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 smartphone currently at the top of our best rugged phones chart – the Doogee S60 – turns that idea on its head. This is a rugged phone with wireless charging. That’s a new one on us.
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 £196 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.
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. 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.
The rest can be attributed to the protective tech in operation here. You’ll find a Gorilla Glass 5 panel, 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.
2. Ulefone Armor 2
Coming in just a couple of quid 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.
3. Nomu S30
The flagship in Nomu’s line of rugged smartphones, the dual-SIM S30 matches decent specifications with a tough titanium-alloy shell, Gorilla Glass 4 and rubber protection at the corners. It’s waterproof, shockproof, dustproof and it can stand up to extreme temperatures.
In our drop tests it fared well, but while it survived our water test we found it difficult to interact with the screen while it was wet. This makes it especially difficult to take photos underwater, and the dedicated camera button of the Ulefone would have come in handy here.
You do get a dedicated SOS button, but just a single LED flash at the rear (there’s no notification light either). This is combined with a so-so 13Mp camera at the back, and a 5Mp selfie shooter at the front.
Upon close inspection we found droplets of water – not enough to cause damage but still concerning – under the panel that conceals the two SIM and microSD card slots at the back, which is likely due to the fact there’s no rubber seal here.
As with the Doogee and Ulefone the Nomu uses a rubber flap to protect the Micro-USB charging port from water damage. There’s a huge 5000mAh battery inside, which ran to two days in our testing but we found it wasn’t brilliant at holding its charge when left switched off.
The specification isn’t as impressive as with the Doogee and Nomu, which is largely due to the Nomu’s age – times change quickly in tech. So there’s no fingerprint scanner, and whereas you get the Helio P25, 6GB of RAM and 64GB storage with those devices, here you get the Helio P10 clocked at 2GHz and 4GB of LPDDR3 RAM. There is 64GB internal storage, but it can be expanded through microSD only up to 32GB – the Ulefone supports up to 256GB.
The Nomu S30 is not a bad rugged phone, but you can get more for your money.
(Read our full review of the Nomu S30 here.)
4. Nomu S30 Mini
Little brother to the S30, 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 £125 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 – 1280×720 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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