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Best rugged phone in 2021: smartphones which can take a beating

Best rugged phone: Ulefone Armor 11T 5G
(Image credit: Ulefone)

Looking for the best rugged phone? This guide will help you pick the one with the right features for you - and at the best price.

Durability is a feature everyone looks for in smartphones – even the latest flagship phones from Apple and have started getting a little fatter to give them better battery life – but for some that isn’t enough. It isn’t only important how long a phone will stay on, but whether it’ll survive a tough day on the job or a vicious trek into the wilderness. 

The best rugged smartphones take risk, danger, and outdoor use really seriously, with drop and shock-proof design, high levels of dust and water resistance and perhaps even features which will help in the field.

This is proven by standards including IP68 (or higher), which refers to ingress protection – meaning your phone will be built to prevent water and dust getting in. The better the score here, the longer it resisted.

In the clatter of manual work, or extreme sport, phones get dropped. Rugged phones are drop tested, and the higher they can fall without breaking, the better – the measure is the drop onto concrete (drop test), and it’s also worth looking out for the screen material. Gorilla Glass Victus, the latest version of the legendary protected screen.

Another measure of protection is military standards; the US developed a series of standards in which devices are tested in appropriate environments. You can download and read them from the US government but in essence they’re standards for acceleration, temperature (including rapid changes), shock, solar radiation, rain, fungus, vibration and more. MIL-STD-810H is a newer version of the same set of standards, released in 2014, so one isn’t better per se.

We’ve assembled a list of the best rugged smartphones on offer now, steering toward those which will help get the job done; if some seem too pricey check whether the handset includes a feature you don’t need, like thermal imaging, and check another. There are options for all budgets.

Best rugged phone in 2021

(Image credit: Ulefone )

1. Ulefone Armor 11T 5G

Thermal camera and flagship specs in a rugged phone

Display: 6.1 inch 720 x 1560px (Olephobic coating)
Cameras: 48 MP + FLIR thermal + 5MP + 2MP macro +2MP depth (front); 16MP (selfie)
OS: Android 11
CPU/GPU: Octa-core 4x2GHz A76 + 4x2GHz A55 Cortex / Mali-G57 MP4
Memory: 256GB
RAM: : 8GB
Dust/water protection: : IP69K (1.5m for 30mins)
Drop test: 1.2m
Rugged: MIL-STD-810G compliant
Practical: Radio, Accelerometer, proximity, compass
Size: 164 x 82 x 14 mm
Weight: 293g
Reasons to buy
+Flagship phone & camera spec+Thermal imaging camera+5G capable
Reasons to avoid
-Drop test only 1.2m

If you need to take a thermal imaging camera to work, this rugged 5G phone not only represents a well-equipped modern phone but one less thing to carry. The camera array isn’t just useful for assessing heat issues; there is a macro lens for examining close up flaws in visible light. The slim profile, 7nm process and spec is pretty competitive with flagship phones which means you do get high end features like fingerprint ID, face unlock, and wireless charging. You can capture 4K video as well as 48 megapixel images, but you’ll need a case to beat some of the others in this list when it comes to the drop test. 

(Image credit: Nokia)

2. Nokia XR20

The iconic brand gets tough (discretely)

Display: 6.67 inch 1080x2400px (Corning Gorilla Glass Victus)
Cameras: 48 MP + 13MP (front); 8MP (selfie)
OS: Android 11
CPU/GPU: Octa-core 2x2GHz 460 + 6x1.8GHz Kryo 506 / Adreno 619
Memory: 64 or 128GB + microSDXC
RAM: : 4/6GB
Dust/water protection: : IP68 (1.5m for 60mins)
Drop test: 1.8m
Rugged: MIL-STD-810H compliant
Practical: Radio, Accelerometer, proximity, compass, barometer
Size: 171 x 82 x 10.6 mm
Weight: 248g
Reasons to buy
+Tough without shouting about it+Three years of OS updates included
Reasons to avoid
-Average battery life 

The XR20 is all about being an ordinary phone which just happens to be pretty tough; it’s designed not to look like a power tool and is even offered in ‘Ultra Blue’ as well as ‘Granite Grey.’ Like most rugged phones, the XR20 is a middle-of-the-road device as far as the spec sheet is concerned, but this is one you can drop 1.8m (5ft10) onto concrete without it breaking. 

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this phone, when so many will just sell you the handset and move on, is Nokia’s three year commitment to updates (and one year to screen replacements), as well as other modern treats like wireless charging. Spec-wise this is certainly not a gaming powerhouse, but it hits all the rugged notes and does so in a new way, and there is a 5G.

(Image credit: Caterpillar)

A firm favorite with thermal camera and high-res display

Display: 5.7 inch 2160x1080px (Gorilla Glass 6)
Cameras: 12 MP + FLIR thermal (front); 8MP (selfie)
OS: Android 10
CPU/GPU: Octa-core (4 x 2.2 GHz + 4 1.8 GHz Kryo 260) / Adreno 512
Memory: 128GB + microSD
RAM: : 6GB
Dust/water protection: : IP68 & IP69 (1.5m for 35mins)
Drop test: 1.8m
Rugged: MIL-STD-810H compliant
Practical: Accelerometer, proximity, compass, barometer, fingerprint
Size: 159 x 77 x 12 mm
Weight: 248g
Reasons to buy
+FLIR Thermal imaging camera+High pixel density screen+IP69
Reasons to avoid
-Thermal tech is costly if you don’t need it

FLIR’s tech is essential for many professionals, and the Lepton 3.5 sensor (160 x 120) is useful. It’s a shame that CAT don’t seem to be keeping pace with flagship handsets; Android 10 is now a year out of date and the single rear camera (except the thermal one) is a relatively paltry 12 megapixels. Nevertheless CAT is a respected brand for a reason and the rugged handset does boast a programmable side button so this handset can easily become part of a workflow, surviving a good few tough days. In fact hitting the IP69 standard puts it ahead of plenty of rugged handsets, no mean achievement, and the casing’s mix of aluminum and non-slip rubber means you probably won’t be drop testing it too often anyway!

(Image credit: Doogee)

4. Doogee S97 Pro

Best rugged phone with laser rangefinder

Display: 6.39 inch 720x1560px (Corning Gorilla Glass 5)
Cameras: 48 MP + 8 MP + 2 MP + 2 (macro) MP (front); 16MP (selfie)
OS: Android 11
CPU/GPU: Octa-core (2 x 2.1 GHz Cortex + 6 x A55) / Helio G95
Memory: 128GB + microSDXC
RAM: : 8GB
Dust/water protection: : IP68 / IP69K (1.5m for 30mins)
Drop test: 1.5m
Rugged: MIL-STD-810G compliant
Practical: Accelerometer, proximity, compass, barometer
Size: 170 x 84 x 16.2 mm
Weight: 346g
Reasons to buy
+ Long battery life+Built-in laser measure
Reasons to avoid
-No 5G-Weighty in the pocket

Handy for any professional needing to make on-site measurements, the S97 Pro can measure length to 40m, and calculate area (including Pythagorean) and volume. On ruggedness it’s a solid performer, scoring well on the drop test and able to rest in shallow water up to a day too. Despite that, the main camera’s 48 megapixel sensor is part of a decent camera array and for flexible day-to-day use there is a fingerprint reader and two customizable buttons. The S97’s 8,500 mAh battery (nearly double the iPhone 13 Pro Max, more than double the CAT S62) means up to 26 days standby (or 40 hours call time) are available, topped up fast with a USB-C 35W fast charge, or 10W wireless. Sadly some of that extended time comes from the lack of 5G, but in terms of chip-set it’s a pretty nippy phone.

(Image credit: Caterpillar)

5. CAT S42 H+

Best rugged phone for medical and hygiene-centric work

Display: 5.5 inch 720 x 1440px (Gorilla glass 5)
Cameras: 13 MP (front); 5MP (selfie)
OS: Android 10/11 (released April 2021)
CPU/GPU: Quad-core 1.8GHz Cortex-A53 / PowerVR GE8320
Memory: 32GB + MicroSDXC (dedicated slot)
RAM: : 3GB
Dust/water protection: : IP69 (1.5m for 35mins)
Drop test: 1.8m
Rugged: MIL-STD-810H compliant, Antimicrobial protection
Practical: Radio, Accelerometer, proximity, compass
Size: 161 x 77 x 13 mm
Weight: 220g
Reasons to buy
+Anti-bacterial+Chemical and bleach resistant
Reasons to avoid
-Relatively low spec for a 2021 model-4G only

There’s no arguing with CAT’s reputation in the trades, but as the end of the pandemic slips from us like the horizon we’re chasing, the obvious benefit of a handset with permanent anti-bacterial technology is clear. Every component is blended with Biomaster, an antimicrobial silver-ion technology which can inhibit bacteria replicating, and won’t be removed from the handset, even with bleach. It’s clear this phone isn’t built for speed, and nor will a single 13-megapixel camera impress photographers, but the 4,200mAh battery will last a little longer that way and this is a handset with a very specific purpose. It’s also worth noting that, the Gorilla Glass is only version 5. Nevertheless this broadly equals its siblings on the ruggedness score, and beats anything on hygiene.

(Image credit: Motorola )

6. Motorola Defy

Cheap rugged phone with strong screen and shell

Display: 6.5 inch 720x1560px (Corning Gorilla Glass Victus)
Cameras: 48 MP + 2 MP + 2MP (front); 8MP (selfie)
OS: Android 10 / 11
CPU/GPU: Octa-core (4 x 2GHz & 4 x 1.8GHz Kryo) / Adreno 610
Memory: 64GB + microSDXC
RAM: : 4GB
Dust/water protection: : IP68 (1.5m for 30mins)
Drop test: 1.8m
Rugged: MIL-STD-810G compliant
Practical: Accelerometer, proximity, compass, fingerprint
Size: 170 x 78 x 11 mm
Weight: 232g
Reasons to buy
+Cheap for this level of rugged+5,000mAh battery
Reasons to avoid
-Coverage in USA uncertain

With a thermoplastic frame, this phone is built to take a good deal of punishment, while managing to achieve a kind of hybrid look. The display is protected by the latest Victus Gorilla Glass, hence the higher drop test than some on the list. For such a recent handset, it is a little strange to see ‘Android 10’ in the spec – an update is promised – and the Snapdragon 622 chipset is certainly nothing special. Equally the 48-megapixel camera that is the key to the main array will not impress photographers, but will certainly do the job and has been recessed in the case for protection. We like this phone, and it’s built in partnership with Bullitt who also work on CAT’s phones, but we’ll feel a lot more confident when that promised Android 11 update is shipping.

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Adam Juniper

With over 20 years of expertise as a tech journalist, Adam brings a wealth of knowledge across a vast number of product categories, including timelapse cameras, home security cameras, NVR cameras, photography books, webcams, 3D printers and 3D scanners, borescopes, radar detectors… and, above all, drones. 

Adam is our resident expert on all aspects of camera drones and drone photography, from buying guides on the best choices for aerial photographers of all ability levels to the latest rules and regulations on piloting drones. 

He is the author of a number of books including The Complete Guide to Drones, The Smart Smart Home Handbook, 101 Tips for DSLR Video and The Drone Pilot's Handbook