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Samsung Rugby 3 review: With poor call quality, what's the point?

When a simple cell phone can't perform its chief function -- making calls -- it makes us wonder: what's the point?

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Jessica Dolcourt
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Jessica Dolcourt

Editorial Director / CNET Franchises, How-To, Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads CNET Franchises, How-To, and Performance. With over 15 years in journalism, her experience includes mobile phone and software reporting and reviews, and delivering advice on expansive topics ranging from personal finance to travel and home. Jessica got her start at Download.com and holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).

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6 min read

Built for durability and outdoor work, the Samsung Rugby 3 is a sturdy clamshell cell phone. It features AT&T's enhanced push-to-talk and noise suppression, and it comes with large, responsive, and widely-spaced buttons that make it possible to hit while wearing thicker gloves.

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Samsung Rugby 3

The Good

The <b>Samsung Rugby 3</b> has a terrifically responsive dial pad and enhanced push-to-talk support.

The Bad

Audio quality was subpar, the shared headset/charger jack is inconvenient, and for a durable phone, the body could be grippier.

The Bottom Line

Very poor call quality is especially unacceptable on a simple cell phone. Unless you require AT&T's push-to-talk service, keep looking.

Pair all that with U.S. Military Standard 810G for water, dust, and shock, and you have a phone that could easily belong in a fleet for outdoor workers, the accident-prone, or people who want a high level of strength in a simple cell phone -- that is, until you hear it. Cellular call quality was unfortunately very poor, making it one to skip, since the phone does little other than look tough and make calls. The Rugby 3 retails for about $100 with a new, two-year contract.

Rugged Samsung Rugby 3 (pictures)

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Design and build
A fairly tall, thick device, the Rugby 3 means business. It's made of a hardened plastic material, but there's very little grip; I'd like a little more. Diagonal grooves slashed along the spines give it a greater handhold.

Closed, the Rugby 3 stands 4.1 inches tall by 2.1 inches wide by 0.82 inch deep and weighs a solid 4.6 ounces. A large speaker grille sits above a small, 1.3-inch CSTN display, which flashes the date and time, battery level, signal strength, and so on. This external display fades after a few seconds, and there seems to be no way to adjust those settings, which is somewhat typical. What's unusual, though, is that pressing the volume keys doesn't light it up again, which is a shame.

The Samsung Rugby 3 is fairly large, but also built to take some knocks. Josh Miller/CNET

Below the external display, you'll find a small camera lens for the 3-megapixel shooter.

Flipping open the Rugby 3 via its thick, sturdy hinge was a smooth motion I could execute one-handed. Inside, the 2.4 inch screen has a QVGA display with its 320x240-pixel resolution and support for 260,000 colors. The screen and colors are bright enough at the halfway lighting point, and text is legible, not hazy. It'll be games, graphics, and images that suffer most at this resolution.

Navigating around with the Rugby 3's excellent four-directional pad and soft keys was a piece of cake, except that I kept hitting the central select button to get to the menu, and pulled up the browser instead. D'oh.

Finding what I needed was generally smooth sailing. Shortcuts on the dial pad and navigation array are helpful for launching AT&T Navigator, a shortcuts menu, and turning the phone to vibrate mode. You can also access apps by pressing the left soft key from the home screen.

Below the dial pad, large, very responsive, and spacious keys call up large numbers on the screen. Also pleasantly wide and finger-friendly are the volume rocker and push-to-talk (PTT) buttons on the phone's left spine. On the right, you'll find a less raised speakerphone button and a combined Micro-USB charging port and headset jack. I'm not a fan of this combo at all, since you'll need an adapter and because you won't be able to charge the phone while also speaking through a wired headset or listening to music. What can I say, I'm a big fan of options.

A shared charging port and headset jack means that you'll need an adapter to listen to music from a wired headset -- and you can't do that while also charging the phone. Josh Miller/CNET

Flip the Rugby 3 over and there's a loop for attaching a phone leash, and a flat-headed screw you can use a coin or other slim, flat object to unlock. Off comes the back panel, where you'll find your SIM card holder and a microSD card slot capable of storing up to 32GB of memory.

Features
A durable device, the Rugby 3's most valuable features are its physical assets; however, the telephonic basics are important, too. The Rugby 3 has a 1,000-entry address book that lets you create contact records and groups. There's room for the usual phone numbers, e-mail address, and preloaded ringtone (choose from nine) and a photo ID, not to mention space for notes and so on.

There's also support for Bluetooth, texting, and mobile e-mail through a whole range of providers, including Gmail and Windows Live Hotmail. You'll find a browser, AT&T Radio, and a bevy of other AT&T apps, including AT&T Navigator with turn-by-turn directions.

On the tools-and-games front, you'll be able to use a compass, a calculator, a calendar, and voice command, as well as record audio. There are alarms, a memo pad and to-do list, a tip calculator, converter, a world clock, a timer, and a stop watch. A demo version of Texas Hold 'Em is onboard, and you can purchase more games, apps, and music.

Camera
The Rugby 3's 3-megapixel camera takes decent photos for a flip phone and comes with quite a few settings. You can take continuous shots or panorama, plus smile shot, which snaps a pic when it detects a grin. There's also night mode, the ability to drop down a few megapixels, and automatically adjust white balance. You'll also find filters that apply black-and-white or sepia tones, among others.

Images themselves are passable, though colors are muted unless you're in bright outdoor light. In most cases, you'll have to shrink them down anyway to send through MMS or e-mail. To get the full-size image, you'll need to transfer via Bluetooth.

The screw keeps the back panel in place. Josh Miller/CNET

Shooting a video is also an option, though videos came out a little grainy, with dull edges and flat color. At least the image didn't jerk around.

Call quality and performance
I wasn't able to test the Rugby 3's push-to-talk functionality, but I did test audio quality in San Francisco using AT&T's network (GSM 850/900/1800/1900). It was, sadly, one of the worst audio experiences I've had in a long time, and on a simple cell phone like this, that's inexcusable. Voices sounded muffled to my ears, though volume was OK at medium and high levels. They also contained a static quality, and I heard faint background crackle while my caller spoke. Thankfully there was no white noise, though.

On his end, my regular test caller said I sounded a little distorted and garbled. He also detected scratchiness in my voice and noted that I was hard to hear.

Samsung Rugby 3 call quality sample Listen now:

The speakerphone was where the poor sound engineering really reared its head. My caller and I both noticed that voices have a high-pitched chirping quality to them. On my end, audio sounded ragged, though I didn't hear any echo.

For his part, my calling partner related a terrible time punctuated by vacillating volume and voices cutting in and out. He gave the experience a D-plus.

In my mind, call quality is the phone's most major performance indicator, but there are other secondary and tertiary indicators as well. As a 3G data handset, you'll find slow Internet connection, but at least it's there. There's no Wi-Fi, which is typical for this type of handset, and battery life was good in my tests, which kept the screen on far longer than the default settings.

Military specifications means the Rugby 3 can drop into a puddle and still accept calls. Josh Miller/CNET

The Rugby 3 has a rated battery life of up to 9 hours talk time and 20 days in standby mode. During our test for talk-time, it lasted 9.4 hours. According to FCC tests, it has a digital SAR of 0.47 watt per kilogram.

Should you buy it?
Although I like the phone's aesthetics, based on poor call quality in my tests, I can't recommend buying the Rugby 3 for personal or company use. That said, I didn't get to try the push-to-talk capabilities, which could redeem the phone for some parties. Call quality also varies by area, so AT&T customers might try the phone out in their region before making a final decision.

Other minor drawbacks, like the shared headset jack and charging port, are a bummer, but the higher-megapixel camera for this phone type could balance it out. If a rugged phone is what you're after, you might try Sprint's network, where the Kyocera DuraXT is the brightest of the bunch.

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Samsung Rugby 3

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Performance 5
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