Field Tech Sonim Phone Gloves

The touch screens on Sonim’s XP6 and XP7 (shown) respond well to gloved fingers.

Story and photo by Steve Wilent, The Forestry Source (reprinted with permission from Society of American Foresters)

My 19-year-old son, seeing the smartphone on the deck rail one dark and stormy day, said, “Dad, are you crazy? Did you know you left your phone out in the rain?” I didn’t answer his first question, since he thinks he already knows the answer. To the second question, I said, “Yeah, I’ll bring it in later. Its GPS is warming up.” He raised one eyebrow. “Don’t worry, it’s waterproof,” I said. His response was, “Hmm. When’s dinner?” After a half-hour or so, I retrieved the phone from the deck rail and brought it, dripping wet, into the house, to show my son that the phone still worked.

The phone was a Sonim XP7, from Sonim Technologies Inc., which is headquartered in San Mateo (www.sonimtech.com). The company sent me an XP7 and its sibling, an XP6, to field test. Both are Android-based phones that Sonim claims are “ultra-rugged” and suitable for use in forestry, agriculture, construction, security, energy, utilities, defense, and other industries. Both models, says Sonim, have sunlight-readable touch-screens that are “easily used with dirty or wet work gloves.”

Numerous smartphones on the market are billed as rugged or water resistant, such as Samsung’s Galaxy S5 Active and Sony’s Xperia z3. “Regular” smartphones and tablets can be protected to varying degrees by cases from Otterbox and SnowLizard, for example. However, Sonim’s phones offer greater protection from the elements and other types of damage than these phones or cases, and for about the same cost as a Galaxy S5 Active.

Two of the main differences between the XP6 and XP7 are obvious (see the photograph on this page): the XP6 has a physical alpha-numeric keypad and a smaller screen (1.6 inches by 2.1 inches for the XP6, 2.0 inches by 3.4 inches for the XP7). Both screens are made of tough Corning Gorilla Glass 2. The XP7 (9.5 ounces) weighs slightly more than the XP7 (10.2 ounces), which makes both heavyweights when compared the Galaxy S5 Active. at 4.6 ounces. Sonim’s phones also are roughly twice as thick as typical less-rugged phones.

Other key differences are memory and the cameras. The XP6 comes with 8 GB internal storage, 1 GB RAM (used for running apps) and 4 GB user memory (for holding active user data and images). The XP7 has 16 GB internal storage, 1 GB RAM, and 12 GB user memory. In this regard, either phone is likely to provide more than adequate service for most foresters. Esri’s ArcGIS Explorer and Collector apps, and others such as Michael Schollmeyer’s GPS Essentials, ran well on both phones.

The XP6 offers a 5 megapixel (MP) fixed-focus rear camera, while the XP7 has an 8-MP auto focus rear camera and 1-MP fixed-focus front camera. Again, these features are all most foresters will need.

Field Tech Sonim Phones

Sonim Technologies XP6 (left) and XP7 are “ultra-rugged” smartphones designed for use in harsh conditions in forestry, agriculture, construction, and other industries.

Phones in the Field

Are Sonim’s phones “ultra-rugged”? Both phones “go far beyond basic Mil-Spec and IP certifications,” according to the company:

  • –Shock/vibration resistant: withstands sudden shocks of up to 30 g and vibrations from 5 hz to 500 hz.
  • –Waterproof: rated IP 68 for complete submergibility in water, up to 2 meters for 30 minutes rated IP 69 for resistance to high-temperature pressure wash.
  • –Drop/impact resistant: resistant to 2-meter drops onto concrete from any angle.
  • –Resistant to extreme pressure: withstands up to a metric ton of pressure.

Sonim also claims that the phones are resistant to petroleum oils, corrosive cleaning solvents, and micro particles. Still, I’d avoid soaking them in drip-torch fuel. (Descriptions of Mil-Spec and IP ratings and codes are widely available on the Internet.)

It is safe to say that these phone are more rugged than beefed-up phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S5 Active, which is rated IP67 for dust and water resistance, a rating that would make it a good choice for many foresters. But the Sonim phones are significantly tougher. Although I did not test the phones to the upper limits of the stated specifications, I did drop them from belt high onto a concrete surface, with nothing but superficial scuffing of the cases as a result. The impacts sounded like solid blocks hitting the concrete — no plastic clatter or rattle (ask me how I know about this). Very reassuring. I also used the phones in moderate to heavy rain, and even placed the XP7 in a bucket of cold water for 10 minutes or so, with no apparent ill effects. Note that the touch screen did not work while the phone was submerged. In short, the phones seem very well made; I have no reason to doubt the cited ruggedness figures.

I disagree with Sonim’s claim that the XP6’s numeric keypad “can be easily used with gloves.” I tried, with little success, to enter e-mail addresses, passwords, and data while wearing leather work gloves. The keys are simply too small to manipulate while gloved. However, both touch-screens responded reasonably well to my gloved fingers, in operations such as zooming in or out on a map or image, even when my gloves were wet and filthy dirty (I prepared the gloves for this test by rubbing my gloved hands together with wet, oily, partially decomposed fir needles and sawdust from the back of my pickup). For fine work such as data entry or adding features to maps, gloves will likely be a hindrance unless they are thin and tight-fitting.

During a brief break in the cloud cover, I noted that the screens were easily readable in direct, though weak, sunlight. With the phones’ auto brightness setting, brightness is automatically adjusted to suit lighting conditions.

Sonim’s documentation offers no information about the phones’ GPS capabilities, other than to note that they can receive both GPS and GLONASS signals. Under a moderate forest canopy, GPS Essentials reported receiving signals from as many as 20 satellites and using as many as 15 to calculate positions; many of these were close to the horizon, making them dubious, geometrically, for use in position calculations (GPS Essentials does not have dilution of precision (DOP) mask settings that would mask these satellites). In my time with the phones, GPS Essentials typically reported calculated accuracies of 30 feet or so — about what one would expect from a cell phone. Neither phone has a jack for an external GPS antenna, but they do have Bluetooth, which would allow you to use a Bluetooth-enabled antenna.

The phones are capable of using the AT&T Enhanced Push-to-Talk app, which lets two or more people communicate as if the phones were walkie-talkies, without dialing.

As for battery life, Sonim claims that the XP6 can maintain standby mode for 45 days and active mode for 16 hours; the XP7, standby for 1,000 hours and active for 40 hours. If true, these times would be superb. In my use of the phones, after about 24 hours of standby and two hours of active use, the XP6’s battery was at 78 percent capacity and the XP7’s was at 63 percent — very good, but I doubt that these phones would operate for as long as is stated in the specifications. As with all things powered by batteries, it is best to keep in mind the old maxim, “your mileage may vary.”

The Bottom Line

The XP6 is available through AT&T dealers in the US for $524.99 with no annual contract or $149.99 with a two-year phone-service contract (which can cost $60 to $415 per month, depending on terms).

The XP7 is not yet available in the US, but soon will be offered by AT&T, according to Sonim. The XP7 is available in Canada via Bell Mobility Inc. and TELUS Communications. Bell’s prices are CAD$648.95 (Canadian dollars) with no annual contract or CAD$199.95 with a two-year contract. Telus’s prices are CAD$750 with no contract or CAD$200 with a two-year contract.

Remarkably, the prices for these phones are similar to others that aren’t so rugged. For example, AT&T sells the Samsung Galaxy S5 Active for $659.99 with no annual contract or $199.99 with a two-year contract.

What’s more, Sonim offers a three-year comprehensive warranty “covering even accidental damage” in normal use, a far better warranty than is offered by Samsung on the Galaxy S5 Active.

In my book, the ruggedness, price, and warranty make the Sonim phones excellent deals for foresters and others who work in the woods — and for clumsy folks wherever they work. The XP6 and XP7 are more than tough enough to handle use in the woods or a mill, but are as stylish enough for use in any business or social setting.

Which is best? My choice would be the XP7, for its large screen. I found the XP6’s alpha-numeric keyboard to be frustrating. It’s a fine keyboard — nothing against the quality or functionality — but entering text, numbers, and symbols takes much longer than with the XP7’s on-screen keyboard. Sure, you could easily add a keyboard app — Google Keyboard is a good one — but the app would occupy perhaps half of the XP6’s already small screen. And while both screens are bright and very sharp, the XP7’s sheer size outshines its sibling’s.

Need an ultra-rugged phone? You can’t go wrong with either the XP6 or XP7.