Jeremy Laukkonen is automotive and tech writer for numerous major trade publications as well as the creator of a popular blog and video game startup. A fan of EVs since the early 2000s, he stays up-to-date on the myriad complex systems that power battery electric vehicles.
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Jeremy Laukkonen / Lifewire
Incredibly small and lightweight
Solid ruggedized construction
Tiny screen is surprisingly usable
DMR walkie-talkie and dual SIM
Headphone jack and built-in FM radio
Difficult setup with some carriers
No app drawer by default
Small screen not ideal for some applications
Camera isn’t great
The Atom XL is surprisingly small and astonishingly powerful considering the size and price point. The small screen will scare away some users, but this rugged little powerhouse is ready to go to work.
Unihertz provided us with a review unit for one of our writers to test, which he sent back after his thorough evaluation. Read on for his full take.
The Atom XL is a bite-sized, ruggedized smartphone with built-in DMR walkie-talkie capabilities. Aimed squarely at an audience that’s sick and tired of seeing their glass sandwiches crack under pressure, the Atom XL looks and feels like a phone that’s built to stand up to the rigors of daily life. I spent a couple weeks with an Atom XL, testing its capabilities as a phone and walkie-talkie, connectivity, performance, battery life, and more to see whether this pint-sized prodigy really stands up to the hype.
Unihertz is an interesting company with some interesting ideas. They brought us the truly tiny Atom in 2018, then an interesting take on a phone with a physical keyboard the next year. The Atom XL is essentially a scaled-up version of the Atom, with all the same design cues.
At first glance, the Atom XL looks a lot like a small phone, something along the lines of an iPhone SE, encased in a rugged phone case. That rugged case is actually part of its construction though, with a textured rubber back, metallic sides, and beefy bumpers on the corners to absorb the shock of being dropped.
Despite its petite size, the Atom XL is no wilting flower. It feels rock-solid in the hand, and part of that has to do with its dimensions and weight. While the phone itself is quite small in length and width, it’s over twice as thick as my uncased Pixel 3, and it weighs significantly more. It’s still fairly light, at just 8.6 ounces, but I could definitely feel the difference. The form factor fits great in my hand, small enough to wrap the fingers around for a solid grip, and the increased weight compared to most smartphones makes it feel substantial.
Aimed squarely at an audience that’s sick and tired of seeing their glass sandwiches crack under pressure, the Atom XL looks and feels like a phone that’s built to stand up to the rigors of daily life.
Aside from the ruggedized exterior, the biggest difference between this phone and most of the competition is the inclusion of an optional antenna. The port is concealed by a rubber plug, and screwing in the antenna gives you access to the DMR walkie-talkie feature. The other ports, USB-C, and a headphone jack, aren’t protected by plugs.
The Atom XL features a 4-inch display that’s capped by Gorilla Glass and features an oleophobic layer to keep it clean. It features a non-standard 1136 x 640 pixel resolution that, due to the small size of the screen, looks pretty great in the right lighting conditions.
The two issues with the display are that it’s tough to see in full sunlight, and it’s too small for some applications. The screen brightness issue is kind of a big deal, since this phone is clearly designed for outdoor use. While I was able to use it outdoors, I did find myself looking for shade, or making it with my hands, even with the brightness turned all the way up.
Android does a pretty good job of accommodating different screen sizes, but you may find that some apps are a bit awkward to use on a display this small. It’s definitely more comfortable to use than the original Atom, but this device is clearly not aimed at people who spend a ton of time on their phones doing anything but talking.
The two issues with the display are that it’s tough to see in full sunlight, and it’s too small for some applications.
You might expect a phone that trades on its ruggedness and diminutive size to skimp in the hardware department, but I was impressed with the performance of the Atom XL. It packs a Helio P60 Octa-Core clocked at 2.0 GHz, and it sailed through everything I threw at it without so much as a bump.
To start off, I downloaded PCMark and ran the Work 2.0 benchmark to get a solid idea of the phone’s baseline capabilities. It scored a decent 6,934 overall, with a massive 13,438 in the photo editing category, and a relatively low 5,374 in the data manipulation category. Due to its small size, and the diminutive screen, most people will stick primarily to tasks like web browsing and writing emails, in which it scored 5,644 and 7,390 respectively.
In daily use, I found the Atom XL to perform admirably. I was able to open over a dozen tabs in Chrome without experiencing any lag, stream videos from YouTube, Disney+, and other sources, send and receive email and texts, take notes in Google Docs, and more without any issues other than the small display being a hindrance at times.
I then ran a couple of benchmarks from GFXBench. The first one I ran was Car Chase, which managed just 20fps. That’s a bit low, as 30fps is generally considered to be a low-end target for comfortable gameplay. The next one I ran was T-Rex, which is a bit less demanding. That ran at a significantly higher 57fps, which is pretty good for a phone of this size and price.
As a bit of a torture test, both for the Atom XL and myself, I installed the surprise hit open-world adventure Genshin Impact. The game ran flawlessly, to my surprise, as I loaded into the painterly world of Teyvat to run a few dailies. Frame rates remained smooth as silk even during combat, although I was significantly hampered by the small screen and the fact that the mobile version of the game uses on-screen controls.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a phone you’re going to buy specifically to play games. The screen is just too small. But if you do find yourself wanting to load something up to pass the time, you won’t be disappointed in the performance.
The Atom XL is a dual-SIM phone with 802.11ac 2.4/5GHz Wi-Fi, and support for Bluetooth 4.2. For cellular data testing, I tried Google Fi (T-Mobile) and AT&T SIMs, and I wasn’t overly impressed with the results from either. I’ll throw the AT&T results out, as I was unable to get the phone to connect to 4G LTE despite the fact that the SIM works fine in my Nighthawk M1 router and iPad.
Regardless of location, the fastest speeds I was able to get out of the Atom XL on Google Fi were 2.79Mbps down and 0.25Mbps up. Sitting at my desk, my Pixel 3 hits 15Mbps down and 2Mbps up. Outside, the Pixel 3 hits about 20Mbps down. In the same outdoor location, I saw about 2Mbps from the Atom XL. The Atom XL also consistently showed a weaker signal than the Pixel 3 when checked in identical locations.
The Atom XL notched similarly disappointing results when connected to my Wi-Fi network. I have a gigabit Mediacom connection with an Eero tri-band mesh Wi-Fi system, and the Atom XL was never able to manage more than 33.2Mbps down and 43.3Mbps up regardless of location. When measured near the router alongside the Atom XL, my HP Spectre x360 laptop pulled down 230Mbps.
While the data speeds I saw from the Atom XL were universally low compared to the hardware I use on a daily basis, I was still able to use the Atom XL for most tasks without too much of an issue. Wi-Fi speeds were plenty fast enough to stream YouTube videos and music, and I was even able to watch some football highlights on YouTube over the cellular data connection at 480p.
In addition to the basics, the Atom XL also features built-in digital mobile radio (DMR) walkie-talkie functionality. To access this feature, you simply screw in the included antenna and launch the included app. It’s fully programmable, allowing you to set up custom channels for single and group communication, with a theoretical range of almost 5 miles with line of sight and perfect conditions.
The Atom XL looks like it features dual front-facing speakers, above and below the display, but it doesn’t. It actually has a single rear-facing speaker located near the bottom of the handset. As a testament to how well the phone is sealed up, placing your finger over the grill nearly mutes it, and you can feel the air vibrating.
The speaker is loud, and clear enough for the most part, but the sound is hollow and tinny. For example, I queued up “Believer” by Imagine Dragons, and it sounded okay during the vocals. When the instrumental kicked in, it sounded like a hollow, muddy mess, and I was unable to pick out individual instruments.
The good news is the phone comes with a headphone jack, so you can go ahead and plug in your favorite set of earbuds and forget about the speaker altogether if you like. And as an added bonus, it has a built-in FM radio that uses your earbud cord as an antenna. I was able to plug in some earbuds and tune in to dozens of local radio stations. In an emergency situation, with the internet and cellular data connections out, that could really come in handy.
Call quality is excellent, and that’s really the important thing with a phone that’s designed primarily for work.
Call quality is excellent, and that’s really the important thing with a phone that’s designed primarily for work. Voices came through crystal clear when calling on both Wi-Fi and cellular connections over Google Fi, and nobody had any trouble understanding me, even in loud environments.
With a 48MP camera, I was looking forward to snapping some great shots with this phone. Unfortunately, the results are significantly worse than I get from my two-year-old Pixel 3’s 12.2MP camera. The pictures it takes are okay, but they suffer from uneven exposure, poor color reproduction, and are even blurrier than I get out of the Pixel 3.
The camera does feature a pro mode that lets you adjust things like ISO, exposure, and white balance manually, but I wasn’t able to achieve remarkably better results than the default.
Results were similarly disappointing when recording video. It works, and it’s there if you need it, but this isn’t the phone you’re looking for if fantastic photos and videos are something you care a lot about.
The Atom XL packs in a big 4,300mAh battery, which is a capacity that’s typically associated with bigger phones that have larger screens. With its tiny, power-sipping display, I found that the Atom XL had enough juice to last over two days of regular use between charges. That makes it perfectly suited to weekend hiking trips where power isn’t exactly at a surplus.
If you’re using this phone on the job site, with the DMR app active all day long, your experience is likely to be different. The DMR app is pretty power-hungry, so you’d probably end up charging every day instead of skipping days.
The Atom XL ships with a slightly modified version of Android 10 that runs great. The biggest difference between this implementation and stock is that it doesn’t have an app drawer. That’s right: installed apps are just dumped on the home screen like an iPhone. I was able to restore app drawer functionality easily enough by installing a custom launcher, and I was on my way.
The phone also features three physical buttons at the bottom instead of the on-screen software buttons seen in most modern Android phones. The left one functions as a back button, the middle one is the familiar home button, launches Google Assistant with a long push, and also functions as a fingerprint sensor, and you can double-tap the right one at any time to bring up the app switcher.
Other than that, it seems like pretty standard Android 10 from what I was able to tell. It was perfectly usable despite the small screen size.
The Atom XL has an MSRP of just $330, which is pretty good for such a small phone that performs this well and packs in extra features like an FM radio, DMR walkie-talkie, IP68 water/dust resistance, and a MIL-STD-810G durability rating. Early adopters were able to snag it for even less than that through the wildly successful Kickstarter, but it’s still a great deal at the current price.
It’s tough to find a direct competitor for the Atom XL due to its size, price, and feature set, but the Kyocera DuraForce PRO2 is definitely targeted at the same market.
With an MSRP of $450, the DuraForce PRO2 (view at Amazon) is definitely pricier. It does offer similar rugged construction though, with the same MIL-STD-810G certification, and an impressive Dragontrail PRO impact and scratch-resistant display. The DuraForce PRO2 also features a slightly larger 5-inch display and a slightly smaller 3,240mAh battery. It’s also a bit thinner, although weighs about the same overall.
While the DuraForce PRO 2 is designed to stand up to the same sort of rough use as the Atom XL, it lacks DMR. That means the Atom XL is going to be your choice, hands down if you want to ditch your physical DMR device and use your phone instead. If you don’t use DMR on a daily basis, then the Atom XL is still the stronger choice due to its price point, as long as you don’t mind the tiny screen.
Still need some more time before making a decision? See our guide to the best smartphones.
Worth a look even if you don’t need the walkie-talkie feature.
The Atom XL is a niche device from a company that specializes in finding niches and providing the exact product the niche calls for. It should already be on your radar if you use DMR every day, and if you don’t it’s still an impressively small and rugged phone that also performs the same sort of tasks you might ask of any Android phone without complaint. The tiny screen will be a dealbreaker for some, but it’s perfect for anyone who wants a phone that just works, and isn’t terribly interested in trolling Pinterest or Instagram and playing games in their off time.
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