The past few years have seen a return to design conservatism in the smartphone world. Manufacturers have stuck fast with certain core design principles: the notch, 2.5D screens, 18:9 form factors and so forth.

From time to time, though, there’s a vendor that dares to be different for once. And that’s the case with Zebra’s TC25, a smartphone that breaks the mold and has several surprises up its sleeve.

This new phone is radically different from the TC75x which we reviewed last year, not least because of the price tag. The TC75x cost about £2,000 (around $2,800), whereas the TC25 can be had for less than a fifth of that (as low as £350 excluding VAT – around $490), which is exceptionally low for a true ruggedized device.

Design

One of the biggest surprises when you first pick up the TC25 is how small it is – we’re talking (almost) Apple iPhone 4 size. Remember when screens were so compact you could easily touch all the corners reaching with your thumb? It’s that small…

Despite this diminutive overall footprint, the handset has a thicker-than-average profile – at 134 x 73.2 x 16mm and weighing 195g, the TC25 can best be described as chunky. Mind you, this has allowed the engineers at Zebra to fit in a laser barcode scanner and a pair of useful, easily accessible, brightly colored programmable buttons that will give you quick access to your most-used features and applications.

There are two barcode readers to choose from: the SE2100 which is an entry-level 1D/2D scanner and the SE4710 which is a higher-end 1D/2D scanner with a red LED, a scan range of 5cm to 75cm, plus a combination of on-board software/hardware scanning for faster capture and processing.

Designed to withstand hot and cold environments as well as dusty ones, the Zebra TC25 is IP65-rated – but not IP68 – which means that you won’t be able to immerse it in water. The device has been tested to the MIL-STD 810G standard meaning that it will withstand much more than just mere tumbles and drops at work.

On the right-hand side is the volume rocker button, with the power button located on top and one PTT (push-to-talk) button on the left. There are four mounting points, plus a pair of hand strap mount points, with the microSD and the SIM slot located behind an access door.

Zebra TC25 specs

CPU: Snapdragon 430 octa-core

GPU: Adreno 505

RAM: 2GB

Storage: 16GB

Screen size: 4.3-inch

Resolution: 800 x 480

Weight: 195g

Dimensions: 134 x 73.2 x 16mm

Rear camera: 8MP

Front camera: None

OS: Android 7.1

Battery: 3Ah

Specifications

The Zebra TC25 is a mixed bag when it comes to components. It has a USB Type-C connector which is a bit of a surprise, and the handset is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 430 8-core system-on-chip, hardly a trailblazer but still a very decent performer.

There’s 2GB of RAM, 16GB on-board storage, a microSD card reader, Bluetooth 4.2, 802.11ac Wi-Fi and an 8-megapixel rear camera. The 3,000mAh on-board battery is not replaceable, but you can add an optional battery pack to boost the device’s battery life.

For security purposes, the phone doesn’t have a front-facing camera, and while having a smaller, low resolution display might seem counterproductive (4.3-inch, 800 x 480 pixels), it actually isn’t in this particular instance.

A smaller display means that a worker can operate the smartphone with one hand only, handy when you’re working out in the field. A low resolution also translates into improved battery life and better performance. Just bear in mind that not all applications will be compatible with a resolution this low.

Unlike the rugged smartphones that we’ve previously tested, the TC25 benefits from an existing range of accessories including trigger handles, battery power packs, hand straps, holsters, cable chargers and more, which is great if you’re after a versatile mobile computer.

In use

There’s no point running benchmarks on this device as the Zebra TC25 is not your usual run-of-the-mill smartphone. Its primary use is to slash the amount of time spent on data collection – from plumbing and electrical to parcel delivery, yard maintenance and more – rather than being the fastest handset in rendering games.

Based on Zebra’s own field testing, the TC25 should capture barcodes substantially quicker than the cameras on consumer smartphones. This isn’t a surprise given that the TC25 is designed first and foremost to execute data capture tasks.

Zebra’s TC25 runs Android 7.1 (and supports VoLTE); you won’t find many shock-resistant smartphones that come with the penultimate version of Google’s Android operating system.

The real unique selling point of the handset, though, has to be Zebra’s own set of utilities: Mobile Extensions, StageNow, Enterprise Home Screen, SmartDex, DataWedge and EMM Tool Kit. All of these add significant value to the mobility proposal of this phone. DataWedge, for example, allows you to send scanned barcodes straight into existing apps without need for prior modification and at no additional cost.

Zebra offers an optional OneCare SV service including LifeGuard for Android (guaranteed security updates) that delivers two years of coverage for normal wear and tear and device failure, direct technical support, a device diagnostics tool for onsite troubleshooting, priority repair turnaround, and free return for a low fee.

The TC25 also doubles as a handy walkie-talkie (offering the option of voice or text) with other compatible Zebra mobile devices by using the Workforce Connect PTT Express (free, inside four walls) or Pro (paid, outside four walls) to stay in touch.

Final verdict

The Zebra TC25 is unlike most of the smartphone competition. Sure, potential rivals have faster processors, bigger batteries and screens that can display millions of pixels. But how many of them are compatible with a plethora of existing accessories? How many have programmable buttons, and a real barcode reader?

Hardly any rival handsets measure up to this functionality, and indeed we’d go as far as saying there are none at all: the TC25 is, in that sense, unique. Yes, it does have some drawbacks but these are minor compared to the ground-breaking balance that Zebra has struck with the TC25.



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