If those incredibly masculine pickup truck commercials seem tame to you, if you work at a job with more OSHA inspectors than actual employees, and if you’ve broken more smartphone screens than human bones at your local half pipe, you might be in the market for a rugged phone. These toughened-up models come with extra protection from impacts, water damage, and other otherwise lethal threats to more mortal smartphones.
Unfortunately, picking a smartphone that’s tough-as-nails often means compromising on some other features, and they’re hard to find even among today’s huge carrier retail selections. Here are the best picks on the market right now for each US carrier.
AT&T: Galaxy S7 Active
Ma Bell seems to be the only carrier that’s really interested in offering a premium “tough” phone as part of its retail lineup—it’s been the exclusive US vendor for almost all of the Active variants of the Samsung Galaxy line for years. The latest one is from back in 2016, the Galaxy S7 Active. It’s likely to be replaced in a few months with an updated S8 model, but even now it’s an excellent overall choice.
The Galaxy S7 Active is, more or less, the same phone as the Galaxy S7, in a super-protective shell. It has the same 2560×1440 Super AMOLED screen, the same Snapdragon 820 processor, the same 32GB of storage space and 4GB of RAM, the same fingerprint sensor in the home button, the same excellent 12-megapixel rear camera. It’s even running a relatively recent version of Android, 6.0, and should be upgraded to 7.0 at some point. The beefier plastic body does let Samsung cram in a 4000mAh battery (one third larger than the normal S7). On top of that, it can withstand five feet (1.5 meters) of water pressure for up to half an hour, any amount of dust or sand, and the polymer-reinforced screen is rated for a five-foot drop onto a flat surface without cracking.
You wouldn’t call the S7 Active “pretty,” but Samsung has put a lot of work into making the case much smaller and sleeker than similar rugged designs. Its’ a combination of aluminum and plastic with reinforced impact zones at the corners. As it happens, I put this phone through its paces myself over at Android Police, subjecting it to a battery of tests including a full laundry cycle and 20-foot drops onto concrete. It survived, with a few scars and a lot of bragging rights.
The Galaxy S7 Active is $695 (though you can get one with a payment plan from AT&T), easily the most expensive phone on this list. But it’s also definitely the best, especially if you don’t want to compromise on specifications or creature comforts. (Note, though, that the CAT phone mentioned at the end of this post also works on AT&T, if you prefer something non-Samsung.) There’s a newer, cheaper option from LG, the “X Venture,” that has a similar rugged MIL-STD 810 body with mid-range specs. This phone has only a 1080p screen and just a Snapdragon 435/2GB combo, but the cheaper $330 price tag will be more appealing to anyone who needs a little durability on a budget.
T-Mobile: None (Buy Unlocked)
At the time of writing, T-Mobile doesn’t offer a single “ruggedized” phone in its retail lineup. You’ll have to buy an unlocked GSM-compatible phone yourself and stick your SIM card in. Options include the Galaxy S7 Active above (though you’ll have to buy it outright from AT&T and get the carrier lock removed) or the CAT models below. Previously the carrier sold the Kyocera DuraForce XD, an older and larger version of the PRO…
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