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Kyocera DuraForce (AT&T) review: Cheap, waterproof phone is strong like ox, but flounders on performance

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The Good AT&T's Kyocera DuraForce features a tough and waterproof construction, push-to-talk capabilities, impressive call and audio quality, and a competitive price tag.

The Bad The handset comes with a lot of bloatware you can't get rid of, its camera takes poor photos, its processor is sluggish at times and its battery drains quickly.

The Bottom Line Get the Kyocera DuraForce if a rugged handset is a priority; otherwise, AT&T has other handsets in the same price range with better cameras and faster internal speeds.

6.7 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 6

Like many Kyocera devices, the DuraForce is designed to withstand more severe forms of rough-and-tumble abuse. With its rugged and water resistant construction, the phone can survive a drop down the stairs without any too much damage, and it can be submerged underwater for up to 30 minutes and keep on ticking. It's also competitively priced at $50 with an AT&T two-year service agreement, or $399 without, and is compatible with the carrier's push-to-talk (PTT) service.

Unfortunately, the DuraForce isn't a particular "force" to be reckoned with when it comes to performance. Its 8-megapixel camera takes blurry and bland photos, its processor can feel slow and its battery doesn't observably last very long.

With its passable specs and low price, you can consider the DuraForce if you're price-conscious and absolutely need a durable device. Otherwise, you'll need to pay more for phones like the faster and superior (but less rugged) Samsung Galaxy S5 Active . If you're willing to ditch the protection altogether and are still on a budget, consider the LG G3 Vigor , first-gen Motorola Moto X or even Samsung's previous Galaxy S4 flagship, instead.

Design

Sporting an industrial aesthetic, the DuraForce is encased with thick plastic and rubber. measures 5.39 inches tall, 2.78 inches wide, and 0.55 inch thick. Because of its ruggedness, the device is heftier than most handsets (7.06 ounces to be exact), but doesn't feel any more heavier than, say, a regular smartphone inside a rugged case like an OtterBox. In either case, don't expect it to comfortably fit inside your jean pockets.

On the left are a volume rocker and a convenient programmable button outlined in red that you can customize to launch any app like the camera, the flashlight (which is useful for outdoor activities), or the carrier's PTT service . 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 are 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 the DuraForce remains operational after a dip in the water.

The backside houses an 8-megapixel camera lens, with its flash to the right. Inside is a nonremovable 3,100mAh battery. 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.

The DuraForce has a thick and durable encasing that protects it from the elements. Josh Miller/CNET

The 4.5-inch HD display has a 1,280x720-pixel resolution and users can still operate it with work gloves on. The screen is bright, and text and apps look sharp. Videos play clearly and the device is easily viewable outdoors. In addition, the screen is sensitive and responsive to the touch. Below the display are three physical hotkeys below it for back, home, and recent apps. (The center home button also launches Google Now with a long press). Beneath that row of keys is the wide speaker grille that has proven itself to be very loud (more on that later). The handset is also equipped with 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 located above the screen. The technology consists of a ceramic transducer that transmits sound waves from the phone through the cartilage in a user's ear.

Built tough

The DuraForce is dust-, shock- and waterproof. It is waterproof under the IPX5 and IPX8 standard, meaning it can survive being jetted by water and submerged in up to 6 feet of water for 30 minutes. The device isn't functional underwater; you'll need to make sure that its ports are correctly and securely sealed beforehand.

To test its ruggedness, I repeatedly dropped it on both cement and wood floors face down. It also took several tumbles and bounces down four flights of stairs. Fortunately, none of these tests cracked or damaged the handset or its screen. Parts of its plastic casing did manage to gather a few scars from the falls, but the phone was still completely operational and the display remained unscathed.

Water is no problem for this handset (as long as all its ports are properly sealed). Josh Miller/CNET

As for its water resistant, the DuraForce kept ticking after being submerged for 30 minutes in a narrow vase. During this dunk test, I also launched its own timer app to keep track of the time, and the device was able to register an incoming call as well.

In general, users who have an active lifestyle outdoors or have spill-prone children can rest easy with this handset. With my testing, it was able to take a beating, and it can certainly withstand the daily abuses users inflict on it, as well as more severe situations.

Software features

To emphasize the outdoorsiness of the DuraForce, Kyocera loaded useful tools for those with active lifestyles. There's a standalone compass widget, and one with shortcuts to said compass, as well as the barometer (which measures your altitude and atmospheric pressure), the flashlight, the GPS and more. You'll also get other Kyocera staples like its battery conserver app called Eco Mode, and MagniFont, which increases the interface's font size to a degree slightly larger than on your standard Android device. As an AT&T device, it also works with the carrier's PTT, which is a good option for companies looking to outfit its employees with PTT-enabled phones.

In addition to the usual serving of basic task managing apps like a calculator, a calendar, a notepad, an alarm clock and so on, the handset runs Android KitKat 4.4.2, and features a number of Google mainstays. These include the Chrome Web browser, Drive, Gmail, Hangouts, Maps, Now, Plus, Maps, Photos and YouTube, as well as several portals to the Play store, such as Books, Games, Movies and TV, Music and Newsstand.

Unfortunately, AT&T tossed in a ton of its own bloatware, too, most of which you can't uninstall. One is DriveMode, an app that sends out customized messages to incoming calls or texts when the smartphone's moving 25 mph or faster. FamilyMap helps locate family members on your AT&T plan, and MyAT&T lets you check your data and account info.

kyocera-duraforce-screenshots.jpg
The device's widget with useful outdoorsy apps (left) and a small sample of the phone's bloatware. Lynn La/CNET

If your DuraForce gets stolen or lost, Mobile Locate will pinpoint its location. The news app AT&T Live is included, as well as a 7-day trial to MobileTV, which lets you stream network TV shows. The carrier has its own navigation app, a user guide, and apps to help set up the mobile hotspotting and visual voice mail. You'll also get AT&T Smart Wi-Fi, which connects your device to publicly available Wi-Fi, a usage manager so you can look over your battery and data consumption, and 5GB of free cloud storage through AT&T Locker. Lastly, there's an app to invite you to join the carrier's caller ID service, and AT&T APTT, which sets up the handset's push-to-talk capabilities.

On top of that, several other third-party apps are thrown in. They are OfficeSuite; the streaming music service, Beats Music; Amazon Kindle; the DiXim player home networking service; a children's hub called Famigo; a gaming portal from WildTangent; the Keeper password manager; Lookout security; the mobile payment system, Softcard; Uber and the Yellow Pages app.

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