It's hard not to be impressed by a phone you can submerge in 6.5 feet of water for half an hour without it drowning, drop into antifreeze, and break out of a block of concrete without it sustaining damage. This is exactly the rough-and-tumble toughness that spurs rugged-phone maker Sonim Technologies along in its quest to outfit construction workers and others in outdoorsy occupations with cell phones sturdy enough to withstand a range of environmental hazards. Its latest effort, the Sonim XP3300 Force, has the same military specifications for powering through shock, dust, extreme temperatures, pressure, oil spills, and so on as the previous build, the Sonim XP1300 Core. Although construction on the two handsets looks identical, the Force is more upmarket, with a few additional apps, a camera, and assisted GPS with turn-by-turn navigation. The lack of features is a complaint we had about the Core, and it's heartening that Sonim listened.
While the phone's bulk, heft, grip, and hardiness show "rugged" is the name of the game, we did manage to crack the Gorilla Glass screen. We don't hold this against Sonim, not too much, anyway. The company promised ruggedness, not indestructibility, and we were purposely chucking the handset at a concrete surface (read the Durability section for more). It's just a good thing the phone comes with a three-year warranty.
You'll have to pay a pretty penny for all that protection. The Force costs $499 without a contract and will be available in the third week of March through Sonim's Web site and through its distributor, Quality One.
Editors' note: Portions of this review are taken from the Sonim XP1300 Core review due to their overlapping features.
If the Force were a comic book character, it would be the Incredible Hulk, assuming that the Hulk was part fiberglass and not so green. The Force comes in two colors--all black, and black with yellow accents. Both versions stand 5 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide by 1 inch thick and weigh a muscular 6.5 ounces.
The Force has a thick, waterproof rubber-and-fiberglass shell. In addition to protecting the electronic guts from Mother Nature, the ridged rubber coating also gives the Force excellent grip, essential for thickly gloved hands. Unfortunately, the rubber also engulfs the phone's petite, 2-inch screen. Gorilla Glass (1.5 millimeter thick) will help prevent the display from scratching and breaking. Drops onto concrete from higher than 6.5 feet, however, will crack it like an egg.
The QVGA 240x320-pixel resolution display is nothing special, and its interface is functional, but not particularly attractive. Navigation was mostly fine, but small icons in many apps were confusing and strained our eyes. It's clear that Sonim's strength is hardware, not software design.
Below the screen are the soft keys, the Clear button, Talk and End buttons, and a circular navigation toggle with a central select button. All the buttons on the navigation toggle and the backlit, alphanumeric dial pad are ridged, a feature intended to make them easier to press while wearing leather gloves. The keys felt good under our small, bare fingers, but were nevertheless cramped. With slim, tight-fitting gloves, we were able to compose texts and dial phone numbers precisely. With thicker gardening and work gloves, the results of our presses were anyone's guess. A large-handed construction professional we showed the phone to echoed our sentiment. It's disappointing that Sonim didn't take the opportunity to redesign the Force's dial pad--there's clearly space to expand.
Despite the dial pad's weak point, the rest of the phone's hardware continued to impress, especially the two screwed-in, waterproof "mud flaps" on the left spine that help keep the charging and headset jacks dry. The sockets are also water-resistant this year, Sonim CEO Bob Plaschke told CNET in a demo of the phone. Unfortunately, both are also 3.5 millimeters, which is great for accessing the FM receiver and music player, but inconvenient for charging your phone. You'll have to use one of the included adapters or buy your own.
Below the flaps there's a programmable convenience key that goes to the oddly named "Java" app section that houses the Opera Mini browser along with other selections. The interface here is even more oddly adorned with tiny digital flowers.
Back to the hardware: there's a grippable volume rocker on the right spine, above the camera button. The latter also turns on a bright flashlight. Both the 2-megapixel camera lens and the flashlight are on the back. We're very glad to see the camera, which was absent in the Core. As with its predecessor, large screws keep the battery closure secure, and keep water out. Sonim includes a small flat-head (standard) screwdriver tool you can attach to a keychain. The screws aren't designed to come out of the housing, so you'll need to loosen both screws until the cover pops off.
A plastic barrier lines the battery cavity to create a firm seal. We had to use the corner of the screwdriver to pry out the battery, at first. In most cases, we frown on any manufacturer that places the SIM card and 16GB-capable microSD card slot behind the battery. In this case, Sonim had good cause. In addition to creating a physical shield, the battery keeps both smaller plastic wafers from dislodging.