a desktop charging stand. Since most phones on the list don’t use a cap to achieve water and dust resistance, I’d recommend keeping that in mind when shopping for a rugged phone.

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. 

So many ways to have a walkie-talkie on your phone. PTToC apps for both consumers, enterprises and first responders have proliferated in recent years with the wide spread of 4G LTE that allows them to behave very much like an actual radio, but with far more smarts.Brian Cooley/CNET

All of the phones on our list except the Cat S52 have one or two dedicated buttons that can be set to Push to Talk, and all of them can map that button to Zello, the most popular PTT platform. It’s a more intuitive experience than tapping a button on a screen to talk, though PTToC services don’t work unless you have a Wi-Fi or cellular data connection.

Push to Talk button on Samsung XCover Pro
Most of the phones in our roundup have at least one assignable hardware button that can be mapped to several functions such as Push to Talk, using the camera or sending out an emergency beacon alert via an app.Brian Cooley/CNET

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.

Unihertz Atom XL is also a real radio
The Unihertz Atom XL can communicate with FRS and GMRS radios, as well as with UHF ham radios, though such use is pending US type approval by the FCC.Brian Cooley/CNET

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.

Dual SIMs

Most 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 AT&T on a dual-SIM phone, or combine a Google Fi activation with either AT&T or Verizon for a virtual three-network phone since Google Fi taps into both Sprint and T-Mobile.

Samsung XCover Pro dual SIM and removeable battery
The Samsung XCover Pro features both dual physical SIM support as well as a swappable battery.Brian Cooley/CNET

Three of the phones on our list are available with LTE Band 14 support so they can use AT&T FirstNet, a special mobile network that can prioritize you and preempt other network users at 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 organisation you’re involved with.

Front-facing speakers

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 sideways from the phone. A couple of the phones on our list rectify that with front-facing speakers that blow away the meek volume levels on mainstream phones. 

Sonim XP8 front speakers
The loudest speakers of any phone in this group are the front-facing ones on the Sonim XP8.Brian Cooley/CNET

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. Get some earbuds when a speakerphone isn’t mission-critical.

The Sonim XP8 has a long history with professional first responders and has developed the screw-down Secure Audio Connector to provide audio and power to a wide range of speakers, mics and combinations of the two.

Replaceable batteries

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.

Oh, yeah, really good 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 the iPhone 11 Pro or the Samsung Galaxy S20, 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. 

Camera comparison from six top rugged phones

The Cat S61 takes camera imaging a step further with an integrated FLIR thermal sensor, which Cat says is accurate to temperature differences of 0.1 degrees Celsius while scanning up to 100 people a minute at a distance of 5 feet. That kind of thermal scanning function may become more popular now we’re living in a coronavirus pandemic.

CAT S61 FLIR image
Who knew the coldest part of a cat is its nose? The FLIR temperature sensor on the back of the Cat S61 is accurate to 0.1 degrees celsius.Brian Cooley/CNET

All the phones on our list use toughened glass. The two Cat phones have the latest Corning Gorilla Glass 6, which is more resistant to repeated and higher drops than its more commonly found predecessor.  

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.

Rugged phones incognito
You can tell a couple of these are rugged phones, but the rest blend in with normal ones. From top to bottom: Unihertz Atom XL, Cat S52, Sonim XP8. Samsung XCover Pro, Samsung Galaxy S8 with cover, Pixel 3A with cover, Kyocera DuraForce Pro 2, Cat S61.Brian Cooley/CNET

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 XLCat S52 (gray market)Cat S61Sonim XP8Samsung XCover ProKyocera DuraForce Pro 2
Price, USD$329$485 (est.)$999$648 (Verizon)$500 (unlocked)$444 (Verizon)
Programmable buttons101222
Dual SIMYYY (varies by region)YYN
Swappable batteryNNNYYN
Front speakerNNNYNY
Display4-inch, 1,136×640-pixel, Gorilla Glass 35.6-inch, 1,440×720-pixel, Gorilla Glass 6  5.2-inch, 1,920×1,080-pixel, Gorilla Glass 6  5-inch, 1,920×1,080-pixel, Gorilla Glass 3  6.3-inch, 2,340×1,080-pixel, Gorilla Glass 5  5-inch, 1,920×1,080-pixel, Kyocera Sapphire Shield  
Weight7.9 oz.7.4 oz.8.8 oz.11.8 oz.6.3 oz.8.3 oz.
SuperpowerNotably small and a real radioThinnest rugged phone in the worldFLIR and distance-measurement sensors  Feature-laden and tough as nailsSweet spot for a new generation of tough phonesHD Voice and Qi wireless charging

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’re in the market for a phone. These new rugged alternatives make phones excitingly distinct again.

By Brian Cooley

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