The Casio G'zOne Commando is a rugged smartphone, designed to survive outdoors or industrial situations where more delicate models would be at risk. That doesn't mean any of the standard smartphone features have been left out; this model runs Google's Android OS so it has a powerful web browser and email software, a 5 megapixel camera, Wi-Fi, GPS, and much more.
Available from Verizon Wireless for $200 with a two-year contract, it's comparably priced with many of Verizon's high-end smartphones.
Build & Design
The popular image of rugged devices is usually large, heavy gadgetsthat are an inch and a half thick and awkward due to their need for extreme survivability. So it will probably come as a bit of a surprise that the Commando isn't really much larger or heavier than most smartphones. The Samsung Nexus S 4G makes it look bulky, but it's still also relatively thin -- not iPhone thin, but just 0.6 inches thick, not exactly what you'd immediately think of as being rough and frontier ready.
The Commando does have a smaller screen than a non-rugged device of its size would, due to the size of the casing --at 3.6 inches, it's probably one of the smaller screens to still feature a full WVGA (800 x 480) resolution.
So in this context, what does "rugged" actually mean in real world terms? Depends on who you buy from, actually -- it could mean very little. Surprisingly, there are no significant restrictions on a company advertising their products as being "mil spec" rugged, or "designed to military standards"; "designed" being the operative word. Many "rugged" devices, particularly those intended for the civilian market versus the actual military or industry, are not actually tested to confirm that they hold up to the specifications that they advertise. They're simply designed to withstand such things. If that design doesn't work as expected out in the real world... oops. And for those who depend heavily on their gadgets while out and about in rough conditions, this is kind of like saying that your parachute is designed to open, but we haven't really checked to completely make sure.
This is emphatically not the case with the Commando. Casio lists on their website a complete round-up of the ways that the handset has been successfully tested and survived. Freezing to -13 degrees Fahrenheit... continuously for four days. Heating to 185 degrees F, for four days. Salt water spray continuously for 24 hours. 4-foot drop, repeated 26 times. Complete submersion in water for 30 minutes. Equivalent of direct noon-day sun, for 24 hours. 4-inches per hour of rain, combined with 40 mile per hour winds. Low air pressure to the equivalent of 15,000 feet above sea level. This is, by the way, about the altitude at which the average human being requires oxygen to maintain brain function for more than 30 minutes--or in other words, the altitude at which your smartphone becomes smarter than you are. In summary, any environment which is capable of rendering the Commando non-functional is probably also capable of killing its user.
This isn't to say, though, that the only people who could get use out of the Commando are climbing mountains, sailing through hurricanes, or exploring Antarctica. All that heavy testing also guarantees that it will be more than adequate to survive anything you could accidentally put it through in daily life. In the habit of dropping your phone? Even down the stairs? That's fine, it can take it. Maybe, like me, you enjoy hiking, and you don't want to have to bundle your phone up for fear of it getting dirty or wet while you're marching down a creek bed. Ever lost a phone to a mud puddle, and ended up with a dirt-caked wreck? With the Commando, you could just take it inside, scrub it with hot soapy water, and it'll be good as new.
Of course, you didn't read this review to find out what the manufacturer says about the device. That's quite easy. What you want is objective testing. Does the Commando hold up in real world situations? I wanted to know, so I went outdoors and threw it in the pond.
Actually, I confess that's not the first thing I did. First I tested it under running sink water. Then in a mixing bowl filled with water. It's quite a thing, watching the look on someone's face as you dump a $200 smartphone into their drink.
But it held up -- in fact, you could sit there watching the thing under water, and you'd swear it had never noticed the fact that it was completely submerged. One interesting side effect, however: because capacitive touchscreens like those on Android phones react to the electrical properties of human skin -- and because large drops of water have the same effect on the touchscreen -- once it's under water, the touchscreen is effectively paralyzed, unable to receive any input because it can't tell the difference between your finger tip and the water. It won't register a touch again until the water has been allowed to run off the screen. So I regret to tell all you scuba divers out there that you can't buy this phone and then use it underwater. Yeah, that's one of those sentences I never really expected to use.
You know how with most devices, if you push hard enough or hit the screen, you can see the LCD below ripple with discoloration? The display is by far the most vulnerable part of smartphones, particularly those with large, open touchscreens. The solution to that for many new devices, including the Commando, is a material called Gorilla Glass, made by Corning. It's recently become all the rage in high tech devices because it's two to three times stronger than conventional hardened soda-lime glass.
So, objectively, how tough is Gorilla Glass? Well, it's tough enough that a large panel of it, the same that is used for an LCD TV, passes Underwriters Labs "ball drop" test without any breakage. This doesn't sound very impressive until you realize that they're talking about a 500 gram steel ball dropped from 4.25 feet up. In thin panels, it will actually bend before it breaks -- you don't typically think of glass bending, but this can. Even though it really is glass, and not a plastic or polycarbonate composite. On top of all that, it's extremely scratch resistant. One of it's selling points on large LCD TVs is that it can take the impact of a thrown game controller without breaking.
On mobile devices, Gorilla Glass is used to protect many of the new large-screened gadgets, like the Apple iPhone 4, from being made into very expensive paperweights due to broken screens. On the Commando, it provides a durable, scratch proof, shatter-resistant face for even rough environments. Gorilla Glass isn't indestructible by any means, but it does provide vastly more protection from, say, dropping your cell phone on a pile of rocks. Something that I, ironically, did just the other day.
My biggest complaint about the screen is it's use in input. At 3.6 inches, it is quite compact for typing an on-screen keyboard, so if you plan to do a lot of text entry, invest in a stylus. The cramped quarters even extend to the four silk screened navigation buttons -- if, like me, you have fairly large fingertips, you'll have to exercise a little care in how you push buttons.
Other Buttons & Controls
Speaking of buttons, the left side of the device plays host to the standard volume buttons on top, the power key below, and an unspecified button right in the middle. This is not a push-to-talk button as some had hoped -- in fact, by pressing it and holding it you launch the Casio G'zGear application. What this is is really a suite of a bunch of small apps, designed primarily for outdoorsmanship and orienteering. We'll talk more about it in a few minutes.
Between the G'zGear button and the power key, looking carefully we have two recessed metal contacts. I'm not absolutely sure what these are for, actually. But I suspect they're charging conductors for a desk or vehicle cradle. The dead giveaway is that one of Casio's pre-loaded mini-apps is called "Desk Cradle," which shows the device "docking" on that side.
The right hand side holds only the camera button, but also features the flip up covers for the USB and headphone jacks, both carefully sealed with rubber gaskets, and the charging LED.
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