Rugged Phones Are Bullshit, Here's How To Make Them Better

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Pictured is a Samsung Galaxy S5 Active that fell three feet off a cooler onto a hard dirt surface. It and other "rugged" phones like it can never hope to incorporate the protection a simple, affordable case can. But, that's not to say the idea doesn't have some merit.


I've been carrying this S5 Active for a few months. I liked it a lot, largely because it was my first experience with Android. Its upgradeable storage (just add an SD card for up to an additional 128gb) was economical and practical, its AMOLED screen was beautiful and its camera was pretty good. But those merits were more than matched by frustrations.

First, its use of additional external buttons over the regular S5 meant that it was incredibly prone to waking up in my pocket and dialing 911. It did this several hundred times during the five or six months I used it. That's not just embarrassing, it's a real problem that could potentially lead to first responders being dispatched to find me unnecessarily. This constant pocket waking also had to account for some of my frustrations with its limited battery life.

Then there was the array of "Active" software bundled with the phone. Samsung and AT&T both package their own, proprietary software into the phone and don't allow you to delete it. This eats up storage space (6 of 16gb), ties up processor capacity and just generally bloats what's otherwise a clean, light operating system. In addition to the standard stuff, Samsung added an additional external button to the Active which fired a suite of dedicated apps for fitness tracking, forecasting weather, determining elevation etc. Without exception, all of these programs are better executed by free third party apps. The "altimeter" and "barometer" for instance rely on mobile data to work, so you can't actually use them out in the wilderness, where they'd actually be useful to have. Samsung's own fitness apps are barely able to inaccurately count your steps and include no substantial dietary insights or ability to track your weightlifting in the gym. If you can do better for free in the Play Store, then why burden customers with your shitty software? Save the development cost and give users a pure Android experience.

Then there's the whole ruggedization thing. In addition to the IP67 waterproofness (the phone can be submerged up to 1 meter for 30 minutes) that comes standard on the regular S5, the Active incorporates some plastic bumpers on its corners.


To any users of iPhones, this probably sounds incredible. You and I have both bricked iPhones due to water ingress and the S5 is largely immune to such failures. You can carry the S5 in an exposed pocket during a rain shower without worrying about it. You can spill a glass of wine on it at dinner, you can drop it in a sink/toilet/bathtub and snatch it out real fast without having to pay Apple several hundred dollars. That's all good, but a rugged phone intended for outdoors use should do better. The IP67 standard is adequate for those scenarios, but not real abuse in the outdoors where a phone may experience anything from being left in a sodden backpack for days on end, to being submerged in whitewater. Any device intended for real outdoors use should be certified to IPX8, plain and simple.

The bumpers, too, work in everyday drops, but can't hope to replicate the total, wraparound protection a good case offers. Outside, I'd like to know that my phone can survive being stepped on, dropped from significant height or just generally impacted with impunity. What did this S5 in was one of those just right falls that saw it land screen-first on a pebble. That's not good enough.

Image for article titled Rugged Phones Are Bullshit, Here's How To Make Them Better

So, I've replaced the S5 Active with the new Moto X and a $10 plastic case from Amazon. It gives me a pure Android experience without software bloat, doesn't wake constantly in my pocket and is better able to resist damage thanks to the more substantial protection offered by the case. When I need it to be waterproof, I stick it in a $4 Loksak which adds more substantial waterproofness than that offered by Samsung. For even better protection from water intrusion on an upcoming adventure, I've ordered a $23 E-Case.


You can better ruggedize your phone for $14 with a case and a fancy plastic bag than Samsung or any other phone maker can from the factory.


But, that's not to say the idea of a ruggedized phone or one dedicated to active, outdoorsy types is without merit. Here's some features I'd like to see incorporated into one:

  • The ability to leave the phone on, but lock the screen in a manner that won't wake whatsoever, even if you're running, climbing or riding a bicycle and the phone is experiencing significant movement in your pocket.
  • Maximized antenna size and strength for better reception in remote areas. Sometimes, even the ability to get a single text out could be all the difference in the world.
  • An "Outdoors" mode that kills all apps beyond the camera, GPS navigator and similar, as well as ixnaying any signaling from Bluetooth, WiFi or whatever. Sorta like Airplane mode, but with GPS still on and battery life maximized by retaining only access to a few, key apps.
  • Backcountry Navigator bundled as standard.
  • If you're gonna ruggedize it, do it better than a $10 case and a ziploc bag will manage.
  • Any cheesy bullshit left on the factory floor.

Is that so much to ask for?

IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.



Shawn Wayne

Moto X is the best phone you can get right now probably. Any of the Motorola Android phones really. So that is a good choice of a replacement device. You are always better off getting the "standard" S5 or Moto X or HTC whatever, rather than the "active" or "enhanced" version of anything, and adding your own aftermarket protection.

I love my Galaxy S4, and I'll probably keep it until it is dead so I won't have to upgrade for a while. I keep it in an Otterbox Defender case. My 1 year old can play with it and toss it around and I've never had a problem. I always say, the best way for a manufacturer to do prototype durability testing is to give the phones to babies and toddlers and see how they hold up. Otterbox has just been phenomenal. It adds a bit of bulk, but I can still fit it in my front pocket along with my wallet comfortably.

I'd have to agree with your attention-grabbing headline a little bit. Rugged phones aren't BS, but rather the expectation of having an indestructible screen is BS. I bet the body of your S5 Active is in perfect shape. I blame Gorilla Glass marketing for claiming to be durable mostly. They are working on Gorilla Glass 4, which is supposed to hold up a lot better than the current generation of screens in smartphones. So hopefully that will be an improvement.

I can toss my phone around all day long and it will be fine, but if it lands just right on the screen or something pokey and sharp hits it, it's game over.

Have you looked into the glass screen protectors? I'd probably recommend you look into that. Not the cheap ass plastic stick-on screen protectors, but look for a custom fitted glass screen protector. You can get them on Amazon for anywhere from $15-30 and up. If you hit your screen, the screen protector will take the brunt of the force instead of the screen directly. The cheap plastic stick on ones are complete junk though.