Rugged devices occupy a curious niche, generally falling into one of two categories. You have your consumer-klutz grade approach, which takes a "normal" phone and tacks on a bit of added durability to weather splashes and falls -- consider the. And then there are behemoths like the Sonim XP7, a tool purpose built for survival.
The XP7 is expensive, currently available in Canada for 750 Canadian dollars unlocked (about $665), and starting at about 100 Canadian dollars with a two-year contract -- we should be hearing more news about a US release later this year. But that premium price gets you a device built to operate in the worst conditions.
My job as a reviews editor rarely puts me in harm's way, but I do like to get out of the office from time to time. I brought the XP7 along on my last excursion, consisting of several nights of cantankerous weather, an unreasonable amount of mud and an ill-advised bit of rock scaling. Neither I nor the phone came back unscathed, but I did return impressed.
Design and specs
The Sonim XP7 is...let's call it utilitarian. You'll find no concessions to form here, no subtle curves or grippy, textured bits to hold on to. Picking it up feels like wrapping my hand around a tool, a mallet's handle or -- more appropriately here -- a rubber brick that's 0.8 inch thick. It weighs 290 grams, or just over half a pound. That isn't light by any stretch, but still surprisingly totable for something that looks like it could comfortably plow through a windshield.
The 4-inch display has a lowly 800x480-pixel resolution; it's serviceable, if not especially impressive. Colors look washed out when the phone is held at an angle, but everything on the screen is otherwise clearly visible. The display is fairly bright and more importantly, easy to see outside, even in direct sunlight. I imagine that Sonim's target audience spends more time outdoors glancing at emails and texts than showing off the photos they take with the 8-megapixel camera that sits on the rear, so the trade-off works here.
The phone feels indestructible, which instills a sort of bravado in me I wouldn't normally find when wielding expensive gadgets. Its spec sheet rattles off all manner of details on its resilience: IP68 certification to protect against microparticles and up to 2 meters of water (6.5 feet) for 30 minutes, and IP69 certification, for "resistance to high-temperature pressure wash."
I didn't try pressure-washing it. But the storm that hit the lake bed my friends and I had set up camp in gave me plenty of opportunities to try out the rest of the claims. The display will register inputs from gloves -- even soaked, muddy ones using the phone's LED flashlight to hunt for guylines that had been yanked free of their stakes. It's hard to be precise with gloves on, though, so don't expect to hammer out messages. Gusts of wind repeatedly blew the phone from its perch on a camping chair into patches of mud. I wiped it off and it seemed to shrug, obviously having a better time than I was. And after three nights spent taking photos, and yes, browsing the Web and posting status updates from the middle of the Mojave desert, the 4,800mAh battery still had plenty of life left to give.
Of course, it isn't actually indestructible. That bravado got the best of me, and as the sun rose on my last day I decided to scale some rocks and maybe get a better "hero" shot for my review. The mud wasn't as dry as I'd hoped and I took a fall, landing rather unceremoniously among some rocks. I was far more concerned about my camera, but then noticed the unsightly crack in the top right corner of the XP7's Gorilla Glass display. The phone was unfazed: I tested its features, ran my finger along the screen, looking for some sign of greater damage. I like to imagine it just sort of grinned, and asked "what's next?" Sonim offers a comprehensive three-year warranty, covering even accidental damage.
Not for the faint of heart
This is not a phone I'd like to use every day. It really starts to weigh on you, and doesn't fit comfortably in my pants pockets. The phone also uses a proprietary magnetic charging cable, which is a bit annoying. It removes one potential point of failure for dust and water to get in, and you can plug it in to a standard USB socket, but that still means toting along yet another cable when you want to top the device off.
I also spend most of my days behind a desk, so most of the concessions made to durability are wasted on me. The rest of the phone's functions are built into evenly distributed, raised buttons that are easy to hit with gloves -- the push-to-talk and camera shutter button on the left side of the phone, volume control and a red emergency support button on the right. The headphone jack sits up top, hidden behind a flap. The bulging antenna on the top right corner also houses the really loud speaker, and is capped off with a bright notification light that's easily visible in the depths of my camera bag, where I generally kept the phone. The phone also offers NFC connectivity.
Software and features
The Sonim XP7 runs Android 4.4 KitKat, and is largely free of extraneous apps or features -- just the way I like it. A shortcut for the LED flashlight sits right on the lock screen, which proves very useful if your tent is literally blowing away and you don't want to futz around for a light source.