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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Best Rugged Phones 2018

Best Rugged Phones 2018
If you are routinely paying out for new handsets because you dropped the last one off a cliff or into a cement mixer - again - you might want to consider something a little more durable.

Until recently rugged phones and decent phones have been two very different things, with the requirement of waterproofing and durability for some reason meaning you had to skimp on features. 

The Doogee S60 is one of several tough phones now turning that idea on its head. This is a rugged phone with wireless charging.

It has a fast Helio P25 octa-core processor and 6GB of LPDDR4 RAM. The battery is huge, there's a massive 64GB of internal storage, the camera is a surprising 21Mp, and there's even a pair of stereo speakers.

Most shocking: this dual-SIM phone costs just £290 at the time of writing. That's because it's from China, which typically offers better value for money in the smartphone market than we see in the UK.

In the UK you might be more familiar with brands such as CAT, and its S41 is currently topping our chart. Though it costs more and has a lower spec, for UK buyers at least there is the comfort of a two-year warranty and easier access to after-sales support.

What to look for in a rugged phone
If you are in the market for a rugged phone then you may be unsure of what to look for. The most obvious thing to start with is waterproofing (though if it's purely a waterproof phone you're after rather than a rugged device you should look to our round-up of these devices).

All the phones we've compared here are rated IP68, which means they can survive up to 1m of water for 30 minutes - potentially deeper and longer, but that is not guaranteed so do so at your own risk.

IP stands for 'Ingress Protection' and is used to define the sealing effectiveness of electrical enclosures against intrusion from foreign bodies and moisture.

The first number refers to how the device sealed against solid particles like dust; the highest you can get is '6' meaning total protection.

The second digit is for water protection and the best you'll see on most is '8', going by the original IEC standard 60529 (6K and 9K are not part of this).

A waterproof phone will either use a rubber flap to protect its ports, which otherwise allow water access to its internals, or it will waterproof the port itself. The latter is much more preferable, preventing any nasty accidents and proving much less fiddly when you want to charge the phone.

Next up is the design of the phone itself. You'll likely find a raised edge on the top surface of the phone to protect it when dropped face down, but sharp stones and pointy corners can still cause harm. So you'll want something tough to protect the screen glass - ideally Gorilla Glass 5, but depending on your budget you might find Gorilla Glass 3 instead.

Keep in mind that the bezels on a rugged phone are going to be larger than on a standard phone, because most damage occurs at the edges. Larger bezels mean you'll still be able to use the display even with a crack at the edge.

The phone itself is also going to be larger and heavier than most phones, with a more capacious battery inside that won't leave you high and dry in an emergency, and a tough, rubberised outer shell to protect it from drops and shock. On the upside you won't need to add a case.

Look around the sides of the phone: the best rugged phones come with dedicated SOS and PTT buttons, allowing you to quickly get help in an emergency or chat to your team mates while you're on an expedition.

1. CAT S41
  • RRP: $449.99
CAT phones are perhaps the best-known in the UK for durability. We've stuck the CAT S41 at the top of our round-up because for UK buyers it is the easiest to get hold of and, with a 24-month warranty, after-sales support should also be better than some of the Chinese phones listed here. 

That said it cannot match the value for money of the Doogee S60 in second place, which offers better hardware at a lower price and includes high-end features such as a fingerprint scanner and wireless charging. Which of these phones you choose will be very much based on what are your personal priorities.

If you can stretch to the £399 RRP (shop around and you'll find it for less online) the CAT S41 has real appeal as a rugged phone. It's housed in a tough rubber shell that's ribbed and textured for grip, angular in design like the other tough phones here, but surprisingly not overly big and heavy (152x75x12.85mm and 218g).

Flaps prevent water getting in to any important ports, there's Gorilla Glass 5 to shield the glassware, which works with wet fingers and gloves, and the phone is rated IP68 waterproof/dustproof and certified MIL-SPEC 810G.

Physical buttons are favoured over onscreen variants, making the S41 easily usable underwater. In fact you can switch off screen sensitivity altogether underwater using a programmable key that is differentiated from the others by its gold colouring.

This key can alternatively be used to quick-launch a given app with a short- or long press, or in common with the other rugged phones here to invoke PTT mode.

Core hardware includes a 5in full-HD IPS display, an octa-core MediaTek Helio P20 clocked at 2.3GHz, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage (with microSD support up to 2TB). There's a fixed-focus 8Mp selfie camera at the front, and a 13Mp camera with LED flash and PDAF at the rear.

Connectivity-wise there's dual-band Wi-Fi, support for all UK 4G LTE bands, Bluetooth 4.1, NFC, GLONASS and GPS. There's also a 3.5mm headphone jack and bottom-mounted speaker, and while the phone charges over old Micro-USB it does support Pump Express 2.0 for faster charging.

The CAT S41 runs an almost stock version of Android 7.0 Nougat, with the addition of three apps: App Toolbox is an app store that offers only the type of apps a user of such a phone might want, such as fishing, farming and construction apps; CATPhones is simply a shortcut to the support site; and Share lets you use the S41's 5,000mAh battery to charge another phone low on juice over USB OTG.

The CAT S41 is an excellent example of a rugged phone in the UK, but if it's out of your price range read on below.

2. Doogee S60
Doogee's S60 is the closest thing we've seen to a smartphone that is both durable and decent. It has some fancy specs that would appeal to all smartphone buyers (especially at this price), but doesn't allow that to compromise its rugged design.

This chunky handset is a beastly 400g, part of which can be blamed on the battery - a generous 5,580mAh pack that supports very fast 12V/2A charging over old Micro-USB, as well as more forward-facing wireless charging. Of course, the battery isn't that much larger than on the CAT S41, and that phone weighs only 218g.

The rest can be attributed to the protective tech in operation here. You'll find a 5.2in full-HD panel with Gorilla Glass 5, IP68 waterproofing and a tough polycarbonate exoskeleton that wraps around the Doogee's aluminium chassis. We'd like to have seen waterproof ports rather than fiddly flaps to cover standard ports, but we have no concerns that they will not do their job as intended.

Dedicated SOS and PTT buttons allow you to make emergency calls and send GPS info to designated contacts, or chat with teammates in a single click.

The Doogee S60 runs an octa-core processor with four of its eight cores clocked at 2.5GHz. This Helio P25 promises smooth performance, particularly when paired with 6GB of RAM and a 900MHz GPU. You also get 64GB of internal storage (and can add up to 128GB via microSD).

At the back of the phone you'll spot a pair of stereo speaker grilles - Doogee claims the phone can reach 102dB. Also here is a responsive fingerprint scanner, but the real highlight is the 21Mp camera. Combined with PDAF, OIS, a dual-LED flash and support for Live Photo, the Doogee S60 stands to take some impressive underwater photography. There's an 8Mp camera at the front too.

This is one of several Chinese phones in this round-up, which we find typically offer better value for money than you would find in the UK. However, it does mean you must import them from China, which has some associated risks and may leave you liable to import duty (20 percent of the value on the shipping paperwork). If you're happy to give that a go, Doogee's S60 is one of the best rugged phones we've seen.

The S60 comes in Sunset Gold, Moonlight Silver and Mineral Black.

3. Ulefone Armor 2
Coming in a bit cheaper than the Doogee S60, the Ulefone Armor 2 has many similarities but falls slightly short with its plastic chassis and use of Gorilla Glass 3.

An update to the original Ulefone Armor, we like the addition of USB-C (the S60 has old Micro-USB) but we're less keen on the removal of the headphone jack. You do get a USB-C adaptor in the box so you can plug in a pair of earphones when it's not charging.

Another key difference between these two phones is that the Ulefone does not support wireless charging. It has a smaller (but still capacious) 4,700mAh battery that supports 18W fast charging and can go from zero to 100 percent in two hours.

An advantage of this smaller battery is lower weight, and the Ulefone feels significantly lighter at 265g. It's ever so slightly smaller overall, thanks to a 5in (also full-HD) screen, but with a larger chin there's not a lot of difference in the height.

Whereas Doogee places the fingerprint sensor on the rear, here you'll find it at the front of the phone below the screen where it also operates as a home button. We like this positioning, but it means the Doogee has slimmer bezels top and bottom.

Design-wise the two have a lot in common - right down to the waterproof stereo speakers at the rear and rubber flap at the bottom to protect the charging port. It's not a bad thing, because for rugged phones we think they look rather good. Both phones are IP68 rated.

The Ulefone also has dedicated PTT and SOS buttons, plus an additional camera button. This allows you to call up and be capturing great images from the 16Mp rear camera within seconds - even underwater. The Armor 2 has a f/2.0 aperture and dual-LED flash, and is able to record full-HD video. There's also a 13Mp selfie camera at the front.

Core hardware is much the same as with the S60, but its Helio P25 is clocked a little higher at 2.6GHz rather than 2.5GHz and its GPU at 1GHz rather than 900MHz. It's unlikely you'll notice a difference in performance. 

Both phones feature 64GB of internal storage and can accept expansion via microSD - the Ulefone supports up to 256GB. As with the Doogee this is in addition to two SIM slots (you don't need to choose either or). Note that the Armor 2 supports the smallest nano-SIM variety, while the Doogee uses Micro-SIMs. 

4. AGM X2 SE
The AGM X2 SE costs around £360 from GearBest at the time of writing. It's a mid-range tough phone with IP68 waterproofing, a metal frame, rubberised bumper and Gorilla Glass. The rear panel is two-tone mirror-finish glass, which seems a strange choice for a phone that's going to be thrown around, but does set it apart from rivals.

Whereas you might find dedicated SOS and PTT buttons on other tough phones, the AGM has one additional button but this is used to trigger the camera, with no customisation possible in the settings. AGM is either imagining an entirely different type of emergency situation, or it is appealing to the user's desire for regular smartphone features as well as durability.

To that end there's also a dual-camera at the back, with both lenses specified at 12Mp. It's able to produce the bokeh (or blurred background) effect. There's also an impressive 16Mp selfie camera at the front, and a fingerprint scanner on the rear.

In many ways the X2 SE looks like any other rugged phone, with its chunky chin and top bezel, and oversized casing. The AGM weighs in at 250g, which really isn't too bad for a tough phone (especially one with a 6000mAh battery inside), but it's a chunky 14mm thick.

Unlike the Doogee the AGM does not support wireless charging, but its higher-capacity battery does fast-charge in compliance with Quick Charge 3.0. The USB-C port, in common with the headphone jack, is hidden behind a rubber flap to keep out water - this isn't as fiddly as some we've seen. 

The screen is a useful size at 5.5in, but of the older 16:9 variety. Rather than IPS it uses AMOLED, and we're big fans of this technology's vibrancy. This isn't the brightest AMOLED panel we've seen, but it's quite acceptable for the money you're paying, and should be easily visible outdoors.

In terms of core hardware there's a Snapdragon 653 octa-core chip clocked at 1.95GHz, integrated with the Adreno 510 GPU and paired with 6GB RAM. It sounds impressive, but in Geekbench 4 we found a low- to middling 2815-point score; in GFXBench its T-Rex graphics score of 39fps was better.

Storage is generous at 64GB, and you can add up to 128GB via microSD. That's in addition to twin SIM slots, with the AGM supporting all UK 4G bands.

5. CAT S31
  • RRP: $329.99
In common with its brother higher up this chart, the CAT S31 struggles to compete with the Chinese phones in this round-up on value, but it will be easier to get hold of in the UK and comes with better after-sales support. There's even a 24-month warranty, which you will not get with any Chinese phone.

The S31 is £100 cheaper than the S41 (again, shop around online and you should find it cheaper than its £299 RRP), but you make several sacrifices in its specification.

There's a smaller 4.7in screen which is here only HD in resolution (the S41 is full-HD), and its protective glass has been downgraded from Gorilla Glass 5 to Gorilla Glass 3. It still works with wet fingers and gloves, though there's no option to turn off the touch panel via the gold programmable key (this is restricted to either PTT or quick-launching apps with a short- or long press). The S31 does share the S41's IP68 waterproof/dustproof and MIL-SPEC 810G ratings. 

It's also running near-stock Android Nougat, with the same CATPhones support app and App Toolbox. There's no Share app for using the S31's 4,000mAh battery to juice up another phone, which makes sense given that its battery is lower in capacity than that of the S41.

What makes less sense is that, despite the smaller screen and battery, the S31 is only a tad shorter and lighter: 146mm against the S41's 152mm, and 200g to its 218g.

Performance takes a hit with only the quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 210 inside, along with just 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. Fortunately you can add a microSD card for up to 128GB expansion.

Cameras are also inferior, though perhaps not your primary concern with such a device. You'll find a fixed-focus 2Mp selfie camera and an 8Mp camera with LED flash at the back.

The design is very similar to the S41, but the S31 is softer to the touch with smoother, less grippy rubber. The speaker sits above the hardware buttons at the front rather than at the bottom, which actually we prefer, but we're less keen on the non-existent notification/battery charging LED.

In terms of connectivity you get just single-band Wi-Fi, but the CAT S31 supports all UK 4G LTE bands (in common with the S41 single- and dual-SIM variants are available), GPS, GLONASS, Bluetooth 4.1 and Micro-USB. There's also a 3.5mm headphone jack, but no NFC.

6. Nomu S30 Mini
Little brother to the S30 (no longer available), the Nomu S30 Mini is an example of what you'll get if you want to go down the scale somewhat in budget, and don't need a high-performance rugged phone. Available for £107 at the time of writing, the Mini has a lower hardware specification than the Doogee and Ulefone handsets above it in this article, and it's much smaller overall.

That's thanks to a 4.7in screen, which has only an HD - 1280x720 pixels - display. It's something we don't often see in Chinese phones at this price point, but at this size it's not a disaster. Nomu has protected it with Gorilla Glass 3, which is the same standard used by the Ulefone Armor 2.

The S30 Mini is also waterproof, and in common with the other handsets in this group, rated IP68. Something we really like here is that there are no fiddly rubber port covers to protect the internals from water damage - the ports themselves are waterproof, as we see on high-end waterproof phones such as the Galaxy S8 and iPhone 8.

Corners have been cut to hit the lower price, of course, so you won't find a dedicated SOS or PTT button here. In fact, aside from the giveaway angular edges and screw detailing, the S30 Mini looks more like a normal phone - albeit one with some rather chunky bezels (necessary to protect the screen corners from damage).

Nomu has used a titanium-alloy frame, but what you see here actually feels rather plasticky - particularly the clip-on rear panel with carbon-fibre effect design. When compared to the Doogee and Ulefone, which each hold in place with two screws a small panel that holds only the SIM and microSD slots, it seems a bit cheap.

As we mentioned the core hardware specification is also lower, and the S30 Mini will be noticeably slower with its 1.5GHz MediaTek 6737T quad-core chip and 3GB of RAM. Though you can add up to 64GB via microSD, storage is also lower at 32GB. Unsurprisingly there's no fingerprint scanner either.

If you don't need a top-end phone, though, avoiding power-hungry components could mean you get a lot more runtime out of that 3,000mAh battery.

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