Smartphones don’t last forever, but while most of us hope to make it to the end of our two-year contracts others struggle to get through a couple of months.
Phones are increasingly sold with some level of waterproofing protection, and the best phones will be fitted with tough Gorilla Glass screen protection. Add a decent phone case and most of us will muddle along.
But for extreme sports enthusiasts, manual labourers and the downright clumsy this is just not enough. For these people there are ruggedised smartphones, tough phones that are waterproof, dustproof, drop-proof and shockproof.
Buying a tough phone no longer means you have to skimp on sought after features, and some of the best examples have all the bells and whistles such as fast processors, decent cameras and wireless charging.
Read on below our list of the best rugged phones for more buying advice on what to look for.
Best tough phone reviews
1. CAT S62 Pro – Best Overall
This is CAT’s top-end rugged phone – but you might not know it to look at it. This looks like any other current smartphone – okay, so it’s a bit heavier and chunkier, but CAT has worked wonders with its design.
Meeting MIL-STD-810H and P68 standards, the S62 Pro is well suited to handling extreme situations. There’s Gorilla Glass 6 to protect the 5.7in Full-HD display, and an aluminium casing with non-slip TPU rubber on the rear – even with wet hands or gloves the phone is easy to handle. The rounded edges are also aluminum, fixed into place with three screws on each side.
It’s dropped the laser distance measurement and air quality monitoring of the CAT S61, but still features a thermal-imaging camera, which is better integrated to the design. The cameras still protrude from the rear somewhat, however, and the battery capacity has dropped from 4500mAh to 4000mAh.
Powering the show is a 2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 octa-core chip, along with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, expandable via microSD card.
We were slightly disappointed with the performance when compared to the competition. We’d also like to see support for wireless charging built-in, but look beyond this and the S62 Pro is a fine example of a rugged phone.
2. AGM X3 – Best Perfomance
People hate being put in boxes. Just because you need a durable phone does not mean you don’t also want flagship performance and an attractive design. AGM understands this, and as such its X3 is a powerful and good-looking rugged phone.
There’s a Snapdragon 845 processor inside, so there is no sacrificing speed for strength. It also has decent audio, with waterproof JBL-tuned dual stereo speakers that pump out audio up to 98dB, a decent 5.99in screen (albeit with some chunky bezels) and a good-quality dual-lens Sony camera.
Chunkier than most flagships, but skinnier than most tough phones, it’s incredible that the X3 weighs only 200g, and is just 10.5mm thick. It’s quite usable in one hand, especially with the inclusion of dedicated buttons for calling up the Google Assistant and launching the camera.
Protecting it from damage is Gorilla Glass 5, a tough metal frame that is protected at the corners with subtle rubber bumpers, and compliance with MIL-STD-810G and IP68.
We are pleased to find the ports themselves are waterproof, meaning no fiddly rubber flaps, but there is a rubber port cover in the box that the company recommends you use anyway to avoid USB port oxidising and short-circuiting when charging caused by water left in the port.
The battery is not as high in capacity as those seen in some of the tough phones, but at 4,100mAh it’s pretty generous. It charges fast with support for Quick Charge 3.0, enabling you to get from 0- to 100% in 130 minutes. The AGM X3 also supports wireless charging.
Read our full AGM X3 review
3. Ulefone Armor 7 – Best Features
Ulefone announces new rugged phones at an incredible pace. Its latest is the Armor 9, which includes a thermal-imaging camera, but countless older models remain on sale. We’ve reviewed the Armor 7, which offers good value for its specification.
As rugged phones go, this is an attractive beast – at least from the front – with a metal and rubber outer shell that’s as tough as it is good-looking. We like the fact the Armor 7 is not only IP68 waterproof, but its ports are waterproof, too.
And we can look past its 290g weight, given the high-capacity 5,500mAh battery inside that can go a full two days away from the mains.
Ulefone specifies a 2.2GHz Helio P90 chip and 8GB of memory, a triple-lens camera, 128GB of storage with microSD support, dual-SIM dual-standby and Bluetooth 5.0. There’s also a heart-rate sensor, a generous 6.3in Full-HD+ display with waterdrop notch, and 10W Qi wireless charging.
Unlike we see on some tough phones there is no removable rear panel, with the SIM tray instead located on the Ulefone’s left edge. There’s also no 3.5mm headphone jack, but you do get 802.11ac Wi-Fi, GPS and GLONASS, plus NFC that allows it to support Android Pay.
4. Doogee S95 Pro – Best Modular Phone
Doogee is another brand that maintains a huge range of rugged phones, but we like the S95 Pro. As with previous versions, it’s a modular phone for which various snap-on accessories are available, including a 3,500mAh battery pack, a wireless speaker, wireless earbuds and a wireless charging base.
A metal housing with a rubber cover around the edges feels reassuringly tough, and Gorilla Glass 4 is used to protect the screen. It’s not surprising to see some chunky bezels here for added protection, but the notched screen is otherwise decent, a bright 6.3in IPS screen with a Full-HD+ resolution.
The S95 Pro is not only resistant to shocks and scratches (MIL-STD810G), it is also resistant to water (IP68) and high pressures and temperatures (IP69K).
You can immerse it in water at a depth of 3m for 4 hours, but make sure you have the SIM card and charging port covers tightly sealed first. It is also resistant to moisture, and in theory it should not break if you drop it from a height above your head up to 1,000 times.
Large and heavy, in common with most rugged phones, the S950 Pro is still relatively easy to handle in one hand, with all the buttons within reach. There’s a fingerprint sensor on the right side and a customisable button on the left that can be used as an SOS key.
Performance is strong, thanks to a Mediatek Helio P90 processor and IMG 9XM-HP8 GPU, which are paired with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of UFS 2.0 storage. Battery life is also good, and the capacious 5,150mAh battery can last a whole weekend, then recharge over 10W wireless or 24W wired.
On paper the cameras are a highlight, but in reality the 48Mp Sony IMX586, which is paired with a 8Mp telephoto lens and 117-degree wide-angle lens, doesn’t always live up to our expectations.
5. CAT S41 – Solid Rugged Phone
CAT phones has updated its range, so the S41 is no longer its most up-to-date model, but it is still on sale.
These are among the best-known phones in the UK for durability – but that does sometimes mean you are paying for the name.
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.
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 a bottom-mounted speaker.
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 or 6 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.
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