I've been using AT&T's Samsung Rugby Smart for the past two weeks — at times as my primary device and at others as a secondary device that I'd carry around for the sake of my review. AT&T bills the Android phone as a life proof device that can withstand drops, scratches, salt fog (please, let us know where we can find salt fog), a drop into 3 meters of water for up to 30 minutes and much more. I've always been a huge fan of rugged phones — they allow you to operate where other phones fall flat (or simply break), and so I couldn't wait to take the Rugby Smart for a spin down at the beach last weekend.
Unlike most rugged phones, the Rugby Smart offers protection without tons of screws and impossible-to-remove components. Instead, it has a single metal screw on the back that locks the back into place and protection hatches on the 3.5mm headphone jack and microUSB charging port. My only design gripe is that the microUSB charging port is receded so far back that most microUSB chargers don't work with it. I usually had to keep the actual charger that came with the Rugby Smart nearby at all times.
The phone is relatively small, enough so that one friend commented at how tiny it was for a rugged device, and feels like most other smartphones on the market. It weighs just 4.2 ounces while measuring a very pocketable 4.8 x 2.6 x 0.5 inches. In other words, it's not a brick. There's an easy-to-reach volume rocker on the left of the phone, a power button on the right, and four hardware buttons for menu, home, return and search at the bottom.
Most rugged phones sacrifice specs for brawn, but that's not really the case with the Rugby Smart. It offers a 5-megapixel camera capable of recording 720p HD video, a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera, 4GB of internal storage, Bluetooth 3.0, a 3.7-inch Super AMOLED touchscreen with an 800 x 480-pixel resolution and support for AT&T's HSPA+ network. The screen is a bit small for our tastes, especially when it came to playing Draw Something, but it was generally very bright and colorful. On the beach under direct sunlight it was nearly impossible to view the screen, however, and I actually thought the phone was off at one point because I couldn't see anything.
The Rugby Smart runs Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) with Samsung's custom TouchWiz user interface. You're probably very familiar with both by this point, so I'll scratch the surface a bit. Android 2.3 Gingerbread isn't Google's latest operating system — Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is — so there isn't support for NFC or a pretty new user interface. Samsung's TouchWiz UI is one of my favorite Android overlays, though, so I'm happy with what's on the device.
AT&T installed a few bloatware applications on the phone including AT&T Code Scanner, AT&T FamilyMap, Live TV, myAT&T, AT&T Messages, Quickoffice, Social Hub, Qik Lite and YellowPages. Some folks may find several of those apps useful and those who don't can easily uninstall them, thankfully.
Calls on the Rugby Smart were solid, even after I dropped it into the water and kicked it around in the sand. During one phone call a caller said I sounded "very echoey," but I couldn't replicate that problem on subsequent calls. Overall, it was a reliable device and was able to maintain a solid signal around New York City and in New Jersey.
AT&T bills the Samsung Rugby Smart as a 4G device, but don't let that marketing fool you. It runs on AT&T's HSPA+ network, not AT&T's faster 4G LTE network, so it doesn't offer the same types of speeds that one might find from the Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket or Galaxy Note 4G. After several SpeedTest.net tests I had an average download throughput of 1.67 Mbps and an average upload throughput of 0.44Mbps. Those speeds aren't good — the upload speeds are terrible — and my top peak download speed was just 3Mbps. During one test I was told there were "network communication issues" and the benchmark failed. The Rugby Smart is also capable of sharing its 3G/HSPA+ signal with other Wi-Fi devices, acting as a hotspot. It worked well and I didn't have any issues with dropped connections during multiple tests that spanned several hours.
As I noted earlier, the Rugby Smart has a 5-megapixel camera that's also capable of recording 720p HD video. Those aren't features I've seen on a rugged smartphone before — most sacrifice in the camera department for some unknown reason. The shooter took some solid photographs at the beach, although they weren't as good as what I've seen from the Galaxy S II, or Galaxy S II Skyrocket, which offer 8-megapixel cameras. The HD video turned out pretty bad. There was a soft blue glow when I began filming indoors and it slowly faded away as I turned toward a sunlit door. It also didn't automatically autofocus on subjects as I moved around, which meant several parts of my video were out of focus. It's nice that Samsung tried to squeeze HD video in a rugged phone, I just wish it looked better.
The Rugby Smart is equipped with a 1,650mAh battery that's rated for up to eight hours of talk time or 16 days of standby time. I didn't find those figures to match up with my experiences. After a full charge in the morning, I could hardly get to the late afternoon before the phone's battery died. That's not too great, and I expected the device to last much longer than it did. I use my devices frequently, however, and so somebody using the phone in a less demanding hour may see better results. I just can't say with confidence that a heavy user will get a full workday's battery life out of the phone.
Now, about the rugged claims. I found that the Rugby Smart was incredibly tough for most everyday tasks. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't pitching it at concrete walls, because that's not what it's built for. But it survived several purposeful drops onto concrete from waist height, a few tosses down a concrete driveway, drops and kicks in a pile of rocks, being buried in sand and then subsequently tossed in about 8-inches of salt water in the ocean. I also dropped it in a glass of water. Samsung says it can stand up to 30 minutes in 3 meters of water, and I don't doubt those claims. Overall, it was able to go where no other smartphone in my current portfolio can. I love that and I'd probably make it my daily driver if it had just a bit more power and a slightly larger screen.
I'm the kind of gadget geek that always wants a gadget that I don't really ever, ever need. I have a solar powered atomic watch that I never wear, for example, but I keep it around in case a Zombie apocalypse does indeed occur. So when I heard about the Rugby Smart I thought to myself, awesome, an Android phone I can use while catching waves this summer. And, awesome, a phone that I can use when Zombies take over. Technically that's true — the phone can withstand drops, kicks, blows, water (zombie guts), and much more. But its poor battery life, small display and relatively slow data speeds give me pause.
If you're a construction worker, frequent hiker or camper, or a guy like me that just loves rugged devices, then the Rugby Smart should be right up your alley. It functions well and is indeed resistant to the elements that AT&T and Samsung advertise. It's just not for hardcore Android fans.
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