Kyocera has cemented itself as a maker of water-resistant phones with its splash-friendly Hydro line. The company's latest is the Hydro Life, a prepaid phone that costs only $150 off contract, before taxes, and available exclusively on T-Mobile's prepaid service and MetroPCS (a T-Mobile subsidy). The phones are identical and I'm reviewing the T-Mobile version here.
The standout feature of the Hydro Life is that's designed to hold up to the elements. It's military graded for ruggedness, dustproof, and water resistant. Otherwise, this Android 4.3 phone is a bit forgettable, with a weak camera and sluggish performance.
The Hydro Life is nearly identical to Boost Mobile's Kyocera Hydro Icon in design, features, specs, and price. The only differences are carrier availability, name and the camera (5 megapixels on the Hydro Life, 8 megapixels with the Icon).
Rough and tumble
Like many of Kyocera's phones, including the Hydro Vibe, the Hydro Elite, the Hydro Edge and the Brigadier, the Hydro Life is built to be tough, and it stands up well to water and tumbles. It has an IP57 rating, making it dustproof and water-resistant for up to 30 minutes under one meter of water. It also meets the Military Standard 810G, meaning it's designed to hold up under adverse conditions, such as extreme temperatures, and it can handle a fall without taking significant damage.
In my testing, the phone withstood a few splashes of water without any leaks or damage. It also survived several drops from around 3 to 4 feet above with ground with no scratches, dents or dings. The back cover even stayed perfectly in place. I even dropped it in wet sand at the beach, and was able to easily wipe it off like it never happened. That makes the Hydro Life a good phone if you spend most of your days in dusty or wet conditions.
Even though it can withstand drops, water and dust, the Hydro Life doesn't have a particularly rugged design. It features a band of shiny dark gray metal around the edges, and a soft matte textured back cover, which gives it some style. The phone feels sturdy and solid with some heft, but it's only 4.8 oz. (136 grams), so it still feels light.
At 5.18 inches tall (131.8 mm) and 2.57 inches (65.3 mm) wide, it's compact enough to fit nicely in my hands and small pants pockets. It's also comfortable to hold up to my face for a phone call. What stands out about the design is that the Hydro Life is thick, almost half an inch (officially 0.42 inch, 10.9 mm). I don't mind that though because it makes it easy to grip, thanks also in part of to the textured back cover and the phone's rounded edges.
The removable back cover is tough to pry off to get to the battery, MicroSIM card and SD card below. That's mostly because the back cover has a built-in seal that keeps water and dust out. Be careful to press the seal back into place every time you remove the back cover, otherwise you might end up with a soggy phone.
You'll find the headphone jack and power/lock button at the top edge, and the MicroUSB port at the bottom. On the left, there's a thin volume rocker.
On the front, the Hydro Life has a 4.5-inch IPS, qHD screen with a 960-by-540-pixel-resolution display, which comes in at 244.7 pixels per inch. It's certainly not as crisp as displays on today's top smartphones, but it's still easy to read. The smaller screen feels a bit cramped compared with today's larger smartphones, making typing a bit more difficult. The display itself is a bit dim, even indoors. Outside, in direct sunlight, it's hard to see the screen even at full brightness.
Aside from protecting the LCD display, the impact-resistant front glass panel plays another important role. It's used to transfer sound waves from the phone's "Smart Sonic Receiver" to your ear using vibrations that pass through the tissue in your head to your eardrum. However, you don't actually feel the vibrations. Kyocera uses this technique so it doesn't need to use an earpiece on the front of the phone, which helps keep the phone watertight.
The Hydro Life is running 2-year-old Android Jelly Bean 4.3, which is a few steps behind the current Android 4.4 KitKat that comes standard on many phones today. What's worse, though, is that Kyocera's custom design competes with the traditional Android style, with elements of both onscreen. There's both a sleek Jelly Bean-styled notification menu, and a confusing, clunky lock screen. It's also difficult to edit your home screens, as there is one menu to add new screens and add widgets, and another menu to delete or rearrange some of your home screens.
With Android 4.3 comes the typical Google apps, such as Gmail, Maps and Calendar. There's also a persistent search bar at the top of each home screen, which is helpful, but you can't remove it easily if you don't want it there.
Kyocera also included a few of its own apps. Some are useful, such as MagniFont, which makes the phone's system larger and easier to read, and a file manager. Others are redundant, such as photo gallery app Graphics, because the phone also comes with the standard Gallery photo app, which is part of the Android OS. There's also a separate Panorama photo app, which is unnecessary because that feature is built into the main camera app.
Additionally, T-Mobile packs a few of its own apps, including Visual Voicemail, which manages your voicemails, and My Account, where you can see your account activity.
Camera and video
The Hydro Life is equipped with a 5-megapixel main camera and a 2-megapixel front-facing camera. I've found that in low-end Android phones, the camera is often a weak spot, and that's especially true here.
The good news is that photos taken with the Hydro Life look natural and bright, (though often overexposed). In many close-up shots, you can capture fine details easily, and autofocus works well. The bad news is that colors look flat and dull, and many photos aren't crisp.