Telstra Tough Max 2 review: One tough phone
The Telstra Tough Max 2 isn't a particularly fast or high-end handset, but it is tough.
- Rugged design is actually attractive
- Wireless charging
- IP67 rated for water resistance
- Blue Tick compatible
- Sluggish app performance
- Ordinary camera
Australians are, sadly, very good at destroying smartphones. How good? finder's own research indicates that around 2.5 million smartphones have met an untimely end in Australia over the last five years. That's a lot of broken glass, flushed smartphones and shattered silicon to contend with, and it's fair to assume that most of those 2.5 million handsets were inadvertently destroyed, rather than deliberately crushed.
Despite this, there are relatively few smartphones that sell themselves as being hardened for Australian usage conditions. Telstra has notably offered a range of "Tough" smartphones over the years, including the original Telstra Tough range, the Telstra Tough Max and now the Telstra Tough Max 2.
There's something charmingly retro about the Tough Max 2's design that almost becomes a throwback to older smartphone designs like the original iPhone 3/3GS generation. Which is a kind way of saying that this is a bulky handset, measuring in at 144x71.5x11mm with a carrying weight of 153g. While we've seen every other manufacturer rush towards handsets with slender profiles, the Tough Max 2 instead goes the opposite direction.
That being said, if you like rather brutalist industrial design, the Tough Max 2 is certainly distinctive, with a light blue and black finish. The rubberised rear gives it plenty of grip by smartphone standards, again eschewing the slippery metal of most modern designs. For a smartphone designed to be "tough", that makes a lot of sense.
The Tough Max 2 sells itself, at least in part, thanks to the inclusion of IP67 water resistance, but the way it manages this is again rather retro. We've seen plenty of phones with stated water resistance through finder labs, but it's been a while since we've had to test out a phone that had protective flaps to open and close.
The Tough Max 2 has two such critters, one for the combined SIM tray and microSD expansion slot, and another on the rear for the optional antenna. Oddly, Telstra (or to be more accurate, ZTE, the manufacturer on Telstra's behalf) hasn't put the same limitations on the microUSB charging socket, so that's presumably water resistant all on its own.
The Tough Max 2 is a touchscreen phone, but it's also one that's been built with button use in mind. Quite a few of them, in fact, because beyond the standard power and volume buttons, there's also a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor as well as physical home, back and recent apps buttons at the base of the screen.
There's also a top-mounted "Super" key that by default isn't enabled to do anything. At first, I wasn't sure if it was an alternate power button, but discovered it's a quick launcher for up to three smartphone functions, based on a single tap, a double tap and a long press on the button. It's hardly a unique idea in the smartphone space, but within the remit of a phone that might spend a lot of time in a tradie's pocket, it's a smart inclusion.
The Telstra Tough Max 2 is absolutely a budget-to-mid-range handset, and with that in mind, I approached its rear 16MP and front 8MP cameras with some trepidation. While smartphone cameras have markedly improved in recent years, in the more budget-centric space there can be some tendencies towards poor performance.
The Telstra Tough Max's camera isn't poor, but it's no better than average, either.
The default camera app somewhat mimics Apple's iOS camera, right down to the inclusion of "live" photos, but it's very slow in operation, both to launch and switch between camera modes. Shots have a tendency to come out somewhat overexposed, and predictably, low light performance isn't anything to get excited about.
Equally, though, you can shoot photos that are decent, if not exciting, with the Tough Max 2. Here's some sample shots:
The Telstra Tough Max 2 may sell itself on its toughness, but it's nowhere near as robust when it comes to performance. That's no surprise, given it's running off the low-end Qualcomm Snapdragon 430 SoC with 3GB of RAM. That's a recipe for middling performance at best, and in benchmark terms, the Tough Max 2 does little to stand out. Here's how it compares against a range of low-end handsets running Geekbench 4's CPU test:
|Handset||Geekbench 4 CPU Single Core (higher is better)||Geekbench 4 CPU Multi Core (higher is better)|
|Motorola Moto X Force||1352||3581|
|Huawei GR5 2017||814||3398|
|Huawei Nova 2i||918||3331|
|Telstra Tough Max 2||688||2629|
|Kogan Agora 8+||653||2522|
We've recently switched over to using 3DMark's Slingshot Extreme test for mobiles, and we've got slightly less handset data to compare with for that test, especially for low-end handsets. You definitely shouldn't buy the Tough Max 2 as a heavy duty gaming phone, and that's quite explicit in its 3DMark scores, although the comparison to premium handsets isn't all that equitable. We'll update when we have more mid-range scores to compare against:
|Device||3DMark Slingshot Extreme OpenGL|
|Sony Xperia XZ Premium||3721|
|Google Pixel 2 XL||3599|
|Apple iPhone 8 Plus||2762|
|Samsung Galaxy Note 8||2649|
|Samsung Galaxy S8||2633|
|Apple iPhone X||2595|
|Huawei P10 Plus||954|
|Telstra Tough Max 2||319|
However, benchmarks are only an indicative score, and within its price bracket and the expectations you should have for this kind of phone, the Telstra Tough Max 2 is perfectly acceptable. It's in no way exciting, and you will end up waiting while it chugs through processing a reasonable amount. If your needs are modest, and more in tune with the ruggedised nature of the Tough Max 2, it'll be fine, but if you're switching down from a mid-range or premium phone, it will feel very slow.
One nice aspect of the Tough Max 2's performance is that it's Blue Tick rated, which means that it has passed testing through Telstra's testing labs for superior regional performance. If you're particularly remote, it also supports an external antenna for increased reception as well, although I wasn't able to test that function during my review period.
Telstra didn't supply me with a quantity of Tough Max 2 handsets to destroy in order to fully test out its rugged nature, which meant that I had to tread somewhat carefully when testing out its actual toughness. Its water resistance, rated at IP67 was fine, surviving a 20-minute dunk in a jar of tap water without notable issues, aside from the fact that it's rather hard to use while submerged.
Likewise, for everyday knocks, bumps and drops, the Tough Max 2 survived most of what I could throw at it. There's little doubt that you could crush the Tough Max 2 with enough force, but for a low-cost toughened alternative, it should prove adequate.
The Telstra Tough Max 2 has a sealed, 3000mAh battery, which is reasonably robust for a phone at this price point. Matching that up with the lower specification Snapdragon 430 makes for an interesting match that should, in theory, offer quite good battery life.
In test terms, the Telstra Tough Max 2 didn't work terribly hard in Geekbench 4's battery test, but it did display quite good overall battery stamina:
|Device||GB Battery Score||Geekbench battery time (hours:minutes)|
|Google Pixel 2 XL||4805||8:08|
|Sony Xperia XZ Premium||4796||8:06|
|Samsung Galaxy Note 8||3240||5:24|
|Apple iPhone 8 Plus||3058||5:07|
|Huawei P10 Plus||2974||5:23|
|Apple iPhone X||2836||4:44|
|Telstra Tough Max 2||2398||7:17|
Geekbench 4's battery test is quite linear, but your actual usage is less likely to be so. In more anecdotal testing, a single day's battery life is certainly within reach for the Telstra Tough Max 2 with moderate usage.
Given its relatively low performance, that's all you're likely to do with it. Charging is via the older microUSB standard, but Qi wireless charging is also supported, and that's a feature you don't see on too many low-cost handsets.
The Telstra Tough Max 2 serves a rather particular niche, and it's no surprise that Telstra pitches it almost entirely as a "tradie" phone. Plenty of people don't want or need a powerhouse phone, and for them, a premium device such as an iPhone X or a Galaxy Note 8 would be a waste of money.
That being said, should you buy the Tough Max 2? There's even more competition in the low-cost smartphone space than there is in the premium space, but precious few budget phones that particularly sell themselves on their robust build.
If your smartphone needs are modest in terms of power, but you're wary of other cheaper phones and their relative toughness, it's certainly worth consideration.
While there are features, such as water resistance and the use of Corning's Gorilla Glass that are part of other smartphone designs, they tend more towards the mid-range and premium side of the fence.
There's really not much current in the lower tiers to match the Telstra Tough Max 2, and even older handsets with these kinds of specifications aren't common. We've previously tested handsets such as the Motorola Moto X Force or the Alcatel Go Play that featured similar robust features, but both of those are much older phones, so you'd have a hard time finding them in 2018.
Arguably, the best alternative to the Tough Max 2 would be pairing up an existing handset with a specifically ruggedised case from a manufacturer such as OtterBox or LifeProof. That does rather limit you more towards the premium iPhone 8 or Galaxy Note 8 end of the market, however, with the resultant additional costs.
Pricing and availability
If you want to buy the Tough Max 2 outright, Telstra sells it through its stores for $432 outright. It's also available on contract terms. Here's what you'll currently pay on contract for the Tough Max 2:
- Product Name
- Telstra Tough Max 2
- Display Size
- 5.0 inches
- 720x1280 pixels
- 294 ppi
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 430
- Operating System
- Android 7.1.2
- Front camera
- Rear camera
- 16 MP