We’ve all seen the annual “best of” lists of rugged phones. We’ve had a chuckle over some, because it looks like they have just tossed some model names into a hat and drawn them out at random. Anyone who puts a Cat phone at the top of the list, for example, is taking the mickey in our view – no disrespect to Cat but the evidence is clear.
Our list comes from a slightly different perspective – we sell and service thousands of rugged phones so we know these models far better than any reviewer or social influencer. We have compiled a reliability list based on warranty claims or calls to our Tech Support desk, and we have compiled an overall best rugged phones list based on performance and features.
Our lists are subject to periodic change as new repair data comes in, so check back from time to time.
2019’s BEST RUGGED PHONES: OVERALL RANKING
- AGM X3 8GB RAM/256GB ROM, Snapdragon 845 chipset. This phone takes top spot because there is nothing else in its league in the rugged phone market. An AnTuTu score of 291,000 puts it ahead of the Samsung Galaxy S9 Note in terms of raw power, not surprising given it has the same chipset and more RAM. The X3 is for high flying executives and business owners who want to make a statement and don’t want to settle for a cattle-class Samsung or iPhone. Beautiful for a rugged device but not only is it competing with the top iPhone and Galaxy – it is just as expensive to fix if you break it. Invest in a case and tempered glass protector, just to be on the safe side. Global 4G coverage including the crucial Band 28 (Australia, NZ, USA) makes this phone great for travellers. Optional floating module.
- Blackview BV9700 Pro, 6GB/128GB, Helio P70 AI chipset. With a 146,000 AnTuTu score this is now Blackview’s performance leader. Its strengths are excellent signal reception and air quality (VOC) monitoring. Additionally it takes great photos, has global 4G and the most advanced GPS from Blackview yet with GPS, GLONASS and Beidou network coverage. Easily fixed, which makes it a leading option for businesses.
- Blackview BV9800 Pro, 6GB/128GB, Helio P70AI chipset. Ok, it didn’t get the Helio P90 chip – instead Blackview’s new flagship has the same P70 chip powering the 9700, 9600 and 9500 Plus series, a triple GPS system like the 9700 and global frequencies. However what makes this phone exceptional is the FLIR Lepton thermal camera to match the CAT S61, and the impressive 48MP Sony IMX586 triple camera system on the back. With a PR “launch” in October 2019, this phone won’t be reliably available until January 2020. Should you wait to buy it? Blackview is pitching a RRP in excess of NZ$1900 including GST, which is a hell of a price to pay for effectively a BV9700 with a thermal camera. That’s why the 9700 Pro outranks the 9800 series on this list, it offers the same performance and it’s available now, albeit without the thermal but it still has an excellent night mode.
- Blackview BV9600 Pro. 6GB/128GB, Helio P70 chipset. The tech pages are awash with news that late 2019 will see a Blackview BV9800 Pro with more power than a Samsung Galaxy S10, as the world’s largest rugged phone manufacturer throws down an even bigger gauntlet. However for now the 9600 is the brand’s most powerful phone in early 2019. Slimmer and considerably lighter than the super tough BV9500 heavyweight contender, it is also pitched at the exec market where a respectable AnTuTu score of 137,000 makes it more than suitable for the daily grind. I dropped mine on a pebbled concrete driveway and it dented the aluminium side panels (those falls from chest height can appear deceptively tame, but the dents reveal the force involved), but the Gorilla Glass 5 super AMOLED screen and GG5 rear panel miraculously were unharmed. Like most phones its non-modular design means repairs will be labour intensive and thus potentially expensive. Again, choose a case and tempered protector. Highlights include exceptional call clarity, seamless Bluetooth, Global 4G and photos like this:
- Blackview BV9500 Plus. 4GB/64GB, Helio P70 chipset. With an AnTuTu score of nearly 140,000, this phone has more processing power and performance than the new, much more expensive CatS61, with Blackview claiming the same toughness and durability. I love this phone. It has the longest battery life in the game, with up to a week between charges on light to medium use. I love it also because – like the 2017 BV8000 Pro – it has modular design, meaning it is easy and therefore relatively cheap to fix. A competent owner could quite literally replace a broken screen themselves. It’s aimed at the construction industry and tradies, but its ease of repair means the IT department could handle most repairs in house – assuming it ever breaks. It has global 4G coverage and great dual Sony cameras on the rear. Some might find the 340gm weight and 18mm depth of this phone bulky, but that’s what it takes to house a 10,000 mAh battery. Surprisingly, the weight is evenly balanced making the 9500 a delight to hold and use. Even more surprisingly, its thickness is an advantage as it fits snugly in a shirt pocket and doesn’t fall out easily like slimmer phones do. Global 4G.
- Cat S61. 4GB/64GB, Snapdragon 630 chipset. This unit replaces the 3GB/32GB S60 running the ageing Android 6.0 The S60 was the first phone in the world to offer a FLIR infrared camera – useful for detecting hotspots in machinery and walls. The S61 brings a much-needed improvement in its 2nd-gen FLIR, and also boasts a Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) sensor and a laser range finder. Without wanting to burst Cat’s bubble, AGM had a VOC sensor in its acclaimed X2 model back in 2017. Nonetheless the CatS61 is the Swiss Army knife of rugged phones, squarely aimed at engineers and tradies who need that functionality on the fly. Whether or not those limited-function add-ons are worth the overall performance sacrifice compared to the phones above is a subjective question. There are varying AnTuTu scores for this phone (some lower than 50,000) but the best we could find was 71,000 so we’ll use that. There is no doubt the Cat (manufactured in China like all the best rugged phones) is a very tough phone and manufacturers Bullitt Group have decided to back it with an extensive accidental damage warranty. That’s why Cats cost double to triple the amount of other rugged phone equivalents; there’s no such thing as a free lunch and if you are going to run over your phone in a digger that ‘free’ replacement has to be paid for somehow. Other “best” lists tend to rank Cat at the top but I suspect the reviewers are simply in awe of the brand. At the end of the day there are better phones overall. Regional 4G.
- AGM A9. 4GB/64GB, Snapdragon 450 chipset. The thing that’s surprised many commentators is just how good the Sony cameras are on this mid range rugged phone. Chuck in the JBL quad speaker system and you have a phone capable of rocking the jobsite and producing the photos to prove it. It has an AnTuTu of 72,000, compared with 25,000 for the A8 model it replaces, and smooth Android 8.1 operation ensures a good performance. Global 4G and has an optional floating module.
2019’s BEST OUTDOOR PHONES: RELIABILITY
Blackview BV9700 Pro. 6GB RAM/128GB ROM, Helio P70 chipset. Easy for our experienced techs to maintain, but we’ve hardly had to work on any. Percentage of users reporting warranty-related reliability issues to our Tech Support desk to date: 1%
Blackview BV9600 Pro. 6GB RAM/128GB ROM, Helio P60 chipset. It takes excellent photos, its phone calls are crystal clear, its Android 8.1 Bluetooth is flawless. BUT, it has an expensive Samsung screen and glass surround (we know, a rugged phone made of glass?) Percentage of users reporting warranty-related reliability issues to our Tech Support desk to date: 3% (NOTE: slightly more vulnerable to drops because of the technology of its Samsung screen and all glass surround)
AGM A9. 3GB RAM/32GB ROM or 4/64 option, Qualcomm Snapdragon 450 chipset. Emerged late 2018. Android 8.1. Percentage of users reporting warranty-related reliability issues to our Tech Support desk to date: 0%
AGM A8. 3GB/32GB, Android 7.0, Qualcomm Snapdragon 425. Emerged late 2016. Good basic rugged phone. Percentage of users reporting warranty-related reliability issues to our Tech Support desk to date: 0.4%.
AGM X3 (all models). Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, launched early 2019. Executive rugged phone, more powerful than a Galaxy Note 9. Percentage of users reporting warranty-related reliability issues to our Tech Support desk to date: 0%
Blackview BV9500. 4GB/64, Android 8.1, Helio P23 chipset. Toughness and performance that equals the most expensive Cat phone, the s61. Heavy duty case. First models off production line in Sept 2018. One batch had microphone noise cancellation and 3G/4G switching issues caused by an error in the Android coding – those were scheduled to be fixed in a firmware update. Percentage of users reporting warranty-related reliability issues to our Tech Support desk to date: 2%
PHONES ON POP-MEDIA ‘BEST’ LISTS THAT WE WOULDN’T CROSS THE ROAD FOR:
These are the phones we either stopped selling because they were unreliable, or didn’t stock because they offered fewer features than similar models we sell:
Doogee S-series. Looks good on paper, we found it troublesome and expensive to maintain.
Ulefone Armor series. Same story. Most models are glued shut so they are uneconomic to fix and you lose the waterproofing if you try.
A Myriad of bottom-rung VK World, Blackview, HomTom, and Doogee phones at the cheapest end of the market: Why would you even bother? Cheap dross that the factories turn out in between the good phones. Two gigs of RAM and 16GB of storage is not going to cut it for long on Android 8.1. They are toys, often with limited cellular capabilities and a source of frustration to buyers who end up regretting the choice. Life is too short to be stuck with a disappointing phone.