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. AGM X3
People hate being put in boxes. Just because you need a durable phone does not mean you don't also want flagship performance and an attractive design. AGM understands this, and as such its X3 is the most powerful and arguably best-looking rugged phone we've seen to date. It's also the most expensive, though not as pricey as many of the 2018 flagships that use the same hardware.
Two options are available via the AGM UK website. The entry-level X3 has 6GB of RAM and 64GB storage, retailing at £499.99. A second option has 8GB of RAM and 128GB storage, and that model costs £599.99.
Despite costing significantly more than the other rugged phones in this round-up, the AGM sits in top spot because it's just as tough and you get a lot more besides. For starters there's a Snapdragon 845 processor inside, which is last year's flagship processor of choice, so there will be no sacrificing speed for strength. It also has the best audio of the bunch, with waterproof JBL-tuned dual stereo speakers that pump out audio up to 98dB.
Photography is pretty decent thanks to the inclusion of a Sony dual-lens (12Mp + 24Mp) camera at the rear and another 20Mp lens at the front for selfies. And the screen is large, clear and incredibly bright, a 5.99in panel with a Full-HD+ 2160x1080 resolution and a tall 18:9 aspect ratio. This is pre-notch design, however, so the top and bottom bezels are still fairly chunky. There's no fingerprint sensor built-in either, though you will find one at the rear.
As durable phones go this is one of the best-looking we've seen with its 'Armored Madman' design. It's incredible that it weighs only 200g, and is just 10.5mm thick. Okay, so that's chunkier than most flagships, but compared to most tough phones it's a skinny little thing. It's quite usable in one hand, especially with the inclusion of dedicated buttons for calling up the Google Assistant and launching the camera.
Despite its slim design the X3 is pretty tough. We'd like to see a raised lip around the edge of the screen to help protect the glass from drops, but it does specify Gorilla Glass 5 as a fallback. There's a tough metal frame, protected at the corners with subtle rubber bumpers. The one thing you don't see here is a tough exoskeleton, which also means the smooth rear is less grippy than its rivals, but the X3 offers a nice middle-ground between tough phones and flagships for those who can't decide between the two.
AGM claims compliance with MIL-STD-810G and IP68, but the X3 lacks the IP69K certification of the Doogee and Ulefone examples below. IP69K is the highest standard in the current certification scale, and is concerned with high-pressure or high-temperature water ingress. IP68, on the other hand, means it is protected against submersion up to standards specified by the manufacturer, and in this case that is up to 1.5m.
An odd thing with respect to waterproofing, however: when we first unboxed the AGM X3 we were excited to find a rugged phone that doesn't have those fiddly rubber flaps to protect the USB-C port and SIM tray (there's no headphone jack, but a USB adaptor is provided). The USB port is indeed waterproof, but there is a rubber port cover in the box that the company recommends you use anyway to avoid USB port oxidising and short-circuiting when charging caused by water left in the port. It makes sense, but it's such a tiny little thing that we can't imagine it will be long before it is misplaced.
The battery is not as high in capacity as those seen in some of the tough phones here, but at 4,100mAh it's pretty generous. It charges fast with support for Quick Charge 3.0, enabling you to get from 0- to 100% in 130 minutes. The AGM X3 also supports wireless charging.
Read our full AGM X3 review
2. Doogee S90
Doogee's S90 is one of the most interesting rugged phones on the market today. It matches the Ulefone Armor 6 below on durability and core specs, but adds into the mix a modular design that lets you clip on accessories including an extra battery pack, a night-vision camera, a walkie-talkie and a gamepad. Coming later is a 5G mod, which will make this the first 5G rugged phone (see more 5G phones coming soon).
If you want these mods you'll need to be careful which version of the Doogee S90 you purchase. The phone on its own is £299.99 at Amazon, which means it is now cheaper than the Ulefone in third position. You can add the battery mod for £315.99, or get the Super Bundle for £399.99. The latter looks to include all the mods, although our review sample did not come with the gamepad, so double-check to be sure.
Before you buy, note that a Pro version will be shipping in August. This model runs Android 9.0 Pie on a Helio P70 processor, adding 24W fast charging to the mix. Existing S90 mods will be compatible.
Battery life is a highlight of this phone even without the extra mod, with 5,050mAh as standard and an additional 5,000mAh available through the mod. Two days of power should be a given, not a dream. You can charge the phone over USB-C or wirelessly, both at 10W, but to also charge the mod you'll need to plug it in.
The other mods are less exciting to us - for example, we have little use for the Walkie-Talkie. The Night Vision camera is also not quite what you might expect, a 2Mp Sony IMX291 sensor that amplifies light by a factor of 12, making it easier to take shots in low-light (albeit with noise) but not in the pitch black. But if you think you'll use them, it could make the Doogee S90 worth choosing over other rugged phones.
Mods attach magnetically to the rear of the Doogee, easily clipping into place and holding tight, but are just as easily removed when required. They do make it even bulkier than it already is however, and this is not a phone you're likely to miss at 168.5x80.7x14.1mm and 300g in weight.
We don't expect any rugged phone to be dainty. In fact, for some users that's all part of the appeal. And this is mostly a good-looking smartphone, with a tough Titanium-alloy build, rubberised edge protection and a cool hexagonal design on the rear that goes some way to aid grip.
It also has a tall 18.7:9 Full-HD+ 6.18in IPS display that is said to be shatterproof and has very slim bezels and a notch at the top to house the 8Mp selfie camera. It's missing a notification LED and some sort of fingerprint protection, but the Doogee S90 still looks pretty good.
The S90 adheres to the IP68, IP69K and MIL-STD-810G specifications for durability. It's also fitted with tough Gorilla Glass 4 and has a plastic lip running the circumference of display to protect the screen from drops. Sadly less thought has been given to the 16Mp + 8Mp dual-lens AI camera that juts out at the rear.
Doogee claims this phone will withstand submersion in water up to 1.5m for up to two weeks. It is also shockproof, dustproof, and protected from extreme temperatures, humidity, mould and corrosion.
Rubber flaps protect the SIM slot and USB-C charging port from water ingress, and they're not as fiddly in use as some we've seen. The former is a dual-SIM slot with support for global connectivity, though you add a second SIM at the expense of microSD support up to 256GB. That shouldn't be too much of a burden, with 128GB onboard. There's no headphone jack, but a USB-C adaptor is supplied.
The software is Android 8.1 Oreo, with Doogee's own interface overlaid. You'll notice the app tray has been removed and some apps have been added, but aside from this it looks a lot like standard Android with a theme applied. Most notable among these is ToolBag, which includes a Compass, Sound Meter, Pic Hanging, Gradienter, Height Measure, Magnifier, Protractor, Plumb Bob and Barometer.
The S90 supports gestures, and there's also a Custom Key on the side that can do various things such as turn on the LED flashlight, take a screenshot, and launch the camera or SOS mode.
Hardware is as good as you'll find in this market, with the octa-core Helio P60 onboard. This is a 12nm chip clocked at 2GHz, integrated with 800MHz Mali-G72 MP3 graphics and paired with 6GB of RAM. That's the exact same setup as on the Ulefone Armor 6 below, and above anything else in this round-up.
Read our full Doogee S90 review
3. Ulefone Armor 6
Ulefone's latest rugged phone is the Armor 6, and in common with those before it this handset mixes some decent 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 £319.99.
Read our full Ulefone Armor 6 review
4. CAT S41
CAT phones are perhaps the best-known in the UK for durability. The S41 will be easier to get hold of for UK buyers, 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 less than this, listed on Amazon at £379 ($79.99 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.
5. 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 £119.99 from Amazon, 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.