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Samsung Rugby Pro review: Android toughie for a fair price

The good: Samsung’s Rugby Pro has stellar call quality, push-to-talk support, NFC, a speedy processor, and a decent 5-megapixel camera.

The bad: It doesn’t look or feel all that durable, and the back panel popped open when I threw the handset.

The bottom line: Samsung’s Rugby Pro makes a good, affordable choice for people seeking a more rugged smartphone, but it won’t satisfy those who need an ultradurable frame.

Samsung’s Rugby Pro is a buddy story between AT&T and a durable Samsung-made Android 4.0 phone. It may look tough on the outside, but there’s heart and brainpower within. The Pro joins the “Rugby” team — which also includes the Samsung Rugby Smart, the Rugby II, and 2008’s original Rugby — with specs to keep out heat, dust, and the rest.

Proving that it’s with the times, the Rugby Pro adds Android Ice Cream Sandwich, zippy 4G LTE speeds, and an especially speedy dual-core processor to a push-to-talk device with physical buttons and a screw-on back. The $100 price tag is certainly appealing for all you get, but watch out — the Rugby Pro wasn’t always ready to tussle.

Anytime a durable product comes in, we’re honor bound to smack it around. An appropriately hearty phone, the Rugby Pro stands 5 inches tall by 2.7 inches wide and measures 0.5 inch thick. It feels hefty at 4.6 ounces. It meets U.S. Mil-STD 810F specifications for dust, humidity, rain, and shock. Beyond that, it’s waterproof up to a depth of a meter for up to 30 minutes, when all ports are tightly closed. However, don’t make a habit of bringing it swimming with you; it isn’t intended for extended water use.

The Rugby Pro works underwater as advertised, and with its thick seams and ridged sides, it certainly looks like it can take a pounding. At least at first. There’s a hard, ridged material that rings the phone. While I appreciate the grippable nature, I’m disappointed that the material doesn’t seem thicker, more cushioned, or especially rubbery. I have after-market cases that offer better bounce-back when you drop them.

I may have thrown it a bit too hard on the carpet when testing the Rugby Pro’s durability.

Why isn’t the screen more recessed to protect it? Why isn’t the back cover also encased in something more rubbery? Its finely textured plastic panel feels a little slippery on its own. Thankfully, the phone’s square spines help keep it clenched in your hand. I like the height and width of the power, volume, and convenience buttons on the Rugby Pro’s spines, and the flap covering the 3.5mm headset jack was so securely in place, I nearly ripped off a fingernail prying it open. Below the display are three physical buttons to control the menu, home, and back. They weren’t too stiff, and in my tests, they pressed down just fine while wearing gloves.

The screw keeping the back cover in place is a classic step to seal the phone, but unscrews with a coin (Samsung specifically warns against using your nail, but I had no problem). The SIM and microSD slots are underneath. Now here’s the big “but”: when I purposely threw the Pro on its back from about 3.5 feet, the part of the back panel that wasn’t screwed on popped off. The Rugby Pro never revealed its innards any other time I dropped it from that height without extra force.

One benefit to a much more flush casing around the screen is that the 4-inch display is much easier to access and doesn’t seem encroached. The Super AMOLED material and 800×480-pixel (WVGA) resolution keep text and lines looking sharp, colorful, and smooth. Blacks look deep and rich, and in typical Samsung fashion, the default settings overload certain colors, like green. This help gives images depth and richness, but it can look a little overdone on your own photos, when the overabundance of color becomes obvious.

OS and features
The Rugby Pro runs on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Samsung’s custom TouchWiz layer on top delivers software extras, like a customizable lock screen and one-touch access to system controls from the notifications menu. There’s access to the full suite of Google services, including signing in to multiple accounts, like Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft Exchange in addition to your Gmail and other e-mail profiles.

Physical buttons all around the phone are easy to press.

There are your usual favorites: maps with turn-by-turn navigation, YouTube, and search apps for people and places, too. The phone supports VPN, portable hot spots, Kies for Wi-Fi sharing with other Samsung products, and DLNA. There’s also Bluetooth 4.0.

In the settings, you’ll be able to program the convenience key to open any app, like navigation or the camera (hallelujah). NFC means you can happily share photos and URLs through S Beam. Samsung also offers motion controls, but only two — shake to update, and flip to mute or pause — versus the 11 in Samsung’s Galaxy Note 2. I find flip-to-mute really useful.

A whole lot of preloaded apps come on the Rugby Pro, as they do on every smartphone with a major carrier. There are a few Samsung apps, and many more AT&T apps for managing your account and tapping into the carrier’s extra services (like U-Verse live TV.) In addition, Qik Lite is installed for you to start in on voice chats. Standard apps include the calendar, clock, calculator, and music player. The Google Play store is your go-to for downloading free and premium apps and other content like TV shows, movies, and music.

Samsung Rugby ProAdded browser tools add an interesting twist.

One interesting addition is AT&T’s browser bar, a shortcut strip you can call up or hide on the bottom of the screen. If you find yourself wanting to share a story, signing in to one of these services just once lets you share the story on Facebook or Twitter, send the link over e-mail, and even simply “Like” the page on Facebook. You can also browse for news by category: popular stories, sports, news, and so on. The Browser Bar is customizable as well, and easy to disable from the bar’s settings.

I really liked the concept and mostly liked the browser bar shortcuts, but it could use some enhancements. I especially noticed that the Twitter shortcut didn’t shorten links, a major black mark in my Twitter-happy universe.

Samsung Rugby Pro toughens up AndroidDoes it pass the dunk tank test? Yes it does.

What about voice commands, you ask? You’ll actually get your choice of two options; and that’s important if you really are wearing thick gloves that can’t type on the phone’s virtual keyboard. S Voice is Samsung’s own version, but I very much prefer Google’s Voice Actions. Launch the former by double-pressing the home button no matter where you are. Use the latter by pressing and holding on the menu button from any start screen.

You can also get to Google from the microphone icon in the home screen search bar, and can get to voice-to-text by pushing the microphone icon on the keyboard. Of course, the button is fairly tiny on the 4-inch screen.

The Rugby Pro will support Enhanced PTT (push-to-talk) when the service launches in November. At that point, you should be able to turn your convenience key into a PTT trigger.

Cameras
Cameras are usually de-emphasized on durable phones, but I’m glad to see the Rugby Pro packing a quite decent 5-megapixel shooter. In addition to taking some nice outdoor and indoor shots, Samsung has given the Rugby Pro’s camera many of its typical extra features.

Samsung Rugby Pro camera test The Samsung Rugby Pro takes some pretty decent shots.

Let’s start with the photos themselves. The Rugby Pro produces photos that are on the whole clear and detailed, with sharp edges and strong color. There clearly isn’t as much detail as from most 8-megapixel cameras, and photos taken in good lighting are better than those taken indoors in mixed lighting or artificial environments.

Samsung Rugby Pro camera testThe petals’ edges are distinct and color isn’t overly saturated.

Those looking to do more than simply point and shoot will appreciate various shooting modes, including panorama and smile shot modes, and effects like sepia and black and white. Resolution options span from 5 megapixels to 0.3 megapixel, and you’ll find settings for white balance, ISO, metering, and shutter sound. I always appreciate seeing scene choices, including night and sports modes.
Color distinctions look a little duller and flatter indoors in mixed lighting.The phone’s 720p HD video capture was also quite good. The image was clear, mostly sharp (sharper outdoor than indoors), and colorful. The microphone didn’t quite capture the subject’s voice, which is sadly normal, but increasing the output volume solves the issue.
Samsung Rugby Pro camera testThe Rugby Pro captured this indoor chalk art well, but I’m fairly certain you’ll never look at rainbows the same way again.

The 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera took relatively decent shots, and more importantly, it works well for video chats.

Only 8GB internal storage graces the Rugby Pro, but you’ll find relief for your content-collecting ways with a microSD card slot capable of holding 32GB.

Samsung Rugby Pro camera testYou can see the Rugby Pro’s flash bouncing around this standard studio shot. It’s a pretty good photo, but unsurprisingly can’t compete with the best 8-megapixel shots.

Performance

AT&T’s 4G LTE was blazing throughout my test period here in San Francisco, and the Rugby Pro’s internals more than kept up. Using the Speedtest.net diagnostic app, the Rugby Pro typically achieved download speeds spanning the 13Mbps to a searing 59Mbps. Uplink speeds hovered in the teens, but never surpassed 16Mbps up.

Samsung Rugby ProResults from the Quadrant diagnostic benchmark test (left) and the Speedtest.net upload/download test.

Apps downloaded and installed in seconds, and Web pages loaded lickety-split.

The Rugby Pro’s 1.5GHz dual-core processor, a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Plus MSM8960, is also tremendously fast. Navigating around took very little lag time, and gameplay was strong.

However, there were a few touch-and-go moments during my test period. There was that one random reboot, and the time I completely lost all signal. I got signal back after a while, but the return of my data took longer. Thankfully, this only occurred once.

AT&T Rugby Pro: Performance testing
Download CNET News app (646KB) 6 seconds
CNET mobile site load 4 seconds
CNET desktop site load 4.7 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 24 seconds
Camera boot time 1.75 seconds
Camera, shot-to-shot time 3 seconds
Load up app (Quadrant) 1.78 seconds

As far as the battery goes, the Rugby Pro has a rated battery life of 11 hours and 12 days of standby time on its 1,850mAh battery. It lasted pretty long in my anecdotal tests as well. Lab tests continue here at CNET, and I’ll update this section with more-scientific results.

Call quality
I tested the Rugby Pro (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; LTE 1700/2100) in San Francisco using AT&T’s network. I don’t get to say this very often, but call quality was amazing. Crystal clarity meant there was no background noise whatsoever, and I didn’t detect any vocal distortion. Volume was robust on the highest setting (this came by default), and in the mostly quiet office, I needed it. That’s usually a red flag, but the Rugby Pro has Samsung’s call-boost control, which uses software to amp to decibels. As always, turning on the booster changes the audio’s character; it made it louder, and also slightly less warm.

My testing partner agreed that the Rugby Pro is one of the clearest phones he’s heard on his landline. It was comfortably loud, there was a little distortion on the high-frequency peaks, and I sounded a tad unnatural. Otherwise, he said I sounded “very, very good.”

Samsung Rugby Pro call quality sample Listen now:

The speakerphone followed suit when I tested it at waist level. Its very loud (but not overly aggressive) volume meant that I could retreat further from the phone and still hear; an equally useful trait for listening in a moving car, a more raucous environment. Voices retained their warmth and clarity, but it was obviously still a speakerphone, and buzzed in my hands through the speaker.

My calling partner kept his assessment short and sweet: “Excellent speaker phone. Ditto above.” He added that he was aware of normal amounts of echo from the surrounding room, but the handset wasn’t contributing to the customary helping of speakerphone hollowness.

Who should buy this phone
If you’re looking for an Android smartphone that you hope is a little tougher than the usual crop of breakables, the Samsung Rugby Pro is a good fit. Likewise, the reasonable $99 phone is a terrific option for outdoor workers who need a strong phone and prefer the Rugby Pro’s camera and Ice Cream Sandwich frills.

However, if you require a handset to survive the toughest situations under extreme pressure, you should keep shopping for a more durable handset. The same goes for those who need to operate a phone with gloves on — the Rugy Pro’s touch display only works with bare hands.

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