The main advantages of a rugged device are easily seen in the exterior design, typically with additional rubber-like resin molded into strategic parts of the product’s casing. Leading manufacturers research and select the most suitable resin for a variety of operating conditions and use cases, then spend small fortunes on dual injection and other techniques to produce a truly rugged casing. Coupled with well thought out mechanical design, this is the foundation for the structural strength and integrity necessary to qualify a product for, say, 10 feet of excessive bending or drop, impact, etc. forces on the structure of the product.
Water resistance can be achieved through gaskets and seals, and is generally easier to achieve than true structural strength. However, consumers should not take a waterproof brand as an invitation to overuse these devices underwater. Many devices have gaskets for the SIM card slots and other openings, which may not be well sealed after use, which can compromise waterproofing and allow entry that can destroy the device. The best brands use waterproof connectors, for example, for audio headphones, USB, etc. and do not allow battery removal – all extra measures to minimize ingress risks. Although some manufacturers offer an exceptional 3-year comprehensive warranty, it is inadvisable to misuse a product or intentionally test its limits. For example, if a device is marked IP67 or higher, this means protection against occasional submersion at a certain depth and time, it does not mean that the device should be used as an underwater camera or washed in a washing machine.
Smartphones use large screens, which are difficult to strengthen and protect. Contrary to some marketing statements, sapphire glass lenses are not suitable for rugged phones. They are very hard, which is good for scratch resistance, but inflexible and prone to cracks. Gorilla lenses are flexible and better against impacts, lateral forces, etc.
Another feature, which rugged smartphones normally have, and should have, is a large battery, which allows for extended use without recharging. While the regular iPhone can barely last more than a day of use, top-of-the-line rugged smartphones can last a week or more. This makes a big difference when you need a phone in the wild, during the days when it cannot be recharged, but it is also very convenient for trips of 1 to 2 days where you don’t even have to carry a charger because you are sure the your battery capacity will be sufficient.
Rugged smartphones also have louder audio. This does not necessarily mean higher performance audio, but certainly more audible audio as it is designed to penetrate and be audible in the background of noisy working conditions. You can certainly play music on rugged smartphones, but they are not designed for multimedia, but rather to function as walky-talkies, in hands-free conditions, etc. That is also the reason why many of these devices have forward facing speakers and the volume of these speakers is limited only by safety regulations and usage patterns.
Taken together, the characteristics of a rugged smartphone result in a heavier and somewhat bulkier device, and some design and performance trade-offs, which are prioritized in these types of devices. I often see reviews online or in magazines, comparing a rugged device to an iPhone or similar. That’s missing the point. The good news is that more and more people interested in rugged devices understand the pros and cons and are quite sophisticated in their search.