Few trades have the luxury of being precious about their tools. And as our smartphones, tablets, and laptops become more and more common on jobsites, we are evermore mindful of protecting these rather delicate devices. Not all manufacturers get this; “rugged” often means it can survive a day at the beach or a spilled drink.

Here’s a rundown on a few of the specs to look for in the growing handful of smartphones, tablets and laptops designed for people who actually work for a living.

What to Look for

Don’t buy a new device based on clever marketing speak. Instead, rely on published standards that actually measure how a device passes testing. In practical terms, ruggedness is really about water resistance, dust resistance, and shock resistance.

Water resistance on most IP-rated smartphones relies on sealed buttons, but also depends on the user to manually seal ports. This example, a Kyocera Duraforce, features a 4.5-inch HD display that users can operate with work gloves. It’s a MIL-STD 810–certified, IP68 Android phone with a 3,100 mAh battery rated at 17 hours talk time.

Water resistance on most IP-rated smartphones relies on sealed buttons, but also depends on the user to manually seal ports. This example, a Kyocera Duraforce, features a 4.5-inch HD display that users can operate with work gloves. It’s a MIL-STD 810–certified, IP68 Android phone with a 3,100 mAh battery rated at 17 hours talk time.

Water and dust resistance is measured by an IP, or Ingress Protection, rating developed by the IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission). This rating system classifies different degrees of dust and water intrusion with a two-digit code (for example, IP68). The first number indicates the level of dust resistance, the second the level of water resistance. Dust-resistance levels go from 0 up to 6; water-resistance measures go from 0 to 9. (o an IP68 is excellent). The higher up the IP scale, the better a smartphone or tablet may offer protection.

That said, be aware that in practice, achieving the published water resistance requires that a series of rubber gates built into the phone case be manually sealed shut. It may require a concerted adjustment in handling your phone to ensure it stays protected when it does eventually drop out of your shirt pocket onto a muddy jobsite or to the bottom of a foundation form during a pour.

The Sonim XP7 is the opposite of dainty—an ultra-rugged, Android smartphone featuring a 4-inch touch screen that can be viewed in direct sunlight and operated with wet work gloves. Its 4,800 mAh battery is rated for 40 hours of talk time. No surprise: It’s pricey.
SonimSmartPhone The Sonim XP7 is the opposite of dainty—an ultra-rugged, Android smartphone featuring a 4-inch touch screen that can be viewed in direct sunlight and operated with wet work gloves. Its 4,800 mAh battery is rated for 40 hours of talk time. No surprise: It’s pricey.

Shock resistance—a measure of how well a device is likely to survive a tumble down a ladder or a flight of stairs—is just one of the measures in the MIL-STD 810 standard. The Military Standard was first developed in 1962 by the U.S. Department of Defense to evaluate product durability in demanding conditions and was most recently revised in 2008. It covers eight different tests: for high temperature, low temperature, rain, humidity, sand and dust intrusion, immersion, vibration, and shock. The shock test, which is most often cited for phones and computers, relies on a “drop test”—or actually 26 four-foot drops onto plywood-covered concrete (marketing often shortens this to read simply “concrete”). Each drop is meant to evaluate every conceivable side and edge of the device. If the device works after each drop (and survives all the other tests), it can be labeled with MIL-STD 810. Note that while your average pretty phone is unlikely to pass, the 810 shock test provides no guarantee that a phone will survive a drop from the top of a 6-foot step ladder onto a bare concrete slab—not an unusual jobsite scenario. This is, after all, the type of minimal performance we need from a jobsite phone. Some manufacturers, such as Cat, a well-known equipment manufacturer in our industry that recently launched the S-40 Smartphone, has applied the 810 testing procedures at higher drop distances (Cat uses a 6-foot-drop test for the S-40). And further evaluation of the materials the device is constructed from might provide additional reassurance.

Screen materials.

The CAT S40, a rugged 4.7-inch, Android-based smartphone designed specifically for the construction trades is MIL-STD 810–certified with an IP68 rating. It includes such features as a Gorilla Glass 4 display and an 8MP, geo-tagging camera.

The CAT S40, a rugged 4.7-inch, Android-based smartphone designed specifically for the construction trades is MIL-STD 810–certified with an IP68 rating. It includes such features as a Gorilla Glass 4 display and an 8MP, geo-tagging camera.

One of the most fragile parts of a phone or tablet is the display. In a real-world fall, it’s the glass display that most commonly shatters. Two rugged screen materials hold real promise of not shattering: Corning’s Gorilla Glass and a sapphire display.

Now in its fourth generation, Gorilla Glass is primarily a scratch-resistant glass first brought to portable electronic devices by Apple, but now used on a host of others (and is reportedly to be used on the Ford GT sports car beginning this year). Gorilla Glass3 is fairly common on rugged devices; the latest version, 4, is reportedly stronger, but that may mean it is just made thinner. Still it’s far more likely to hold up against the abrasive materials on concrete sites and resist deep scratches that are the most likely to eventually result in a cracked screen. The downside is that it shows fingerprints readily.

Sapphire screens are made from industrial sapphire—often touted as the world’s second-hardest material after diamonds. Long used for watch crystals and camera lenses, the initial marketing (driven by Apple) did a good job suppressing sapphire as a suitable material for larger electronic displays. That approach quickly fell apart, however, as sapphire is a super-hard, super-clear material (Apple eventually began to push sapphire screens as a selling point of the latest iPhone6). The jury’s still out on whether Gorilla Glass or sapphire is the better display material. Chances are high, though, that you want a jobsite-ready device with one of them.

Aftermarket Cases

Trident’s Kraken AMS cases are the only aftermarket phone cases we know of that meet MIL-STD 810 requirements. Like the phones rated to keep out water and dust, this case requires manually sealing the rubber ports in order to achieve the water- and dust-infiltration ratings of the 810 standard.

Trident’s Kraken AMS cases are the only aftermarket phone cases we know of that meet MIL-STD 810 requirements. Like the phones rated to keep out water and dust, this case requires manually sealing the rubber ports in order to achieve the water- and dust-infiltration ratings of the 810 standard.

Buying a rugged smartphone is actually an extreme buying decision. A more natural impulse for a lot of us is to look for a rugged case that will protect the phone we already have. Finding one, however, is not so easy and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had to rely on trial and error …. with plenty of disappointment from the error part of that. There are plenty of aftermarket phone cases that will bulk up your phone but may do little to actually cushion it from a real fall, and they usually all have annoying screen covers that either make it difficult to operate the phone or are finicky to apply with only marginal protection.

We know of only one line of “rugged” cases for smartphones and tablets that actually meet MIL-STD 810 (granted, only at the minimum 4-foot-drop test). The Kraken AMS Series from Trident provides three layers of shock-absorbing TPE and hardened polycarbonate protection with built-up, impact-resistant, corners. Kraken Series cases use TPE plugs to pass the IP ratings for preventing construction debris, sawdust, and other dirt from blowing into audio jacks and power-ports.