There’s no question that smartphones are the ultimate travel accessory, but that’s mostly because they’re slim and lightweight. However, take most phones anywhere remotely challenging – including freezing temperatures – and they fail. Cue the Land Rover Explore smartphone, a surprisingly high-end attempt to construct a tough device that goes way beyond being just being drop-proof and freeze-proof.
Is this the first ‘adventure phone’? Loaded with mapping expert ViewRanger’s Skyline augmented reality mapping, a GPS patch antenna (that makes it as accurate as a standalone GPS device) and an extra battery, the Land Rover Explore is all about navigating the great outdoors.
Despite its outdoorsy nature, it’s built on the Android Nougat OS with an Oreo update incoming, and features a 16-megapixel rear camera and 8-megapixel front camera. However, the Explore is all about the great outdoors; its Android OS has been added to with a unique Explore Hub, for which a shortcut to is ever-present on the screen whatever app you fire-up. So data on weather, wind, tides, compass position etc. Is one touch away.
Oh, and it also has a magnetic back and is modular like the, err, Motorola MotoMods. Just much, much more outdoorsy.
Land Rover Explore price and release date
The Land Rover Explore will go on sale in April 2018 for US$838 / UK£599 / AUS$1,061. That price includes the Adventure Pack, essentially turning the phone into a handheld GPS device with extra battery power(details below), though other modules are available; a 4,370mAh battery-only module and a bike mount.
It’s all interchangeable, too, so you can mount the phone with the GPS module onto a bike.
Design and display
Although it’s primarily aa adventure phone, the Land Rover Explore is surprisingly sleek. The designers have concentrated on making it tough rather than on-trend, so don’t expect super-slim bezels and an edge-to-edge screen. Instead, the 5-inch display is wrapped in Corning Gorilla Glass 5.
Instead of copying the style other smartphones, the inspiration is – perhaps not surprisingly – the Land Rover Discovery vehicle, specifically the design of the front grill and headlights around the camera, though that magnetic back bears a hint of roof bars. So is this just a glorified branding exercise?
Thankfully not. This phone is everything-proof, so you can drop it from 1.8m, take it underwater (even in the ocean – that’s not something most waterproof phones offer), and into freezing temperatures where most phones refuse to work. That touchscreen can be controlled with gloves on, or with wet fingers.
However, what real sets the Land Rover Explore is a modular design that sees hardware packs added according to requirements.
For now, there's just one module – the Adventure Pack – which essentially tries to put standalone GPS devices out of work by adding a 25 x 25mm GPS ceramic patch antenna to a phone. That makes it much more sensitive than a regular smartphone’s GPS sensor, and it also runs off a separate battery. Given how much using the Google Maps app can drain a smartphone, that makes sense. The battery weighs-in at 3600mAh.
What we really loved during our hands-on review was how the outdoors apps were only ever one touch away. Whatever app you happen to be in, there’s a small black circle constantly on-screen that can be touched for quick access to mapping, weather info, and even sunrise and sunset times, information about tides, and even your altitude.
There’s so much attention to detail here; there’s even a night red filter mode built-in to preserve night vision. That’s great for astronomers, and for early morning hikes in the dark when you white-light glare can be blinding. Another example is that carabiner, which makes the Explore the first phone ever that can be used by climbers.
However, the Adventure Pack’s biggest draw is super-accurate topographic mapping and augmented reality by way of ViewRanger’s Skyline augmented reality app. It can identify local landscape features through the phone’s camera to pinpoint exactly where you are, then using real-time overlays of directional arrows to tell you which direction to walk in. It's also useful for learning about where you are; it adds labels to the landscape in the camera viewfinder.
That app is already built-in to a couple of Android Wear watches, the Casio WSD-F20 outdoor watch and the new-at-CES Casio G-Shock Rangeman GPR B-1000, both of which comes with a built-in standalone GPS system. Sure, you can also get the Skyline app for any smartphone, but the accurate GPS on the Explore brings it to life.
Despite Bullitt's previous outing Caterpillar for an outdoorsy phone producing the bulky Cat phone, this latest tie-up with Land Rover has produced an intriguing modular concept. Likely to attract the attentions not of constructions workers and tradespeople, but hikers and adventures, the Explore phone's modular concept is one we like. However, despite the Adventure Pack's GPS modular being on-message for hiking, it does make the phone very big.
We love the modular design – and how those modules work together – and the OS modified for easy access to outdoorsy apps, but the big thing about the Explore is surely battery life. Regular phone batteries for indoor types just do not work in freezing temperatures. So even if that's all the Land Rover Explore achieves, it will become an instant classic for hikers, climbers, skiers and snowboarders.
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