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

As the first mass-market smartphone with a sapphire display, Verizon's Kyocera Brigadier can take a cold, hard beating.

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Lynn La
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Lynn La

Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones

Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.

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10 min read

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.

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7.5

Kyocera Brigadier (Verizon Wireless)

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.

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.

Rugged Kyocera Brigadier brings the brawn (pictures)

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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

Verizon tossed in some of its own apps too, like its messaging platform and navigator; My Verizon Mobile, which lets you check your account status and bill; its ringtone storefront; and its antivirus scanner. Other preloaded apps include NFL Mobile, the Isis Wallet digital payment platform, the IMDb movie database app, the mobile office suite Polaris Office 5, and Slacker Radio.

Camera and video

Photo quality for the 8-megapixel camera was passable. For the most part, objects were in focus and I didn't see much lag between my moving of the camera and the viewfinder. Understandably, when shooting in environments with dimmer lighting, photos had much more digital noise and graininess, and objects had softer outlines as well. I also noticed that light sources had a severe light blue tinge to them in the live feedback, which lightened up once the photo was taken. Still, however, a few of my pictures ended up having hints of subtle blue toneage that made pictures look colder than they really were. To see more about these photos, be sure to click on them below to view them at their full resolution.

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In this indoor photo, you can see a blue tinge on the windows and the walls near the upper left corner. Lynn La/CNET

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The buildings in this dim outdoor photo are sharp, but the bushes in the foreground look a bit blurred. Lynn La/CNET

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In another picture taken outside, colors look a bit cooler than they do in real life. Lynn La/CNET

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In this close-up picture, the flower petals are in focus, but have soft outlines. Lynn La/CNET

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For our standard studio shot, you can see a slight blue hue against the white background. Lynn La/CNET

Video quality was also solid -- the lens adjusted quickly when I changed the focus point and light source while recording. Both moving and still objects were sharp, and as I mentioned before, audio playback was loud and robust. And though I could still see the cold blue tint against white-colored objects, overall footage was clear and easy to make out.

Both cameras have several editing tools, such as three exposure options, a brightness meter, optical image stabilization, at least four ISO levels, and a timer. They also have three picture qualities, geotagging, optional grid lines, and can take pictures while recording. However, the rear lens has a few more features. These include four autofocus selections, a contrast meter, blink detection, time lapse, and audio muting. There are also eight photo resolutions (ranging from 640x480 to 3,264x2,448 pixels) and five video sizes (from MMS to 1080p HD). In contrast, the front-facing shooter has five pictures sizes (from 640x480 to 1,600x1,200 pixels) and four recording options (up to 720p HD).

Performance

Call tests carried out in our San Francisco offices were poor for the in-ear speaker. Although my call never dropped, and the connection remained stable and continuous, audio sounded thin and harsh. Every time my calling partner spoke, I could hear a high-pitched scratchiness surrounding every word. In addition to the crackling, my partner also sounded hollow and sharp. This didn't render her completely incomprehensible, but it was bothersome. On the other hand, I was told that my voice didn't sound so staticky as my partner's, and audio for her was clear and fine.

The external speaker, however, fared much better. In-ear calls that were previously muffled by static suddenly transformed into crisp, powerful, clear calls on the external speaker. At max volume, music, videos, and phone calls, were extremely loud without coming off as too harsh, and audio was rich and full of depth. It's surprising how varying the experiences were between these two sound systems, but I'd rather hear my calls better with the in-ear speaker (since I use it more often) than have such a rich audio speaker experience.

Podcast

The Brigadier is 4G LTE-enabled and clocked fast and steady data speeds. On average, it took 7 and 16 seconds to load CNET's mobile and desktop sites, respectively. The New York Times' mobile page finished loading after 6 seconds and its desktop version loaded in 9. The mobile site for ESPN clocked in at 6 seconds as well, and 7 seconds passed for the full Web page. Lastly, the 48.61MB game Temple Run 2 finished downloading and installing in about 46 seconds.

Kyocera Brigadier (Verizon) performance times

Average 4G LTE download speed 7.45Mbps
Average 4G LTE upload speed 5.02Mbps
Temple Run 2 app download (48.61MB) 46 seconds
CNET mobile site load 7 seconds
CNET desktop site load 16 seconds
Restart time 47 seconds
Camera boot time 2.01 seconds

Oddly enough, given these impressive speeds, Ookla's speedtest app measured extremely low download and upload rates. After seven trials, and removing the highest and lowest scores, the device averaged out with just 7.45Mbps down and 5.02Mbps up. At its best, the handset had 18.38Mbps down and 15.63Mbps up. But at its lowest (which fell in line with most of the scores), it clocked a meager 0.55Mbps down and 0.39Mbps up. As previously mentioned, however, my Web browsing experience didn't reflect these measurements at all, since visiting sites, loading videos, and installing apps came very fast and timely on this phone.

The Brigadier's 1.4GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor is capable and adequate. It never stumbled on daily and necessary tasks like calling up the keyboard, launching an app, or browsing through the home screen. I did notice that a few things -- like rapidly scrolling down a webpage or switching from landscape to portrait mode -- took a hair longer than I wanted them to, but overall the user experience was smooth. And while I've seen higher frame rates on other more premium devices while playing the graphics-intensive game Riptide GP2, the handset loaded up the game quickly, and didn't stall or force-quit once.

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The device's Ookla speed test results (left) and its highest Quadrant score. Lynn La/CNET

As for its benchmark results, its highest Quadrant score was a respectable 10,074 and its best multithread Linpack result was 308.913MFLOPs in 0.55-second. Lastly, it took about 47 seconds for the phone to shut down and restart, and 2 seconds to launch the camera.

Anecdotal observation for the 3,100mAh battery was underwhelming. Though it was able to last a weekend on standby, I noticed that the battery drained quickly with medium to high usage. After a using it for a workday, the Brigadier was already down at 30 percent. The battery lasted 19 hours and 37 minutes for continuous talk time during our lab test. According to FCC radiation measurements, the phone has a SAR rating of 0.79W/kg.

Conclusion

With its Superman sapphire display, rugged design, and water-resistant body, the Kyocera Brigadier can endure more abuse than most regular smartphone can. It also brings its own set of distinct advantages. Compared to the Kyocera Elite , for example, it has a bigger battery and a faster processor. And though the Elite is free with an agreement, it doesn't feature any durable protection.

As for the Verizon's other hydro-friendly handset, I'll admit that the Samsung Galaxy S5 beats out the Brigadier on almost all aspects aside from ruggedness. That's because it's simply a higher-tiered flagship designed to deliver a premium smartphone experience. This includes a brighter and sharper screen, a more powerful CPU, and a nimble 16-megapixel camera. But, it's far from being budget phone since it's twice as much as the Brigadier on-contract and $200 more expensive without.

If you're looking for a high-end handset decked out with the best tech available, this device won't satisfy. But if you want an affordable and rugged device, complete with a unique piece of display technology, than the Brigadier won't have any problem carrying its weight in the ring.

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7.5

Kyocera Brigadier (Verizon Wireless)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 7
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