The Explore phone is a new offering from tech specialists Bullit Group, marketed as a rugged outdoor multi-tool with a long battery life. I’ve had the unit for about 3 months, during which time it’s been my sole mobile and digital navigation device. First the specs in brief: an internal 4000 mAh battery, with an external 3600 mAh of power via a dedicated battery pack, which also contains an GPS patch antenna to improve navigation performance. It’s IP68 water and dust resistant, as well as temperature, humidity and shock resistant. The Explore runs Android Nougat and currently uses network operators EE or Vodafone. It takes a sharp picture with the 16mb front facing camera, with 8mb for selfies, comes with the latest Viewranger software and 1:25000 UK maps bundled, as well as a range of outdoor apps organised by outdoor activity. The screen is glove and wet finger operable and there’s a ‘dashboard’ with things like weather, altitude, compass and so on.
I’m pretty skeptical about tech – not the kind of user likely to be wowed by design stylings or apps selected on my behalf – but core performance in the field has set it apart. It’s been walked and biked up multiple mountains here in Scotland, hung off the side of a packraft and accidentally bumped, scrapped and dropped. My unit has a few dings but still works perfectly. I’ve even taken a small fall directly onto it while scrambling – the screen was slightly scratched, but not cracked. It really is incredibly robust.
On the boat, it’s great not having to worry about waterproofing at all, and keep the unit on my spraydeck attached by the battery pack carabiner. I found ‘night mode’ (the screen goes red to preserve your night vision) pretty useful in the dark, and while Viewranger is a bit sluggish to lock using the standalone phone only, when the additional battery/GPS antenna is attached, it’s very quick and accurate.
A few caveats: I do not recommend relying 100% on electronic mapping and always have traditional navigation tools with me in the mountains – if nothing else, as a backup. The phone and battery ‘stick’ together using a magnet, which can affect compasses and other electronics. The power cable is USBc – not always compatible with other units you may be carrying on expedition – but it does charge quickly from the mains. Both phone and battery are on the heavy side. Lastly, some of the dashboard tools will only work with a data signal present, so are best suited for ‘frontcountry’ use only. As always, research your trip before you go.
The real clincher for me is battery life, which is confidence inspiring. GPS continues to work with Airplane mode on, which means with careful use (occasional evening texts and calls only) I got 4 days bikepacking navigation from it, with plenty of juice to spare. I reckon it should stretch to a week if used this way. Overall, it’s a genuinely impressive unit. Now I’m handing it back to the test pool, I’m going to have to remember to treat my old phone with more care!
► Verdict: Very tough Android smartphone with excellent battery life.
► Best for: Hikers, bikers, boaters, outdoor professionals and tech geeks.
Review by David Lintern @davidjlintern