How to buy rugged smartphones

Choosing the right smartphone is fairly straightforward, but what do you need to know about purchasing their rugged counterparts? Simon Creasey has all the answers

Rugged smartphone users are a demanding bunch. First there are their ‘must-have’ requirements – phones must be waterproof, dustproof and steamproof, offer long battery life, and be able to work in extreme temperatures. Then there are the ‘nice to have’ features such as dual SIMs, ease of use and a wide range of supported apps.

The global market for rugged smartphones stands at around 5.8 million units in 2016 and is projected to reach 6.4 million by 2020, according to market intelligence and advisory firm VDC Research. The UK makes up around eight per cent of this demand, which is growing rapidly.

George Chu, sales and business development director at rugged tablet provider RuggON, says a wider range of industries are starting to use ‘ruggedised’ mobile devices, with many learning the hard way about which models offer the best value for money.

“In most cases people start out using consumer electronic devices and realise that they’re not ruggedised enough and create a lot of problems because they’re breaking down all the time. They end up spending a lot of money on repairing or replacing devices, so they eventually realise they need something that’s ruggedised,” explains Chu.

“They will then probably start looking for a cheaper device that has an IP rating, but it still has commercial components inside so they will face a lot of problems when they use it in extreme environments. After that they will have learnt their lesson and will start looking for a real ruggedised device with industrial components inside that are tested and certified.”

Another common mistake is buying rugged cases to house conventional smartphones. As Dave Kind, founder of rugged mobile device provider Raptor, points out: “A case does not turn something rugged. It makes it a bit more durable, but a case is another item that you have to think about whereas with our devices you just have to buy one thing, which [has] been built to be rugged.”

So what factors should buyers be looking for when choosing a rugged smartphone? “In terms of robustness you’ll want a handset with an ingress protection rating of at least IP67 – this is how dustproof and waterproof the device is and to what depths and for how long,” explains James Booker, business development manager at rugged phone specialist TUFF Phones. “Also many handsets offer MIL-STD 810G protection, which is what certifies handsets’ [ability to withstand] shocks, vibrations, mist, extreme temperatures and so on.”

Battery life is also a key attraction for many users, with some rugged smartphones offering batteries that can stay operational for two to three times longer than an ordinary smartphone. “We put the biggest battery into the device that we can without making the phone too bulky,” explains Stephen Westley, director at Global Mobile Communications, which earlier this year teamed up with DeWalt to launch the MD501 Android smartphone, which has a 3,950mAh battery.

Connectivity is another key factor, with many rugged smartphones boasting dual SIM capabilities. “The DeWalt is dual SIM and it’s 4G on both SIMs,” says Westley. “[It’s] for trade customers, agriculture and emergency services, those guys need that connectivity.”

They also need devices that are relatively easy to use, which is why many manufacturers have worked hard to create phones that look, feel and operate like ordinary smartphones.

“There is a familiarity to them so even an iPhone user could pick up an Android rugged smartphone and say ‘oh this is Android, I get it. I know where the Play store is and how to use it’,” says Kind. “But if I gave you a Windows mobile-based device you wouldn’t have a clue – you’d have to get your stylus out.”

In the last few years customers have become increasingly sensitive to price, according to Kind. “There is definitely a trend that people need something that is rugged – so it has all of the benefits of being durable – but is also cheap,” he explains.

As more manufacturers have entered the rugged smartphone market prices have started to tumble, and many have ranges covering all price points – for instance, Cat offers products from £55 feature phones to £530 high-end smartphones, says Pete Cunningham, director of product management at electronics manufacturer Bullitt Group, which sells Cat phones.

However, it’s a case of ‘buyers beware’ if people opt for some imported devices that sit at the lower end of the market, cautions Siân Jones, business development manager at retailer and installer Rugged Mobile Systems.

“There are some very low-cost rugged smartphones on the market but generally these are unsupported in the UK, have short warranty periods, do not have user replaceable batteries, have old versions of Android, and are not guaranteed to be available more than a year from purchase,” says Jones. “We avoid selling these as they result in our clients being left with units that are unsupported and in some cases not possible to repair after only one to two years of ownership.”

She adds that at the other end of the scale there are some expensive options designed for very specialist users, such as the Panasonic Toughpad FZ-E1 or Toughpad FZ-X1 ATEX, which are fully waterproof and extremely rugged.

“The more expensive units have long standard warranties and are supported by manufacturers for three to five years at least with UK-based repair centres,” explains Jones.

But this isn’t just about a hardware purchase. You have to think beyond that, according to Kind. “It’s all about mobile software and mobile solutions,” he says. “People don’t get out of bed and think about rugged hardware anymore. They get out of bed thinking about an app they might need or some workforce management software solution.”

This push has seen many manufacturers working with software developers to create bespoke applications. A good example of this is Tait’s UnifyVoice push-to-talk (PTT) smartphone app that offers instant group and individual communication, connecting users into the radio system and dispatch. Cunningham says Cat smartphones come pre-loaded with the Zello PTT application and are compatible with any other open PTT solution. “This means you have many of the benefits of a two-way radio while also having a fully featured smartphone,” he adds.

Many rugged smartphones include enhanced security features –a key attraction for security companies as well as the police and military users. “If you buy a standard consumer smartphone they’re tracking you and taking data from you,” says Kind. “Apple will know where you are and roughly where you’ve been… and you can’t stop it. But we can because we create two operating systems so our devices can be completely delinked. For some people [that] might not be a big deal… but it might for someone providing security for a military site, say.”

Batteries are increasingly an area of focus and Westley believes a new fast-charging technology coming to the market in the next few months will have a significant impact on the rugged smartphone sector. “You occasionally hear the phrase ‘game changer’ and [this] is something that will move the technology into a new realm, which is amazing. It’s not stable yet, but once it is it will make our lives so much easier. It will open new design possibilities.”

From humble and boxy beginnings, the modern rugged smartphone is on the cusp of offering businesses excellent battery life while also delivering many of the most-loved features from the world of two-way radio. All this in a package that is becoming increasingly pleasing to even the most discerning of customers.

What to consider: The main dos and don’ts of buying rugged smartphones

  • Do pay attention to the IP rating, it should be IP67 at a minimum. Look out for the MIL-STD 810G
  • protection rating, which certifies handsets can withstand extreme conditions
  • Do take battery life into account. Do you need field-replaceable batteries?
  • Do work out how much you can tolerate poor reception. If you can’t, opt for roaming or dual SIMs
  • Do take your time to choose the device that works best for your team. There’s options to suit every need and price point
  • Do consider a total cost of ownership approach
  • Do think about the applications you’re looking to run and the security level you require.
  • Don’t import a cheap device from overseas and expect to receive excellent customer support
  • Don’t forget any specialist requirements your employees might have. Can the device be used while wearing gloves, for example?
  • Don’t expect a mass-market smartphone in a rugged case to withstand the same punishment as a fully rugged device.