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Samsung Rugby Pro review: Tough-guy Android phone for a fair price

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MSRP: $449.99

The Good Samsung's Rugby Pro has stellar call quality, push-to-talk support, NFC, a speedy processor, and a decent 5-megapixel camera.

The Bad It doesn't look or feel all that durable, and the back panel popped open when I threw the handset.

The Bottom Line Samsung's Rugby Pro makes a good, affordable choice for people seeking a more rugged smartphone, but it won't satisfy those who need an ultradurable frame.

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7.3 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8

Samsung's Rugby Pro is a buddy story between AT&T and a durable Samsung-made Android 4.0 phone. It may look tough on the outside, but there's heart and brainpower within. The Pro joins the "Rugby" team -- which also includes the Samsung Rugby Smart, the Rugby II, and 2008's original Rugby -- with specs to keep out heat, dust, and the rest.

Proving that it's with the times, the Rugby Pro adds Android Ice Cream Sandwich, zippy 4G LTE speeds, and an especially speedy dual-core processor to a push-to-talk device with physical buttons and a screw-on back. The $100 price tag is certainly appealing for all you get, but watch out -- the Rugby Pro wasn't always ready to tussle.

Rugged as advertised?
Anytime a durable product comes in, we're honor bound to smack it around. An appropriately hearty phone, the Rugby Pro stands 5 inches tall by 2.7 inches wide and measures 0.5 inch thick. It feels hefty at 4.6 ounces. It meets U.S. Mil-STD 810F specifications for dust, humidity, rain, and shock. Beyond that, it's waterproof up to a depth of a meter for up to 30 minutes, when all ports are tightly closed. However, don't make a habit of bringing it swimming with you; it isn't intended for extended water use.

The Rugby Pro works underwater as advertised, and with its thick seams and ridged sides, it certainly looks like it can take a pounding. At least at first. There's a hard, ridged material that rings the phone. While I appreciate the grippable nature, I'm disappointed that the material doesn't seem thicker, more cushioned, or especially rubbery. I have after-market cases that offer better bounce-back when you drop them.

I may have thrown it a bit too hard on the carpet when testing the Rugby Pro's durability. Josh Miller/CNET

Why isn't the screen more recessed to protect it? Why isn't the back cover also encased in something more rubbery? Its finely textured plastic panel feels a little slippery on its own. Thankfully, the phone's square spines help keep it clenched in your hand. I like the height and width of the power, volume, and convenience buttons on the Rugby Pro's spines, and the flap covering the 3.5mm headset jack was so securely in place, I nearly ripped off a fingernail prying it open. Below the display are three physical buttons to control the menu, home, and back. They weren't too stiff, and in my tests, they pressed down just fine while wearing gloves.

The screw keeping the back cover in place is a classic step to seal the phone, but unscrews with a coin (Samsung specifically warns against using your nail, but I had no problem). The SIM and microSD slots are underneath. Now here's the big "but": when I purposely threw the Pro on its back from about 3.5 feet, the part of the back panel that wasn't screwed on popped off. The Rugby Pro never revealed its innards any other time I dropped it from that height without extra force.

One benefit to a much more flush casing around the screen is that the 4-inch display is much easier to access and doesn't seem encroached. The Super AMOLED material and 800x480-pixel (WVGA) resolution keep text and lines looking sharp, colorful, and smooth. Blacks look deep and rich, and in typical Samsung fashion, the default settings overload certain colors, like green. This help gives images depth and richness, but it can look a little overdone on your own photos, when the overabundance of color becomes obvious.

OS and features
The Rugby Pro runs on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Samsung's custom TouchWiz layer on top delivers software extras, like a customizable lock screen and one-touch access to system controls from the notifications menu. There's access to the full suite of Google services, including signing in to multiple accounts, like Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft Exchange in addition to your Gmail and other e-mail profiles.

Physical buttons all around the phone are easy to press. Josh Miller/CNET

There are your usual favorites: maps with turn-by-turn navigation, YouTube, and search apps for people and places, too. The phone supports VPN, portable hot spots, Kies for Wi-Fi sharing with other Samsung products, and DLNA. There's also Bluetooth 4.0.

In the settings, you'll be able to program the convenience key to open any app, like navigation or the camera (hallelujah). NFC means you can happily share photos and URLs through S Beam. Samsung also offers motion controls, but only two -- shake to update, and flip to mute or pause -- versus the 11 in Samsung's Galaxy Note 2. I find flip-to-mute really useful.

A whole lot of preloaded apps come on the Rugby Pro, as they do on every smartphone with a major carrier. There are a few Samsung apps, and many more AT&T apps for managing your account and tapping into the carrier's extra services (like U-Verse live TV.) In addition, Qik Lite is installed for you to start in on voice chats. Standard apps include the calendar, clock, calculator, and music player. The Google Play store is your go-to for downloading free and premium apps and other content like TV shows, movies, and music.

Samsung Rugby Pro
Added browser tools add an interesting twist. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

One interesting addition is AT&T's browser bar, a shortcut strip you can call up or hide on the bottom of the screen. If you find yourself wanting to share a story, signing in to one of these services just once lets you share the story on Facebook or Twitter, send the link over e-mail, and even simply "Like" the page on Facebook. You can also browse for news by category: popular stories, sports, news, and so on. The Browser Bar is customizable as well, and easy to disable from the bar's settings.

I really liked the concept and mostly liked the browser bar shortcuts, but it could use some enhancements. I especially noticed that the Twitter shortcut didn't shorten links, a major black mark in my Twitter-happy universe.

Samsung Rugby Pro toughens up Android
Does it pass the dunk tank test? Yes it does.

What about voice commands, you ask? You'll actually get your choice of two options; and that's important if you really are wearing thick gloves that can't type on the phone's virtual keyboard. S Voice is Samsung's own version, but I very much prefer Google's Voice Actions. Launch the former by double-pressing the home button no matter where you are. Use the latter by pressing and holding on the menu button from any start screen.

You can also get to Google from the microphone icon in the home screen search bar, and can get to voice-to-text by pushing the microphone icon on the keyboard. Of course, the button is fairly tiny on the 4-inch screen.

The Rugby Pro will support Enhanced PTT (push-to-talk) when the service launches in November. At that point, you should be able to turn your convenience key into a PTT trigger.

Cameras are usually de-emphasized on durable phones, but I'm glad to see the Rugby Pro packing a quite decent 5-megapixel shooter. In addition to taking some nice outdoor and indoor shots, Samsung has given the Rugby Pro's camera many of its typical extra features.

Samsung Rugby Pro camera test
The Samsung Rugby Pro takes some pretty decent shots. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Let's start with the photos themselves. The Rugby Pro produces photos that are on the whole clear and detailed, with sharp edges and strong color. There clearly isn't as much detail as from most 8-megapixel cameras, and photos taken in good lighting are better than those taken indoors in mixed lighting or artificial environments.

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