The market for rugged phones remains relatively small, but it shows no signs of waning. For a long time Sprint and Nextel had a monopoly on sturdy designs--Sprint with Sanyo models and Nextel with Motorola handsets--but other carriers have begun to catch up. Last fall, AT&T offered its second rugged phone, the Samsung Rugby, and now it adds yet another with the Samsung SGH-A657. Built like a brick, and shaped like one too, the SGH-A657 looks as if it could take quite a few blows. It's not fashion-forward, but its hard shell and rubber sidings should appeal to the danger seeking and the danger-prone. Features are respectable--there's no camera, but you get 3G, push-to-talk, Bluetooth, and GPS. It's available through AT&T's business channel for $129 with service.
The SGH-A657 won't win any beauty contests, but it's perfectly OK with not entering them in the first place. This phone's built to withstand the elements and protect its working parts from any bumps and bruises. It may not be quite as burly as the Motorola i365, but it certainly makes a respectable showing on the front. It is certified to military specifications for moisture, dust, shock, vibration, and the like. We splashed some water on it to no effect (it's not fully waterproof, so it won't survive a full dunking) and we dropped it onto a concrete floor without a scratch.
The phone has a plastic shell, but it's covered in a very thin rubber material that gives it a sturdy and weighty feel in the hand. Rubber sidings protect the corners, but they also run up and down both spines. They have a ribbed pattern, which you can grip easily. Even with all the protection, the SGH-A657 isn't terribly bulky. It measures 4.53 inches tall by 2.05 inches wide by 0.77 inch thick and weighs 4.34 ounces
The two-inch display is quite sharp. With support for 262,000 colors (220x176-pixel resolution), it's bright and easy on the eyes. Colors are vibrant and graphics are sharp. The menu interface is available in two styles--list or icon--but both are intuitive (the submenus are particularly easy to use). You can change the backlighting time and the dialing font type, size, and color.
The square navigation toggle is tactile, and its silver color distinguishes it from the rest of the navigation array. We had no issues using the toggle to navigate through the menus. The central OK button has a nice squishy feel, but we wish that in standby mode it opened the main menu instead of starting the Web browser. Other navigation controls include two soft keys, which are a bit narrow, a GPS shortcut, a back button, and the Talk and End/power keys.
The keypad buttons also are raised above the surface of the phone. Texting and dialing was a breeze with the keys giving off an audible click when pressed. They also have a bright backlighting for dialing in the dark.
On its left spine are a volume rocker and a bright orange push-to-talk button. On its right spine, you'll find a flashlight button and the charger port/headset jack. Unfortunately, both are proprietary, which means your choices for peripherals will be limited. Samsung is getting better about including a standard Micro-USB charger connection, but it has a way to go. On the upside, however, the remaining control opens a nifty onscreen shortcut menu.
A small flashlight sits on the top of the phone next to the looped antenna. It's quite bright for its size, so it should be useful if you lose your keys or can't find the door in a dark room. The battery cover uses a locking mechanism so it should stay secure under most conditions. You must remove the battery and cover to access the memory card slot. Normally we'd complain about such an arrangement, but we'll let it pass here since the SGH-A657's design is all about durability.