The Best Rugged Smartphones for Tough Jobs and Active Lifestyles

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…

Wrap Your Mind Around Neural Networks

Artificial Intelligence is playing an ever increasing role in the lives of civilized nations, though most citizens probably don’t realize it. It’s now commonplace to speak with a computer when calling a business. Facebook is becoming scary accurate at recognizing faces in uploaded photos. Physical interaction with smart phones is becoming a thing of the past… with Apple’s Siri and Google Speech, it’s slowly but surely becoming easier to simply talk to your phone and tell it what to do than typing or touching an icon. Try this if you haven’t before — if you have an Android phone, say “OK Google”, followed by “Lumos”. It’s magic!

Advertisements for products we’re interested in pop up on our social media accounts as if something is reading our minds. Truth is, something is reading our minds… though it’s hard to pin down exactly what that something is. An advertisement might pop up for something that we want, even though we never realized we wanted it until we see it. This is not coincidental, but stems from an AI algorithm.

At the heart of many of these AI applications lies a process known as Deep Learning. There has been a lot of talk about Deep Learning lately, not only here on Hackaday, but all over the interwebs. And like most things related to AI, it can be a bit complicated and difficult to understand without a strong background in computer science.

If you’re familiar with my quantum theory articles, you’ll know that I like to take complicated subjects, strip away the complication the best I can and explain it in a way that anyone can understand. It is the goal of this article to apply a similar approach to this idea of Deep Learning. If neural networks make you cross-eyed and machine learning gives you nightmares, read on. You’ll see that “Deep Learning” sounds like a daunting subject, but is really just a $20 term used to describe something whose underpinnings are relatively simple.

Machine Learning

When we program a machine to perform a task, we write the instructions and the machine performs them. For example, LED on… LED off… there is no need for the machine to know the expected outcome after it has completed the instructions. There is no reason for the machine to know if the LED is on or off. It just does what you told it to do. With machine learning, this process is flipped. We tell the machine the outcome we want, and the machine ‘learns’ the instructions to get there. There are several ways to do this, but let us focus on an easy example:

Early neural network from MIT

If I were to ask you to make a little robot that can guide itself to a target, a simple way to do this would be to put the robot and target on an XY Cartesian plane, and then program the robot to go so many units on the X axis, and then so many units on the Y axis. This straightforward method has the robot simply carrying out instructions, without actually knowing where the target is. It works only when you know the coordinates for the starting point and target. If either changes, this approach would not work.

Machine Learning allows us to deal with changing coordinates. We tell our robot to find the target, and let it figure out, or learn, its own instructions to get there. One way to do this is have the robot find the distance to the target, and then move in a random direction. Recalculate the distance, move back to where it started and record the distance measurement. Repeating this…

No ‘OK, Google’ on the iPhone? That’s a huge problem

Voicebots are all over my house right now.

I’m testing two different Alexa-powered speakers in my office. I use Cortana on a desktop, Siri on my MacBook and an iPhone 7 Plus, Google Assistant on a Pixel smartphone and the Google Home speaker, and both the Google Assistant and Siri on my television (thanks to the NVIDIA Shield and the Apple TV). I’m literally talking to bots all day, asking about the weather, the NBA Playoffs, and even obscure questions about Austria (where a few family members live). I’m known to suddenly say “OK, Google” during family meals when someone asks a question or makes a random comment. (Turns out, the Beauty and the Beast fable was published way back in 1740 and good old Tom Brady is the oldest quarterback in the NFL.)

Sadly, now that the Assistant is available for iPhone, I’m going to have to change my approach.

At a restaurant recently, I found out the hard way that the Assistant app doesn’t respond to “OK, Google” requests. It works exactly like any app on the iPhone that is not directly tied into the OS. That is, you can only talk to the iPhone by saying “Hey, Siri” to start a conversation. That’s not surprising at all. Android needs a few differentiators these days, right VentureBeat editorial team? Yet, the reason it’s sad is that there isn’t any reason to ever use the Assistant on iOS.

To do that, I’d…

The iPhone 8 rumor mill: what to expect, or not

The iPhone 8 rumor mill: what to expect, or not

“You need to look no further than Apple’s iPhone to see how fast brilliantly written software presented on a beautifully designed device with a spectacular user interface will throw all the accepted notions about pricing, billing platforms and brand loyalty right out the window.” – Edgar Bronfman, Jr.

The iPhone rumor mill

2017 is the tenth anniversary of the iPhone; therefore, pundits are expecting significant changes to the existing design. The original iPhone was announced in 2007 where, on January 9, Steve Jobs announced to the world that his company was transforming the iPod, revolutionizing the mobile phone, as well as developing a unique internet device. Experts assumed that Jobs was talking about three different products; however, he stunned the world. He was announcing the first iPhone.

Consequently, every year Apple fans wait excitedly for the announcement of the latest iPhone. Rob Price of the UK Business Insider notes that even though we are still about six months away from the launch of the iPhone 8, the rumor mill is already buzzing with excitement.

While keeping in mind that these are just rumors and that Apple has not made any formal announcements, here are a few of the stories about the latest iPhone that are swirling around:

Screen size

It is anticipated that the next iPhone will have an edge-to-edge screen with curved edges. Apple will reduce the size of the bevels around the screen to allow for a bigger screen. In other words, Apple will…

Why Intel believes 5G wireless will make autonomous cars smarter

Above: An artist’s illustration was part of the “When Cars Can Talk: Readying the Network for 5G and the Autonomous Driving Era” presentation at Intel’s one-day autonomous driving workshop.

The Internet of Things is expected to grow quickly to tens of billions of connected devices, from smart refrigerators to smart showers to smart cruise ships. And pretty soon, it’s going to extend to smart cars, Intel demonstrated at its recent autonomous cars event in San Jose, Calif.

But Intel knows that we’ll have to get data in and out of those cars at rates that are much faster than today’s LTE mobile networks can handle. And that’s why Rob Topol, general manager of Intel’s 5G business and technology, believes that 5G wireless networking will be like the “oxygen” for self-driving cars.

Intel is making 5G modem chips to transfer data at gigabits a second over wireless networks in the future, perhaps as early as 2020. Topol believes this wireless networking will enable self-driving cars to communicate with connected infrastructure. That infrastructure will help the cars process sensor, safety, and information for the car and return the results quickly to the cars.

“What we were showing with that demonstration is a capability called V-to-X – vehicle to infrastructure, vehicle to pedestrian, or vehicle to vehicle,” Topol said. “You’re utilizing the other objects and using a network to give the car vision beyond things it can’t see through the mechanisms in the car itself. Something that’s happening around the corner or further ahead.”

We talked about 5G and its connection to autonomous driving in a recent interview. Here’s an edited transcript of our talk.

Above: Rob Topol, general manager of the 5G business at Intel.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

VB: Where are we on the timeline for 5G?

Rob Topol: As you’ve seen, there’s been lot of work going on in 5G over about the last year and a half. It started with developing the air interface, how it works between the device and the core access network. It starts with the trial specifications we’ve been doing, where you try out different things like modulation or channel coding, essentially building this new radio.

The timeline is that you do many of those trial specifications over about a year to two years. All that work you do in the field, testing with partners and building a recipe, you take them to the standards bodies and submit them as contributions. Intel and other companies will submit their ideas and say, “This is what we think the standard should be based on.” The voting happens in 3GPP from a cellular standpoint, with the first round later this year. In December, the New Radio, or NR specification, will be set, and the full release for 5G happens in Q3 of 2018.

Once the NR spec is set, that’s when you’ll start to see development around the modems, around the networking equipment to support that. Full release 15 is at greenlight. That’s when you see the Capex orders come in from network operators to the infrastructure companies. Intel puts its chipset designs into production. You start to see some operators roll out networks as early as 2019. You’ll probably see most do them around 2020. Typically, once the full release is done, it’s about 18 months until you start to see the networks deployed in a broader way.

VB: How do you help people get an appreciation for how important this is? What’s at stake? What will people get out of it?

Topol: We focus on the things that 5G is about that 4G was not, if that makes sense. 4G was the era of the smartphone — data proliferation, access to media, mobility in general, with something in your pocket. 5G is an era beyond the smartphone. Over the next five to 10 years, we have billions of connected things coming up all around us. As we make everything from a refrigerator to a car to a home to an enterprise network smarter, the compute that’s happening—more data is sent through a network, whether to help improve the service model or the user experience of those things, or to harvest that data for machine learning and data analytics, any sort of behavior or artificial intelligence work.

We look at 5G as the platform that helps all of those other verticals grow. We see some of the early use case research. We see a lot of promise for 5G in automotive. We see a lot of promise for smart home and enterprise, if you move networks more to a fixed wireless capability. Not just relying on fiber and other LAN connections. We’re also looking at industrial automation. We have a few projects in that space, helping get a lot of that incubation going. What does a connected factory mean? How does it operate? How would a factory benefit in productivity, in the way machines are set up and run and optimized, when the factory is connected? What capability does that bring?

How do we help people with that vision? We show as many of those use cases as early as we can. We go out and showcase with automotive companies, showing them 5G in a car, so they can see the way data comes into the car for the way it functions, for safety, and more important for bandwidth, the way our experience inside the car is going to change when it’s autonomous. When you’re sitting in the back seat of that car, your experience changes. You’re not required to be fully focused on where it’s going and what it’s doing. The bandwidth requirements in the car are going to grow exponentially as our time is freed up inside the vehicle.

We do the same thing in industrial automation. We set up a partnership with GE and Honeywell and Ericsson called the 5G Innovators Initiative. We’re blueprinting what we think the factory of the future could and should look like, how it would operate. We try to give people that vision. We’ll do that for how drones are used. We’ll do it for fixed wireless in home and enterprise. We’ll do it for media and viewing experience. We’re working with media companies to look at the way media is captured and how it’s transmitted and how it’s consumed. That’s another major focus area of that initiative.

Above: Intel is moving fast into autonomous cars.

Image Credit: Intel

VB: I’ve seen different kinds of reports about how big 5G is going to be as a contributor to the global economy. What do you think about that? Is this going to transform society?

Topol: It opens new business models. As you talk about a smarter city, or a more efficient factory, or a vehicle that can run autonomously, it does change our behaviors, our habits, and what we can do with our time. I’d agree that 5G will open up many new business opportunities, primarily because of the data that’s coming off these smart and connected machines all around us. The ability to analyze, compute, and harvest that data is going to make us smarter in the way we lay out cities, set up factories, drive cars, and do other things around us.

There’s a tremendous opportunity. I don’t have a specific study we’ve done yet. Our focus is to deliver the technology baseline and the use cases around it. We’re confident that our partners are going to build great business models around it.

Our strategy from the start, as we said at CES, is end-to-end capability. Intel is the only company that sells hardware solutions from the device all the…

This T-Shirt Monitors the Asthma Patient’s Breathing Without Any Wires

This “smart” t-shirt could be a huge breakthrough for people suffering from respiratory illnesses.

The light, comfortable shirt developed by researchers at the Université Laval monitors the wearer’s breathing through a tiny antenna in the center of the design. Simply by detecting the user’s motions, the shirt can record breathing patterns and send the data to a smart phone or computer.

The shirt can be used to diagnose…

How to control your connected home with Google Assistant

Whether you’re onboard or not, smart homes are the future. Of course, there are still a few quirks, and some devices are downright ridiculous. (Consider the Grillbot, an automatic grill cleaner, or the Davek Umbrella, with its “Loss Alert” sensor.)

But smart technology definitely has its benefits.

With a smart garage door opener, you can open and close your garage from your smartphone and monitor its status even when you’re away from home. With a smart lock, you can issue “keys” to guests, friends, or family, and even unlock the door from afar.

Internet-ready and cloud data systems allow data “packets” to be transferred over the internet from various platforms. These packets move from device to device and essentially drive the entire smart tech industry.

However, the real benefits of connected tech come into play when you can use voice commands with them. Alexa, from Amazon’s Echo, is a great example of this.

The real star of the show is Google Assistant, though. In the past, issuing voice commands to Google Assistant to interface with smart tech was a Google Home-only feature. With the latest version, everyone can take advantage of this — even iPhone users.

What makes it stand out from the competition? It’s the way in which you interact and talk with the assistant. It’s just more human and more natural: “OK, Google. Turn on my lights.”

Sadly, Google Assistant cannot control everything … yet. The list of brands with devices that can be controlled include Honeywell, Nest, Philips Hue, WeMo, SmartThings, and more. Rest assured: this list will be expanded in time.

You can read the full list of supported devices here.

First things first, though. You need to connect your smart home devices to the Google Assistant app on your phone. This is what tells the AI what you have and how it can be used.

To connect one of your supported gadgets to Assistant, use the following steps:

  1. Open Google Assistant.
  2. Tap the three dots in the upper right-hand corner to open the settings menu. Navigate to the “Home Control” option and choose it.
  3. Tap the “+” button to add devices. You’ll see a list of devices you can choose from — simply find yours. Once you choose a device, you’ll need to sign in to the related service.
  4. Once you’ve added all your devices, you must separate them by room. This allows Google Assistant to differentiate between control areas. For example: “living room” vs. “office.”
  5. Once it’s all set up, you can begin controlling your devices. Test it out with a simple command like “OK, Google, turn…

Qualcomm demos how electric vehicles can be wirelessly charged while driving

(Reuters) — Qualcomm Inc said on Thursday it had demonstrated how electric vehicles could be charged wirelessly while driving, a technology some believe will help accelerate the adoption of self-driving cars.

The smartphone chipmaker said a so-called “dynamic charging” test took place on a test track in Versailles, France. It used two Renault Kangoo vehicles driving over embedded pads in the road that transferred a charge to the cars’ batteries at up to 20 kilowatts at highway speeds.

Experts believe that self-driving cars of tomorrow will be electric and require a…

A Canadian Town Wanted a Transit System. It Hired Uber.

Uber, the global car-hailing service, has fought its way into resistant cities around the world, despite being hit by raw eggs and rush-hour roadblocks in Montreal and Toronto, fires in Paris and smashed windshields in Mexico City.

But in Innisfil, a small yet sprawling Canadian town north of Toronto, the company has met a somewhat different reception. Town leaders have embraced the service as an alternative to costly public transportation, causing local taxi companies to worry about the effect on their business.

Innisfil is a rural quadrilateral-shaped town of about 104 square miles, on the southwestern shore of Ontario’s Lake Simcoe. It has no public transportation other than stops on a regional bus line. This week, the town inaugurated a pilot program for what Uber says is its first full ridesharing-transit partnership, providing subsidized transportation for the town’s 36,000 people.

“It’s better value for money than a traditional transit system,” Tim Cane, Innisfil’s manager of land use planning, said in a telephone interview.

The town has set aside 100,000 Canadian dollars (about $74,000) for the pilot program, paying Uber that amount to subsidize rides. The money will cover the difference in the cost of a ride and a fixed rate paid by passengers, as well as a discount of 5 Canadian dollars per ride for rides at nonfixed rates.

Many municipalities have fought Uber as the company has defied regulations and slipped through legal loopholes to infiltrate markets. Uber has often faced violent protests from taxi and bus drivers subject to expensive and restrictive licensing and insurance rules.

Though many of Uber’s strategies have been criticized, the service has spread to more than 70 countries.

In the last two years, Uber has moved aggressively to sign transit agency partnerships around the world to embed itself in public transportation infrastructure. Those deals are generally complementary to existing municipal bus or subway service. Innisfil’s is unusual in that it is an alternative to establishing a traditional transit system for the town.

“It’s still a small part of our business, but it’s growing,” said Andrew Salzberg, Uber’s head of transportation policy and research. He said Uber had a “couple dozen” transit agreements so far using different models.

Critics, though, have voiced concern about Uber’s move into public transit, saying the service will sap systems of riders, create congestion during rush hours and ultimately take money away from improving transportation infrastructure in cities fully embracing the Uber model.

Another worry is that the reliance on smartphones and credit or debit cards in these arrangements excludes those who have neither. Innisfil’s plan mostly addresses that issue: Passengers can send texts if they do not own a smartphone with the Uber app, for example. And town leaders say they are working on solutions for people needing to pay cash.

Still, not everyone in Innisfil is happy about Uber’s arrival. Manjot Saini, the owner of the newest taxi company, Global Taxi Innisfil, said he had offered to beat Uber’s price…

With free Alexa calling, the Amazon Echo is now a home phone replacement

The Amazon Echo can do way more than a home phone.
The Amazon Echo can do way more than a home phone.

Every single time I go back to my parents’ home I try to get them to cancel their home phone line. And every time I fail.

I don’t know how much they pay for their phone bill off the top of my head, but whatever it is, it’s too much — especially since they rarely use it, and they have smartphones which I generously pay for.

According to a recently published U.S. Health Department finding, 50.8 percent of American homes don’t have a landline and have a cellphone instead.

Naturally, as cellphones have become ubiquitous, the number of landlines in homes have declined and will continue to fall. There’s simply no need to have a home phone and cellphone — it’s an unnecessary duplication.

Most of the concerns for keeping a landline around (I’ve heard them all, thank you very much dad) usually involve “It’s got better call quality and calls almost never drop” and “I still need it for international calls.” These are just excuses for people who don’t want to break old habits and dump the ol’ telephone.

But hey, who am I to try to save you money. It’s your money and you can spend it paying your telephone company if you want to.

Seriously though, if you want to stop paying for a home phone line, but still want a reliable fixed calling device at home, the Echo/Echo Dot’s new Alexa calling and messaging features makes for a good alternative. It’s basically VoIP.

I just tested the new Alexa calling feature using an Echo Dot and an iPhone with the newly updated Alexa app and it works as advertised. After granting the Alexa app access to my contacts, it showed which of them have the Alexa app installed on their phones or have Echo devices set up. These are the only people you’ll be able to call and send voice messages to through Alexa.

Right off the bat, I noticed the call quality was good. Like really good. My colleague Brett said it sounded just as clear as a regular phone call, which is great because if I’m ever to convince my parents to get rid…