Because they're so portable, smartphones get placed in harm's way often, whether that's when careless users leave them out in the rain, pocket them next to sharp keys, or simply soak them with beverages by accident. One major drawback to durable phones though is that they've traditionally resembled hulking military hardware, not the more common sleek and futuristic handsets of today. The $99.99 Motorola Defy XT for U.S. Cellular is an attempt to break the mold, offering protection from dust, water, and scratches without the ugly bumpers or garish colors found on the typical rugged phone. At first glance it's easy to mistake the Defy XT, discreetly wrapped up in a compact and attractive package, for your average handset. The device also features a bright screen you can read under strong sunlight. However, equipped with woefully outdated components, aging Android software, and 3G data, the Defy XT won't break any performance records, so power users should steer clear.
I'd bet if you held the Motorola Defy XT in your hands, you'd never guess it was a hardened and rugged smartphone. I was surprised by the device's claims of toughness as well, since the Defy XT is very compact and lightweight. Weighing a mere 4.6 ounces and measuring 4.5 inches tall by 2.3 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick, it may not be ultrathin but fits into pockets easily. It's actually close in size to the HTC One V (4.74 inches by 2.35 inches by 0.36 inch, 4 ounces), another petite handset available on U.S. Cellular.
The phone's handsome black-and-gray color scheme and conservative oval slab shape also lend it a business-casual aesthetic. For instance, it doesn't have gaudy off-road-vehicle-style bumpers like other rugged mobile models such as the Casio G'zone Commando. Even the Defy XT's predecessor, the original Defy, had a much beefier design complete with unsightly screws meant to drive home its industrial-strength construction.
In fact, the only real clues to the Defy XT's rough-and-tumble pedigree are discreet rubber flaps covering the phone's USB port and 3.5mm headphone jack. Another hint is a switch on the back of the handset that locks its battery cover. The cover, coated in an attractive soft-touch surface, protects the 1,650mAh removable battery and microSD card slot.
With its hidden durability, Motorola claims the Defy XT is ready to rumble. The company promises that the handset can survive exposure to dust, submersion in water, and the odd scuff. The phone's screen is also billed as scratch-resistant, featuring Corning's Gorilla Glass treatment. That said, Motorola doesn't say the device adheres to any particular international or U.S. military standard for durability.
The Motorola Defy XT's 3.7-inch display is on the small side when you look at today's Android superphones. With a low 854x480-pixel resolution, the phone's screen certainly won't blow you away with its sharpness or color production. When I viewed the Defy XT side by side with the HTC One V, it was clear that the One V's display had more vibrant color and wider viewing angles. Also, though the Defy XT didn't create oversaturated hues (something the One V was guilty of) its screen had an blueish tinge that was not appealing.
One positive thing I can say about the Defy XT's screen is that it is very easy to read in strong sunlight, conditions where most smartphones falter. That's very useful considering that people in the market for a rugged phone will likely use it outdoors often.
Software and apps
If you expect to find a modern operating system on the Motorola Defy XT, prepare to be disappointed. The phone relies on an aging version of Android, 2.3 Gingerbread, and not Google's latest Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, or even Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.
Still, as an Android device the Defy XT connects to Google's Play digital market, which offers over 700,000 apps for download. Support for Google services is here too, including Gmail, Google+ social networking, and Navigation for turn-by-turn GPS guidance. The Play storefront also hawks a selection of digital books, movies, games, and music. Motorola places a few apps on the device to help you better enjoy the great outdoors too. A digital-compass application will point the way, while a DashBoard app logs the speed and distance traveled during runs and hikes and functions as a pedometer.
Third-party applications preinstalled include Amazon.com, Amazon MP3, and the Audible audiobook subscription service. U.S. Cellular has installed a selection of its apps as well, such as Daily Perks for news and weather, and Mobile TV, which offers both live programming and full TV episodes and movies. The service costs an extra $9.99 per month and will blow a hole through your data minutes if you're not careful -- using it over Wi-Fi isn't an option.
The primary appeal of the Motorola Defy XT though is, again, its ability to withstand the elements. To put Motorola's claims of toughness to the test, first I made sure all the device's port flaps were sealed and the battery cover was locked. Then I literally dragged the phone through the dust and dry dirt at a nearby New York park. I even kicked it across the ground awhile for good measure.
Next I gave the Defy XT a lengthy rinse in the nearest water fountain. Just to be certain of the handset's resistance to liquid, I dunked it in a large pitcher of water, submerging it completely for well over 15 minutes. That's something I'd never do with most other smartphones I review, let alone one I own myself.