Best laptop deals Apple's April 20 event Google's new Timelapse feature Boba tea shortage Stimulus check status and plus-up money Child tax credit: Monthly payments
CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.

Stop buying breakable phones, and you won't even need a case anymore

Phones that are rugged and waterproof -- even without a case -- should be the new normal.

rugged phones
Brian Cooley/CNET

We go through life gasping when we drop our phones. They're costly, often slippery, fronted with glass and finely machined metal or easily damaged plastic. So we put our phones in cases, making a joke of the thinness and elegant design the manufacturer touts. Even though the iPhone 12 passed our scratch and drop test with flying colors, thanks to its ceramic shield screen, Apple still recommends using a case (and the same goes for the not-so-hardy Galaxy S21).

It might be time to let go of the thinness absurdity and buy a phone that is actually built to be out of the house. A new breed of rugged phones have laugh-at-the-devil hardiness without some piece of aftermarket silicone strapped around them. And rugged phones typically offer a slew of interesting features no iPhone or Samsung Galaxy replicates.

Read more: Best waterproof camera for shooting underwater video in 2020

Now playing: Watch this: The best features of rugged phones you need to know about
12:53

For example, the Samsung XCover Pro and Cat S52 lay claim to being the lightest and thinnest rugged phones, respectively (though the Cat S52 is only available in the US as a gray-market device). The bigger Cat S62 offers a unique FLIR temperature sensor. The diminutive UniHertz AtomXL writes a new page in the rugged-phone stylebook, while the Kyocera DuraForce Ultra 5G supports the new ultrawide band 5G on Verizon, and the Sonim XP8 makes no apologies for the rugged lines that envelope a device you'll see in the hands of many first responders. 

Read more: Top foldable phones: Galaxy Z Flip, Motorola Razr, Huawei Mate X and more

Ruggedness and water resistance

These phones laugh at being dropped on a hard floor, dunked in water or even immersed in liquid cleaner -- that last one being a pretty neat trick at a time when we're disinfecting everything. The ruggedness credential for most phones is Military Standard 810-G, which encompasses a lot of specifications but is commonly described as the ability to withstand a 1.5-meter (4.9-foot) drop without damage. All the phones in our list are rated either 810-G or the newer 810-H.

A phone's resistance to foreign matter is signified by an IP code, typically IP68. The 6 in IP68 means the phone is closed to dust and grit, while the 8 means the phone is protected against water immersion "under conditions ... agreed between the manufacturer and user", according to the International Electrotechnical Commission, which oversees the standard. That means not all IP68 ratings are the same. It can denote immersion resistance ranging from 5 feet for 30 minutes for the Samsung XCover Pro, 6.5 feet for 30 minutes with the Kyocera DuraForce Ultra 5G, or 5 feet for 35 minutes with the Cat S62. Read the tech specs before you buy, but all the phones on our list have some level of IP68 protection. The Sonim XP8 and Cat S62 achieve a high enough IP rating that they can also resist direct sprays of liquid.

Note that some of the phones in this roundup have a tethered cap that seals their USB-C jack. These caps are tedious in daily use and complicate placing the phone in a desktop charging stand unless you have the Kyocera DuraForce Ultra 5G, which supports Qi wireless charging pad, allowing the port door to stay closed while charging.

Push to Talk

With fires, power outages, floods and other unusual events becoming more usual, many people are joining local neighborhood response groups or CERT teams, which rely on radio-style communications but not necessarily with actual radios. Push to Talk over cellular apps such as Zello allow a phone to work like a walkie-talkie with anyone else running the same app. Sprint and Verizon offer similar services as plan options. 

Push to Talk apps

So many ways to have a walkie-talkie on your phone. PTToC apps for both consumers, enterprises and first responders have proliferated in recent years with the expansion of 4G LTE that allows them to behave very much like an actual radio, but with far more smarts.

Brian Cooley/CNET

All of the phones on our list except the Cat S52 have at least one dedicated button that can be set to Push to Talk, and the Kyocera DuraForce Ultra 5G has three programmable buttons. All of the phones can map a button to Zello, the most popular PTT platform. That gives you far better walkie-talkie ergonomics than pressing a virtual talk button on the screen.

Push to Talk button on Samsung XCover Pro

Most of the phones in our roundup have at least one assignable hardware button that can be mapped to several functions such as Push to Talk, using the camera or sending out an emergency beacon alert via an app.

Brian Cooley/CNET

The Unihertz AtomXL is also a "real" radio. It's able to communicate with the FCC Part 90 radios, often known as "business radios", with the use of a small external antenna that ships with the phone. Technically, the AtomXL can also communicate with GMRS and FRS radios, which are often carried by neighborhood volunteers, as well as with some ham radios, but it's not FCC approved to do so. In any of these modes, it has 0.5- and 1.5-watt output power levels.

Unihertz Atom XL is also a real radio

The Unihertz Atom XL can communicate with FRS and GMRS radios, as well as with UHF ham radios, though such use is pending US approval by the FCC.

Brian Cooley/CNET

The Sonim XP8 also has true radio capability via an optional Xpand module that turns it into a transceiver on the 900MHz ISM band. That isn't likely familiar or useful to the average person, though. The XP8 isn't compatible with the FRS and GMRS radios typically carried by emergency response volunteers.

Dual SIMs

Several of the phones on our list support dual SIMs, giving them another kind of ruggedness: network resiliency. If you're willing to spend the money, having two carriers activated on a phone can mean the difference between having service or not during a crisis. Setting up a pair of technically distinct carriers on a phone can substantially reduce your odds of being offline when networks are jammed or damaged. For example, you might activate both Verizon and AT&T on a dual-SIM phone. It may seem tempting to get a virtual three-network phone by activating Google Fi on the other SIM since it taps into both T-Mobile and US Cellular, but Fi only juggles those two networks on "Made for Fi" phones, which currently only include Google Pixels and Moto G phones -- none that are rugged.

Samsung XCover Pro dual SIM and removable battery

The Samsung XCover Pro features both dual physical SIM support as well as a swappable battery.

Brian Cooley/CNET

A couple of the phones on our list are available with LTE Band 14 support so they can use AT&T FirstNet, a special mobile network that can prioritize you and preempt other network users at times of extreme network load, like during natural disasters. You can't just sign up for FirstNet by having a compatible phone, however; you need to also be sponsored via a participating emergency services organization you're involved with.

Front-facing speakers

Most of the phones we carry today make a big sacrifice in the name of design: Their speakers aren't aimed at our ears, but aim sideways out of the phone. A couple of the rugged phones on our list rectify that with front-facing speakers that blow away the meek volume levels on mainstream phones. 

Sonim XP8 front speakers

The loudest speakers of any phone in this group are the front-facing ones on the Sonim XP8.

Brian Cooley/CNET

This is useful for PTT apps, especially when you're in a hectic or outdoor location. But note my pet peeve: Speakerphone mode is way overused today, so blare sparingly. We don't want to hear your conversation or FaceTime. Get some earbuds when a speakerphone isn't mission-critical.

The Kyocera DuraForce Ultra 5G has front facing speakers that it claims are capable of a 106 db sound level, which is in the vicinity of a chainsaw or gas leaf blower. The Sonim XP8 has a long history with professional first responders and has developed the screw-down Secure Audio Connector to provide audio and power to a wide range of speakers, mics and combinations of the two

Replaceable batteries

Remember when many phones had these? They made charge anxiety less of an issue. Just pop in a spare battery and be back at 100% charge in seconds. The Samsung XCover Pro and Sonim XP8 have swappable batteries as part of their ready-for-anything ethos. Even the fastest charge can't compete with this simple solution.

No more apologies for cameras and screens

Rugged phones used to treat camera and display quality as elective, but these new models leave little lacking when it comes to these features. They may not have the number of cameras found on flagship phones like the iPhone 12 Pro Max or the Samsung Galaxy S21, but the cameras they do have are ample in megapixels and take advantage of the Google image processing built into Android. The gallery of comparative shots below is remarkable mostly in how unremarkable the photos are: They're barely different from the typical snapshot taken with a flagship phone. 

All the phones on our list use toughened glass. The CAT phones have the latest Corning Gorilla Glass 6, which is more resistant to repeated and higher drops than its more commonly found predecessor.

Thermal Imaging

The CAT S62 takes imaging a step further with an integrated FLIR Leptron thermal sensor which can measure from -4 to 752 degrees Fahrenheit with a high degree of sensitivity. If you've been temperature scanned when entering a building lately you know that the coronavirus pandemic has made temperature scanning mainstream. Even after the pandemic subsides, a FLIR sensor is a tool with dozens of uses

The CAT S62's FLIR Leptron sensor is designed for use in phones, allowing it to fully integrate into the phone's body unlike the earlier FLIR sensor in the CAT S61 that required a large top protrusion.

CAT S61 vs CAT S62

The CAT S62 now fully integrates its FLIR sensor in the form factor of the phone, versus the protuberance that housed it in the earlier CAT 61.

CAT

There's an interesting form of augmented reality in the CAT S62, achieved by blending the photo and temperature imagery via on-screen controls. Once you get the hang of it, it's a useful feature for more accurate visual indexing of a temperature to spot in the scene that can be tricky to discern in full FLIR mode.

CAT S62 FLIR modes

By varying the image blend from both the camera and FLIR temperature sensor, an interesting form of augmented reality can be achieved.

CAT

Size and weight

While some of the newest rugged phones are almost indistinguishable from standard phones, some are still bulky and proud of it. A few stand out in the stack below, but most are similar to standard phones.

Rugged phones incognito

You can tell a couple of these are rugged phones, but the rest blend in with normal ones. From top to bottom: Unihertz Atom XL, Cat S52, Sonim XP8. Samsung XCover Pro, Samsung Galaxy S8 with cover, Pixel 3A with cover, Kyocera DuraForce Pro 2, Cat S61.

Brian Cooley/CNET

This chart shows the weight and feature differences between the phones. Overall, the Samsung Galaxy XCover Pro and Cat S52 are standouts in thin design with light, rugged construction. And remember: These don't need a cover.


Unihertz Atom XL Cat S52 (gray market) Cat S62Sonim XP8 Samsung XCover Pro Kyocera DuraForce Ultra 5G

Price, USD

$329

$485 (est.)

$649

$648 (Verizon)

$500 (unlocked)

$899 (Verizon)

Programmable buttons

1

0

1

2

2

3

Dual SIM

Y

Y

Y (varies by region)

Y

Y

N

Swappable battery

N

N

Y

Y

N

Front speaker

N

N

N

Y

N

Y

Display

4-inch, 1,136x640-pixel, Gorilla Glass 3

5.6-inch, 1,440x720-pixel, Gorilla Glass 6  

5.7-inch, 2,160x1,080-pixel, Gorilla Glass 6  

5-inch, 1,920x1,080-pixel, Gorilla Glass 3  

6.3-inch, 2,340x1,080-pixel, Gorilla Glass 5  

5.4-inch, 2,160x1,080-pixel, Kyocera Sapphire Shield  

Thickness

17.5mm

9.7mm

11.7mm

18mm

9.9mm

16mm

Weight

7.9 oz.

7.4 oz.

8.7 oz.

11.8 oz.

6.3 oz.

9.8 oz.

Superpower

Notably small and a real radio

Thinnest rugged phone in the world

FLIR temperature sensor                                       

Feature-laden and tough as nails

Sweet spot for a new generation of tough phones

5G UWB, 3 rear cameras and a ToF sensor

Is rugged right for you?

If you want the latest in advanced video capture, computational photography or a laptop-class CPU, these phones aren't quite ready to replace your current device. But if you're tired of breaking phones, regularly use a PTT app such as Zello, or are big on outdoor adventures or public service volunteer work, think beyond the usual suspects next time you buy a phone. These rugged phones make the category exciting again.