In the Realm of Rugged Phones, Caveat Emptor

Buying a low-cost rugged device? Approach with caution

One of the oldest economic sayings, “caveat emptor”, Latin for “let the buyer beware”, should be top of mind for people eyeing up rugged smartphones, especially low-cost Chinese-branded versions.

Rugged phones represent a niche in the larger smartphone market, but for certain applications, their resilience to water and drops defines the value of this crop of devices. To better understand this segment, we recently analysed three ruggedized smartphones from Cat, Blackview and Doogee*. We performed teardown and pricing analyses, exposing some shocking discoveries that help to explain the large differences in the devices’ retail prices.

The Cat S42, made by Bullitt, is part of the “value tier” of rugged smartphones, with a design that emphasizes durability and water resistance, but offering fewer features such as secondary cameras. It retails for $299, a typical price for this category of devices. In contrast, the two Chinese-branded ruggedized phones by Blackview and Doogee, which are also IP-rated and conform to military specifications for durability, sell for an eye-popping low price of $140 and $180 respectively.

The question is how do these Chinese brands undercut a traditional rugged player like Cat? Clearly, Chinese manufacturers have vastly different business models to Western phone-makers, but that’s only part of the answer. Our physical teardown shed light on the internal make-up and structural designs, giving a full picture of how Blackview and Doogee achieve such low prices.

When it comes to the value of rugged smartphones, consumers are largely guided by the exterior of the devices, having learnt to recognize the built-in durability defined by the bulky industry design as an indicator of ruggedness. To accomplish this look and feel, manufacturers overbuild the device enclosure to survive many drops over its lifetime and secure all possible points of water ingress. With component specifications clearly defined, consumers are lulled into a false sense of confidence that they have all the information they need to make their purchase decision. But all is not as it appears in the realm of rugged smartphones.

The intrinsic ruggedness of a device is more than just skin deep. Beyond the minimum number of design elements that can achieve ingress protection (IP) ratings and military durability standards, there are many other aspects that make a good, rugged design.

Although all three devices passed our initial water-resistance and drop test, validating their IP68 and MIL-STD-810 standards, the differences in design and selling price are only revealed when comparing each component. They inform us of the expected quality of the devices.

Beyond a rugged design, buyers expect these devices to offer an impressive all-round smartphone experience. However, when we opened the devices, we found some startling findings.

  • All three phones have watertight enclosures, but only the Cat S42 reinforces its USB port with redundant water-resistance measures. Physical flap covers are backed up with an IP68-rated USB port in the Cat S42, whereas the Blackview and Doogee phones rely solely on their watertight exterior flap. This was also the case with the 3.5 mm audio jack.
  • Physical buttons on the sides of the phones are designed differently, with the Cat S42 having minimal buttonholes to lower the risk of water and dust ingress, in contrast to the two Chinese phones, which use large button openings, again relying on the enclosure and gaskets for protection.
  • The quality and quantity of adhesives also differ. The Cat S42 opts for a strong foam adhesive that’s evenly applied around the cover glass surface where it attaches to the phone body. The Blackview BV4900 doesn’t use a main gasket covering the full body of the device to protect against foreign material ingress.
  • Although the Blackview phone has a rear camera cut-out that suggests it’s a triple camera system, the truth, as we discovered, is that it uses dummy cameras (see image below). Both Blackview and Doogee have multicamera designs that are missing image sensors. The most likely reason is that these companies have taken an existing consumer smartphone design, rebuilt it with a ruggedized enclosure, but removed the extra image sensors to save on component costs.
Use of dummy cameras in the Blackview BV4900 rugged phone
  • There were signs of residual epoxy glue on the multichip package of the Doogee S58 Pro, probably showing that this component was reclaimed from a previous device. We believe the suspected use of recycled memory chips is a big reason why the Doogee device manages to sell for less than the Cat phone despite having twice the memory. The use of reclaimed parts would drastically lower Doogee’s cost structure, given that the cost of memory makes up a significant portion of the bill of materials.
  • All three rugged devices use common laser direct structuring (LDS) antennas, a process in which cellular radio antennas are defined onto a three-dimensional plastic carrier. However, on the Doogee S58 Pro, we discovered the manipulation of an LDS antenna, suggesting that the antenna design was reworked by hand. A possible explanation for this is the use of existing components to avoid the cost of designing a new part.
Manipulated LDS antenna (reversed) on the Doogee S58 Pro suggests it was reworked during manufacturing

Our teardown revealed large differences between the Cat S42 and the Blackview and Doogee devices. Both Chinese phones sport conventional parts that are neither water-resistant nor durable, unlike the Cat S42, which is built with more premium and watertight components. It’s this rugged-first approach to design that really sets the Cat phone apart from the Chinese handsets, which only add superficial ruggedization to existing smartphone platforms.

For consumers, price is a major factor in their purchase decision. As long as a device appears rugged and durable, people often make seemingly rational purchase decisions based on price, considering all other variables being equal. But low-cost Chinese manufacturers appear to be masking the large differences in quality of design, leaning on the appearance, rather than quality, of ruggedness. Without stringent consumer protections and regulations, in the market of ruggedized smartphones consumers must heed the principle of caveat emptor.

* The three devices in our teardown share a common platform (MediaTek Helio A22 and Helio P22 series system-on-chips), ensuring consistency of analysis. Although screen sizes and memory configurations vary, a common core electronic design sets the basis for our comparative review.

CCS Insight’s teardown and cost benchmarking analysis provides insight into a wide range of devices spanning smartphones, wearables, virtual reality headsets, routers and more. In this example, we were able to uncover various techniques employed by low-cost Chinese manufacturers to lower the manufacturing cost of their products and undercut rivals. Click on the button to learn more about this service.