A couple of years ago, Samsung dubiously marketed its Galaxy S4 Active smartphone as "whatever-proof." The problem is, while it did have pretty decent dust and water protection (IP67) that's about all it was capable of surviving - not drops, not shock, not low or high temperature changes, pretty much not "whatever" (as it turns out, the warranty didn't ever cover water damage). So how much should we trust devices labelled as "whatever-proof", "tough", "rugged" or other seemingly durable words we've seen being marketed?
The reality is, "rugged" and "tough" are just words, and you should trust them about as much as "whatever-proof". The terms themselves are probably indicators that the device is a bit different from your ordinary smartphone, tablet or laptop, but that's not enough info for you to safely toss your gadget down the nearest flight of stairs. What you should really look for are the standards and specifications behind the marketing terms.
A standard is a declaration by a third-party organization that a particular gadget can survive a certain set of circumstances, which include things like shock resistance to dust, heat, cold, radiation, or water protection. The two most common you'll see associated with phone, tablets, and laptops are the Ingress Protection (IP) Rating and the Military Specification or Military Standard (MIL-STD).
The Ingress Protection (IP) scale consists of two digits: the first digit indicates the level of protection against solid objects, including dust, while the second indicates how resistant the device is to water. So for example, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active's IP67 rating means it is completely protected against dust, and can survive immersion in water for 30 minutes at a depth of up to 1 meter.
The MIL-STD Environmental Engineering Considerations and Laboratory Tests is a United States Military Standard that certifies that a product is able to handle a specific scenario. The tests themselves number into the thousands and cater for all sorts of scenarios, For example, here's one (MIL-STD-1766B) that certifies a product against nuclear hardness and survivability in electronics and other components to be used in inter-continental ballistic missiles. The most well known standard for rugged devices is the MIL-STD-810G, which has within it a massive list of scenarios that devices must be protected against to be certified:
The tests themselves are also very thorough and meticulous. For example here's just part 1 of Test Method 510.5, which is for the seemingly simple task of "Blowing Dust":
Step 1. With the test item in the chamber and stabilized at standard ambient temperature, adjust the air velocity to 8.9 + 1.3 m/s (1750 + 250 ft/min), or as otherwise determined from the test plan.
Step 2. Adjust the dust feed control for a dust concentration of 10.6 ± 7 g/m3 (0.3 + 0.2 g/ft3).
Step 3. Unless otherwise specified, maintain the conditions of Steps 1 and 2 for at least 6 hours. If required, periodically reorient the test item to expose other vulnerable faces to the dust stream.
Step 4. Stop the dust feed. (See paragraph 220.127.116.11.) Reduce the test section air velocity to approximately 1.5 +1 m/s (300 + 200 ft/min) and adjust the temperature to the required high operational temperature (see paragraph 18.104.22.168), or as otherwise determined from the test plan.
Step 5. Maintain the Step 4 conditions for a minimum of 1 hour following test item temperature stabilization.
Step 6. Adjust the air velocity to that used in Step 1, and restart the dust feed to maintain the dust concentration as in Step 2.
Step 7. Continue the exposure for at least 6 hours or as otherwise specified. If required, operate the test item in accordance with the test plan. If the test item fails to operate as intended, follow the guidance in paragraph 22.214.171.124.2. Otherwise proceed to Step 8.
Step 8. Stop the dust feed and allow the test item to return to standard ambient conditions at a rate not to exceed 3°C/min (5°F/min). Stop any air flow and allow the dust to settle (possibly up to 12 hours).
Step 9. Remove accumulated dust from the test item by brushing, wiping, or shaking, taking care to avoid introduction of additional dust or disturbing any that may have already entered the test item. Do NOT remove dust by either air blast or vacuum cleaning unless these methods are likely to be used in service.
Step 10. Perform an operational check in accordance with the approved test plan, and document the results for comparison with pretest data. See paragraph 5.1 for analysis of results.
Step 11. Inspect the test item for dust penetration, giving special attention to bearings, grease seals, lubricants, filters, ventilation points, etc. Document the results.
For the entire list of testing procedures and standards, check out the 804 page US Department of Defense MIL-STD-810 handbook.
So what does a product that passes both the MIL-STD-810 tests and scores well on the IP ratings tests look like? Meet the Panasonic ToughPad FZ-X1, a 5-inch Android tablet that is fully ruggedized, MIL-STD-810G certified, protected against shock, vibration, rain, dust, sand, altitude, humidity, and explosive atmospheres, IP65 and IP68 sealed, resistant to drops on any surface up to 2m, and capable of operating in temperatures as low as -20°C and up to 60°C.
Panasonic has a long history of making rugged products and its approach to 'tough' is about as far removed from the Samsung Galaxy Active as you can get. To be clear, these are not consumer products, they are huge, chunky, heavy, overbuilt and are generally designed for field use by people who are often in harsh environmental conditions.
There are other drawbacks too. Products like the FZ-X1 are much more expensive than consumer products, and their specs tend to be worse too. The 5-inch FZ-X1 is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor, and it's still running on Android 4.2.2 KitKat. It also costs nearly S$2,000. But it's virtually indestructible.
In fact, we put one to the test:
Update on Alvin: Three day MC for injuries sustained to his foot during the making of this video.
Update on FZ-X1: Still working.
Very few people actually need a fully "rugged" device like the Panasonic ToughPad FZ-X1. For most, some degree of dust and waterproofing, like you'll find on the Galaxy S4 Active, or more recently, the Galaxy S5, and Sony's Xperia Z3+ and Z3 Tablet Compact will be more than sufficient. But whenever you buy a product described as 'rugged' or 'tough' - or even a smartphone or tablet case described as such - it's important to look at its ratings and see what it can stand up to.
Remember too that the more rugged a device is, the more drawbacks it tends to have (weight, price, size etc.), so choose your protection based on what you'll actually face in day-to-day life.