Tough enough? The future of rugged smartphones

JCB ToughphoneThere was a time when buying a rugged phone typically meant putting up with a basic handset encased in a thick layer of bright yellow rubber. Tough they may be, but style was not a consideration.

While firms like JCB and Cat are still making bulky armoured phones aimed at the building industry we’re now starting to see battle-hardened smartphones which can withstand some punishment without compromising on specifications or looks. Durability is rapidly becoming a standard feature and it won’t be long before phones which don’t offer some basic protection will look outdated.

Corning Gorilla Glass

When it comes to smartphone durability, Corning Gorilla Glass is arguably the single most important development of recent years. This toughened material is able to withstand scratches and impacts that would destroy normal glass, offering a huge improvement over the fragile screens we’ve become used to.

Gorilla Glass has gone through a few iterations and this year we’ll start to see phones fitted with version 3, which as you can see from the video below offers a very impressive level of protection.

If you care in the slightest about the toughness of a phone, Gorilla Glass (or competing hardened glass materials) should be a basic requirement when shopping for a new smartphone. Vitally, it’s cheap and easy enough to manufacture that Gorilla Glass shows up on everything from budget models to the latest flagship superphones.


Water is the smartphone’s number one enemy. In a survey of almost 2,000 mobile phone users, 31% had suffered water damage of some description, and inevitably 47% of those were dropped in a toilet. 

This is incredibly problematic for both users and the networks - lots of phones are returned for this reason but it’s not covered by warranties so you have to pay for a repair or replacement.

The basic approach to waterproofing is to ensure the outer casing is watertight with secure joins and ports enclosed with flaps. This is how most water-resistant phones are handled currently, and it is effective, however this places restrictions on the hardware design. As well as the sometimes inconvenient port flaps, batteries are often not replaceable because it’s simpler to just seal up the compartment.

There is a high tech alternative though. A UK firm called P2i Labs has developed a nanotech treatment which is applied at the factory and offers water resistance for any kind of hardware.

The first version - Splash-proof - is being used on Motorola smartphones already and prevents damage from small amounts of liquid on the outside; simply wipe the phone down and carry on without worrying about drying it out.

It’s the next generation P2i tech that’s truly revolutionary though. Its ‘Dunkable’ treatment coats every component with a hydrophobic barrier that prevents liquid from touching those vital innards. In tests, treated phones have been left running while completely immersed in water for hours without any lasting damage. The batteries run out of charge before the components fail.

Because this is a chemical that can be applied to almost any solid object there’s no need for manufacturers to change their designs to offer additional protection against water damage.

The future of rugged smartphones: classy yet tough

Sony’s latest smartphone release is a good example of where we’re headed. The Sony Xperia Z is a premium Android handset with powerful hardware and a beautiful design. At a glance you wouldn’t expect this to be very durable but survivability is one of its best features.

The casing and various ports and slots are sealed against liquid ingress, able to survive immersion in up to one meter of water. Its tempered glass chassis can take a few knocks, and it’s got protective glass on the display (not Gorilla Glass, but similar). All this and it still looks good.

Slightly less attractive, but a touch more rugged, is the forthcoming Huawei Ascend G50. This is a little chunkier - no Sony sleekness here - but in return you get a handset that is very resilient. At MWC Huawei had a demonstration where the phone could be called while sat in a tank of water.