Smartphones are forever get slimmer, lighter and faster – heck, many flagships have also some level of waterproofing – but there aren’t many devices that are truly rugged.
Land Rover aims to solve this problem with the Land Rover Explore, a phone “created for the outdoors”. As its name suggests, the phone has exploration at its heart. It’s a device you take with you when hiking, mountain biking, kayaking or camping and it’ll not only help you navigate your surroundings but will also keep going for days at a time without needing to be charged.
Land Rover Explore review: What you need to know
Unlike the latest flagships from Samsung and iPhone, which likely won’t survive a drop on tarmac, Land Rover’s device is designed to handle anything you can throw at it. You can drop it, submerge it in water or use it in extreme temperatures; whatever you do to it, Land Rover is confident it’ll live to tell the tale.
Along with its rugged credentials, the Land Rover phone also comes with an attachable Adventure Pack, which comprises an additional 3,620 mAh battery and a larger GPS antenna. There’s also a robust case that can be attached to a belt or bag using a carabiner, and the phone comes with mapping app ViewRanger pre-installed, along with free map vouchers.
Otherwise, the Explore is a regular smartphone. It has a 5in FHD display, runs Android 8.0, and has a 16-megapixel rear camera. Under the bonnet (badum tish), it’s powered by a 2.6GHz deca-core Mediatek Helio X27 processor, backed up by 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage.
Land Rover Explore review: Price and competition
Robust smartphones are nothing new. However, at £600, the Land Rover Explore doesn’t have many direct rivals. The shatterproof Motorola Moto Z2 Force (£700) is arguably the best-known tough phone on the market right now, but it has no waterproofing, and Motorola’s battery add-on module has none of the GPS boosting capabilities of the Explore’s pack.
The CAT® S61 smartphone (£799) is one alternative. As well as being drop proof, water-resistant and capable of working in extreme temperatures, it packs in some innovative features including a thermal camera, laser measuring tool and air quality monitor. However, unlike the Explore and Moto Z2 Force, there’s no option to add an additional battery module.
Land Rover Explore review: Design and key features
Where the Land Rover Explore stands, rugged or not, is its design. From the front, the bottom of the phone clearly borrows design cues from the iconic Land Rover Discovery. The casing’s rounded corners mimic the shape of a bonnet, and the speaker grille below the display resembles the grille on the front of a car.
Flip it over, and the camera surround is reminiscent of a Defender’s circular headlamps, and the four grooves where the Adventure Pack slots in bring to mind the ribs on the roof of some Land Rovers.
Despite being one of the toughest phones you’ll find (more on that in a moment), the Land Rover Explore isn’t as overbearingly large or chunky as we were expecting, at least not when the Adventure Pack is detached. At 228g, though, it’s still heavy compared with the OnePlus 6, which weighs 177g.
Connect the GPS and battery boosting Adventure Pack and things get a bit more bulky. In this state the Land Rover Explore tips the scales at 354g, which is more or less the same weight as a can of fizzy drink. In this state, you’ll still fit the phone in a pocket easily enough, but if you want to have it more readily to hand, it also comes with a handy rubber case, which has a carabiner attachment, so you can easily attach it to a belt or backpack.
Of course, there’s a significant perk to the Explore’s heft, with or without the case. It’s drop tested from 1.8m and IP68 dust- and water-resistant, meaning it’s fully resistant to dust and dirt and can be fully submerged 30m in water for half an hour. The phone is also mil spec 810G rated, which means it can withstand extreme temperatures and humidity, vibration, and altitude among other extreme tests of durability.
Although the phone’s display is covered with regular Corning Gorilla Glass 5, and a tough factory-fitted screen protector, Land Rover has worked with the Bullitt Group (which makes the CAT phones) to ensure the display will respond to gloved fingers, even when it’s wet.
Land Rover Explore review: Display
The Land Rover Explore’s 5in 1,920 x 1,080 display is fine for everyday use but I wasn’t blown away by its performance, at least in terms of its vital statistics. With the Standard colour profile enabled, the phone reproduced only 91.6% of the sRGB colour gamut. That’s by no means shameful but if you’re looking to edit photos of your adventures on your phone, what you see on the screen could be somewhat misleading, with blues and yellows in particular being way off.
Contrast, too, was much lower than we’d have liked. We recorded a woeful 739:1 contrast ratio in our testing, which is lower any mid-range or flagship device in recent memory. This was likely a consequence of the factory-fitted tough screen protector, at least to some extent, but is still disappointing on a phone that costs £600.
Brightness, at least, was solid, with the Land Rover phone achieving a maximum reading of 546cd/m2. That’s decent and on par with most recent iPhones but some way behind the class-leading LG G7, which reaches incredibly high 991cd/m2 in its brightness boost mode. In short, you’ll be fine using the Land Rover in most environments, but it might come up short if you’re planning on using it on an Arctic expedition or other extremely bright surroundings.
Land Rover Explore review: Performance and battery life
In terms of performance, the Land Rover Explore is again adequate but not brilliant. Running the Geekbench 4 benchmarks, its Mediatek Helio X27 chip produced a single-core score of 1,768, and 4,818 in the multi-core test. That’s a long way off the speeds of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 powering many of the current crop of flagship phones and more on par with the two-generation old Snapdragon 821.
Graphics performance, too, was far from overwhelming. In the GFXBench GL 3.0 Manhattan on-screen benchmark (run at native resolution), the Explore’s Mediatek chip returned an average frame rate of 20fps, which is a long way behind the scores achieved by practically every other phone that costs £500 or more. In everyday use, swiping through menus browsing the web, and even loading maps, you shouldn’t have any problems, but this isn’t a phone you should buy if you want to play graphically intensive games such as PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds Mobile.
Considering the Land Rover Explore has a large 4,000mAh battery, we were also somewhat disappointment by its battery life. In our video rundown test, without the Adventure Pack attached, the Land Rover Explore lasted 11hrs 13mins. That’s 50 minutes short of the Honor 10, which has the worst battery performance of any mid-range phone we’ve tested recently.
I’ve yet to test the battery life with the Adventure Pack also connected but I’ll be putting it through its paces over the coming weeks. Since this module adds another 3,620mAh of capacity, I’d hope to see the video run time more or less double.
Land Rover Explore review: Camera
Unlike many of today’s mid-range and flagship phones, which have dual and even triple camera arrangements, the Land Rover Explore sticks to single front and rear cameras. At the rear is a 16-megapixel sensor behind a f/2.0 aperture, while the front camera employs an 8MP sensor.
In good natural light, the main camera is good enough, capturing images with reasonable levels of sharpness and accurate colour reproduction, but it won’t take your breath away. The HDR mode doesn’t improve things much, but it works solidly enough with scenes where very bright skies and dark, silhouetted buildings go side by side.
Unfortunately, things were much less impressive in low-light conditions. While colour reproduction was satisfactory, there was an obvious lack of detail with softness being a problem throughout the frame. Take a look at the close crop of our low-light still life set up and you’ll notice how soft the postcard looks.
As far as video is concerned, that’s equally disappointing. Although the Land Rover Explore will shoot footage at up to 4k and at 30fps, it does so without video stabilisation. One positive point, though, is that it records 4K using the HEVC video codec, which means your video clips will occupy considerably less space in storage than if they had been recorded as H.264 MP4 files.
Land Rover Explore review: Verdict
Land Rover’s intentions with the Explore are very clear: to create a smartphone for those who spend much of their lives in the great outdoors. When assessed on those terms, it’s a roaring success, oozing style and refinement while boasting practically every mark of robustness and resilience you could ask for in a smartphone.
However, where Land Rover’s phone stumbles is performance. Its mediocre Mediatek chip leads to underwhelming processing power and battery life, and when it comes to camera performance, the Explore comes up short compared to most other handsets at its price.
Of course, that comparison isn’t entirely fair because a large part of the £600 you’re spending going towards its rugged design. However, I can’t help that feel that, with such an iconic, luxury brand, it’d have been better to equip the Explore with the best components possible, even if it meant charging customers £1,200.
It’s easy to recommend the Land Rover phone if you need a phone that can survive a drop on tarmac and a dunking in a muddy stream, but otherwise you’ll probably find it a little disappointing.