Unihertz Atom hands-on: Rugged tiny 4G smartphone keeps you connected in the field for less than $300

Unihertz had a very successful campaign for the Jelly phone in 2017 and is following that up with a rugged variation that I have been testing for the past week.

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Many people who work outside or participate in outdoor activities wrap their glass sandwich smartphones in bulky rugged cases and hope for the best during their adventures. With the upcoming Unihertz Atom you can rest easy and carry a phone that fits within a single hand.

I can nearly completely enclose my hand around the Unihertz Atom and have been biking, running, working, and commuting with a sample device for the past week. It's rather stunning how much power Unihertz was able to squeeze into such a small device and while I felt like Derek Zoolander making calls, the Atom is actually quite effective at basic communications and even some AR tools.

Specifications

  • Processor: Unnamed ccta-core
  • Display: 2.45 inch 240x432 pixels resolution TFT LCD, Gorilla Glass
  • Operating system: Android 8.1 Oreo
  • RAM: 4GB
  • Storage: 64GB internal storage
  • Cameras: 16-megapixel rear camera and 8-megapixel front-facing camera
  • Wireless technology: 802.11 a/b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.2, NFC, GPS and GLONASS, FM radio
  • Durability ratings: IP68 dust and water resistant rating with a rugged enclosure
  • Sensors: Fingerprint (front-mounted), accelerometer, gyroscope, proximity, ambient light, and compass
  • Battery: 2,000mAh battery
  • Dimensions: 96 x 45 x 18mm and 108 grams

One aspect that is important for your consideration are the bands that are supported by this unlocked phone. It is a dual-SIM phone too so you can carry you work and personal SIM at the same time. Unihertz provided the following information on wireless bands:

  • GSM: Band 2/3/5/8
  • WCDMA: Band 1/2/4/5/8
  • TDSCDMA: Band 34/39
  • FDD-LTE: Band 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/13/17/18/19/20/25/26/28A/28B
  • TDD-LTE: Band 34/38/39/40/41
  • CDMA2000: BC0/BC1

I've been using it for a week on T-Mobile and it has performed very well. As you can see, it doesn't support the new Band 71 (600 MHz), but that is not expected for a phone under $200.

The Unihertz Atom Kickstarter Super Early Bird price is $159 (100 backer limit) with other pricing levels of $179, $199, and $219. The full retail price, with a planned delivery of October 2018, will be $299. I've backed several Kickstarter projects in the past and there is always a risk in backing these, but Unihertz had a very successful Project Jelly campaign last year that garnered more than $1.25 million from nearly 11,000 backers so it is likely that the Atom will be delivered to you before the end of 2018.

Hardware

When I opened the tiny black Unihertz package I almost laughed when I saw the miniscule Atom smartphone lying there. Most of the pictures I saw on the internet turned out to be actual size of the phone itself on my computer monitor.

In the past, I have tested ruggedized phones from CAT and Sonim. These rugged phones were pretty bulky and also garnered a premium price for the additional protection for outside work environments. The Unihertz Atom is encased in black rubber with red highlights on the corners and PTT button.

Starting at the front, we have the small 2.45 inch LCD screen. The top and bottom bezels are huge while the side bezels are rather wide too. Bezels don't really matter on a rugged device, but my aging eyes would definitely like a bit more screen real estate. A screen protector was also installed on the display out of the box and I left it on while testing the unit as it provides another layer of protection for rough use.

The headset speaker and front facing camera are above the display. Below the viewable screen we find the oblong small fingerprint sensor that also acts as a home button when you touch it, but it does not actually press inwards. There is a task switcher capacitive button to the right and a back button to the left of the fingerprint sensor. Like the new HTC U12 Plus, these are haptic buttons with decent vibration feedback.

A standard 3.5mm headset jack is found on the top. Power and push-to-talk buttons are on the right side with an uncovered open USB-C port for charging and USB OTG. We often still see microUSB used on low cost Android devices so it is great to see Unihertz using USB-C here. The two volume buttons and the dual-SIM card slot on the left side.

Each corner has ridges and red highlighted areas that appear to offer additional corner protection. There is a lanyard loop on the bottom of the back while most of the back has a textured rubber finish for additional grip. The 16 megapixel camera is found next to a flash at the top of the back. There are also eight visible screws in the back that look to hold the Atom together.

The cameras performed just fine for a tiny phone less than $300 and while it won't compete with the high-priced flagships it will get the job done when you are out and about.

The Kickstarter page also has accessory options for a belt clip, armband, and bike mount so you can take the Atom with you on your outdoor adventures.

Software

I was frankly shocked to open up the settings and see that the Unihertz Atom runs Android 8.1 Oreo with the April Android security patch. There are many flagships that don't even have this latest version of Android up and running.

However, keep in mind that the Atom is not advertised to ship to customers until October 2018 so Android 8.1 makes sense. We may even see Unihertz get Android P on the device by then or shortly after, but given the key basic communication needs I am not sure you need to worry about having the latest and greatest version of Android installed.

The phone runs a stock version of Android with a basic home page experience and app launcher accessed by swiping up from the bottom of the display. In addition to the Google basics such as calculator, calendar, camera, Chrome, Gmail, Maps, Messages, and more, you get a few apps from Unihertz. These include a face ID utility, file manager, FM radio, pedometer, music player, sound recorder, trackback utility, and Toolbox.

The Toolbox is extremely useful and perfectly complements the fitness and outdoor adventure focus of the Atom. The tools in the Toolbox include a sound meter, compass, flashlight, bubble level, picture hanger tool, heart rate monitor, height measuring utility, magnifier, alarm, plumb bob, and protractor. It's cool to see the camera used with some of these tools to provide an augmented reality experience that provides you with a device for accurate measurements.

When I saw the small display and realized I had to login to my Gmail account to setup the device, I was worried about the ability for my fat fingers to use the keyboard and not be completely frustrated. Gboard is installed as the default keyboard and it is amazingly accurate and easy to use on the Unihertz Atom. Swiping works well and my keyboard entry mistakes have been minimal over the past week.

Daily usage experiences

The Unihertz Atom launches today on Kickstarter at the special launch price of $159. When you look across the current collection of smartphones priced less than $300 that Unihertz Atom stands out as one with NFC, a fingerprint sensor on the front, the latest version of Android, and a price that beats nearly every other phone out there.

A phone like this is primarily used for staying in touch while outside and is not something you will spend hours looking at for your social networks or to draft documents. Phone calls sounded good on the headset speaker and through the speakerphone. NFC is present so you can use it for mobile payments. The battery lasted a full day, but I wasn't watching movies either. Google Assistant works well with the fingerprint sensor/home button or through voice activation.

The utilities in the Toolbox were handy and I could definitely see adding the Unihertz Atom to my fly fishing kit and taking it running to make sure I had a safety lifeline in case of an emergency.

It's a tiny smartphone, but for $159 it is a great secondary phone to take with you running, fly fishing, biking, hiking, and working out in the field. Even at the full $299 price, it is a solid phone for field workers and those weekend warriors who are rought on their phones. It will help you stay in touch without worry while other glass sandwich phones cost you $500 to $1000 and require a bulky case to keep safe.