Forget color designer smartphones, I want a rugged device

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.

TOPICS: Smartphones, Tablets
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.

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


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience 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.

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  • exterior cases

    You'll never beat the ruggedness and replace-ability of add on protective cases; if only because they are replaceable. I recently passed down my Motorola Droid X to my daughter, it had been in a Defender case for about two years; when I took it out, it was pristine. I promptly through away the beat up Defender case, put the phone in a new one, and it should be good for another two years.

    I don't know about drop protection, but I do know that I've dropped my Note 2 numerous times on pavement, plenty of times face down; but the only dings suffered, have been taken by its otterbox. The phone inside is flawless. And when I replace that $50 case, instead of the multi-cnote phone, the modest nuisance of the thicker device profile will truly be worth it.
    • I much prefer to take care of my phone

      I use a leather case to protect the phone's screen when the phone is in my pocket. Then I take my phone out of the case and use it with care. It doesn't matter what my floors are made of. I don't use my phone absent-mindedly or act as if it were (or somehow should be) indestructible.
      • I need more than a cautious protocall..

        @RationalGuy. Some people use their phones during dynamic activities- particularly for camera shots and videos. Try being so meticulous in rough seas, in the middle of a crowded Asian market or outdoors during a monsoon. For a kitty-cat I guess that your method would work just fine.
  • Consumers are easily distrac... SQUIRREL

    Consumers only care what an advertised product looks like. It is advertised as being thin and light with shiny glass and in some cases, fancy metal. We go "OOOOO" and we click on "buy". We have purchased a beautiful device and that is all we care about.

    Then, once the sale is complete, we are reminded by the salesperson of the long term ramifications of our purchase. We need the extended warranty and the case. The thin and light phone just became thick and heavy but that's okay, we still bought a thin and light phone. The shiny glass has all been covered with a polycarbonate sheet but that's okay, we still bought a phone with shiny glass. If anyone ever demands proof, we simply spend the next 2 minutes extracating our phone from its case to show how the phone we purchased is a beautiful work of art. We still quote the pre case specifications of the device because those are the only ones that "count". That these specifications are far removed from reality is completely unimportant.

    I'm actually okay with the way these devices are sold. I prefer to be given the choice to cover my device in a big ugly case or not. And there already is a spectrum of "rugged". iphones are by far the weakest and most fragile. Somewhere in the middle you have Nokia phones that will withstand a lot more than lesser phones. On the high end, as you pointed out, are specialized ruggedized phones.

    But anyone can take something as poorly made as an iphone and make it JUST as ruggedized as a specialty phone by throwing it in a huge case. Or they can do what I did and buy something that is solid enough that 90% of people won't need a case for it. My Nokia Lumia 920 has fallen a couple times, not a scratch on it. And the advertised specifications are EXACTLY the real specifications, unlike certain other people who carry around a 4oz phone that weighs 8oz.
    • "My Nokia Lumia 920 has fallen a couple times, not a scratch on it."

      Well, I guess being confined to a padded cell does have its advantages, doesn't it?
      • What a shame

        It is a shame that apple fanboys are amongst the most vicious group of people in our population.
        • Dear Pot:

          Forgive me.
          • I do not resort to personal attacks

            I am constantly being insulted and attacked by apple fanboys. These attacks are vicious and without provocation, as you have demonstrated.

            I do not imply that if someone disagrees with me, they must be mentally ill, unlike you.

            This is not a pot vs kettle situation.

            In the future, you may want to consider what your personal attacks say about you. None of these attacks make me look or feel bad, they only make the poster look bad. That's you. Think about it.
          • I guess that portraying Steve Jobs as the devil is not a "personal attack".

            But he's dead, so maybe that doesn't count.
          • Ah, now we are getting somewhere

            So you feel personally attacked when I suggest that your leader is evil?

            Why is that?
          • No, jerk, I do NOT feel personally attacked in the least.

            But you said you don't do personal attacks, and that is obviously a lie. You attack Steve Jobs' person as often as you can.

            I've had enough of your BS. This is obviously way off topic, so I'm out of here.
            Sorry, Jason.
          • Oh Toddy!

            You've reached a new low today. I'm guessing that your new anti-depressants brought on by the triple-whammy of WP8 failure, Surface failure and Nokia's slide into irrelevancy has further twisted your ability to think and reason.

            Please, remove the tin foil hat, put the MS koolaid down and seek professional help. Your iHate is not healthy.

            In the future, you may want to consider what your delusional attacks say about you. None of these delusions make us look or feel bad, they only make us pity you and your deteriorating mental state. Think about it.

            Yes, Steve Jobs fired you for incompetence - get over it, it's ancient history. Your new job bashing Apple probably isn't as satisfying, but apparently it's paying the bills. Put this all behind you and try to move forward. Seek professional help, seriously.
          • Now boys,

            play nice!
        • Attacks

          Frankly, I find the term 'fanboy' a personal attack, inasmuch as it is a pejorative term used to denigrate another person, and I have been a 'boy' in about 50 years.
  • I'll take an Otterbox over a ruggedized phone

    I've got a Lumia 920 and an Otterbox case as well. If not indestructible, the Otterbox sure makes it destruction resistant. The problem I've seen with ruggedized phones is that they tend not to have the features of their less rugged relatives. In addition to being replaceable when damaged, the Otterbox cover can be removed and replaced with a thinner case when you don't think you'll need as much protection. I've also got a simple thin silicon type case for the 920 that both protects it from scuffing and retains it nice looks.
    Sir Name
  • It's Been Done ... For Android

    Something like this?
    • Neat phone

      But it nicely highlights the problem with factory ruggedization. For some people ruggedized means drop resistant, for some it means scratch-proof, for some it means water resistant, for some it means some combination of all three. For the Cat B15 it means a whole new level of protection. It's good business for the aftermarket folks or the Catepillar company who wants to carve out a niche.
  • Not just rugged also readable

    It's not only the cases that need the colours removed! - I'm a yachite and would love to use a tablet to replace the expensive single function instruments on my boat.

    The problem with most phones and tablets is that they're impossible to read in full sunlight - add a case to protect the screen and the reflections are even worse - then you've got the problem of trying to charge the thing when it's in the case while also keeping it waterproof.

    Finally someone has realised the opportunity and has crowd-funded the Earl - a rugged Android tablet with an E-ink display (like the original Kindle), with GPS, FM & Shortwave Radio, WiFi, solar panel and an IP67 rating. Shipping "real soon" for $299. See

    A phone with similar specs would be fantastic.
  • I agree with a point

    I never understood why people buy the latest, thinnest, lightest phones just to put on ugly, bulky cases. So it breaks, who cares. Get it replaced with insurance or buy another. In less than 6 months most phones are outdated anyways.

    If you cannot afford to be clumsy then buy the last generation phone they are thick as your new phone with a case and probably cheaper to replace then the shinny new one.

    Only phone that sucked was the iPhone - because the phone insurance did not cover iPhones when I had one. Now, if I break one - I call insurance (pay the deductible) and they have a new or refurbished phone to me within 1 biz day.

    Phone breaking is the last thing I worry about. Now only if they did something about the stupid battery!!!
    • Battery

      What? You mean you have to charge yours? Grin.
      What is stupid about the iPhone battery? I find mine good for two to three days use, but I almost never push it that far since it is so easy to plug in the charger when I go to bed, and then use it as I like for the next 18 hours or so.