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

Sure, the hefty Kyocera DuraForce for AT&T is built like a truck. But its performance lumbers, too.

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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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9 min read

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.

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6.7

Kyocera DuraForce (AT&T)

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.

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.

Kyocera's tough DuraForce doesn't shy away from water (pictures)

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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.

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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.

Camera and video

Photo quality for the rear camera was poor and disappointing compared with that of Kyocera's other phones with 8-megapixel shooters (like the Brigadier , for example, which took better pictures). The camera took photos that were blurry and out of focus; objects often had blurry outlines. Colors looked dull and muted, and every now and then white hues had a blue tinge to them. Light sources were often washed out and the camera itself felt slow. 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 outdoor photo, even still objects and the buildings look blurry. Lynn La/CNET

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This indoor photo was one of the "best" of the bunch I shot. You can still see, however, the blue tinge to the right that appears with light sources. Lynn La/CNET

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Another indoor picture with out-of-focus objects and muted colors. Lynn La/CNET

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In our standard studio shot, this image has a noticeable blue tinge to it, objects are fuzzy, and colors look drab. Josh Miller/CNET

Video was also amiss. Though audio picked up well, the feedback between my moving of the camera and what I saw in the viewfinder was noticeably delayed. It also took a long time for the camera to focus, and even then objects looked fuzzy. The familiar blue-tinge was still present during recordings as well.

Both cameras have several editing tools, like digital zoom, five types of white balances, and four shooting modes (like continuous shooting and color effect, the latter of which enables users to pick from 24 filters for the camera). There are also three exposure options, a brightness meter, optical image stabilization, at least four ISO levels, and a timer. The cameras have three picture qualities, geotagging, optional grid lines, and can take pictures while recording too.

As expected, the rear lens, however, has a few more features. These include six scenes choices like landscape and action, four more shooting modes such as HDR and panorama, 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 can record only up to 720p HD.

Performance: Call quality

I tested the DuraForce in our San Francisco offices using AT&T's network. Call quality was impressive. Unlike some past experiences I had with Kyocera devices, calls didn't sound high-pitched or crackly at all. Instead, audio was consistent and reliable, I didn't hear any extraneous buzzing or sound and my calling partner's voice had little to no distortion. Thanks to the dual front-facing speaker grilles, external speaker was even better. Voices, music, and video came off very loud, but even-toned and wide. As for my partner, she reported that our line sounded clear without any static or signs of muffling.

Podcast

Data speeds, processing speed and battery life

The DuraForce clocked in with mostly fast 4G LTE data speeds. According to Ookla's speed test app, its average download rate was around 25.32Mbps and its upload rate was 9.74Mbps. In general, it took 6 and 7 seconds to load CNET's mobile and desktop sites, respectively. The New York Times' mobile page finished loading after 8 seconds and its desktop version loaded in 4. The mobile site for ESPN displayed after 4 seconds as well, and 7 seconds passed for the full Web page. Lastly, the 43.70MB game Temple Run 2 finished downloading and installing in about 31 seconds. During my testing, however, there were times when Web browsing speeds were inconsistent. For example, a website that would usually take just a few seconds to load would take unusually long sometimes. Other times, loading would stall altogether,and the page ended up never fully displaying.

Kyocera DuraForce (AT&T) Performance Times

Average 4G LTE download speed 25.32Mbps
Average 4G LTE upload speed 9.74Mbps
Temple Run 2 app download (43.70MB) 31 seconds
CNET mobile site load 6 seconds
CNET desktop site load 7 seconds
Restart time 47 seconds
Camera boot time 1.99 seconds

The device features a 1.4GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor from Qualcomm. Daily and necessary tasks like opening up the app drawer, returning to the home screen and calling up the keyboard were executed with ease. I did notice though, that quickly scrolling down Internet sites lagged a bit. Benchmark results mirrored real-world observations. The handset's best Quadrant score was 9,918, which is slightly better than the first-gen Motorola Moto X and the LG G3 Vigor (both scored around the 8,500 mark). In addition, its best multithread Linpack result was 265.199MFLOPs in 0.64 seconds. And it took about 47 seconds for the phone to restart, and 1.99 seconds to launch the camera.

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

Anecdotal observations for the 3,1000mAh battery were disappointing. Juice ran out quickly with medium to light usage, and it didn't last overnight on standby with a starting percentage of 50 percent. It has a reported standby time of up to 21 days and a talk time of 17 hours. During our battery drain test for continuous video playback, it lasted 12 hours and 58 minutes. (In comparison Verizon's Brigadier lasted over 19 hours.) According to FCC radiation measurements, the phone has a SAR rating of 1.11W/kg.

Conclusion

As far as rugged devices go, the DuraForce is AT&T's least expensive option at $50 on-contract. And if you want to just make calls, send texts, and casually browse the Web with that extra peace of mind that comes with having a durable handset, Kyocera's phone should suit you nicely.

But if want something that is faster and takes better photos, consider the Samsung Galaxy Rugby Pro or Galaxy S5 Active . Sure, you'll need to chalk up extra dough for these water resistant devices (which cost $100 and $200 with an agreement, respectively), but you'll definitely have a smoother user experience.

Alternatively, AT&T has nonrugged smartphones that fit within the $50 price range and perform well, like the recent LG G3 Vigor and the comfortable Motorola Moto X (2013) . And if you're willing to spend $30 more, the Galaxy S4 has seen some significant price cuts from carriers. That's mostly due to the fact that the handset is Samsung's marquee phone from last year, but it's still a fast and reliable device nonetheless.

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6.7

Kyocera DuraForce (AT&T)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 6