If you’re going to call a phone rugged, make it rugged

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An unadulterated, high-end, rugged, flagship smartphone. That’s the sort of thing that makes some tech enthusiasts weak in the knees, including our own Michael Fisher.

Inherently, smartphones have become more fragile over the years as priorities have changed – both within the walls of the manufacturers and the personal preferences of the average consumer. We want bigger screens, thinner chassis, better cameras, faster CPUs, more memory and storage, larger speakers, longer battery life, and more connectivity options, like LTE-A, NFC, Qi, Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi ac, etc. We want all these things, and we want them now.

So, it’s easy to understand why durability may have taken a back seat to the incessant demands of consumers. We’re asking a lot of mobile manufacturers and many of them are delivering some truly outstanding products. HTC, Samsung, Sony, Motorola, LG, and Apple have all executed wildly impressive handsets in the last 12 months. But almost all the products delivered by all of these companies have one thing in common: durability – or a lack thereof rather.

They’re all made of a combination of brittle plastics, metal that’s easily dented or bent, and glass. Some of them come with IP certifications to help prevent water or dust damage, but to call any one phone “waterproof” is a stretch, to say the least.

galaxy s 4 active pocketnow 3At best, even the most rugged smartphone on the market is only water-resistant – and even that rating is limited to fresh water, not salt water. So if you want to be technically correct, even the most rugged smartphone on the planet is only partially resistant to some three percent of the water on Earth, most of which is frozen.

Needless to say, the term water-resistant is used a little overzealously. And the terms “rugged” and “smartphone” could not be more unrelated.

That’s why Samsung’s Active variation of the popular Galaxy S brand was so alluring … at first. It originally appeared to be a high-end offshoot of the Galaxy S4, except, when it arrived, it was anything but. It was a bundle of compromises for only slightly beefier plastics and a pretty basic ingress protection rating: IP 67. (For more on what that number means, check out our piece on IP ratings from Joe Levi.) That rating came at the expense of the camera and display – two of the Galaxy S4’s best features.

This year, considering the Galaxy S5 came with the very same IP rating as the Galaxy S4 Active, we speculated the then-rumored Galaxy S5 Active would emerge as a truly rugged smartphone with mil-spec durability and the ability to handle the worst of the worst.

galaxy s5 active review conclusion

When Samsung announced the Galaxy S5 Active, that’s what it promised, a phone that was almost “everything-proof” with a MIL-STD 810G rating. As Michael explained in his review, that certification boasts some serious durability:

“Totally protected against dust
Protected against immersion between 15cm and 1m of fresh water for up to 30 minutes
Protected against impact/shock from drop onto flat surface of less than 4 feet
Protected against vibration, temperature extremes, humidity, and high altitude”

To boot, this time it comes with all the same features as the Galaxy S5, minus the fingerprint scanner and USB 3.0, two features many may never use anyway. Naturally, Michael – not convinced by the MIL-STD rating and Samsung’s rugged-happy marketing – wanted to put the Galaxy S5 Active to the test.

galaxy s5 active water 2After a short while of testing the Galaxy S5 Active in the exact conditions it was advertised to be able to handle, Michael ran into some trouble. A short drop jarred the SIM card loose, forcing him to reboot the phone to continue using it – a minor inconvenience at best. It also held up against water just as well as the Galaxy S5. No surprise there. However, when you mix the two – a drop and water – things will ultimately take a turn for the worse.

Read the fine print on the product page and you will find a very important clarification, the very same reminder you get when you power the Galaxy S5 on. It’s capable of handling such things “with covers tightly closed.” If you drop the phone, just like any other Galaxy S phone to date, some of the clips around the battery cover will usually jar loose, or the entire battery door will fly off the phone. Pair that with some water and you’ll have yourself a dead Galaxy S5 – or in our case, a dead Galaxy S5 Active.

z1s-water

Michael also had a similar experience with the Sony Xperia Z1S. Even though he was well within the confines of what the Z1S was advertised to do (withstand a little water), he killed the phone with little more than a tiny bump. He dropped the Z1S into a pitcher of water, it clanked against the bottom of the glass pitcher, and one of the water-resistant covers popped loose. RIP, Z1S.

Granted, the Xperia Z1S was never advertised as a “rugged” phone. However, its water-resistance and, likewise, the ruggedness of the Galaxy S5 and Galaxy S5 Active are honestly only valid in a very strict sense. Their ingress protection ratings and the Active’s MIL-STD 801G rating only hold up in a controlled laboratory setting.

galaxy s5 active waterPeople don’t just splash water on their phones or gently submerge them. People jump (or fall … or get pushed) into pools with their phone in their pocket, they drop their phone in a drink sitting in the cup holder of the car, or drop their phone into a toilet. All of these are real world anecdotes which have happened to people I know and ultimately led to the death of their poor, water-damaged phones. And all of these scenarios are the exact reasons people seek phones with water-resistance or some semblance of ruggedness. The thing is, each one of these situations would have likely popped open the water-tight cover over the charging port or jarred the battery door just enough to let some water in.

Sure, I guess it’s cool to show off how you can spill a little water on your phone at the dinner table and it be just fine and I’ll even admit it’s fun to control music from within the shower. But just know that, when push comes to shove (or when your phone hits the bottom of the ceramic toilet bowl), your phone’s water-resistance rating won’t matter any more than Oscar’s 90th minute World Cup goal for Brazil against Germany.

The fact of the matter is, a truly rugged smartphone doesn’t exist. Yes, the Galaxy S5 Active is the closest we have to a remotely durable smartphone, but even it has more than one Achilles’ heel. It’s only marginally more “rugged” than the original Galaxy S5 despite all the marketing that says otherwise.

Like Michael said in the conclusion of his review, “For some, even a slight improvement in ruggedness is reason enough to spring for this device, especially for little to no extra cost.” But even the Active isn’t rugged enough to handle even a mildly rough lifestyle.

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About The Author
Taylor Martin
Based out of Charlotte, NC, Taylor Martin started writing about technology in 2009 while working in wireless retail. He has used BlackBerry off and on for over seven years, Android for nearly four years, iOS for three years, and has experimented with both webOS and Windows Phone. Taylor has reviewed countless smartphones and tablets, and doesn't go anywhere without a couple gadgets in his pockets or "nerd bag." In his free time, Taylor enjoys playing disc golf with friends, rock climbing, and playing video games. He also enjoys the occasional hockey game, and would do unspeakable things for some salmon nigiri. For more on Taylor Martin, checkout his Pocketnow Insider edition.| Google+