For years now, big phones like the Samsung Note 20 Ultra have been popular, but lately, smaller phones have been making a comeback — which is why we decided to do a Unihertz Atom XL review. While that name does have XL in the title, this phone is not extra-large in the slightest when compared to most modern smartphones.
The Atom XL is not only smaller in stature, but it's also a very durable option. Something else that is lacking in most smartphones these days. I have been a large phone user for years and recently made the crazy leap and picked up the Samsung Galaxy Fold 2, which is neither small nor durable. Now I live out in the country in rural Kansas, on a gravel road, and am routinely doing things that are not conducive to the Fold 2's health.
So when the chance to check out a small and rugged phone came up, I thought I would be a great chance to put it to the test. Here's how the Atom XL held up over my review period that consisted of camping, tractor and gravel road rides on my Polaris Ranger, and regular daily use.
Unihertz Atom XL
Bottom line: If you want a small phone that you don't have to worry about being extra careful about, this is a great option. While it can be a fine daily phone, just be sure to keep your performance expectations adequately set. Also, don't plan on this being a phone to take beautiful sunset photos with.
- Great size and durability
- Solid two-day battery life
- Runs Android 10 out of the box
- Optional walkie-talkie
- Photo quality is bad
- Screen brightness could be better
- Screen touch-sensitivity is inconsistent
Unihertz Atom XL What I like
I like the idea of a small, rugged phone. By nature, I love being outdoors as much as possible, and carrying around a large device that's fragile seems like too much effort. However, my nerdy side, more often than not, wins the argument as to which phone ends up in my pocket — hence the Galaxy Fold 2. I knew that the Atom XL was not going to become my daily device, but I thought it could definitely be my outdoor option.
|Specs||Unihertz Atom XL|
|Dimensions||5.3" x 2.56" x .69"|
|Display||4", 1136 x 640 pixels|
|Memory||6GB RAM, 128GB ROM, MicroSD Expandable|
|Processor||Mediatek Helio P60 Octa-Core,2.0GHz|
|Operating System||Android 10|
|Camera||Rear 48MP, Front 8MP|
|Water and Dust resistance||IP68 water/dust resistant MIL-STD-810G|
|Sensors||Fingerprint (front-mounted),G-sensor,Gyroscope,Proximity,Ambient Light sensor,Compass,Baroceptor, NFC, IR blaster|
|Connectivity||Dual-SIM Global Unlocked, WLAN 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac 2.4GHz/5GHz, Bluetooth 4.2, FM Radio, 3.5mm, USB-C|
When I opened the box and took out the phone, the very first thing I thought was, "Wow, this thing is dense." In no way does the Atom XL seem like it is fragile. There is zero creakiness in the build-quality, and with a large 4300mAh battery packed inside, this small package has some heft. Speaking of the battery, you get an easy two days of usage from it — which is something you want if you were to be out hiking. With its exposed screws and the metal accents, rubber bumpers on the corners, and aggressive texture on the back, this phone exudes toughness.
You get Android 10 out of the box; it's unclear if Android 11 will make its way to the phone though. There is a fingerprint reader on the front that doubles as a home button, and though you can enable gestures, you can't disable the capacitive buttons.
Unihertz includes a toolbox app that has some, well, tools in it. You'll find things like a bubble level, protractor, decibel gauge, compass, and other handy apps to help get things done using your phone. There's even an IR blaster on the phone to control various appliances, but there isn't a learn function in the included app to add a device that isn't already supported.
The phone runs well using a Mediatek Helio P60 processor with 6GB RAM. Of course, it isn't going to win any benchmark battles, but it's not designed to. Its IP68 water and dust resistance and MIL-STD-810G durability are intended to be something that goes to the job site, hiking, or for the person who wants a small phone that they don't have to worry about. With features like built-in FM radio receivers and a place to screw in the included antenna to use the phone as a DMR Walkie-Talkie, it is perfect for outdoor use.
If unfamiliar, DMR stands for digital mobile radio. These radios are used in various ways, from families on vacation to construction workers and hikers. When in the right conditions, radios like this can have a pretty impressive range, and the Atom XL can communicate up to a distance of nearly 5 miles with someone using a compatible radio.
The phone is unlocked and has a dual-SIM tray, that when not using both SIM slots, supports microSD for expanding the onboard 128GB. I was using the phone on T-Mobile, and even in my spotty coverage at home, did an admirable job of holding onto a signal. At a glance, the phone looks like it has front-facing stereo speakers, which would make sense as a walkie-talkie. It only has a rear-firing, albeit loud, speaker. Though it is uncommon these days to find on most smartphones, the Atom XL does include a 3.5mm audio jack.
Hold the photo
Unihertz Atom XL What I don't like
As I mentioned in the above section, proper expectations need to be set when using this phone. It is a compact, durable smartphone that can do almost all smartphone things pretty well. What it doesn't do well is take photos.
For me, this is by far the biggest letdown. As a device that is meant to go on adventures, I want to capture good photos of things that I come across. Yes, there is a 48MP rear and 8MP front camera, but as we have learned, a quality photo is about more than the megapixels. Google Pixel phones have been taking excellent pictures with a 12MP sensor for years. No, I don't expect the Atom XL to take Pixel, Galaxy, OnePlus, level photos. I want it to capture good quality photos that don't require much, if any, editing to use.
Even in the best lighting conditions, the exposure is very uneven, colors are bad, and overall the image is blurry. The camera software does offer a Pro mode that lets you adjust white balance, ISO, and exposure. You can also select specific lighting conditions like daylight, cloudy, twilight, and more, which seemed to do little more than adding a filter. Video, well, you can take a video, but you may or may not want to keep the results — quality is terrible.
Something else that really bugged me when using this phone outdoors was the display. It's not the quality of the screen, as I don't expect it to be top-notch. However, I do want to be able to see what is on the screen when using it. Again, for a device with outdoor usage aspirations, it doesn't get nearly bright enough. I also had some inconsistent touch responsiveness while trying to use the phone. I'm not sure if it's a feature or not, but input needs to be very deliberate to get the expected results.
Unihertz Atom XL The competition
For a device that is similar in size, price, and offers a rugged style, the CAT S41 is a good option to consider. It's from Caterpillar, the makers of bulldozers, excavators, and other heavy-duty equipment. This is a phone for those with the same mindset.
With a 5000mAh battery, it can get up to 38 hours of talk time and 44 days of standby. Since the battery is so large, there is a built-in feature that allows you to share your power with other devices. Not only is the CAT S41 water, dust, and shock-resistant, it's also been designed to withstand thermal shock and salt mists.
While there's no dual-SIM or walkie-talkie support on the CAT S41, it does feature a higher resolution 5-inch display that works even if you are wearing gloves or your fingers are wet.
Samsung's Galaxy Xcover PRO Rugged is nowhere near the size, or price, of the Atom XL, but it still packs in the same rugged features. While most Samsung devices aren't thought of as durable, this phone is not only IP68 rated but also certified with the same MIL-STD-810G durability rating as the Atom XL.
Samsung also has built-in tech into the bright 6.3-inch display that allows you to keep using it even when you have on gloves or wet fingers. While the screen is larger, the phone is overall thinner and thus only has a 4,050mAh battery. Though smaller, you can still expect to get a day or more from a single charge.
This phone solves one of my most significant issues with the Atom XL, and that's photo quality. The Pixel 4a brings good battery life and cameras that can always be trusted to get an excellent photo regardless of the lighting. The no-frills design of the 4a is a great on the go companion when using the proper case since the phone has no dust or water-resistance ratings.
Though the display size is 5.8-inches, well over the 4-inch screen of the Atom XL, the slimmer bezels and overall thinner body make the phone comfortable to hold. Another benefit of a Pixel device is you are assured three-years of software updates, something that is doubtful of the Atom XL.
Unihertz Atom XL Should you buy
You should buy this if ...
You are tired of large smartphones and want something you can easily hold.
While there are other small(ish) phones available, few reach the sub-5-inch screen size. Everyone that I showed this phone to immediately commented on how nice it was to use a phone that wasn't a strain to operate. The phone is almost too small for my hands — that and I've been conditioned to big phones.
You want a phone that you aren't constantly afraid of breaking.
While the screen is still glass and breakable, the rest of this phone is not. The Atom XL is a tank, and you can feel that the moment you pick it up. From its solid construction to the materials used, it is a phone that almost asks for you to toss it around. Thanks to its IP68 dust and water-resistance rating on top of the MIL-STD-810G durability rating, you can.
You want a phone with a battery that can be charged and forgotten about.
Well, almost forgotten about. When I took the Atom XL on a weekend camping trip, I brought the charger but didn't really need to use it. I topped the phone up before hitting the road on a Friday afternoon and didn't charge it until I headed home mid-Sunday morning. While it isn't quite at the level where I'd leave the charger behind, it is nice not to need to worry about plugging it in every evening.
You should not buy this if ...
You want to take good photos
If you love taking photos of, well, almost anything, this phone isn't for you. If you spend a good amount of time editing the pictures, you might be able to get something you can be satisfied with, but it's hard to remove the blur — but who wants to edit every photo they take. Even with the anti-shake mode enabled, I was never happy with a result right from the camera.
You spend a lot of time in bright lighting conditions
Simply put, the display doesn't get bright enough. Too many times, I found myself cupping my hand over the screen to read something on it. While the lower brightness may help with saving battery, with a 4300mAh battery, I'm willing to sacrifice some of that longevity for readability.
You wear tight pants
This may sound a bit strange, but the combo of the textured back and the thickness of this phone will not work well for skinny jeans. While the phone is small top to bottom and left to right, it is a thick one. The phone is nearly as thick as two Galaxy S20s stacked and thicker than the Galaxy Fold 2 when closed.
The Atom XL is a specific kind of phone for a particular type of person or scenario. If you want a small phone and have low expectations from it that you can make calls and send messages from, you'll likely enjoy this device. Perhaps if you want a secondary companion phone for your outdoor adventures or for environments that may not be conducive to most phones, the Atom XL will be great.
However, if you plan to take photos on those adventures, you'll want to be sure to bring a dedicated camera with you. With photo-quality reminiscent of a time when all phones were only 4-inches, you don't want the Atom XL to be the only camera you have.
The Atom XL is a niche product with a particular purpose — be small and durable. The phone does a great job of filling that niche. You can add in the DMR feature if you happen to work at a position where those radios are used, and you don't want to carry two devices or hikers in a similar situation. It runs clean software and offers connectivity and storage flexibility that much more expensive phones don't.
However, it's hard to get over how poor the camera is. There were many times where I was glad that this wasn't my only phone and that I had another one nearby to take an actual photo with. If you just need a picture and don't really care about it being sharp, clear, or represent the colors as they were — the phone takes photos.
I don't recommend the Atom XL for everyone, or really anyone unless you need a long-lasting phone that is really small, has DMR walkie-talkie functionality, and can take a beating. For everyone else, other options will likely better suit you.
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