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What Makes a Mobile Device Rugged?

Brian O'Connell

Rugged, durable, tough, waterproof phones, laptops and tablets: What's the difference?

Whether you’re wielding a sledgehammer on a construction site or just have a teenager who can’t go 24-hours without his cell phone slamming onto the driveway, the right resilient, rugged mobile technology isn’t a luxury — it’s a necessity. 

Define Rugged 

In the most general of terms, there are three levels of ruggedization: semi-rugged, fully-rugged and ultra-rugged. The levels generally conform to how much of a beating your smartphone, tablet or laptop can take. But these terms are not completely standardized.

Semi-rugged is often referred to as business rugged.  A business-rugged device likely has all the same components as you'd find in a non-rugged model, but those components are often better protected. For instance, you'd likely find a spill-resistant keyboard on a laptop and a thicker case.  

Fully-rugged devices are often tested to withstand various military grade specifications, meaning these smartphones and tablets can withstand extreme temperatures. They can be dropped and are impervious to water or dust. In a fully-rugged laptop, for instance, you'll likely find a solid state drive, instead of a mechanical hard drive. For those on a construction site, these devices are likely to be sufficient to your needs. 

Ultra-rugged laptops, tablets and smartphones tend to cost more than the rest. But that's because they are designed to withstand the absolute worst conditions. These models can hold up to a sandstorm or blizzard. These are pretty much indestructible.  

Rugged Mobile Devices

“The value in "rugged" devices isn't limited to the durability of the hardware,” notes Justin Lake, co-owner of Venado Technologies, a mobile app development and consulting company. “Instead, I prefer to think of the ‘rugged device’ category as "commercial" or "enterprise" devices, because the companies producing them better understand the needs of their business clients.” 

The primary problem with smartphone durability (or more specifically, lack of it) is that consumer device manufacturers provide much less information to their clients about product road maps, which makes it difficult to make wise, long-term rugged device buying solutions, Lake explains.  

“Also, consumer devices are designed for single-person ownership where more durable and reliable enterprise devices are often built with multiple shifts in mind,” he offers. “Therefore, they offer replaceable batteries, multi-charging docks, and other relevant accessories allowing use across multiple people in multiple shifts per day.  Most importantly, those accessories were all designed and tested to work together, under tough conditions.” 

That isn't to say that consumer devices have no place in the durability scenario — they absolutely do, says Lake. “But the appropriate device for an enterprise solution needs to consider more than just drop and vibration specs,” he says. “For someone like a construction company business owner, a competent mobile systems integrator can help with that assessment and recommend the solution offering the most value for the investment.” 

Even so, demand is high for military-grade smartphones that can take a licking and keep on ticking, and the mobile industry is striving to meet that demand. 

In fact, new offerings are hitting cyber-store shelves on an increasing basis. For example, ToughBuilt, a Lake Forest, California-based tool manufacturer, rolled out a new rugged mobile device category at Mobile World Congress 2017, in February. The new line includes two devices, engineered to meet to military and IP-68 standards with durable features including 64GB memory, Gorilla Glass 5, and a proprietary USB HDMI connector offering the only connector on the market capable of delivering reliable, high resolution video (4K@60 frames per second), high speed data transfer and dual directional power delivery.  

“While the mobile category seems to be exploding, innovation still seems limited,” says David Tovissi, ToughBuilt’s general manager of mobile and technology. “We want to disrupt the market with global patent-pending technologies throughout our line of mobile products and accessories establishing a new benchmark for those who work tough and play tough.” 

If you’re looking for a professionally-credentialed source for rating the performance of so-called “rugged phones”, focus on one designation that mobile companies — and their customers — trust the most. 

“There are a number of ratings systems to help buyers determine the true "ruggedness" of a mobile device to ensure that the term isn't used solely for marketing purposes, and a Mil-Spec designation is at the top of the list,” states Rob Chamberlin, founder of DataXoom, a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO), based in San Francisco. 

According to Chamberlin, a Mil-Spec designation means that a device can handle an environmentally hostile work environments, including excessive heat or cold, dust, humidity, dust, vibration and shock. “A truly rugged device is engineered to operate efficiently in the most difficult physical environments,” he says. 

“Mil-Spec guidelines were originally established by the U.S. Department of Defense, and are considered the gold standard for accurately assessing a mobile device's capabilities,” he explains. “Most Mil-Spec devices are significantly larger and heavier than their consumer-grade counterparts. Since the market for these devices is rather small relative to the consumer marketplace, mil-spec devices tend to have less "bells and whistles" and are upgraded less often than consumer-grade mobile devices.” 

Chamberlin warns that Mil-Spec credentialed rugged devices “are also typically much more expensive as well – a factor that can sometimes a be a detriment to potential buyers.” 

So, with professional standards in mind, what are the best rugged mobile phones and devices?  Here are five that should be on the top of your list: 

Samsung Galaxy S7 Active, $478  

This phone carries the same user-friendly tools as the Galaxy S7, but is more durable and reliable – it’s U.S. Military Standard Test (Mil-STD-810G) certified, and is widely viewed as one of the most durable mobile devices among top-tier smart home manufacturers. 

Caterpillar CAT S40, $299 

Yes, that Caterpillar, maker of heavy construction equipment with a brand name equal to any Fortune 500 company. Now Caterpillar is in the rugged mobile device market, with a smartphone that aces the Mil-STD-810G test. Its best calling card? The S40 can hum along in all weather conditions, from –13 degrees to 131 degrees Fahrenheit, Caterpillar reports. 

Panasonic Toughbook CF 54, $1,575   

This tablet device from another leading global brand was developed specifically for workers plying their trade in the great outdoors, and for professionals operating in indoor construction and manufacturing trades. The device features a reinforced alloy screen lid, and it meets the MIL-STD-810 certification. The CF 54 can take a fall of three without any damage, and passes every test in operating in tough conditions, including shock, sand, dust, vibration, high and low temperatures, high and low altitudes, temperate shock and high-humidity. 

Kyocera Brigadier Rugged Smartphone, $297  

Another rock-solid mobile device comes from Kyocera, with its Brigadier line of rugged mobile devices. This unit comes with a 4.5 inch 720 pixel display with a PPI density at 326 pixels per inch. The device’s display is securely covered Sapphire Crystal glass, giving the Smartphone a stylistic, yet still rugged persona. The unit also features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 Quad-core 1.4 GHz Cortex-A7 processor with 2 GB RAM and 16 GB internal storage. Durability-wise, the smartphone is IP68-certified dust/water proof, with capacity to operate under 1.5 meters and 30 minutes under water. It’s also MIL-STD 810G certified salt, humidity, dust, vibration, solar radiation, rain, transport and thermal shock resistant, as well. 

Rugged Cases 

Perhaps you've got your heart set on that shiny new consumer smartphone, tablet or laptop, but you know you're going to be on jobsites where it will get totaled. A ruggedized case can go a long way.  

Take Catalyst, and its line of mobile phone cases, which recently earned top honors from iPhone Life Magazine “for best rugged gear”. Catalyst makes 100 percent waterproof, drop proof cases (but strictly for Apple devices).  

“We've doubled the waterproof rating in the new series so now the phone cases are completely waterproof to 33 feet, and the watch cases to 330 feet,” says a spokesperson for Catalyst. “Our design and technology makes these cases five-times more waterproof than any other everyday case on the market and the acoustic quality is fantastic.” 

With technology demonstrating its vast usefulness in outdoor, heavy-weather scenarios, rugged phones, tablets and smartphones are increasingly standard issue on job sites across the globe.

Brian O'Connell Contributing Writer
Brian O’Connell is a contributing financial writer for A former Wall Street bond trader and the author of two best-selling books; “The 401k Millionaire” and “CNBC’s Creating Wealth”, he has 20 years experience covering business news and trends, particularly in the financial, technology, political and career management sectors. His byline has appeared in dozens of top-tier national business publications, including CBS News, Bloomberg, Time, MSN Money, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC,, Yahoo Finance, CBS Marketwatch, and many more. Visit his web site at: Or, visit this link for a list/review of some of his book titles.