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Forget that fragile phone. Rugged alternatives await

This small but mighty phone niche is growing and offers a real alternative if the delicate flagships on the market aren't doing it for you.

ruggear-rugged-phone

RugGear is one of several phone makers specializing in rugged devices that unveiled new phones this week at MWC.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Shiny flagship phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S9 and the Nokia 8 Sirocco are the talk of the town at Mobile World Congress this week.

If you like your phones with precision-engineered, wafer-thin edges and expansive glass, you'll be in heaven. But while these devices are pretty, they don't necessarily meet the demands of a more outdoorsy lifestyle.

Fortunately, a number of manufacturers out there are providing an alternative to these skinny, delicate devices. They're building rugged phones that can deal with all the demands of people who are outdoors and on the go all day, whether they work in construction or agriculture or they're just keen mountaineers.

This week the trade show saw several rugged phones launched by specialist manufacturers including RugGear, Crosscall and Bullitt. Combining bigger batteries designed to survive sub-zero temperatures with metal bodies coated in rubber and drop-tested repeatedly onto concrete, these phones are often extremely girthy. Each has its own specific set of skills, but the one thing they have in common is that they were built and tested to endure a lifetime of hardship -- way more than the average phone.

"Many phones appear to be suitable for outdoor use -- the software available these days is fantastic and many of them are now waterproof," Andrew Denton, an independent outdoor consultant, told me over email. You might think popping them in a rugged case would prepare them for anything, but there are limits to what a case can do, he said.

The risks are many: Cracked screens, poor underwater performance even when waterproofed and weak battery life that can easily run out halfway through your hike. "Most of the top-end phones are simply too fragile," said Denton, who is also CEO of the UK Outdoor Industries Association.

Traditionally rugged devices have been bought by people working in specific industries. Research by rugged-phone maker Bullitt showed that people buying its Cat S60 phone were 98 percent male and working in manual labor jobs. But it believed that with increasingly fragile and expensive devices proving a source of anxiety for users, there's an enormous opportunity to appeal to a broader audience.

"People are looking for something different," said Charlie Henderson, Bullitt's chief branding officer. "That audience is just getting wider all the time."

The company worked with Land Rover, a leading brand in the outdoor market, to create the Explore, a phone that would appeal to outdoor enthusiasts from weekend warriors to committed adventurers.

Consumer versions of rugged phones are gaining in popularity, noted a report by analysis firm Technaivo published in July last year.

Samsung makes its own rugged "Active" versions of its Galaxy phones, but true rugged-first phones can help themselves stand apart by offering offering unique features. And unique features are something Bullitt's Land Rover Explore phone has in spades, with access to premium mapping services, advanced GPS, an AR view of the environment courtesy of ViewRanger and an SOS flashlight and red filter for night use.

Technaivo also specifically noted the importance of thermal imaging in its report, something Bullitt pioneered in conjunction with thermal imaging specialist Flir when it made the Cat S60 two years ago. It's continued that work with the Cat S61, which it unveiled this week.

Together, consumer and enterprise buyers of these rugged phones make up a small but mighty number of phone owners.

"Given an estimated 1.5 billion smartphones will be sold in 2018, we believe there is a tremendous opportunity for what we term the 'long tail of smartphones" which includes rugged devices," said analyst Ben Wood from CCS Insight. "Although rugged devices will only be a tiny niche in the overall mobile phone market, we still expect nearly 40 million units to be sold in 2018, making it very worthwhile for companies like Bullitt, CrossCall, RugGear, Samsung and others."

The firm forecasts this figure will jump to 65 million units by 2021.

It might seem like every other phone out there is an iPhone or a high-end Samsung Galaxy, but it's good to know that if they don't suit your lifestyle, there are other options that may work better for you.

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MWC 2018: All of CNET's coverage from the biggest phone show of the year.