The best rugged smartphones of 2020

Mark Jansen

If you work in an outdoor environment or enjoy going on hikes, you should think about investing in a smartphone that can withstand extreme conditions. Most modern phones don’t withstand exposure to dirt, dust, water, or extreme temperatures well and could get damaged if you’re not careful.

Some manufacturers offer rugged devices that are more suitable for an active lifestyle or outdoor work. These phones are sturdy, reliable, and adapted to extreme conditions, thanks to features like waterproof designs and long-lasting batteries.

Cat S61 ($729)

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Who better to supply your rugged phone than a company known for making construction vehicles and other equipment? The Cat S61 is the toughest in a series of tough phones from Cat, and as you might expect, it comes with the latest tools to make life easier for anyone who needs a reliable phone for the toughest working conditions. They are constantly innovating with new products soon to hit the market.

But before we get to that, let us assure you that this phone is tough. It’s made from a combination of thick aluminum and black plastic, giving the phone a great range of resistances, and making it supremely durable. It’s IP68 and IP69K rated, so it can survive being immersed in water for up to an hour and is resistant to high-pressure water jets, and it can resist drops up to 1.8 meters onto concrete. The 5.2-inch screen displays a 1920 x 1080-pixel resolution, and it can be used with wet fingers and with gloves on — though there are also navigation keys below the screen just in case.

The phone’s performance is average and it comes with 64GB of storage, but what really sets the Cat S61 apart is the massive range of tools you won’t find anywhere else. The integrated Flir camera gives the phone Predator-esque thermal vision, useful for finding hot water pipes, internal swelling, or people hiding in bushes. There’s also a built-in laser measurement tool, which allows for quick measurements of distances, and an air quality sensor which lets you know when the air quality in the surrounding space has dropped to dangerous levels. Rounding all this up is a 4,500mAh battery that has the potential to last for two days.

All of these tools are unlikely to be useful to most people but should be invaluable for anyone who requires them in their day-to-day. However, the Cat S61 is priced to match its range of tools, and it’ll set you back a cool $729. Still, if you want an exceptionally tough phone with some amazing tools, look no further.

Cat

Land Rover Explore ($320)

land rover explore with battery

If the Cat S61 is the rugged phone for contractors and other similar professions, the Land Rover Explore is the ultimate rugged phone for the great outdoors. It’s super-tough, coming with IP68 rated water-resistance, a durable build, and the protection of Gorilla Glass 5 and a glass screen protector on the 5-inch display. The display runs a Full HD 1920 x 1080-pixel resolution with midrange specs, and it ran Android 7.0 Nougat out of the box, but has since been updated to Android 8.1 Oreo.

The real charm of the Land Rover Explore is in the details. While it boasts an already hefty 4,000mAh battery, the Explore comes with modular options including the Adventure Pack, an additional battery pack that adds another 3,600mAh and a Ceramic Patch GPS antenna. That additional antenna boosts the phone’s GPS capabilities, making sure you always know where you are, even in the most challenging areas. The extra GPS capability draws even more power, but the additional battery is more than up to the task, and we saw the Land Rover Explore still last a day despite a persistent GPS connection and near-constant screen use.

The ViewRanger app also includes additional tools for hiking and cycling, displaying a compass, barometric data, distance traveled, and other details depending on your activity. The Land Rover Explore is meant for people who love to range into the wilderness, and who want their phone to be a big part of their adventures. It’s tough, reliable, and supremely well-suited to life outdoors. The catch? It’s currently only available in the United Kingdom and would require importing to the U.S. While the phone used to be far pricier, it’s currently being sold for ~$320 USD. Still, for a life spent loving the great outdoors, there’s no better option than the Land Rover Explore.

Land Rover

Cat S48c ($480)

Simon Hill/Digital Trends

The Cat S61 isn’t the only Cat phone up for taking a tumble through some harsh environments. The Cat S48c comes at a lower $500 price point — which is perfect if the $700+ tag on the S61 is a bit too much.

Thankfully, Cat has only stripped out some of the more outlandish elements from the S61 to slash down the price, so the protective qualities are untouched. This is very much a rugged phone, with a tough rubberized body and a hefty weight of 248 grams. Protective flaps cover each port and raised edges protect the screen from surfaces. An IP68-rating means it can cope with drops into water with few issues, and the MIL-SPEC 810G and Non-Incendive Class1 Div2 certification mean the S48c can take multiple drops onto concrete and resist extreme temperature changes. There’s a customizable Push-To-Talk (PTT) button on the side, a 5-inch IPS LCD display protected by Gorilla Glass 5 that can be used with wet or gloved fingers, and physical buttons at the bottom.

The low price shows in the internal hardware though, and while the Snapdragon 630 is more than adequate for most daily tasks it’ll struggle to keep up with other phones in this price bracket. However, we had no issues during use and it even ran Asphalt 9 fairly well. Any issues you have will probably be offset by the huge 4,000mAh battery that lasted for at least two days during our tests. The camera is — as expected — somewhat disappointing. But it will take good enough pictures in strong lighting, and it takes underwater photos too.

But the price is a serious draw. The Cat S48c is available from Sprint for just $480 (plus tax), or $20 per month for 18 months on Sprint’s Flex Lease option. The Cat S48c is also available from Verizon for $499.

Cat Sprint Verizon

Unihertz Atom ($280)

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Small and solid, the Unihertz Atom is a tiny titan that should serve you well in a variety of situations. It’s a small phone, with the screen measuring in at a teensy 2.4-inches — for comparison, the iPhone X has a 5.8-inch screen — and the body isn’t much bigger. Chunky bezels surround the display, and you’ll find a tough TPU-style material encasing the body of the phone, some red accents for added style, and full IP68 waterproofing. It’s certainly not stylish, but it looks and feels like a tank.

Despite the small size, it doesn’t skimp on power. There’s an octa-core processor inside, along with 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, and Android 8.1 Oreo. It proved powerful in our review, holding its own against some of the best midrange phones in the world right now, like the Moto G6. It comes with a ton of mod cons too, like a fingerprint scanner, facial recognition, and support for NFC card payments.

It’s not perfect — the camera is unreliable, and the small display makes typing a nightmare — but thanks to the modest specs, the battery lasts a lifetime, and you can expect to get days out of this little device. With strong waterproofing, a durable body, and plenty of stamina, the Unihertz Atom is built to survive building sites, long hikes, and bike rides.

Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the Unihertz Atom is now available from Unihertz’s website for $260, or Amazon.

Unihertz

Doogee S90 ($300)

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Little-known brand Doogee has cranked out a considerable number of rugged smartphones over the years, so you’d expect it would be able to do a good job. That’s certainly the case, and the Doogee S90 is a capable rugged phone — but it’s the magnetic Moto Mod-style modules that make it really stand out from the crowd.

Initial impressions show this is a seriously rugged device. It’s extremely heavy at 300 grams, and the titanium alloy build, backed up with a rubberized body, gives serious protection. It boasts IP68 and IP69K water resistance, has protective port covers, and the huge 6.18-inch LCD notched display runs a 2246 x 1080-pixel resolution. The performance is solid and uses Mediatek’s Helio P60 processor well. You won’t be playing the latest games here, but Alto’s Odyssey ran smoothly. An impressively large 5,050mAh battery gives multiple days of battery life on a single charge.

But the meat of the phone is in the add-ons. Some are a bit niche — the gamepad and the night vision camera fall neatly into this category — but we can see some people being interested in the walkie talkie module that turns the phone into a full-fledged walkie talkie. The one everyone will want, though, is the battery module. Adding 5,000mAh of extra power, this module basically doubles the phone’s battery life. We reckon you could easily take this phone out for longer than a weekend on a single charge and it would probably be alright — and there will be some people who will adore that idea.

The Doogee S90 is available for $279 from Doogee’s website.

Doogee

LG X Venture ($180)

Adam Ismail/Digital Trends

It can be tough to find a rugged smartphone that doesn’t break the bank, but the LG X Venture is one of the few tough phones that you can pick up for a bargain price. It’s rugged, with an easy-to-grip textured back that won’t slip out of your hand unexpectedly. The lower price doesn’t affect the build quality — the phone feels extremely solid and comes with an IP68-rating for water and dust resistance, as well as military-grade (MIL-STD810G) shock resistance.

It’s not the most powerful phone in this lineup, you may find some issues with speed and apps taking longer to load than usual, and Android 7.0 Nougat is now very dated. But it comes with a capable camera that provided good performance in our review, and a truly enormous 4,100mAh battery that should keep your phone going for a long time, which is especially useful if you’re away from the charger for a while.

It’s not the most powerful phone on this list, but it’s packed to the brim with useful features, including the physical QuickButton on the side, and a toggleable Glove Mode. It’s a long-lasting phone that won’t break the bank.

Amazon

Kyocera DuraXE (AT&T) ($200)

No, your eyes do not deceive you — that’s a flip phone up there. But really, a phone that curves up into a clamshell to protect its most vulnerable parts does make sense as the basis of a rugged phone, and Kyocera has built up from there to create the delightfully retro-rugged DuraXE.

But first, there’s an admission to be made. This post may be called “the best rugged SMARTphones,” but this isn’t a smartphone. You won’t find Android on here, and the proprietary OS isn’t even touch-capable. But despite that, this is still a very well protected little phone that’s perfect for you if you just need something small but tough that’ll keep you in touch. It’s rated at IP68 for water and dust-resistance, and the drop protection has been tested up to Military Standard 810G. There’s even a programmable side key for easy access to required apps.

So it won’t play Angry Birds, and you won’t take incredible pictures with the 5-megapixel camera lens — but with a 1,500mAh battery that Kyocera claims will last on standby for up to 16 days, this could be all the phone you need for long trips out. It’s only available on AT&T, but Kyocera has a long list of handsets for other carriers.

Kyocera