Between my podcast and my various writing gigs, I play with a lot of new phones — about one per week, actually. Most of these are the usual sort of high-end stuff (both premium and affordable), some are specialized, niche products, and a few are mid-range devices. Obviously, my dance card is pretty full, so I rarely get the chance to dip my toes in the pool of oddball Chinese phones. I recently partnered with an online store for my blog and they offered to send me a sub-$300 handset of my choice. I settled on the uleFone Armor 6E, an affordable, ruggedized phone with decent specs — at least on paper. I decided to put that ruggedization to the test.

See, I attend the Burning Man festival every year, and I need a pocketable device to stay in touch with my various consulting clients, so I need something that can handle the dust, heat, and abuse that the Black Rock desert dishes out. In the past I’ve taken CAT rugged phones there with some success, so why not try something else? Honestly, I set my expectations low — the Armor 6E is a $239 phone, after all. Besides, I’d already decided to bring my Pixel 3 XL and Huawei P30 Pro (both wrapped in a case) for their imaging prowess, so why not also pack a device for productivity?

Imagine my surprise when I started setting up the Armor 6E ahead of the event and it didn’t suck. Actually, this phone is pretty nice all around — never mind that it’s affordable and super rugged. I’m talking Moto G7 levels of goodness here, which is nothing to sneer at. This is thanks to a decent 6.2-inch display, a capable Helio P70 SoC, and a massive 5000mAh battery combined with an almost stock build of Android 9 Pie. Add 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage (expandable via microSD), NFC for Google Pay, and Qi-compatible wireless charging, and perhaps it’s time to stop making fun of that silly uleFone brand.

The Armor 6E looks and feels beefy, but it’s about the same footprint and only slightly thicker than a Pixel 3XL in one of Google’s fabric cases — just hella more durable. It’s rated IP68 (dust ingress and water submersion), IP69K (dust ingress and high-pressure/temperature water spray), and MIL-STD-810G (drop, humidity, corrosion, and solar radiation resistance). The body is covered mostly in grippy rubber with strategic “bumpers” on each corner and some tasteful aluminum accents (including the buttons). The screen is protected by Gorilla Glass 5. And at 268g, it’s also a lot heavier than most other phones of this size.

One big problem area when using handsets outdoors (rugged or not) is display brightness in direct sunlight, and I’m happy to report that the Armor 6E handled the harsh Nevada sun just fine — certainly better than my Pixel 3 XL. It features a bright 6.2-inch 1080p IPS panel with accurate colors and reasonably good viewing angles. There’s a notch for the selfie camera and earpiece on top, a chin a the bottom, and noticeable bezels on the sides (although they are quite small for such a rugged phone). While it’s obviously no match for today’s best OLED displays, this is a lovely screen, especially for the price.

Performance is another area where the Armor 6E shines. It’s powered by MediaTek’s recent Helio P70 12nm chip paired here with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage (plus microSD support). Add a quasi-stock build of Android 9 to the mix, and this thing doesn't skip a beat when doing the usual day-to-day stuff. I’m not sure if the Helio P70 is underrated, but it feels at least as snappy to me as Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 675, the processor inside Moto’s Z4, another phone with an almost pure Android experience. I certainly wasn’t expecting this level of performance for $239.

When you’re in the middle of the desert and away from civilization for three weeks, charging a handset isn’t as straightforward as finding an outlet. Yes, there are plenty of generators and solar panels at Burning Man, and I have access to power, but it’s best to bring devices that are efficient and versatile in the first place, just in case. To that end, the Armor 6E packs a large 5000mAh battery that’s easily topped off via USB Type-C (up to 18W USB-PD) or Qi wireless charging (up to 10W). I didn’t have much trouble getting the phone to last 2-3 days between charges, while using it for many hours a day.

Now, let’s talk cameras. Imaging on the Armor 6E is very much a mixed bag, and it’s the one area where this handset definitely lives up to its price. To be clear, the 16MP f/1.8 rear shooter isn’t horrible — I’ve taken some surprisingly nice pics with it. While it’s perfectly usable for documenting something, it’s just not going to cut it as someone’s main camera. The biggest issue is the apparent lack of HDR support, making dynamic range challenging. Otherwise, there’s a good amount of detail, and low-light performance is surprisingly decent. The 8MP f/1.8 selfie camera is fine — just don’t forget to disable the various beauty modes.

What’s really puzzling about the cameras is that the hardware itself seems OK, and the Helio P70 packs some pretty advanced imaging features. It’s obvious that it's the software letting things down. For example: there’s no option for grid lines in the camera app, the bokeh mode doesn’t appear to use the additional 2MP rear depth sensor (it just adds a progressive circular blur outside the center of the frame), and video recording is limited to 1080p around back and 720p in front. Thankfully, I was able to install a Helio P70-compatible port of the Google Camera app with Night Sight (from the Realme U1), which helped a lot.

The Armor 6E lacks a headphone jack but handles both analog and digital USB Type-C audio devices, and there’s an adapter in the box. Also disappointing is the finicky rear-mounted fingerprint sensor. While it works fine most of the time, it occasionally refuses to respond to fingerprints. This issue is pretty random and doesn’t last for long, but it’s annoying. Face ID helps here, but this is obviously some kind of software glitch, as the scanner is fast when it works. Rounding things off, there’s a UV sensor in the back of the phone and a barometer inside, complete with dedicated measuring apps.

Overall the Armor 6E is a surprisingly capable handset for the money — the rugged design is just a nice bonus. It supports global LTE bands, including T-Mobile, AT&T, and related MVNOs in the US. For $239, (non-rugged) alternatives include the Nokia 4.2, Moto G7 Play, Samsung Galaxy A20, Xiaomi Mi A2 Lite, and Honor 8X. But if you’re looking for an affordable, rugged phone that doesn’t suck and you can live with the middling camera and missing headphone jack, uleFone’s got you covered. It certainly made things easier at Burning Man this year — along with Dell’s rugged Chromebook 3100 2-in1, but that’s a story for another day.