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Compare rugged phones vs. rugged cases for enterprise users

In use cases that require ruggedized devices, organizations can choose to go with fully ruggedized devices or standard devices with rugged cases. Learn how to make that choice.

Anyone who has dropped a phone on the ground, drowned it in water, or let sand or other particulates get into the device knows that not all mobile devices are rugged.

Industries that have users working on devices in demanding situations and harsh environmental conditions should look for endpoints that are ruggedized. This means they are protected against extreme conditions.

These devices also provide protection for mission-critical applications, even if they're not operating in a harsh environment. In addition to ruggedized devices, there are ruggedized cases that can protect a cheaper, standard device for a lower cost. However, the cases aren't always as reliable as the dedicated rugged devices. Consumers are familiar with smartphone cases, as they provide a level of protection for phones, but there are ruggedized cases for laptops as well. Both cases provide greater protection for industrial usage.

A rock climber will have more stringent requirements for phone protection than a sales rep in a hotel room or a cubicle. Similarly, a laptop in a factory will need to be protected more than one in a business office. Enterprise users' device requirements vary greatly.

Admins should evaluate the need for protection via a ruggedized device or a ruggedized case to ensure the protection is sufficient without excessive cost.

Use cases for rugged devices and cases

There are many situations where a ruggedized device or a case would be beneficial to protect from damage or loss. Applications range from simple communication and data input to critical communication and high-tech applications such as thermal imaging and image processing.

Some use cases include the following:

  • Outdoor sports. Rock climbing, water sports and extreme sports expose devices to a wide variety of harm.
  • Military. Devices must be combat ready and have their own dispensation of value.
  • Farming. In this sector, devices will face exposure to dust, water and harsh elements such as heat.
  • Warehouse and factory workers. Such devices will have to function around heavy machinery, electrical equipment and more.
  • Manufacturing. These devices will also be around machinery and electrical equipment, and in some cases dangerous chemicals.
  • Mining and construction. Users could drop these devices from extreme heights onto concrete or steel and expose them to severe weather.
  • Education. Schools are wise to invest in ruggedized student devices, especially if they intend on having them returned. Bouncing around in backpacks, falling on the floor, leaving them in the rain and just not taking care of them implies this is an excellent use case for ruggedization.
  • Healthcare. Emergency service workers often rely on devices to record life-critical information and communication. A ruggedized device will mitigate accidental breakage and potential medical service disruption.

Rugged device standards

It's important to realize that ruggedized devices and cases have standards and specifications they are held to. Ruggedized devices are protected from extreme heat and cold, water damage, accidental damage by dropping and rough handling.

Most experts separate ruggedized devices into three categories:

  • Semi-rugged. These are just a tick better than an off-the-shelf standard device. This includes being water resistant vs. being waterproof, for example.
  • Fully rugged. These devices are engineered to prevent dust, sand and solids from entering the case. They are waterproof and severe shock resistant. There is a rating system that defines devices at various levels of damage.
  • Ultra rugged or military grade. These devices are rated according to an MIL-STD specification.

The Ingress Protection (IP) is a rating system by the International Electrotechnical Commission standard 60529. In Europe it is standard EN60529. Ingress refers to external elements like dust, sand or water entering the device case but also refers to shock when dropped.

In reading the following ratings, note that they are in a format of IPxy where x is the rating for solids such as dust and y is water immersion protection beyond 1 meter deep. Higher numbers denote better protection; 6 is the highest rating available for the x value while 9 is the highest available ranking for the y value.

The various ratings call for differences in pressure, temperature and number of test iterations required to pass. For example, a higher rating will survive at a deeper water pressure than a lower one. Military grade is the highest standard and requires 29 tests, while others only require 13. Each of these ratings corresponds to a general set of guidelines or minimums.

IP rating Description
IP56 Primary standard
IP57 Intermediate standard
IP67, IP68 and IP69K Advanced
MIL-STD-810G Military grade phone
MIL-STD-810H Military grade laptop

Evaluating rugged devices

Ruggedized devices are designed and built to protect the electronic and mechanical components from damage and corrosion. Admins who manage enterprise endpoint fleets that could benefit from ruggedized devices must consider the application conditions such as environment, usage and external conditions as well as cost.

In determining the benefit of a rugged device in a given enterprise situation, administrators should consider the most critical and relevant features of these devices. While a ruggedized device will be more expensive than a standard device, if the device is damaged or destroyed in a harsh environment or application, the loss can be significantly greater.

Some of the key features and considerations for ruggedized devices include the following:

  • Size. Slim size could lead to easier bending and cracking.
  • MIL ST 810H and 810G (IP68). Military applications require devices built to this specification.
  • MCPTT capable. This is a mission-critical standard required for paramedics, police and fire squads. For example, push-to-talk allows communication at the push of a button.
  • Waterproof. Some rugged devices are water resistant, not waterproof. Waterproofing varies depending on depth and pressure.
  • Drop resistant 15 m to concrete. Drop or shock resistance tests vary from a few feet to 15 meters on concrete.
  • Glove display. Screen touch sensitivity allows use with gloves.
  • Wet touch display. Screen touch sensitivity allows use when wet.
  • Easy-to-read display. Better resolution, clarity and size may be required for reading fine detail.
  • Display protection. Quality of glass in the display may vary, but it's still glass.
  • Removable batteries. Ability to remove batteries to charge or replace.
  • Multiple charging docks, charger compatibility. When purchasing multiple charging docks, verify compatibility.
  • Work as a 2-way radio. This communication enhancement can be key in some deployment scenarios.
  • Thermal camera. View thermal signatures via the camera.
  • Battery life. This could be critical for users of life-saving applications, such as paramedics, healthcare facilities, police, fire and military.

IT should make sure that ruggedized devices meet all other requirements such as size, display characteristics and laptop ports.

Disadvantages of ruggedized devices

Ruggedized devices also have disadvantages that fall into several categories.

Lack of convenience

The iPhone is an extremely popular smartphone in business use cases, but these devices do not come ruggedized to the extent necessary for many deployments. Even if organizations find a rugged smartphone that has a UI users are okay with, the physical bulk, including width and weight, could become a challenge for users.

Devices that are rugged may not have certain quality-of-life features such as ports, battery life, display features and more. Further, these devices are likely to run a higher price point and cost more across an entire fleet of purchases.

Inconsistency with ruggedization

Users may hear that a device is rugged and assume it can be thrown at a wall or run over with no repercussions. This may be true for some models, but many models will receive damage over time -- however insignificant -- that will add up.

The same can be said for how devices handle water and other liquids. There is a major difference between splash proof and waterproof, and many rugged devices can't handle prolonged submersion in water.

Evaluating rugged cases

Ruggedized cases are a reasonable compromise to a ruggedized device, saving money and offering convenience. Users can select the exact device they need or want and just enclose it in a case for protection rather than being limited to the options on a ruggedized device.

Ruggedized cases are separate components and not part of the device, and cannot always offer the same levels of protection. That said, they are simple, easy, inexpensive and can offer multiple levels of protection. Some cases have IP and MIL-STD ratings, including being waterproof enough for divers.

Ruggedized cases are separate components and not part of the device, and cannot always offer the same levels of protection.

The popular OtterBox Defender has verified shock protection when dropped from 23 stories. It is affordable as well, ranging from $30 to $50. In many situations, however, a simple standard phone case will suffice. One advantage to a case is that it will fit over existing devices so there's no need to invest in new equipment or deviate from existing device service contracts.

However, many waterproof cases are simply pouches, such as those for divers, making them inconvenient for most display interaction. There is also the issue of user error to consider. If a user sets up the case incorrectly, the device will be susceptible to significant damage. This could be especially troublesome if the case is inconvenient for use outside of the hazardous work conditions, causing the user to take the device out of the case frequently.

Overall, cases can offer similar protection as a ruggedized device but there is the inconvenience of having a wrapper around the device. These cases can be especially annoying for laptops and for touch display use, and some cases can cost $50 to $75 or more. Ruggedized cases are not a substitute for a ruggedized device, as they are generally a lower quality alternative for protection. But both types of cases still have their place.

Recommendations for rugged devices vs. cases

As with any endpoint, the specifications and models should be driven by the use cases. There are numerous use cases to consider, but grouping them generally can help IT teams plan for the protection of these endpoints.

Job description Standard device and case Rugged case Rugged device
Office staff X
Manufacturing workers X
Shipping dock workers X
Chemical workers X
Sales staff X
Transportation -- drivers X
Outdoors construction X

Justification for a rugged case or device may hinge on the importance of keeping a critical device from breaking and being unable to replace it quickly, resulting in loss of business. An emergency medical technician dropping a phone or device and having it break could have life threatening implications. Another option is purchase of insurance. However, this can cost $150 to $800, depending on the price of the device.

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