What makes a smartphone rugged?

Broken iPhone photo by Adam Voorhes (voorhes.com)

Broken iPhone photo by Adam Voorhes (voorhes.com)

A few days ago, we talked about the big problem with how Samsung advertises the Galaxy S4 Active. The phone is called ‘Whatever-proof,’ and its water resistance is notable but its warranty does not cover water damage. The whole debate and growing number of phones like it has us wondering: What do words like Whatever-Proof, Summer-Proof, and rugged mean? What makes a phone ‘rugged’? As it turns out, there are some very strict standards behind these devices. So, before you buy your next “durable” phone, you may want to understand how to interpret the ratings behind them.

The ratings behind a ‘rugged’ product

Rugged is just a word, along with Summer-Proof, Whatever-proof, water resistant, and dust proof.  The terms themselves are good ways to tell someone your product is no ordinary gadget, but that’s where ties with reality end. Any “rugged” or “water-resistant” device can short out when it falls into water, break when it hits the concrete, or shut down if it lays in the sun too long. These words are useless. The only thing that matters are the real standards (or specifications) behind them.

A standard is a declaration by a third-party organization that a particular gadget can survive a certain set of circumstances, which include things like shock resistance to dust, heat, cold, radiation, or water protection. Phone, tablet, and PC manufacturers certify the ruggedness of a device with two types of standards: the Ingress Protection (IP) Rating and the Military Specification or Military Standard (MIL-STD). These ratings are what give the Sony and Samsung the shred of credibility they need to claim that the Xperia Z and Galaxy S4 Active are water resistant.

Ingress Protection Rating: The Ingress Protection Rating uses specific tests to determine the ability for an electronic device to withstand exposure to a wide range of dirt, dust, and water exposure. It offers a rating that ranges from 1 to 6 for dust & dirt, and 1 to 8 for water. An IP rating of 6 for dirt means a gadget is completely resistant to dust and other particles. An IP rating of 8 in water means the gadget can be submersed in water to a depth rated by the manufacturer for an indefinite amount of time. For an idea of how a IP test is conducted, take a look at this video of a test being conducted on behalf of Siemens.

Military Specifications and Standards: Military Specifications and Standards number in the hundreds and certify a product in its ability to handle a specific scenario. For example, there are MIL-STDs that certify products to handle nuclear radiation exposure, drops onto concrete, rapid temperature changes, and a wide number of other environmental challenges. The most well known standard for rugged devices is the MIL-STD-810G, which has within it a number of scenarios that devices can be rated to protect against, most notably drops and falls. For a taste of what sort of testing goes on for the MIL-STD-810G certification, check out this article that highlights a few tests.

Collectively, IP ratings and Military Standards offer a wide variety of certifications gadgets can receive to authenticate their rugged abilities. However, devices can be rugged, but have very different certified IP ratings and Military Standards, which is what makes this whole thing so complicated. Samsung has capitalized on this. It’s Active is designed to look like it can withstand more shock than a standard GS4, but it passed no spec to claim it can.

How a real ‘Active’ product should be built

Panasonic, known for its rugged line of ToughBook and ToughPad products, sees rugged products in an entirely different way than Samsung. As opposed to focusing on the idea of water resistance, Panasonic’s Director of Product Management Kyp Walls says that shock resistance is what makes its products rugged.

“What we say about all of our devices is that they will handle a drop,” Walls told us. 

In order to defend the claim of resistance to drops and falls, many of the popular ToughBook and ToughPad products meet the MIL-STD-810G standard, which certifies the device against a lot of scenarios, including many that you’d likely find yourself in on a regular basis. Even those not meeting this standard are certified for other drop ratings, such as 1 foot onto concrete.

“MIL-SPEC drop procedures say you will drop [the device] on every edge, corner, side, and face – equaling 26 drops on plywood, concrete and steel” said Walls. He also mentioned a number of other MIL-STD certifications some devices pass including both heat resistance and rapid temperature changes.

Panasonic isn’t just making rugged products for the sake of being rugged, Walls claims. It’s releasing products made rugged for specific audiences and scenarios. “We are trying to build devices for people who are in scenarios 95 percent of the time … Are there people who need a device who will take a 12 foot drop to concrete? Probably, but we’re building our devices for people who need a 4 to 6 foot drop. In order to design something to be submersible, you have to build it differently.”


We also spoke with Xplore, a manufacturer that focuses exclusively on designing and building rugged devices. It recently launched the RangerX, a rugged Android tablet. Like Panasonic, Xplore also tests its tablets, ensuring that they can survive the 26-point drop test on plywood, steel, and concrete.

Xplore’s VP of Marketing Jim Plas gave us some details about why a rugged design matters from the ground up, noting how “unlike the S4 Active, where they took an existing product and added features for water and dust resistance, we start from the core of the device with the mid-frame. Around that you build the case and screen.” The mid-frame is important as it grounds all the components of the tablet or smartphone, and is what helps not only disperse shock from drops, but also helps resist water from the ground up. “The DNA of the device is rugged to begin with,” he added.

Plas told us that, in his experience, “making a waterproof device with a user-replaceable battery is possible, but it sure isn’t easy.” He added that not only the battery has to be water-sealed, but also there shouldn’t be any ingresses or ports from which water can easily enter. While the Galaxy S4 Active has seals on the Micro USB port and a rubber cover, it appears there is still a chance it can fail, which the store manager himself has reported seeing nearly a dozen times. The Active also lacks a cover for the headphone jack, which sometimes causes glitches when submersed.

Surprisingly though, The Xplore RangerX also lacks a IP67 rating, suggesting the company’s priority in drop protection before water resistance, and demonstrating a unique contrast between smartphones like the Galaxy S4 Active and rugged tablets from companies that focus on rugged design.

More than Whatever-Proof

For devices like the Galaxy S4, Whatever-Proof goes as far as dust, dirt, and 3.28 feet of water. If you drop a GS4 Active onto concrete from four feet up, you may very well kiss your gadget goodbye. Meanwhile, if you drop the RangerX, you’ll be fine, but it won’t fare too well in 3.28 feet of water. Rugged means a lot of things in the world of electronics, which is why it boils down the standards and ratings. It’s vital to find out exactly what ratings your device has before you buy it. There are rarely devices that do it all, and if you see an ad claiming that a device is ‘summer-proof, you should find out exactly what standards back it up. No device is rugged in every way, so choose your protection based on the biggest dangers in your life. 

Get our Top Stories delivered to your inbox: