Durable • Great GPS performance • Adventure Pack included in the price
Slow • Awful camera • Bulky • Disappointing battery
The Land Rover Explore phone is rugged and performs well as a GPS device, but slow performance and bad camera drag it down.
Bullitt, the company that makes the ultra-rugged Cat S61 smartphone, launched another phone this year: The Land Rover Explore. Dubbed “the outdoor phone,” it’s a device that tries to be different in a sea of similar phones, and to a degree it succeeds. It’s very durable and has several unique features that make it interesting to anyone who really, really loves the great outdoors.
But certain drawbacks, including sluggish software, poor battery life and the high price of 599.99 pounds ($772) limit its appeal.
Typically, at this point I could give you the usual rundown of specs and my impressions on design and performance. But after playing with this phone for about two weeks, I’ve realized that I’d be doing you (and the phone) a disfavor. The Land Rover Explore is a phone that’s designed to go outside, so went outside I did.
Before I describe my adventures (I use the term generously), here are the basic details you need to know about the Land Rover Explore: It’s a midranger in terms of specs, with a 5-inch, full HD (1,920 x 1,080) screen, a deca-core MTK Helio X27 processor, a 16-megapixel rear shooter, and 4GB of RAM. It’s tough, up to IP68 and MIL SPEC 810G specifications, meaning it doesn’t mind water, and it can resist extreme temperatures and drops from up to six feet.
The phone’s biggest claim to fame is its GPS, which is supposed to be very reliable and precise, as well as its modularity. The phone has a magnetic strip on the back which makes it easy to slap on an additional battery, for example. By default, Bullitt sells the phone with one such battery, which doubles as an additional GPS antenna and a case for the combo, and calls this “The Adventure Pack.” The phone has a 4,000mAh battery, and the Adventure Pack battery brings another 3,620mAh. Other add-ons, such as a bike mount pack, are available as well.
Finally, the phone comes with a bunch of software for the outdoorsy types, the most important of these being map software ViewRanger, which comes with Skyline, an AR overview of important points of interest around you, giving you orientation even in conditions of low visibility. I’ll share a few more details about the phone and its overall performance at the end of this article. Suffice it to say that, if you stay at home, it’s not a very exciting phone. So I had to go outdoors to get a better feel of what it can do.
Taking it outside
First, I took the Land Rover Explore to the beach, and dipped it into sea water to see whether that would phase it. Bullitt says the phone is able to withstand this with no problems, but warns that the phone might get confused into thinking headphones were plugged in while it’s wet. I didn’t experience that effect, and the phone passed this test with flying colors.
The screen works when your fingers are wet, which will make a big difference when you’re out in the rain trying to figure where to go next. Next, I wanted to test GPS accuracy and signal retention. To do that, I went on a short run, a mix of road and trail, with the sky partially obscured by the trees. For comparison, I brought my Suunto Ambit 3 Sport along, a sports watch known for pretty good GPS accuracy.
I prefer to run light, and for me, the Land Rover Explorer is not something I’d gladly take on a run; it’s simply too heavy. In fact, with the Adventure Pack attached, the phone is so heavy and bulky that I’m not sure I’d even bring it on a hike, as I could simply take a lighter phone and a battery pack of some sort and get a better battery life/weight ratio.
An example: The iPhone X, paired with this from RAVPower, weighs a total of 367 grams. I’ve weighed the Land Rover Explore with the attached extra battery, which only has 3,620mAh, and the scale showed 350 grams. That extra battery, however, isn’t just a battery; it also has a GPS antenna that should significantly boost GPS performance. In my test, the Land Rover Explore performed admirably. Even though I carried it in my backpack, it never lost signal, and it recorded the track nearly perfectly (see comparison below).
The Land Rover Explore plus its external battery/antenna would likely perform even better if it weren’t in the backpack, and the Adventure Pack has a solution: a carabiner that attaches to the case and lets you attach the whole package to your pants or backpack. I wouldn’t put much faith in it, as I was able to pull it off the case fairly easily (also, the case didn’t fit the phone perfectly, which was annoying). And again, the phone, together with the battery and the protective rubber case, was just too bulky for me to carry it in this way.
A few more words on battery life: It was disappointing. I’d charge the phone and the battery pack overnight, only to regularly be out of juice by the evening. It seemed to me that LRE’s battery acts a bit erratic — it holds up well at times and then it discharges crazy fast for no apparent reason. In any case, forget about taking this phone on a three-day expedition without charging it — it just won’t happen.
Lots of software that’s actually useful
The Land Rover Explore comes with tons of pre-installed software, but in this case this isn’t a nuisance. The ViewRanger software that comes with the phone works well, and has ton of mapping options, including maps which are far more precise and detailed than, say, Google Maps. Skyline, the AR view which shows you landscape features up to 20 miles away, makes the most sense on a mountain and in low visibility, when orientation is tough. I tried it out and it worked as advertised, though the features it showed me were sparse and somewhat randomly selected. For example, a small area of the old town was there, but a nearby hill wasn’t.
Other pre-installed apps on the Land Rover Explore included Strava, a favorite of many runners and hikers, Geocaching, a soft of a game in which you find containers at specific locations in real life and AccuWeather (horribly inaccurate where I live). One neat feature is the Dashboard, a customizable app that gives you a quick overview of information like latitude and longitude, barometric pressure and altitude, as well as shortcuts to some useful apps such as the flashlight. Finally, the Explore Hub is a curated collection of apps related to outdoor activities. It’s OK for beginners, though experienced hikers and other outdoorsy types probably already know which apps they prefer.
The phone also has a few nice details that you won’t find on most other phones. For example, the “Night” mode turns the screen red, which makes it less aggressive on the eyes in total darkness. Also, you can set up a shortcut for an app that will start automatically when you attach the Adventure Pack’s external battery. It’s these kinds of details that make the experience better than you’d get by just slapping a bunch of third-party, outdoors-related software on any phone.
Don’t buy this phone if you plan on staying at home
Battery life and bulkiness aside, the Land Rover Explore was a good companion when I took it outside. Unfortunately, in general use it doesn’t justify its price. It comes with Android 7.1.1 and it’s less buggy than Cat S61 phone, but it’s often slow. This was especially apparent when I used the camera, especially if I needed to snap a photo quickly. Waiting for the camera to react on this thing can be downright painful, especially in low-light conditions.
When you finally manage to take a shot, photos range from acceptable to awful. I was thoroughly unable to get a decent shot in low light or if I had a moving subject.
Yeah, it’s a 16-megapixel shooter, but those megapixels won’t do you any good if the photos are blurry.
And even in broad daylight (see above), photos had this unnatural hazy quality that all but ruined most of them.
The design of the Land Rover Explore is a somewhat odd combination of rugged aesthetic and an attempt to appeal to fans of the Land Rover brand, with a prominent logo on the phone’s chin and back, as well as design elements which mimic the design of the car — for example, the stripes on the phone’s back should bring to mind the similarly striped Land Rover roof. To me, it doesn’t quite work. The phone is heavy and not very comfortable to hold, as its sharp lines cut into your skin, though the design does make it harder to drop.
Its modular nature is interesting, though attaching the battery pack makes it so fat and heavy that it’s barely usable, especially compared to any regular phone with an equally capacious battery case. The fact that the case for the Adventure Pack combo doesn’t fit very snugly and tends to fall off doesn’t help.
The phone is rugged, yes, but forget about any Land Rover-associated luxury. The Land Rover Explore’s screen is small by today’s standards, and the phone’s bezels are enormous. Just like the Cat S61, the Land Rover Explore doesn’t have a fingerprint sensor or face-recognition capabilities — handy features that are standard on basically all other phones in this price range.
It all adds up to this: You should consider this phone only if you really like its capabilities related to hiking, mountaineering and similar activities. It’s tough and durable and comes with an ecosystem of accessories and built-in software that make it a pretty good out-of-the-box choice for the outdoorsy types. Everyone else need not apply.