Pros: great spec, performance and battery life for the money in a phone that’s built to survive more extreme conditions than you can. The Doogee S96 Pro will take all the punishment you throw at it and emerge unscathed, offering surprising peace of mind.
Cons: screen resolution lower than most contemporary phones (works fine, but still…), may be a bit bulky if you have smaller hands
Rating: Highly Recommended
Price: RRP. US$299 (c. €246) but discounts available online
Check out the Doogee S96 Pro on the official Doogee website
Doogee is a Chinese smartphone brand that began life offering low cost budget smartphones using Google’s Android operating system. Since then the company is making a name for itself as a leader in the emerging Rugged Phone market. With the S96 Pro Doogee combines a virtually unbreakable body with enough tech to deliver a silky smooth smartphone experience at a price that’s hard to ignore.
Doogee S96 Pro Smartphone: Full Review
As a wildlife enthusiast, I spend a lot of my time outdoors, sometimes in conditions that are less than ideal, and off the beaten track. I’m often in situations that are hostile to potentially fragile electronics, yet I rely on the smartphone in my pocket more than ever.
I don’t know about you, but I use my phone a lot in the field. Primarily it allows me to contact people if I need to, of course, but aside from that I also use it for mapping and navigation, weather, jotting down field notes, identification guides and apps, recording and submitting sightings, photographs, digiscoping, sharing content and more.
Inevitably accidents happen, phones slip, and, quite often in Ireland, conditions are wet, muddy, sandy and generally unforgiving. I’m conscious that every tumble my phone takes could be its last.
So with that in mind, I was intrigued to try out the latest rugged flagship from Chinese smartphone manufacturer Doogee.
The S96Pro promised to be impervious to water; particle ingress (dust, sand, powder… you name it); temperature extremes and drops onto mud, sand, concrete, etc. On paper, at least, it sounded like the ideal phone for a wildlife guide.
First impressions and build quality
The Doogee S96 Pro is built like a tank. A solid lump of polycarbonate, toughened glass and aluminium alloy composite, this phone feels like you could drive over it without inflicting much damage (in fact, if you search YouTube you’ll find videos of lunatics doing just that).
The overall design is chunky and shares many characteristics with other rugged devices. It’s also quite heavy at a shade over 300g. While a potential negative, that heft is also reassuring. It makes the S96Pro feel practically indestructible.
There’s no getting around the fact this is a big phone though. I was a little concerned at first that would make it unwieldy and awkward to carry, but in practice it slips into a fleece or backpack pocket as easily as a standard size smartphone, and you really don’t notice the extra weight when it’s about your person. I also found using the phone fine, although if you have smaller hands you may find it a little more cumbersome to handle than a regular phone.
The front of the S96Pro is dominated by a large 6.22″ screen with a small teardrop notch in the top centre housing the 16MP selfie camera. Flip the phone over and you’ll find a pleasing two-tone grey and black polycarbonate and metal combo dominate by a circular metal housing that holds the phone’s quad-camera array. Those cameras are a 48MP main camera, an 8MP wide angle, a 2MP macro and, a feature currently unique to the S96 Pro, a 20MP Night Vision Camera. Yes the S96 Pro can literally see in the dark.
On each side of the circular camera housing there’s a curved array of LEDs — one has four white LEDs used for the standard flash/torch function. The other has four dedicated infrared LEDs that act as a light source for the night-vision camera, allowing you to literally see and take black-and-white photographs in complete darkness.
The grey and black body is punctuated by little flashes of colour on the periphery (the review unit was flame orange, but the phone is also available with more subtle army green and almost imperceptible mineral black). I think the overall rugged look and two-tone effect works really well, and the finish and feel of the phone is superb.
Specs and Performance
The S96 Pro comes with a near stock version of Android 10 that’s blissfully devoid of additional bloatware. It’s refreshingly clean, and the powerful octo-core MediaTek G90T processor, coupled with a whopping 8GB of RAM and 128GB of onboard storage (expandable by a further 256GB via SD Card should you need it) delivers a smooth, fluid user experience.
There’s no stutter or lag navigating the operating system, apps load quickly, and the entire experience is as near flawless as I’ve experienced on an Android device. The only time I found myself waiting was when the phone needed to downlod content over our ever-flaky West Cork broadband connection. When it came to on-board processing, the S96 powered through the most demanding tasks I could throw its way without skipping a beat.
Perhaps the one weak point of the phone (although it also contributes to one of its greatest strengths) is the display. Doogee opted for an IPS LCD panel with a lower than average HD+ screen resolution of just 720 x 1520 pixels.
Everything else about the spec seems to suggest a phone pitched at a higher performance level. I asked Doogee about their decision to go with the lower resolution panel, and they said it was based on delivering enhanced battery life, which they felt was a trade off their target audience would appreciate. It also has the added bonus of bringing the overall cost of the phone down significantly.
My initial disappointment was short-lived. During day-to-day use I didn’t have any issue with the 720p display on the S96 Pro. A pixel density of 270ppi, whilst a bit “middle of the road” on paper for a contemporary smartphone, renders crisp and clear text and images that are vibrant and look great. I didn’t find the display any better or worse than the 1080p IPS panel on my regular phone. The display isn’t the brightest in the world, but I didn’t have any problem using it outdoors on bright days either… so all good on that front too.
Thanks in part to that less demanding display, but mostly to the huge 6,350mAh cell tucked inside, battery life on the S96 Pro is pretty steller for a modern smartphone. During the review period I was using it as my main phone, for all my apps, calls, browsing, entertainment… everything. When I came to plug it in at bedtime I’d find the battery still hovering at around 65%.
If you were away from a power point, you’d easily get two days of average use out of the S96 Pro on a single charge, if you were more frugal you could stretch that to three days, maybe even more.
Couple that with 24W fast-charging and 10W wireless charging support and you have a phone that’s well equipped to power through most situations.
The cameras on the S96Pro are good, but not amazing. Let’s face it, they were never going to compete with flagship-level shooters from the big brands, and at the price you shouldn’t expect them to.
That said, the main 48MP AI enabled camera delivers crisp, clear photos with plenty of detail in good light conditions. Like most smartphone cameras it struggles with high noise levels in lower light, and doesn’t have the built in software smarts you see with the big brands to compensate for it. It also doesn’t have any built in image stabilisation.
As well as 48MP photos the main camera lets you shoot 4K video at 30 frames per second, which is excellent, although again, the lack of any built in stabilisation means that if you’re shooting handheld your videos, while high quality, are likely to be pretty jerky.
The 8MP wide camera is useful when you want to take in more of the scene, and the 2MP Macro is handy to capture the occassional close-up… just don’t expect too much from these lower resolution options.
Which brings us to the fourth, and perhaps the most interesting camera.
See in the dark with night-vision
The inclusion of a 20MP night-vision camera on the S96 Pro is unique. I haven’t been able to find any other phone on the market that includes it, and while it might seem a bit gimmicky it’s actually very cool.
Switch to Night Vision on the S96 Pro’s camera and the four infrared LED’s on the back literally light up the night. You can take black and white photographs in complete darkness — which is just nuts. In practice the photos aren’t great quality — focusing in the dark is hit and miss, and shutter speeds are slow, with predictable results. They’re fun, nonetheless.
While it’s novel to take photographs in complete darkness, the real killer use-case for this feature, at least from a wildlife enthusiasts point of view, is being able to see in complete darkness without using a torch or other light source. If you’re moving to a hide before first light, for example, you can find your way without using light that might scare wildlife away. Or say you’re in situ for a bit of nocturnal wildlife watching and need to find something in your bag — just turn on night vision and rummage away — no torch required.
I haven’t really used it much yet — but can see it being a very handy added-value feature of the phone.
The one downside is that the infra-red LEDs on the phone aren’t that powerful, limiting the range at which you can see. However, as the camera can see infra-red, if you wanted to cover a wider area/greater range, I guess there’s no reason you couldn’t use an external infra-red light source for illumination.
The Doogee S96 Pro isn’t a 5G phone, but it does support a wide range of 4G bands, which should give you excellent voice and data connectivity not just here in Ireland, but when you can travel overseas again too. The phone is backward compatible with 3G and 2G networks too.
Of course it supports the latest suite of WiFi standards and includes features like WiFi Hotspot, WiFi Direct and WiFi Display. It has Bluetooth 5.0 on board and supports NFC, so contactless payments work.
The S96 Pro supports dual sim cards (both nano-sim) as well as an SD Card simultaneously.
Of course, the main reason to get a rugged phone is that it will survive in environments that would kill off ordinary phones. While I wasn’t brave enough to go to some of the extremes you’ll find online, I did drop the phone from pocket-height onto concrete, into puddles, into the washin up bowl with no ill effects, and it proved completely impervious to sand and salt-water on a trip to a nearby beach.
The Doogee S96Pro is IP68/IP69K rated, which means it’s not just water and dust proof, but also capable of withstanding blasts of high-pressure water (from a hose or tap for example). It also complies with US Military MIL-STD-810G specification, which tests for things like pressure tolerance, temperature extremes, shock and explosion resistance, vibration and more.
The S96 Pro is designed to survive in environments where you probably wouldn’t.
I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the Doogee S96 Pro. The build quality was much better than I was expecting for a phone at this price point, and the performance, all things considered, blew me away. It easily matches upper-mid-tier smartphones from other manufacturers costing more than double the price.
While a higher resolution screen would have been nice to have, my initial doubts about the screen proved unfounded in use and I’ve really enjoyed the overall experience of using the phone. It’s also survived everything I’ve been brave enough to throw its way completely unscathed. There literally isn’t a mark on it.
What I wasn’t expecting was just how much I’d appreciate having a phone in my pocket that’s impervious to accidents. I’m usually quite careful with my tech, but hadn’t realised quite how subconsciously preoccupied I was with keeping my phone safe. The S96 Pro takes that worry away. Knowing your phone is impervious to water, will bounce happily off concrete and can cope perfectly well in the sand is a liberating experience.
In terms of value for money, the Doogee S96 Pro also impresses. You’ll struggle to find a phone, rugged or otherwise, offering a high-powered octo-core CPU, 8GB RAM, 128 GB storage, 48MP quad-camera, 24W fast-charging, 10W wireless charging and NFC for less than €300.
If you’ve been considering a rugged phone for your outdoor adventures, the Doogee S96 Pro is well worth a look.
CPU: Helio G90T
GPU: Arm Mali-G76
Screen size: 6.2-inch
Rear camera: 48MP, 20MP, 8MP, 2MP
Front camera: 16MP
OS: Android 10
I’d like to thank Doogee for providing the S96Pro for review on Ireland’s Wildlife.
NB. Ireland’s Wildlife has no specific affiliation to any optics or gear manufacturer, and all reviews on the site are completely independent and objective. If you’re an optics or gear manufacturer and would like to submit your product for review on the site, please drop us a line using the contact form and we can take things from there.