JCB makes diggers, tractors and other equipment for the agriculture and construction sectors. It also puts its name to smartphones and has done so for some time. Its USP is that its phones are ruggedised, designed to withstand the rough and tumble of life in the great outdoors.
The problem JCB has is that it isn't the only player in this game. It might be the only one to do the double of tractors and phones, but traditional phone makers have discovered ruggedising, and JCB has to compete.
Take the Motorola Defy, Defy Plus and Defy Mini, for example. All three handsets sport an IP67 rating, the same standard JCB offers in the Toughphone Pro-Smart. Samsung has also got an IP67 rating for its Galaxy Xcover Extreme. You can get all four handsets from Clove, for less than the JCB Toughphone Pro-Smart. There's even a JCB edition of the Motorola Defy Plus and that is cheaper than the Toughphone Pro-Smart, too. So not only is JCB up against tough competition, it also seems to be undercutting itself.
JCB must think its own Toughphone Pro-Smart offers something rather special. That doesn't come within the specifications department though. JCB is reticent about some of the specs, telling us that the processor runs at 800Mhz, but not naming the manufacturer, and not telling us how much RAM there is; we're guessing its 512MB.
We're told there's a five-megapixel main camera, but the specs don't even mention the front camera, which is VGA. JCB doesn't bother to divulge the handset's weight either; our scales put at 200g.
There's a mere 256MB of user memory and a 2GB microSD card, to boost that, with Android 2.3 that is hardly earth-shattering. The screen leaves a lot to be desired too. At 3.2in it is small, and its resolution of 320 x 480 is far from inspiring. It isn't particularly sharp or bright and fades away in bright sunshine, while it looks really rather lost in its clunky surround.
Then again, it is the chassis that we suppose gives this handset its claim to fame. It is the key part of delivering that is the IP67 rating, which makes the JCB Toughphone Pro-Smart water and dust resistant.
This yellow and black sizeable handset surround doesn't look great to our eyes, but it does feel very solid, and it has a rubberised finish with ridged grip sections on the bottom of the left and right edges.
There's an argument that the physical Call and End buttons beneath the screen, while very old fashioned, are easier for gloved hands to use, than on screen buttons would be, hence their presence. If this is the case, the other buttons are appallingly badly implemented.
Take the on/off button on the top edge of the chassis and camera shortcut on the right. Both are small - the on/off button is particularly tiny, and we found them unresponsive and needing quite a hard push, just to register. Good luck with that if you are wearing thick gloves.
There's a volume rocker on the right edge that suffers from the same problem. We had to push very hard indeed, to get this to register at all. There is another button on the left edge, and this turns on the camera's flash, effectively transforming it into a torch. This button is a little lighter under the fingers, but it still requires a bit more pressure, than the average phone button.
There are two slots on the chassis, both of which are protected by hinged rubber covers. The covers aren't easy to remove, unless you've got fingernails, nigh on impossible, if you are wearing gloves.
The microUSB port is quite severely recessed inside its protective shell, so that, as Clove points out on its web site, you have to use the provided "slightly longer than usual connector", rather than generic ones. Sure enough, we found our own regular USB mains power connector wouldn't sink far enough into the chassis, to make contact. The Toughphone's connector does work in other devices, though, so you could still get away with carrying just the one charge/connection cable.
The hefty battery cover is held in place by a pair of screws and we found a fingernail was not up to the job, of removing these. You'll need a screwdriver. The microSD card slot is under the battery cover, so getting at it for hot-swapping isn't easy. But in this position it is as well protected as it can be from water, and the IP67 rating means the Toughphone Pro-Smart should be able to withstand being in 1 metre of water, for 30 minutes. The SIM is under the battery too, incidentally.
To add to its tough, alpha male type appearance, the Toughphone Pro-Smart comes with a carabineer style lanyard, ideal for hanging off a utility belt. On that note, the lanyard has a little screwdriver widget for helping with those batter cover screws, and that vital item, that no tough person should ever be without, a miniature compass.
Overall, this leaves us a bit nonplussed. It's not that the chassis isn't solid, more that you can get the same IP67 rating from handsets that deliver the same rating, in neater designs and with better specs. So, will apps save the day?
What about apps to save the day, then? Well, there's nothing above and beyond the Android 2.3 standards on the widgets front. There is an FM radio on board, which is nice, but hardly ground breaking. The biggest addition JCB has made to the Toughphone Pro-Smart is the JCB Toolbox app.
On its main screen, are links to B&Q stores via Google Maps, a link into www.jcb.com, and ‘Toolbox'. Open the Toolbox link and you get six little apps. There is a spirit level, which seems quite accurate. There's a torch, which turns the screen white - hardly needed, as you can get better and faster torch services via the side button.
There's a sound-level monitor that graphs decibels, and a gauge for delivering orientation data in terms of azimuth, pitch and roll. There's a calculator too, which doesn't offer anything more than the one more readily accessible in the apps screen, which is a part of Android itself and doesn't auto-rotate into wide screen mode like the Android one does. And finally, there's a unit converter. It's not the kind of app bundle that would make us desire this handset, over all others.
So, the apps don't do enough to raise the Toughphone Pro-Smart above the level of mediocre, we are afraid. This is quite a shame, really. JCB could probably do something innovative, clever, and altogether different with smartphones if it tried. If the company would like to contact use, we have some ideas.
JCB could offer something transformational to the smartphone sector, but instead the JCB Toughphone Pro-Smart is chunky and under featured. In the end, it is just another example of the old chestnut belief that rugged phones don't need to be sophisticated.
Pros: You may like the bumblebee colours and the solid shell.
Cons: The toughness rating can be had on other handsets, and the general specifications are lacklustre.Score: 5/10
Price: £310 inc VAT SIM Free
Network: HSPA 900/1900/2100, GSM 850/900/1800/1900
Memory: 256MB user memory plus 2GB microSD card
Memory expansion: microSD
Display: 3.2in, 320 x 480 pixels
Main camera: five-megapixel
Front camera: Yes
FM radio: Yes
Size: 125 x 62.2 x 20.5 mm
OS: Android 2.3