Outdoor smartphones: mobile phones for outdoors TechStage

There is no bad weather, only bad smartphones: If you like to indulge in the forces of nature or do a job in a harsh environment, you may not be able to avoid buying an outdoor smartphone.

Regardless of whether in the forest or in the mountains: hikers, climbers and nature lovers get their money's worth, especially in the upcoming warm season. Despite their closeness to nature, they are usually accompanied by their smartphone, which is used to document the experience, navigate through an unknown country and make a call in the event of a dilemma. Especially those who are often in rough and rough terrain should feel confronted with this fact: The standard smartphones, mostly built in a glass housing, are prone to bumps and falls and require special protection. You are more relaxed on the go with an outdoor smartphone.

Outdoor smartphones can be easily sunk into the water.

This type of smartphone is primarily characterized by a robust housing. It is usually made of plastic, some devices also have elements made of metal or are rubberized in places – this ensures more grip. This is absolutely necessary, because outdoor smartphones are chunkier and heavier than the usual smartphones, have large side buttons and in some cases haptic buttons for Android navigation. Outdoor smartphones make up for the lack of external elegance with their features, including the usually existing water protection, a shock and fall protection certified according to the US military standard, and a large or replaceable battery. If you like, outdoor smartphones are the functional clothing among smartphones.

So that the inclined buyer can understand the protective measures taken by the manufacturer, there are the IP and MIL-STD markings. The IP degree of protection (IP = "International" or "Ingress Protection") is specified in accordance with ISO and DIN standards with two codes, the first indicating protection against foreign bodies and contact, the second indicating protection against water. The IP67 standard used more often in connection with smartphones means that the device is dustproof (IP6X) and protected against temporary immersion (IPX7). A smartphone according to IP68 is also dustproof, but has better water protection "against permanent immersion" (IPX8).

The statement MIL-STD-810 is much more vague. The manufacturer's label for a test procedure in accordance with the US military standard with almost 30 tests – including temperature shocks, immersion, mechanical shocks and air humidity – initially suggests a seemingly unbreakable device. However, not all of these tests need to be performed or actually passed to advertise the MIL-STD-810. As a result, many manufacturers do not provide any precise information about the test methods that have been completed, which means that the "certificate" becomes a pure marketing mesh.

Connections for USB or headphones are usually protected by covers.

The manufacturers of outdoor smartphones also surprisingly rarely disclose information about the protective glass used. Whether conventional types of tempered glass such as Gorilla or Dragontrail glass are used or whether a special robustness is to be achieved with a special seal, is not clear, especially with inexpensive models. So you have to assume that the front of an outdoor smartphone is just as fragile and prone to scratches as conventional smartphones and only the reinforced frame offers some protection. This and the MIL-STD marking, which is inviting to dubious use, make it clear that when buying an outdoor smartphone, a lot of trust in the information and expertise of the manufacturer is required – there are no mutually acceptable minimum standards.

Some outdoor smartphones have special gimmicks that distinguish them from the competition and are intended to address a very specific target group. For example, the 2018 Land Rover Explore (test report) has a magnetically attached module with a battery pack, powerful GPS antenna and snap hook – it is primarily aimed at climbers and mountain hikers. The best-equipped Cat smartphone S61 so far (test report) has a thermal imager, a measuring laser and a pollutant sensor, and as a buyer it primarily has craftsmen and construction workers in mind. In fact, such specialized models are the exception, most manufacturers now place their outdoor smartphones on the market as robust, waterproof everyday devices.

Most outdoor smartphones, here the Gigaset X290, are in a robust and rather direct case.

Outdoor smartphones have always been largely unattractive for large brands, only Samsung releases a corresponding device every two years. Chinese manufacturers such as Cubot, Oukitel and Ulefone in particular have discovered the niche for themselves and are flooding the local online department stores with affordable devices from 100 euros. Since the devices, which fluctuate greatly in terms of quality with these brands, cannot be tried before buying, no objective assessment can be made of the processing, performance and pre-installed software. Here you buy a pig in a poke.

The Xcover series from Samsung stands for successful outdoor smartphones. The current edition is simply called Galaxy Xcover Pro and comes in a modern design with a metal frame. The smartphone has a 6.3-inch full HD display in an elongated 19.5: 9 aspect ratio and a punch-hole camera encased in it. There is no space left for physical navigation buttons, but the smartphone can still be operated with gloves on. In addition to the volume buttons and the home button with integrated fingerprint sensor, there are two function buttons for free assignment. They are provided with a noticeable texture for blind operation, as is the removable plastic back.

The 4,050 mAh battery underneath can be easily removed and replaced. Nevertheless, the Galaxy Xcover Pro is protected against the ingress of dust and water at a maximum depth of 1.50 meters according to IP68. Samsung does not provide any details about the MIL-STD tests that have been carried out. Thanks to the pogo pins, the smartphone battery can be supplied with new power in addition to the USB-C connection via an appropriate charging station.

The technical basic structure of the 159.9 x 76.7 x 9.9 mm large and 218 gram Galaxy Xcover Pro comes from the middle class. These include the Exynos 9611 with a Cortex-A73 quad-core at 2.3 GHz and a 1.5-GHz quad-core processor based on the Cortex-A53 design, 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage space. A microSD card can be used, and up to two SIM cards can also be used. The main camera has 25 megapixels, an 8-megapixel wide-angle snap and a 13-megapixel selfie camera. Samsung delivers the Galaxy Xcover Pro ex works with Android 10, it currently costs around 430 euros.

The S52 is the current smartphone from Caterpillar. If the predecessor S61 (test report) came with various special functions such as a thermal imaging camera, this is now a comparatively common device with outdoor qualities. The Cat S52 has an aluminum frame and a non-removable, rubberized plastic back (TPU) with an embedded fingerprint sensor. The 5.65-inch screen with 18: 9 aspect ratio, which can also be operated with wet fingers and gloves, has a rather meager resolution of 1,440 × 720 pixels, the protective glass is contemporary Gorilla Glass 6.

The Cat S52 has neither haptic navigation buttons nor special buttons that could be assigned a function or an app quick start. The housing is IP68-certified and then waterproof for 35 minutes at a depth of 1.50, and according to the manufacturer, it survives falls from a height of 1.50 meters on concrete. The smartphone was tested in the MIL-STD-810 categories thermal shock, vibration, moisture and salt spray.

The 158.1 × 76.65 × 9.69 mm and 210 gram Cat S52 is powered by the Mediatek Helio P35 octa-core processor with 4 GB RAM. The 64 GB internal memory can be expanded using a microSD card, and the outdoor smartphone also accepts up to two SIM cards. The simple main camera has a resolution of 12 megapixels, has a large f / 1.8 aperture and a dual-pixel focus, the front camera takes selfies with 8 megapixels. The battery has a capacity of 3,100 mAh and is charged via USB-C. The Cat S52 is delivered with Android 9 – an update to Android 10 is planned – and costs around 400 euros.

In the test, we already checked out the Gigaset outdoor smartphone – and were quite impressed. Like the two rivals, the GX290 has a metal frame, the back made of TPU plastic protrudes over the corners for better shock protection. The smartphone does not have physical buttons next to the power button and volume rocker. To protect the housing from water and dust, the jack and USB-C sockets must be covered with a protective cap – the connections of many other devices are exposed and sealed from the inside. Nevertheless, it is enough for IP68 certification and water protection for 30 minutes at a depth of 1.20 meters.

Normal photo mode

The 6.1-inch display with a recess for the front camera only shows 1,560 × 720 pixels, it is covered by Gorilla Glass 3. The 162.4 × 79 × 15.3 mm and proud 279 gram Gigaset smartphone is made by Mediatek chip Helio P23 powered by eight processor cores and 3 GB RAM. The only 32 GB memory can be expanded using a microSD card, and the GX290 is also dual SIM-capable. The front camera with 8 megapixel resolution is also suitable for face unlocking, and a fingerprint sensor is installed on the back. Here is also the dual camera, consisting of a 13-megapixel main camera and a 2-megapixel depth gauge.

As if the 6,200 mAh and particularly long-lasting battery wasn't sensation enough, it can even be charged wirelessly via a Qi station – so the use of protective caps that are no longer up-to-date no longer weighs too heavily. Unfortunately, the operating system with Android 9 Pie is no longer up to date – but the Gigaset GX290 is quite cheap at a price of around 250 euros.

Crosscall with the Trekker X4 (test report) is aimed more at those who are sporty with the device. We liked it in the test thanks to its well-thought-out features, battery life and extensive accessories. Crosscall uses the so-called X-Link on the back of the device, to which accessories are magnetically attached and supplied with power. Also interesting: The Trekker X4 should also be suitable as an action cam, but we had a mixed impression.

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The touch screen of the Trekker X4 in the test measures 5.5 inches and only offers simple Full HD resolution (1,920 (×) 1,080 pixels). In addition, there are the wide borders around the screen – this would no longer be reasonable for a normal smartphone in 2019, for an outdoor smartphone this serves to protect the screen and is therefore OK. In terms of readability, Crosscall offers very decent viewing angles with the X4, color rendering and contrasts also make a good impression, but the luminosity could be higher. In bright surroundings, this sometimes leads to problems. Without a shadow-giving hand, it becomes difficult to correctly recognize content.

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 used in conjunction with 4 GB of RAM provides plenty of power, and the hardware team delivers good performance in everyday use. Regardless of whether it's just surfing the Internet or playing 3D games: the Trekker X4 doesn't make you sweat so quickly. But the user does. While the Crosscall smartphone gets lukewarm at best in everyday use, the temperatures increase noticeably under load or when charging with the included 27-watt power supply. At least in the summer that should be uncomfortable.

In summary, outdoor smartphones should meet a few criteria before considering them for purchase:

  • Sturdy plastic housing – ideally reinforced with metal and rubber for a good grip
  • Large side buttons for operation with gloves
  • Freely assignable function key, for example to quickly start the flashlight
  • At least IP67 water protection, better IP68
  • A large battery is ideal for multi-day hikes, at least 4,000 mAh should be
  • Physical navigation buttons and face recognition are recommended for use on the building site – a fingerprint sensor is rather impractical when wearing gloves
  • At least an average camera, for excursion photos or documentation of the construction site

You won't find high-end features in an outdoor smartphone. Nevertheless, inclined buyers should make sure that at least contemporary middle-class hardware is in the robust housing – especially with the cheap homes of many Chinese manufacturers, this is often not the case. The priorities for this type of smartphone are above all its stability and protection against dust and water and, last but not least, the quality of workmanship, which you should ideally convince yourself of before buying.

However, there are hardly any special features beyond the one or the other special key in modern models – but outdoor smartphones have also become relatively affordable. We have compiled further information on smartphones in our article "Twelve outdoor smartphones in a comparison test".