Forget color designer smartphones, I want a rugged device

Summary:Customize your own Moto X? A Lumia 920 in your choice of fab plastic? Or perhaps a new iPhone 5C? Meh. I need something that can withstand the rigors of daily business and travel without putting an ugly, bulky case on it.

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An iPhone 5 and a Nokia Lumia 920 with ruggedized cases

If you've been paying attention to the mobile space recently, it seems that the latest gimmick in trying to make otherwise commoditized "me-too" products stand out in an extremely saturated marketplace is to add a bit of personalization to your particular device.

I can understand — well, I don't really understand, but I can see why — some people would want to make fashion statements with their smartphones. Smartphones, like watches or jewelry, are perceived as important lifestyle accessories now.

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Various device manufacturers have had some degree of color choice in their products for some time now. Apple has two different colors of iPhone — white and black — and Nokia has a range of colors that you can choose from on some of its Windows Phone-based Lumia smartphones.

Google is trying to break new ground with the Moto X by giving you hundreds of potential customization options to change the physical appearance of your phone. It's also expected that Apple is going to release a lower-cost, plastic iPhone within the next few months, tentatively called the "5C", that comes in your choice of colors, much like the Lumia.

Unfortunately, all of this color-coordinated accessorized fantasy comes to a screeching halt the first time your device takes a 5-foot drop onto concrete, and it ends up ruining your day.

Trust me, I know all about this. This is why I protect my smartphones with extremely ruggedized cases. My iPhone 5 is sealed with machine screws in a Lunatik Taktik enclosure, which makes it look like something Batman or SEAL Team Six might carry, and my Nokia 920, my work phone, is encased in an OtterBox case that transforms an otherwise big phone into a brick.

Every time a co-worker sees me with the Otterboxed Nokia, I get taunted and ridiculed. But I know better, because I'm smarter than every single one of them.

I protect my phones with these kinds of cases because I rely on them heavily as a mobile business professional. I travel fairly frequently, and my entire house in Florida, like many homes down here, is floored with thick Italian ceramic tile in every room.

There's a big tiled patio in my backyard, and concrete pavers lining my pool area. Drop any unprotected phone anywhere near my domicile, and you are almost certainly going to have a bad day.

The same goes if you are walking down the street in a major city, and you fumble the device during a call or it falls out of your pocket and hits the pavement. Sure, your device insurance or protection plan will get the phone replaced or repaired, but do you really want to deal with the hassle and being out of pocket until it gets fixed?

"There's a big tiled patio in my backyard, and concrete pavers lining my pool area. Drop any unprotected phone anywhere near my domicile, and you are almost certainly going to have a bad day."

It shouldn't have to be this way. I shouldn't have to spend an extra $40 to $100 on a ruggedized case on top of an already expensive smartphone, and make it look ugly and bulky, as well.

The bottom line is this: If you're going to offer "customized" or "color" options for your product, then you might as well also offer the "ruggedized" version.

Motorola actually had the right idea with the carbon-fiber Razr Android phone, but it was not as ruggedized as it possibly could have been. Ideally, you want all the corners to be reinforced, and the casing using a strong polycarbonate that has a removable rubber sheath on it for shock absorption, which could be dyed in any color you could possibly want for the fashion conscious. And you will want thicker Gorilla Glass to protect the display.

Samsung's Galaxy S4 Active, according to our sister cite CNET, shows that the water-resistant version of its flagship smartphone is anything but ruggedized.

The one company that seems to totally get this right now is Casio, which has entered the market with its Android-based GzOne Commando LTE 4G phone that is currently available on Verizon. It's like the G-Shock watch equivalent of a phone, designed to handle the most abusive conditions, including full water immersion.

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Casio GzOne! Commando by the Perlow poolside.

I had a brief chance to play with the GzOne, and while I like the idea, the Android on it is back-revved to an older 4.0 version, the screen is low resolution compared to current smartphone offerings, and the hardware isn't particularly capable compared to what else is out there. So most Android fans would probably not want one, although it has potential for vertical market applications.

But think of what Apple, Samsung, HTC, and Nokia could do if they took the guts of their most popular models and made "Active Lifestyle" versions with a slight premium for the ruggedization. I would totally go for a ruggedized iPhone 5 or a armored, immersion-proof Nokia 1020. Heck, the 1020 is practically screaming for this treatment, given the fact that it already has such an outdoor focus with the premium 40MP camera on it.

If a "ruggedized" version of your favorite smartphone was available, would you buy one? Talk back and let me know.

Topics: Smartphones, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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