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Best rugged phone?

I've been using a Xcover Pro until recently but it shut down and never rebooted so I'm looking for a new rugged phone.

Anyone has any recommendations? Looking online is a jungle of tier lists with dubious recommendations but it seems many recommend a brand called Ulefone, is it a good brand or something to stay away from?

Would prefer to use the distro that comes with the phone.

Thanks in advance

  • This has become something of an area of expertise for me over the last 10 years owing to my profession and how much time I must spend in the wilderness.

    I'll do my very best to keep this brief but I can't make any promises.

    Rugged phones are generally a major compromise in one way or another. More often than not it is the camera where you have to be willing to accept compromise. It's not so much quality; you can get a 108MP+ main sensor made by sony or samsung in most of these devices now. It's the software behind the camera.

    I've used rugged phones from pretty much every manufacturer in the space and it is a problem for all of them. You can generally run a GCAM port, but your 108mp array based sensor is now only capable of producing a 12MP image, and it isn't fast enough to capture high quality photos of moving subjects. As a still camera they can now be absolutely spectacular. Google's HDR algorithm and AI will crank out fantastic images and amazing lighting, but they can't cope with movement and you won't have any hardware based stabilisation. For some of us, that lack of hardware based stabilisation is actually an asset: strapped to a motorbike or vehicle across rough dirt roads, your iphone or galaxy will suicide its image stabilization sooner or later.

    The other major compromise is not universal, but it is common. Performance.

    Most of the players in this space will claim every new device as 'flagship', 'flagship killer' etc. In reality, many of them run something resembling a tick, tick, tick, TOCK cycle where they are forced to produce several low BOM devices (bill of materials) and sell them for far more than they are worth, before they produce something that actually builds and maintains their brand and reputation.

    Before you put your money down, you need to build an awareness of this behaviour and learn the capability of some of the chipsets that you might not have come across before. Many of the newer mediatek dimensity chipsets are highly capable and will come very close to standing their ground against midrange or industrial snapdragon chipsets. Price is often the best indicator here. As with most things, if you want something decent then you must pay for it. If the price seems too good to be true, it is.

    There are MAJOR advantages in this space for those that need them. My current phone only needs charging every 4 or 5 days. It came with a really well made charge dock that does not require me to daily defeat the rubberized gasket protecting the USB-C port from water and dust. It has a thermal camera with a focusing lens over it that allows me to spot koalas at a ridiculous distance, and it works well into the daylight after my $2400 thermal scope has become useless. It has a focused LED torch on the TOP of the device that I can turn on with a physical button. It has a 3.5 watt speaker on the rear that lets me make hands-free calls in stupidly loud environments, or listen to a podcast in the shed at high volume. There's a 1TB MicroSD for all the time that I am out of service areas and a 3.5mm jack for when my ears are feeling saucy. It feels and looks like an extremely well made NUGGET of a thing, and it makes me happy to pull it out of my pocket. It rocks an industrial snapdragon chipset and is fast as fuck with a battery that WILL NOT QUIT. I could drop it from a fire tower and it would probably live.

    It also cost me $1000AUD. It also weighs 400 grams. I also had to work directly with the manufacturer to get a firmware that would enable VoWifi in Australia. I also had to wipe my phone like 3 times to get it going. It was a total pain in the arse. Overall it is a fantastic piece of hardware that fits my weird needs almost perfectly, but unless you have a similarly weird set of requirements, would I recommend that you go down the same road? Probably not.

    The day I retire I will pick up the sleekest, smallest device with the most ridiculously high-speed, high-quality camera I can get my hands on. Until that time, I have a genuine need for this ridiculousness including the battery life and all the other extras.

    Having said that, I do feel like rugged phones are the only segment of the market that are still actually innovating and offering unique features. Foldables are cool, sure - but besides that, in terms of mainstream phones it really doesn't matter what you buy! They're all making the same rectangular glass slab. The features are identical, they're just better or worse between models and brands. At least this segment of the market still has the balls to take some risks and offer crazy shit that some people need or want.

    Like you, I jumped at the xcover pro, and then the xcover 6 pro. They both died spectacularly quickly and samsung did not come to the party with anything resembling honouring a warranty. Their warranty isn't worth shit.

    In comparison, when the fingerprint sensor died on my current device, AGM had a new phone in my hand in 4 days, and didn't ask me to return the broken one until I'd received the replacement.

    I won't receive an android version update (just security updates). The camera makes me sad, and sometimes the data connectivity going in and out of service areas takes longer than I would like.

    Just based on the content of your post, I would wager that you are better off with a device from a mainstream manufacturer in a heavy duty case. If your life is as weird as mine however, maybe it is worth looking into this segment a bit further. It is far from perfect, but when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.


    • Ulefone are right up at the top of this market segment. Their devices look cheap, but they are generally very durable and they work really well. They have figured out VoLTE and VoWifi connectivity globally and they shift a LOT of units. Cameras are pretty decent but share the same caveats as everyone else here. Battery is generally stellar and they should last you a good couple of years. BEWARE the tick, tick, tick, TOCK cycle. They release a lot of underspecced garbage and it can sometimes be difficult to tell what is their actual flagship. Their warranty SUCKS, but you shouldn't need it unless you abuse your device. Extra points for making them impossible to kill on the software front too. When unlocking bootloader, rooting or flashing custom firmware Ulefone have baked in a hardware level safety net that can bring a device back from the absolute brink of death. Scenarios that would guarantee a brick on many other devices, you can ALWAYS flash back to factory state with an Ulefone. They're the kings in that area.

      CAT I would not bother with at all. You are paying for the brand, but underneath it is the absolute bottom of the barrel hardware dressed up in a premium image. They're shite, and they fall apart to boot.

      Blackview is a weird one. I have major trouble picking which of their releases are decent and which are not. They HAVE released some stellar devices over the years, and they have been around a long time but they have had some massive failures and then failed to provide any warranty or support for those that got unlucky. Screens spontaneously cracking, bits falling off, screens coming unglued, failed waterproofing etc etc. And then next quarter they will go and release something with zero flaws. Too much of a risk for my liking, but I have been tempted by their recent small form factor rugged phone. It looks great.

      Doogee, Umidigi, IIIF150, Unihertz I would not touch again with a ten foot pole. I would not be at all surprised if these brands turn out to be subsidiary of one of the more successful manufacturers where they use their poorly binned chips and scrapped body designs. They're cheap as shit, but they are pretty disposable. If you want a cheap bag of problems, that nobody will help you with...go for it.

      AGM is an interesting case. I own their current flagship offering and I've described that experience in detail above. They have traditionally positioned themselves as the premium offering in the rugged space. Snapdragon processors, extremely high quality body manufacturing and a generally very premium feel with a price to match. They do not shift as many units as Ulefone, but they offer a physically far higher quality product. That lack of scale comes with a few issues on the software side, but in reality it is rare to see a major version update from any of these manufacturers and AGM have actually addressed several release issues via firmware updates. It's tricky business for AGM. They have recently joined the rest in releasing low BOM devices to allow them to keep producing a true halo product when they can. When they do, the price tag at first glance makes them seem completely unappealing: why pay double the price when the feature set seems comparable to Ulefone or Blackview? It's not the same experience. AGM actually have a real warranty which I have used, and they have real customer support agents. They worked directly with Qualcomm to build me a firmware that would get VoWifi working! You will not get that from any of the others, and it won't feel the same when you pull it out of your pocket either. They are certainly not without issues, but it's the best experience I've had to date and seems to be the only rugged brand dealing with Qualcomm. Be warned. They are steadfastly against unlocked bootloader, root or any other software mods. I doubt it will ever happen, their stuff is locked down HARD.

      If you are in the USA, it would also be worth looking at what Kyocera and Sonim are up to. Both are priced relatively high, and for Kyocera I think they occupy much the same space as Samsung with the xcover line: not quite fully ruggedized, but certainly good enough for most people. I had a Kyocera back when 3G was sufficient and it was a GREAT phone. These days with VoLTE and VoWifi basically being essential, it's not really an option for me anymore but if they entered the market here in Aus I'd jump ship. They're great. Sonim tend to be pretty far behind on specs and super expensive, but they are pretty much impossible to beat for signal and durability...again same issues with IMS features internationally.

      Well, that's about all I have to say about that.

  • There's the Nokia XR Phones

    My girlfriend has one and it seems to work fine

  • Rugged phones tend to be quite shit, honestly. Unless you need an actual specialised device, you're better off getting whatever phone you like (with some water resistance) and a good case and screen protector.