Smartphones don't last forever, but while most of us hope to make it to the end of our two-year contracts others struggle to get through a couple of months.
Phones are increasingly sold with some level of waterproofing protection, and the best phones will be fitted with tough Gorilla Glass 5 screen protection. Add a decent phone case and most of us will muddle along.
But for extreme sports enthusiasts, manual labourers and the downright clumsy this is just not enough. For these people there are ruggedised smartphones, tough phones that are waterproof, dustproof, drop-proof and shockproof.
Buying a tough phone no longer means you have to skimp on sought after features, and some of the best examples have all the bells and whistles such as fast processors, decent cameras and wireless charging.
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.
Best tough phones for 2019
1. Ulefone Armor 6
Ulefone's latest rugged phone is the Armor 6, and in common with those before it this handset mixes some top-end specs with IP68 waterproofing, Gorilla Glass 5, and a metal- and rubber outer shell that is as tough as it is good-looking to keep the internals safe and sound.
It's one of the first tough phones we've seen to move to the current trend of taller displays, with its 19:9 aspect ratio allowing for a large 6.2in panel without the handset itself becoming too unwieldy. At 268g it's reassuringly heavy without being overweight, and much of this is down to the high-capacity 5000mAh battery inside.
The screen is of decent quality, full-HD in resolution and sufficiently bright. Though the Ulefone's durable nature means it can't quite get down to the virtually non-existent bezels of flagship phones, it does make the most of space it has available by housing the 8Mp selfie camera and speaker in a notch.
Round the back of the phone we find a dual-lens camera, with lenses rated at 21- and 13Mp. Unlike we see on some tough phones there is no removable rear panel here, with the dual-SIM slot/microSD tray instead located on the Ulefone's left edge. Built in is support for fast wireless charging up to 10W, although the Armor 6 can also handle up to 18W over USB-C.
Both the SIM tray and USB-C port are concealed behind rubber flaps to prevent water getting inside, and in a future version we'd like to see the charging port itself protected so we don't have to deal with these fiddly flaps. However, there's just the two of these here, since the inclusion of USB-C means the Ulefone does not need a separate output for audio. You'll find an adaptor cable in the box so you can attach your existing wired headphones.
Ensuring smooth operation is an octa-core Helio P60 chip clocked at 2GHz, integrated with a Mali G72 MP3 GPU and paired with 6GB of RAM. There's also 128GB of storage as standard, which you can pad out with up to 256GB via microSD if you're willing to forgo the second SIM slot.
The Armor 6 covers the usual connectivity bases with 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2, GPS and GLONASS, plus NFC that allows it to support Android Pay. A new addition here is a UV detector to help prevent you getting sunburned, which, depending on your viewpoint, could be seen as a bit of a gimmick.
It ties in with the preinstalled ToolBag app, which also provides such extras as a compass, sound meter, protractor, plumb bob, barometer and other handy tools for labourers.
Aside from this the software is fairly standard Android fare, but with no app tray in sight. Alongside full Google apps you'll find a Translator and Game mode, and little else in the way of bloatware. Sadly, the Armor 6 is running Android 8.1 rather than the more recent Android 9 Pie, but that's still pretty recent as Android goes.
Available in black or black and red, you can buy the Armor 6 from Amazon UK for £429.99. However, if you're happy to buy from China you can make some big savings here.
Currently the best deal is at GearBest, where the Ulefone costs £288 and comes with a free Qi wireless charger and free delivery. Remember to factor in import duty (20% of the value on the shipping paperwork) if you are buying from China.
2. CAT S41
CAT phones are perhaps the best-known in the UK for durability. We've stuck the CAT S41 in second place because for UK buyers it is easier to get hold of and, with a 24-month warranty, after-sales support should also be better than some of the Chinese phones listed here.
This isn't the company's top-end rugged phone (that's the CAT S61), but it's significantly more affordable with a £399 RRP. It's worth pointing out that it's currently available for much less than this, listed on Amazon at £324.99 ($344.97 in the US).
That said it cannot match the value for money of the Doogee in second place, which offers better hardware at a lower price and includes high-end features such as a fingerprint scanner and wireless charging. Which of these phones you choose will be very much based on what are your personal priorities.
The CAT S41 has real appeal as a rugged phone. It's housed in a tough rubber shell that's ribbed and textured for grip, angular in design like the other tough phones here, but surprisingly not overly big and heavy (152x75x12.85mm and 218g).
Flaps prevent water getting in to any important ports, there's Gorilla Glass 5 to shield the glassware, which works with wet fingers and gloves, and the phone is rated IP68 waterproof/dustproof and certified MIL-SPEC 810G.
Physical buttons are favoured over onscreen variants, making the S41 easily usable underwater. In fact you can switch off screen sensitivity altogether underwater using a programmable key that is differentiated from the others by its gold colouring.
This key can alternatively be used to quick-launch a given app with a short- or long press, or in common with the other rugged phones here to invoke PTT mode.
Core hardware includes a 5in full-HD IPS display, an octa-core MediaTek Helio P20 clocked at 2.3GHz, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage (with microSD support up to 2TB). There's a fixed-focus 8Mp selfie camera at the front, and a 13Mp camera with LED flash and PDAF at the rear.
Connectivity-wise there's dual-band Wi-Fi, support for all UK 4G LTE bands, Bluetooth 4.1, NFC, GLONASS and GPS. There's also a 3.5mm headphone jack and bottom-mounted speaker, and while the phone charges over old Micro-USB it does support Pump Express 2.0 for faster charging.
The CAT S41 runs an almost stock version of Android 7.0 Nougat, with the addition of three apps: App Toolbox is an app store that offers only the type of apps a user of such a phone might want, such as fishing, farming and construction apps; CATPhones is simply a shortcut to the support site; and Share lets you use the S41's 5,000mAh battery to charge another phone low on juice over USB OTG.
3. Doogee S60
Doogee's S60 has now been superceded with the S80, but the S60 is still available at a great price (just £258.56 at Amazon UK and $328.99 in the US) and 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. Of course, the battery isn't that much larger than on the CAT S41, and that phone weighs only 218g.
The rest can be attributed to the protective tech in operation here. You'll find a 5.2in full-HD panel with Gorilla Glass 5, 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.
4. AGM X2 SE
The AGM X2 SE costs £336 from GearBest at the time of writing. It's a mid-range tough phone with IP68 waterproofing, a metal frame, rubberised bumper and Gorilla Glass. The rear panel is two-tone mirror-finish glass, which seems a strange choice for a phone that's going to be thrown around, but does set it apart from rivals.
Whereas you might find dedicated SOS and PTT buttons on other tough phones, the AGM has one additional button but this is used to trigger the camera, with no customisation possible in the settings. AGM is either imagining an entirely different type of emergency situation, or it is appealing to the user's desire for regular smartphone features as well as durability.
To that end there's also a dual-camera at the back, with both lenses specified at 12Mp. It's able to produce the bokeh (or blurred background) effect. There's also an impressive 16Mp selfie camera at the front, and a fingerprint scanner on the rear.
In many ways the X2 SE looks like any other rugged phone, with its chunky chin and top bezel, and oversized casing. The AGM weighs in at 250g, which really isn't too bad for a tough phone (especially one with a 6000mAh battery inside), but it's a chunky 14mm thick.
Unlike the Doogee the AGM does not support wireless charging, but its higher-capacity battery does fast-charge in compliance with Quick Charge 3.0. The USB-C port, in common with the headphone jack, is hidden behind a rubber flap to keep out water - this isn't as fiddly as some we've seen.
The screen is a useful size at 5.5in, but of the older 16:9 variety. Rather than IPS it uses AMOLED, and we're big fans of this technology's vibrancy. This isn't the brightest AMOLED panel we've seen, but it's quite acceptable for the money you're paying, and should be easily visible outdoors.
In terms of core hardware there's a Snapdragon 653 octa-core chip clocked at 1.95GHz, integrated with the Adreno 510 GPU and paired with 6GB RAM. It sounds impressive, but in Geekbench 4 we found a low- to middling 2815-point score; in GFXBench its T-Rex graphics score of 39fps was better.
Storage is generous at 64GB, and you can add up to 128GB via microSD. That's in addition to twin SIM slots, with the AGM supporting all UK 4G bands.
5. CAT S31
In common with its brother higher up this chart, the CAT S31 struggles to compete with the Chinese phones in this round-up on value, but it will be easier to get hold of in the UK and comes with better after-sales support. There's even a 24-month warranty, which you will not get with any Chinese phone.
There's a smaller 4.7in screen which is here only HD in resolution (the S41 is full-HD), and its protective glass has been downgraded from Gorilla Glass 5 to Gorilla Glass 3. It still works with wet fingers and gloves, though there's no option to turn off the touch panel via the gold programmable key (this is restricted to either PTT or quick-launching apps with a short- or long press). The S31 does share the S41's IP68 waterproof/dustproof and MIL-SPEC 810G ratings.
It's also running near-stock Android Nougat, with the same CATPhones support app and App Toolbox. There's no Share app for using the S31's 4,000mAh battery to juice up another phone, which makes sense given that its battery is lower in capacity than that of the S41.
What makes less sense is that, despite the smaller screen and battery, the S31 is only a tad shorter and lighter: 146mm against the S41's 152mm, and 200g to its 218g.
Performance takes a hit with only the quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 210 inside, along with just 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. Fortunately you can add a microSD card for up to 128GB expansion.
Cameras are also inferior, though perhaps not your primary concern with such a device. You'll find a fixed-focus 2Mp selfie camera and an 8Mp camera with LED flash at the back.
The design is very similar to the S41, but the S31 is softer to the touch with smoother, less grippy rubber. The speaker sits above the hardware buttons at the front rather than at the bottom, which actually we prefer, but we're less keen on the non-existent notification/battery charging LED.
In terms of connectivity you get just single-band Wi-Fi, but the CAT S31 supports all UK 4G LTE bands (in common with the S41 single- and dual-SIM variants are available), GPS, GLONASS, Bluetooth 4.1 and Micro-USB. There's also a 3.5mm headphone jack, but no NFC.
6. Nomu S30 Mini
Little brother to the S30 (no longer available), the Nomu S30 Mini is a good example of a compact tough phone, as well as 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 £145.99 from Amazon, or £104.99 direct from Nomu, 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 - 1280x720 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.
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.
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.