Sprint’s Kyocera Torque is a real monster. A rugged phone for the rough-and-tumble construction crowd, the phone features mil-spec toughening to the 810G and IP67 standards for dust, shock, extreme temperatures and pressures, solar radiation, blowing rain, salt fog, and immersion for up to 30 minutes in up to a meter of water. When we reviewed it several months back, we called the Torque a “beastly tank of a smartphone,” an appellation that continues to suit it well today.

The problem: since the review period ended, our demo Torque has sat in its box at the far end of our review table in Pocketnow’s Boston office. You can see it in most video reviews and comparisons shot in our booth, its darkened bulk sitting un-powered, un-touched, and unloved in its recycled-cardboard retail packaging. That’s because, while it’s one of the most rugged phones we’ve handled, it’s also a big, fat chunk of compromise.

torque muddy
“You’re just silly, Torque. Silly and fat.”

In the Torque’s case, that compromise can be found in a few different forms, ranging from poor earpiece quality to heavy software lag to -according to some commenters, anyway- a variety of build quality issues. We noted some of those failings in our full review -after taking the requisite time to have some fun throwing the phone into snowbanks and off porches, of course- but we didn’t come down especially hard on Kyocera for the Torque’s shortcomings. That’s because the down-sides of the phone aren’t unique to the Torque; they’re symptomatic of the entire durable-smartphone segment. Sad to say, durable phones are often crappy phones.

In our opinion, that shouldn’t be the case. In fact, we said as much in an editorial on the topic almost a year ago:

Just as all super-specced, powerhouse phones today seem to possess a need to be massive, they’re also often more fragile than their midrange counterparts. Look at the all-glass iPhone 4S or the featherweight Galaxy S III for the most obvious examples. There are exceptions, like Motorola’s new RAZRs and Nokia’s Lumia line, but there aren’t many. The reality is that if you want a phone to handle some abuse, you’re going to be sacrificing some specs to do so.

The brand names might’ve changed since then, but the overall situation hasn’t. Not much. Most durable devices still suffer from beaten-with-the-ugly-stick/doomed-by-low-specs syndrome.

Tell me I'm wrong.
Tell me I’m wrong.

But then there’s Samsung. As big a fan of the status quo as the company sometimes seems, the world’s largest handset vendor appears primed to shake up the landscape with a rumored variant of its blockbuster Galaxy S 4 flagship. According to a host of leaks, a device called the “Galaxy S 4 Active” might soon arrive on retail shelves to upset the “durable phones = low-end phones” equation.

The device’s specs are still unconfirmed -and even the rumors conflict on crucial details like the processor- but many indications point to an only-slightly-hobbled Galaxy S 4, encased in a svelte waterproof cocoon. By all indications, its 5-inch, 1080p display looks entirely unchanged from the original. For a lot of folks unwilling to give up specs for ruggedness, this device might serve as the perfect solution.

This slice of speculative hotness brought to you by GSM Arena.
This slice of speculative hotness brought to you by GSM Arena.

Some of you have already jumped to the comments, taking me to task for leaving smartphones like the Motorola Droid RAZR and Sony Xperia Z out of the conversation thus far. And it’s true that these devices deserve recognition – the former for its water-repellent nanocoating that provides moisture protection without increasing bulk, the latter for its IP55 and IP57 immersion ratings (again without adding millimeters to its thin frame).

But that’s water-resistance we’re talking about on those devices, not necessarily overall durability. While the RAZR looks like it can take a bit of abuse, the glass Xperia Z sure doesn’t. These phones appear built to take a splash of rain, not a full-on crash into the concrete.

Now, the Galaxy S 4 Active may well follow in the footsteps of these devices, offering water resistance without added impact, dust, and exotic-threat resistance. That’s be a shame, but it’s completely possible. We know nothing about the device’s abilities in this regard. That said, it seems less likely in this case; the trio of physical hardware buttons below its display leads us to speculate that more is involved here than simple waterproofing.

Buttons equal beefiness.
Buttons mean beefiness. Big time. Bro.

This being rampant and just-for-kicks speculation, maybe the Torque (along with its companion devices recently unveiled at CTIA) has nothing to worry about. The Galaxy S 4 Active, if it arrives at all, might land on the scene boasting little more than a rubberized body and raindrop-resistance, with none of the fancy military-acronym ruggedness of its more brawny competitors. Maybe we’re doomed to suffer a bit longer with excessive compromise when it comes to durable devices. And maybe, as my colleague Stephen Schenck argues, that’s not so bad.

But even if that’s the case, it’s probably fair to say that these brick-like mid-rangers are at least being put on notice by entrants like the Galaxy S 4 Active. And for those of us who’ve wanted to break down the wall between “premium” and “sturdy” for so long, that’s a promising development. Because remember: just slapping a durable case on a fragile phone isn’t an excuse.

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