Kyocera Hydro Vibe review: Splash-happy budget phone cuts corners

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In this outdoor photo, the top-left side is completely overblown, and the flowers are not in focus at all. Lynn La/CNET

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After multiple trials, I was finally able to snap a clear picture of these roses. Only the left one and a few of its leaves came out sharply, however. Lynn La/CNET

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This indoor shot was taken after several attempts at focusing. You can still see plenty of fuzzy edges, however, and none of the faces are in focus. Lynn La/CNET

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In our standard studio shot, objects are in focus, and the white balance is accurate. However, colors appear muted and washed out. Lynn La/CNET

Both the rear and front-facing cameras have several editing features like five white-balance options, three exposure settings, a meter to adjust brightness, and three quality levels. They also have a self timer, geotagging, and a compositional grid option, and they can record video in two formats with the option of audio muting.

Understandably, the 8-megapixel camera does pack more options. It has seven shooting modes, including HDR, panorama, and continuous shooting, while the front-facing shooter has only four. It has an additional meter to adjust contrast, and one more ISO level (bringing the total to five). The rear camera can take photos up to eight sizes (ranging from 640x480 to 3,264x2,448-pixels) while the front only has four, (and reaches as high as 1,600x1,200-pixels). It also can record up to six resolutions (from MMS to 1080pHD), in comparison to the front, which can shoot three sizes, at 720p.

Finally, the rear shooter has a flash and digital zoom, six scene modes, four focus settings (like macro and auto), blink detection, and time lapse.

Performance

In our San Francisco offices, I tested the dual-band (CDMA 850/1900) Hydro Vibe, where call quality was unimpressive. Although none of my calls dropped, volume range was adequate, and I was able to clearly understand everything my calling partner said without any disruption from extraneous static, audio came off harsh and tinny. Keep in mind that the device is equipped with Smart Sonic Receiver technology. This means that, in lieu of a visible in-ear speaker, the handset has a ceramic transducer inside. This transmits sound waves from the phone through the cartilage in your ear, with the intention of boosting audio quality and clarity.

Although I had no problems with clarity, my friend's voice did sound extremely thin, notably lacking resonance and depth. The moment the conversation began, I could immediately tell how unpleasantly sharp the audio sounded. During times of absolute silence, I also heard a subtle and consistent buzzing sound. It wasn't very distracting but still present nonetheless. The audio speaker sounded a bit better, though not by much. Again, the volume range was appropriate, and my friend's voice had more breadth to it. I was also able to comprehend what was being said, though conversations still sounded too pinched.

Kyocera Hydro Vibe (Sprint) call quality sample

Though the Hydro Vibe is enabled with Spark, the carrier's branded version of its optimized 4G LTE service, I was not in a location that enabled my review unit to latch onto the network. Instead, it defaulted to 3G, and data speeds were notably slow, even for Sprint's 3G network. On average, it loaded CNET's mobile site in about 36 seconds and our full desktop site in about 1 minute and 12 seconds. The New York Times' mobile and desktop sites took 30 seconds, and 1 minute and 34 seconds to load, respectively. ESPN's mobile site downloaded in about 32 seconds, while it took 42 seconds to load the full site. Downloading the 48.47MB game of Temple Run 2 took especially long; on average, it took a whopping 42 minutes and 25 seconds to download. Finally, the Ookla speed-test app showed me an average of 0.27Mbps down and 0.42Mbps up.

Kyocera Hydro Vibe performance times

Average 3G download speed 0.27
Average 3G upload speed 0.42
App download (Temple Run 2) 48.47MB in 42 minutes and 25 seconds
CNET mobile site load 36 seconds
CNET desktop site load 1 minute and 12 seconds
Restart time 44 seconds
Camera boot time 2.45 seconds

Because it is powered by a quad-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon processor, it is one of the more powerful Kyocera devices available. In general, it didn't have any problems executing common but necessary tasks, like calling up the keyboard, launching the app drawer, or opening simple apps. And though I've seen higher frame rates and more polished graphics when I play the graphics-intensive game Riptide GP 2 on more top-tier handsets, my gaming experience on this phone was smooth. The app never force-quit or stuttered, it was responsive to my moves, and it loaded in an appropriate amount of time.

One problem that I did have with my unit, however, was that random apps would unexpectedly launch even though I didn't touch the device. At one time or another, Google Voice Search, Chrome, the flashlight app, the camera, and other third-party apps would open, even though the handset was laying idle. This happened every 10 or 20 minutes, but if I put the phone to sleep, the issue would stop.

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A few of the phone's 3G data times (left) and its Quadrant highest result. Screenshots by Lynn La/CNET

Benchmark results showed its best Quadrant score was 8,244, and its Linpack result was 227.008MFLOPs in 0.74-second. These results are distinctly midrange, and comparable to that of the Motorola Moto G, which had a Quadrant and Linpack score of 8,526 and 249.887MFLOPs in 0.68 seconds, respectively. The LG Lucid 3 scored 8,989 on Quadrant, and 214.589MFLOPs in 0.79 seconds for Linpack. On average, it took about 44 seconds to restart the the Hydro Vibe and 2.45 seconds to launch its camera.

Anecdotally, the device's 2,000mAh battery appears to be long-lasting. It can easily survive a workday with mild to heavy usage without needing a charge, and it can last overnight on standby without being plugged in. It has a reported talk time of 14 hours, and indeed during our official lab test for talk time, it lasted 14 hours and 55 minutes. According to FCC radiation measurements, the handset has a digital SAR rating of 1.29W/kg.

Conclusion

If you're a Sprint customer in dire need of a water-resistant phone, the Hydro Vibe is one of your best options. It's bigger and much more modern in both looks and OS than the Hydro Edge and the Motorola Admiral. And compared to the latter, it's $40 cheaper on-contract. Though, if you don't mind its ultrarugged looks, I'd recommend the Kyocera Torque above the Vibe. Even though it's an older device, it has fantastic audio speakers and a better camera (despite just having a 5-megapixel lens).

However, if water resistance isn't an absolute priority, the carrier has many better alternatives. The Galaxy S3, for example, may sound like Samsung's flagship from yesteryear, but this free-contract handset is still solid. It can be updated to Android 4.4 KitKat, and it has a sharper 4.8-inch screen and a higher-capacity battery. If you want something a bit more recent, the Motorola Moto X may cost $20 more with a carrier agreement, but it's customizable, it has reliable camera, and an excellent X8 processor that is much more superior than the Vibe's CPU.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Technology CDMA2000 1X
  • Service Provider Sprint PCS
    Virgin Mobile
  • Weight 4.9 oz
  • Diagonal Size 4.5 in
  • Sensor Resolution 8 pixels
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