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

AT&T's $100 Terrain brings on the brawn with waterproof capabilities and an armored exterior.

Lynn La

Lynn La

Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones

Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.

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6 min read

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.


NEC Terrain (AT&T)

The Good

NEC's waterproof and rugged <b>Terrain</b> 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.

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.

AT&T's husky, waterproof NEC Terrain (pictures)

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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.

Camera and video
Photo quality on the rear-facing camera was quite good and better than I expected. Because many of the camera settings overlaying the left and right sides of the viewfinder (more on that later), it is a little difficult to frame a photo if you're not paying close enough attention. However, pictures taken with ample lighting turned out clear and in focus. Indoor photos did have a notable amount of digital noise, but objects still had well-defined edges and colors were true-to-life.

Both the 5-megapixel camera and the 0.3-megapixel front-facing camera have an exposure meter, five white-balance options, geotagging capability, three color effects, two quality settings, and a timer. However, only the rear-facing camera has a flash, digital zoom, three types of focuses, five scene modes, four ISO settings, and five sizes (from 640x480 to 2,560x1,920-pixel resolution). Meanwhile, the other camera only has three photo sizes (from QCIF to VGA)

NEC Terrain (outdoor)
Though dark hues are hard to distinguish, colors are accurate and the buildings in the background are in focus. Lynn La/CNET

NEC Terrain (indoor)
In this indoor shot, you can digital noise throughout, but images still look adequately sharp. Lynn La/CNET

NEC Terrain (SSI)
This standard studio shot features digital noise and a small blue hue in the center against the white background. Josh Miller/CNET

As for video recording, both cameras offer three quality settings, and retain the same exposure meter, white balance settings, geo-tagging, and color effect options. The rear camera also has six recording sizes (from MMS messaging to 720p), continuous flash, digital zoom, and autofocus. The 0.3-megapixel camera has only five recording sizes (from MMS messaging to 640x480).

Recording quality could have been better. Because the camera could not focus smoothly, lighting constantly kept readjusting and was a bit everywhere. During the recording, you can see the lens trying to focus repeatedly, giving the footage a subtle "pulsating" movement. In addition, a small amount of static was picked up in the audio during recording and images looked blurry and pixelated.

I tested the phone in our San Francisco offices on AT&T's network and call quality was great. None of my calls dropped, I didn't hear any extraneous buzzing or noises, and audio didn't clip in and out. Volume range was adequate, especially maximum volume, which can be very loud. My friend sounded clear and close by; likewise, I was told I too sounded clear and precise. Conversations via speaker sounded good, but at times voices came off harsh. When volume was increased, I could hear a sharp tinniness follow my friend's voice from time to time.

NEC Terrain (AT&T) call quality sample

Listen now:

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The Terrain runs on the carrier's 4G LTE network, and data speeds were generally fast. CNET's mobile site loaded in 7 seconds and our desktop site took 12 seconds. The New York Times' mobile and desktop sites took about 6 and 13 seconds, respectively. ESPN's mobile site took 5 seconds, and its full site loaded in a 9 seconds. Ookla's Speedtest app showed me an average of 7.23Mbps down and 1.05Mbps up. It took 59 seconds to download the 35.01MB game Temple Run 2.

NEC Terrain Performance testing
Average 4G LTE download speed 7.23Mpbs
Average 4G LTE upload speed 1.05Mbps
App download (Temple Run 2) 35.01MB in 59 seconds
CNET mobile site load 7 seconds
CNET desktop site load 12 seconds
Restart time 38 seconds
Camera boot time 1.75 seconds

The Terrain is powered by a dual-core 1.5GHz processor. In general, daily and necessary tasks operated smoothly. It had no problem opening up the lock screen, opening up the app browser, and returning to the home screen pages. While playing the graphics-intensive game Riptide GP, the handset didn't quit or stall. However, I've seen faster frame rates and smoother graphics on other midrange phones. When the camera was on, I saw little lag between the objects in front of me and the feedback that displayed on the viewfinder. On average, it took about 1.75 seconds to launch the camera and 38 seconds to reboot the Terrain.

During our battery drain test, the 1,900mAh battery clocked in 11.05 hours of continuous talk time. It has a reported talk time of up to 10 hours and a standby time of 14.5 days. Anecdotally, it had an average battery life that appeared to drain rather quickly. After a full day of minimal usage and no charge, the battery would hover below 50 percent, which I thought was quite low. According to FCC radiation standards, it has a digital SAR rating of 1W/kg.

If you're an AT&T customer and you're in the market for an ultratough, survival-of-the-fittest smartphone, the Terrain's sheer brawniness will satisfy those needs. Its rubber encasing, sturdy construction, and recessed screen assures you that it can withstand a wide range of physical abuse.

However, if you can get away with lighter protection, and you prefer something more modern-looking instead, then the Samsung Rugby Pro is a better fit. It too is $99.99 and runs Android 4.0, but it also features a better camera and a bigger (4-inch) screen than the Terrain's. True, it won't be as tough, and you'll have to make do without a useful physical keyboard, but it'll still be more resilient than your standard handset.


NEC Terrain (AT&T)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 7
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