NEC Terrain (AT&T) review: Dated Android OS, but tough as nails

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MSRP: $429.99

The Good NEC's waterproof and rugged Terrain features 4G LTE, push-to-talk, and an easy-to-use QWERTY keyboard.

The Bad The Terrain is unattractively heavy, runs the dated Android 4.0 OS, and records poor video.

The Bottom Line If you want a rugged AT&T handset, pick NEC's sturdy Terrain, but those in search of a more stylish device should consider the pocket-friendly Samsung Rugby Pro.

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7.3 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7

Rugged, waterproof, and equipped with a convenient portrait keyboard for all your messaging needs, the NEC Terrain is one device that can handle just about anything.

Though it runs a dated version of Android and isn't the most chic handset to be lugging around in your pocket, it is indeed durable and runs on AT&T's 4G LTE network. Available for $99.99 after contract, it was also designed with enterprise workers in mind, and includes features like push-to-talk and microSD privacy encryption.

It's important to note, however, that earlier this summer NEC announced that it has cut the cord on its smartphone business. The company will still provide support for its existing devices (including this one), but it won't develop and manufacture any new handsets.

Regardless of NEC's business strategy, the Terrain is still a solid device, in and of itself. And if you're looking for a rugged smartphone on AT&T, this is the toughest one by far.

Like most rugged devices, the NEC Terrain is bulky and thick, and the reason it tips the scales at 6.08 ounces is because it has a physical keyboard attached to it. That means you shouldn't expect a comfortable fit if you're stuffing it in small front pockets of your jeans. However, due to its narrow frame, it's still easy to hold with one hand. It is possible to type with the physical keyboard that way (though it's not the fastest technique), and maneuvering the touch screen with one hand shouldn't be a problem.

Measuring 5.02 inches tall and 2.54 inches wide, the Terrain has squarish corners up top, and its bottom half finishes out with smooth rounded corners. Funnily enough, its long rectangular frame reminds me of Palm Pilots of yesteryear. It's body is encased with smooth matte rubber that--unlike the Casio G'zOne Commando 4G LTE or the Kyocera Torque--makes it looks more professional and less industrial than the others. This rubber exterior lends to the handset's physical resilience and it looks similar to a regular device covered in a phone case.

NEC Terrain (keyboard)
The Terrain's four-row keyboard is useful and makes typing out messages easier. Josh Miller/CNET

On the left are buttons to activate the speaker and push-to-talk function, and a volume rocker. Up top is a 3.5mm headphone port, and the right edge houses a Micro-USB port and a sleep/power button. Both openings can be sealed with small coverings that lie flush with the surface of the device.

You'll find the 5-megapixel camera (with flash) on the back of the handset. Below that is a battery door that's locked by a toggle switch. To unlock it, push the switch to the left and push out the back plate for the bottom edge. This will require some muscle, so if you care about your nails at all, it's best to use a stick or coin to pry the door off. Once opened, you'll gain access to the 1,900mAh battery and microSD card slot that's expandable up to 32GB.

In addition to being topped with Corning Gorilla Glass 2.0, the 3.1-inch touch screen has a 640x480-pixel resolution and 260ppi. In general, the display is responsive, bright, and can be easily viewed in direct sunlight. It accurately displayed a pure white color swatch, though HQ videos on YouTube did look grainy at times.

Furthermore, though text and icons looked sharp, my main gripe was how small they were displayed. The screen is small to begin with, but that makes glancing at the time or your notifications much more difficult. The back, home, and recent app hot keys that appear onscreen, for example, are tiny. Instead of having a bottom bezel that's wide enough to fit the AT&T logo on it, the handset's display should be expanded as far as it can until it reaches the keyboard. Above the display is a 0.3-megapixel camera.

As for typing, I was surprised how accurate I managed to be while messaging, given that the keys are rather small and packed tightly together. The buttons are bulbous and easy to press. The keyboard does not contain many shortcut functions (though two keys' alternative texts insert ".com" and "www."), and there's one button that activates the microphone. Below the keyboard are two front-facing speakers that can indeed pump out music louder and with more depth than the standard speaker common in most phones.

Ruggedness and durability
The device reportedly can survive up to 30 minutes underwater at a depth of a meter. During my testing, it survived 20 minutes inside a shower and half an hour completely underwater in a shallow bowl. While it was submerged, it managed to register and incoming call. It also kept kicking after I stuck it in the freezer for another half hour under a pile of ice. After letting it sufficiently thaw, it was still able to make calls and connect to the Internet.

As for its toughness, I repeatedly dropped it on cement on its sides, at a height of about three feet. It survived each fall and even bounced back up a couple of inches. Moreover, I kicked it down several flights of stairs. Unlike AT&T's other rugged handset, the Samsung Rugby Pro, the Terrain's battery door never popped out during this process. It did, however, gather several scuffs and scratches, but the screen was still intact and it operated just fine.

NEC Terrain (water)
The Terrain can survive complete submersion as well as a few splashes here and there. Josh Miller/CNET

Software features and OS
The Terrain ships with Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich. At this point, the OS is feeling long in the tooth since Jelly Bean has been around for over a year now. In any case, you'll still get the usual run of Google apps, such as Chrome, Gmail, Plus, Maps with Navigation, Latitude, and Local, Messenger, access to Play Books, Movies, Music, and the store, Search, Talk, and YouTube.

AT&T-specific apps include a code scanner, a drive-mode app that silences notifications and sends autoreplies to messages when it senses the device is traveling at more than 25 mph, an app to set up the handset's push-to-talk functionality, a branded navigation app, myAT&T (which lets users check their minutes and data plan), and the Yellow Pages app.

NEC Terrain (left edge)
In addition to a textured direct-connect button (seen here in the middle), the Terrain also has an AT&T app that'll help set up your push-to-talk preferences. Josh Miller/CNET

Others goodies include the Amazon Kindle app, an FM radio, a movie editor, and mobile office suite Quickoffice. Basic task managing apps include a calculator, a calendar, a clock with alarm functions, native e-mail and browser clients, a sound recorder, a to-do list, and a voice dialer. Furthermore, you'll get 1GB of RAM, 8GB of internal storage, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, and mobile hot-spotting.