Samsung Rugby Smart review: Tough on the outside but has inner weaknesses

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Samsung Rugby Smart review: Tough on the outside but has inner weaknesses

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Whenever I get my hands on a smart phone that claims to be rugged in design, I like to give it a pummeling, to gain a sense of how a tough-guy phone might stand up to a tough and careless user. My most recent “victim” is the new Samsung Rugby Smart, an Android (version 2.3) smart phone available on AT&T for $ 100 with a two-year contract.

The Rugby Smart is less expensive than the Casio G’zOne Commando, $ 180 from Verizon, the only other rugged smart phone currently in our smart phone Ratings. Samsung says this 4G (HSPA+) phone, which has a 3.7-in Super AMOLED display, isn’t for underwater use but can survive being submerged in as much as a meter of water for up to 30 minutes. Samsung also says it meets a host of other requirements in the U.S. Military spec known as STD 810F, including withstanding dust, shock, and extreme temperature.

The phone came through my mini bootcamp working just fine. But I also informally assessed the phone in other respects and found out that, for all its toughness, it’s compromised in some other respects.

Here’s what I did to abuse the Smart, and what happened when I did:

I dunked it. The accidental drop into a toilet or sink has disabled, at least temporarily, many a smart phone. So I decided to informally test the Rugby Smart’s claims of water resistance in my kitchen sink, despite my wife’s protests and warnings from CR engineers that “if you break it, you’ve bought it.”

The Rugby Smart’s USB and headphone jack have soft-plastic covers to keep out water and other elements. If they’re not pushed in tightly, Samsung warns, the phone will not resist water well enough. So I pushed down on them before dunking the phone in the cold, turbulent water of my sink for about 25 to 30 seconds. I left the phone’s 5-megapixel camera running as I did, allowing me to capture the Smart’s dip in an HD video recording. As the video (below) shows, the phone worked normally after I retrieved it, and the underwater video and glugging audio are of decent quality.

I dropped it again and again. The Rugby Smart’s outer edges are made of a tough, rubber-like material that, like an aftermarket case, help it take rather hard drops with aplomb. At least eight times, I threw the phone down while it was on, with considerable force against my basement’s thinly carpeted concrete floor. Again, no problems. Only once did the phone’s back carbon-fiber cover fly off, but that was because I forgot to lock it in place.

Such qualities are certainly convenient in the great outdoors—or the more hostile environment of a teenager’s hands. Another neat feature: The camera’s LED flash doubles as a flashlight.

But in my usual roster of personal tests, prior to turning the phone over to our lab testers, I found the Rugby Smart a little less than ideal in some respects:

It seemed a bit slow and unresponsive. Despite its reasonably fast 1.4-GHz single-core processor, I found the phone to be a tad unresponsive, taking seconds to do what other phones seem to do in an instant. For example, launching or switching between core apps like the camera and Web browser sometimes took a few seconds—an eternity in the smart-phone world. And despite the Rugby Smart being a 4G phone, even with a strong network signal, it took apps such as Facebook several seconds to fill the screen with their Web-based data.

The buttons felt awkward. The Rugby is one of the first Android phones I’ve seen in a long while with raised, physical navigation buttons you actually push. (Think the T-Mobile G1 and early myTouch phones from 3 years ago.) Real buttons are easier to find without looking than virtual ones, but you’ll have to remember to press on them more firmly to make them work. I found they sometimes didn’t work at all. For example, hitting the Back key while watching a video, which should take you back to the previous menu, often had no effect, even after several presses.

The screen seemed small. After typing on the virtual keyboards of so many Android phones with 4-inch-or-larger displays, I felt a little constrained coming back to the Rugby Smart’s Lilliputian 3.7-inch screen. Even in wide-screen mode, typing accurately using the Android or Samsung keyboards was a challenge. But I was able to get much better results when I switched over to Swype keyboard, which lets you type with out lifting a finger.

Bottom line: If my casual abuse is any indication, the Rugby Smart appears to be a worthy contender for people who need a phone that can handle whatever life throws at it. But make sure that ruggedness is a top—if not the top—priority for you in a phone, since you’ll be getting a heavier, bulkier, and smaller-screened phone than most these days. Our engineers are currently testing the Rugby Smart’s voice, battery, and other core features in the lab, to gain a more precise idea of how this phone’s performance stacks up.

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 Samsung Rugby Smart review: Tough on the outside but has inner weaknesses

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