The market for tough and rugged phones has grown considerably in the past couple of years. Licensed handsets from Cat have proven successful, along with some other brands. This has lead to many devices marketed at trades people and anyone else after a more robust smartphone.
A couple of years ago choice in the rugged sector was fairly limited, however now you pick from many different styles and specifications. A new generation of rugged phones are available that match up to popular consumer models and here is where the DeWalt MD501 sits.
To start there’s a respectable specification. The 1.3 GHz quad-core chip isn’t the fastest out there but it’s quick enough for regular multitasking and can handle some taxing games. 2 gigs of RAM provides a smooth experience and assists in multitasking.
Of the 16 gig base storage, just over 10 is available to the user, showing some restraint in the Android customisation. A 720p 5 inch panel is used rather than Full HD 1080p. The higher resolution would’ve been nice but it’s no deal breaker, this is still readable and a standard configuration for mid-range phones.
The touch layer is recessed behind toughened glass and overall sensitivity has been optimised for use when dirty or if gloves are worn. This occasionally leaves you pushing on the screen as very light touches are not registered.
Toughened Gorilla Glass is also used to avoid scratches and nicks, plus the panel itself has extra backlighting for easier reading in direct sunlight. It’s worth noting that Gorilla Glass won’t withstand heavy direct impact.
The final panel is tougher than most you’ll find and the military standard specification does show the phone withstanding repeated drops from 2 metres. That said, a heavy direct point impact will still crack the screen.
The MD501 will better survive a drop or hit than a regular phone, but you should still take precautions. A full list of connectivity options is available: Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth 4.1, FM Radio, USB OTG, NFC, Qi wireless charging and Miracast screen sharing.
Finally the phone is dual SIM ready so you can run two phone numbers at the same time. It’s a thick and fairly weighty phone, to be expected when trying to position itself as one of the best rugged phones available.
It manages to not be overbearing though. Earlier rugged phones were very bulky with thick rubber and huge corners, making them unwieldy and difficult to hold. DeWalt’s MD501 has a symmetrically cut rubber external body around a metallic chassis.
The yellow / black colour scheme marks a product that unmistakeably belongs in a work environment yet won’t look odd next to a consumer phone. Unless you have giant hands it’s still difficult to use this phone one-handed, although it remains easier than older, chunkier handsets.
The result is a smartphone that hovers between tool and phone. Thought has clearly gone into the exterior design. The two sides have grooves along their lengths to aid grip, especially with gloves. The physical buttons are wide with decent travel and click, so are well suited for big hands/thumbs/gloves.
On the rear panel are a number of short grooves on either side, surrounding a large DeWalt logo. Along with the rubber material, the phone has a non-slip finish. It won’t slide on damp surfaces and can be left on an incline without gliding towards a fall.
The top half of the rear side has a removable plate sealed by two screws to keep the IP68 rating. Underneath are the two micro SIM slots and one micro SD slot. Topping off the rear section is a speaker surrounding the camera and flash that kicks out serious noise.
No need to worry about hearing the ringtone – at full volume and close range you might want earplugs! Saying that the default tones are all power tools, so if you work around those you might not realise the phone is going off… The installed software and interface on the MD501 is a mish-mash of styles.
The system says it’s Android 5.1 and some of Google’s Material Design aesthetic is seen in the menus. Oddly though there’re omissions in which apps are installed. For instance YouTube and Google Play Music/Movies are missing.
The new Google Photos is available alongside the deprecated Android Gallery. Even weirder is the Chrome browser isn’t here, instead the old Android browser is installed. This isn’t major – missing apps and updates can be installed from Google Play if you need them.
It could also be argued that DeWalt were looking to minimise the app footprint of the phone to save on storage and resources. A few helpful extras are installed. Owners of DeWalt tools can register any that use a ‘Tool Connect’ battery.
This allows you to view battery information in real time through a Bluetooth connection. RugGear Assist is like a little toolbox folder on the phone and gives access to other useful apps including Compass, Flashlight, Morse Code output and the Custom Key.
The Custom Key is actually pretty useful. The left side of the MD501 has a large yellow button. This can be configured to respond in a variety of ways. For instance it can set to be a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth toggle, open contacts, camera, navigation etc.
It can actually be configured to launch any app on the phone. Glove Mode is an extra to adjust the sensitivity of the screen. The phone registers input with a layer of material between finger and screen.
Toggling the feature off and on creates a very noticeable difference. This has limitations though – very thick gloves won’t work – the screen still needs to recognise a distinct finger-like nib. Miravision image processing adds fine user control over the brightness, colour saturation, contrast, temperature and image sharpness.
It’s a neat addition and one I’d like to see more of in mainstream phones. Normally a ‘vibrate only’ mode wouldn’t be a big deal, yet Android has lacked this in recent times forcing users to jump through hoops and fudge it with ‘do not disturb’ and ‘priority’ options.
The MD501 has this. It’s right there in the options. Scheduled power off/on is another useful feature. With it you can set a specific time/day combination to shut the phone down and boot back up. I wasn’t expecting much from the camera on the DeWalt so was pleasantly surprised.
It’s an area overlooked on many smartphones not manufactured by the big brands. The application offers lots of options including a dozen or so processing filters and techniques to play with. You can switch between auto, live-shot, motion tracking and ‘face-beauty’ for picking out details in portraits.
The motion-track mode takes consecutive images of a moving object such as a car or an animal. Focus quickly on the subject, hold the camera button and you can take 9 shots at half second intervals as you pan around and follow.
The result provides a short slideshow of images. This is separate to the standard burst mode for up to 40 consecutive images taken on an ‘auto’ mode. Live-shot is a stripped back version of a similar feature seen on premium phones, where the camera saves a few pictures just before and after you press the shutter.
This lets you browse through the resulting images and pick the best, compensating for tiny differences in position and focus. Aside from these presets, the app also allows for some finer tweaking of white balance, ISO, post-processing sharpness etc.
Compared to the apps found on other mid-range phones (and rugged phones in particular), this is a welcome set of functions. I really want to like this phone. Design wise it’s as solidly built as anything else.
Drop it, kick it, leave it in a puddle for half an hour. Here it checks every box. It does everything you’d expect from a mid-range smartphone yet seems to be missing something. That said, there’s very little competition in this position so you certainly won’t be going wrong by getting one! I think the dated looking Android implementation doesn’t help here.
That’s a heads up to whoever’s in charge of the software – this could really do with being updated to Android 6.0 or sticking closer to Google’s design guidelines. Mind you the target audience are probably less interested in this than me.
I have to remember this phone isn’t targeted at the fashion conscious, or those who regularly use £600 superphones running the newest hardware and software. It’s a tool, a workhorse, a companion for an active worker and it should be viewed as that first and foremost.
The power to price ratio nags a little. On paper the MD501 initially seems a tad pricey. Again it’s all too easy to overlook the rugged build though. That’s why it costs more than the internal specification suggests.
On balance the cost is clearly justified by the build quality. DeWalt’s first smartphone isn’t bad at all. In many ways it’s actually very good. It’s a rock solid smartphone and definitely deserves to sell well.
Carving out a niche in this rapidly maturing category isn’t going to be easy though and the MD501 might lack a killer design quirk or feature to stand out amongst the crowd. New smartphones can launch to a fanfare then disappear in a couple of months, usually due to not delivering on early promises, or by not advertising.
This phone accomplishes everything it set out to though. If DeWalt’s marketing team can make some noise then the MD501 deserves to succeed and could on brand recognition alone – hopefully enough to start developing the 2nd iteration.