Kyocera Brigadier (Verizon Wireless) review: Sapphire-sporting Android can take a tumble, but has a few stumbles

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CNET Editors' Rating

3.5 stars Very good
  • Overall: 7.5
  • Design: 7.0
  • Features: 8.0
  • Performance: 7.0

Average User Rating

3 stars 2 user reviews
Review Date:

The Good Verizon's extremely durable Kyocera Brigadier has an ultrastrong sapphire screen, a convenient programmable key, and a competitive on-contract price tag.

The Bad The handset has a hefty build, call quality for the in-ear speaker is poor, and the camera has difficulty with white balance.

The Bottom Line If you don't mind its extra bulk, the Kyocera Brigadier is a rugged and water-resistant device that delivers a modern smartphone experience for a low price.

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If I had to bring any smartphone onto a battlefield, it would be Verizon's Kyocera Brigadier. Not just because its name is aptly suited for it, but also because the device is tough. Real tough. Not only does it have a fortified encasing, it's also the first mass-market handset to feature a sapphire display, which can withstand whatever scuffs, scratches, and drops you'll pit against it. The handset is also water resistant, so it can survive a thorough submersion.

With a phone this rugged and affordable (it's $50 on-contract, or $400 without), you'd expect it to cut corners when it comes to other features. But the Brigadier still has all the fixings you'll find on most quality, midtier Android devices on the market, including 4G LTE, Android 4.4 KitKat, and a quad-core processor.

Of course, no phone is without its drawbacks. In-ear call quality sounds thin and hollow, and its camera struggles with white balance and color tone. So if you want a more premium phone without all that bulky protection, Verizon has plenty in stock for the same price if not cheaper. But if you want something with a bit more muscle, the Brigadier is an inexpensive and enduring option that won't shy away from a fight.

Design

The device sports an austere, industrial design, with a thick plastic and rubber encasing. It measures 5.37 inches tall, 2.69 inches wide, and 0.52 inch thick. At 6.6 ounces, it's heavier than most handsets, and it'll be a snug fit in your front jeans pockets. However, given its durability, this extra heft is understandable, and it isn't much bulkier than, say, a smartphone inside a protective OtterBox case. Plus, given the size of previous rugged Kyocera devices, like the Torque, the Brigadier is actually relatively slimmer.

On the left are a volume rocker and a convenient programmable button that you can customize to launch any app like the Chrome browser, your email, or the flashlight (which is useful for outdoor activities). There's also a loop on the bottom left corner to secure a lanyard. Up top are the 3.5mm headphone jack, a shortcut key for the audio speaker, and a sleep/power button. To the right is another quick key for the camera, and slots for the SIM card and the microSD card (it accepts cards of capacities up to 32GB. Finally, at the bottom is a Micro-USB port for charging. All ports can be sealed by secure door flaps and need to be tightly closed if you want to ensure that your device remains operational after a dip in the water.

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On the phone's left edge is a red programmable button that can launch any app of your choosing. Josh Miller/CNET

On the front there is the 4.5-inch HD screen (more on that later), with three hotkeys below it. These bulbous buttons bulge out from the surface of the handset and are easy to feel for. They're used to navigate to back, home (or Google Now if you long-press it), and recent apps. Beneath that row of keys is the wide speaker grille that has proven itself to be very loud (read on for more on that as well).

The rear houses an 8-megapixel camera lens, with its flash to the right. Though the 3,100mAh battery has wireless charging capabilities, it cannot be removed (two screws on the bottom corners make sure of that). This may be inconvenient for those who like to swap out their battery often, but it does mean one fewer seam for water to seep through.

Built tough

As mentioned before, the phone's screen is made out of sapphire crystal, which is second only to diamond in terms of strength and durability. This doesn't mean you'll see any blue gems inside the Brigadier or anything. Instead, it's a synthetic, lab-grown crystal used in the aerospace, medical, and military industries, and has other applications such as LED TVs, light bulbs, and windows. As tough as it is, however, it's also completely transparent and can be cut into wafer-thin slices.

We've encountered devices with sapphire displays before, like Vertu's $11,300 Signature Touch. But the Brigadier is the first mass-market and affordable handset to have such a screen. Kyocera created the material in-house, and trademarked it as its own Sapphire Shield.

In addition to the enduring display, the phone also features Kyocera's Smart Sonic receiver technology. Already seen in previous devices like the Torque, the receiver works in lieu of a visible in-ear speaker usually affixed to the front side of a handset. Rather, the Brigadier is equipped with a ceramic transducer that transmits sound waves from the device through the cartilage in a user's ear.

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With its sapphire display, the Brigadier can endure more abuse than the usual smartphone. Josh Miller/CNET

During my time with the phone, I didn't notice any difference between the sapphire screen and any other standard handset displays. It was easily viewable outdoors, responsive to the touch, and had adequately wide viewing angles. Putting it through a battery of tests, I repeatedly dropped it on both cement and wood floors face down. A number of times, I even put a hard stone on the ground and dropped the device directly on it. I also scratched the display with a set of keys and rubbed it repeatedly over a tray of small and craggy aquarium stones.

Fortunately, none of these tests cracked or damaged the screen. And even though I had to wipe it clean a few times due to the residue of these tests, neither a scuff nor a scratch was left on the display.

As for the rest of the Brigadier, it survived several tumbles and bounces down four flights of stairs -- three times. Parts of its plastic encasing did manage to gather a few scars from the falls, but the handset was still completely operational. It also lived through 30 minutes inside a running shower, as well as 30 minutes of complete submersion in a narrow vase (though it can survive in up to 6 feet of water). During this dunk test, I launched its own timer app to keep track of the time, which kept ticking underwater, and the device was able to register an incoming call as well.

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Pools, beaches, fountains, and sinks are A-OK territory for the Brigadier. Josh Miller/CNET

In the end of it all, this phone can truly take a beating. It will surely live through the abuses users inflict on it every day, as well as more extreme situations. So whether you're the outdoorsy type who hikes and surfs every day, or a parent who wants that extra peace of mind around spill-prone children, you can rest easy with this handset.

Software features

It's great to see the Brigadier running a fairly recent version of Android KitKat (4.4.2, to be exact), and it comes with such Google app mainstays as Gmail, Search, Plus, Hangouts, Maps, Photos, and YouTube, as well as portals to the Play store, Books, Games, Movies and TV, Music, and Newsstand.

To emphasize the outdoorsiness of the device, Kyocera packaged a compass widget and a barometer, which measures your altitude and atmospheric pressure. You'll also get other Kyocera staples like its battery conserver tool called Eco Mode, and MagniFont, which increases the UI's font size to a degree slightly larger than your standard Android handset.

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Unique built-in software features include a compass widget (left) and a barometer app. Lynn La/CNET

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Technology CDMA2000 1X / GSM / WCDMA (UMTS)
  • Service Provider Verizon Wireless
  • Weight 6.6 oz
  • Diagonal Size 4.5 in
  • Sensor Resolution 8 pixels
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