Kyocera Hydro Elite (Verizon) review: Kyocera's best waterproof Hydro to date

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MSRP: $349.99

The Good The inexpensive Kyocera Hydro Elite is a compact, waterproof handset with wireless charging, a decent camera, and expandable memory.

The Bad Sluggish internal speeds and mediocre call quality bog down the device's performance.

The Bottom Line Kyocera's Elite will quench Verizon users' thirst for a stylish and reasonably priced water-resistant phone -- just don't expect it to be a powerful speed demon.

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7.5 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7

With every new waterproof Hydro device, Kyocera adds incremental, but necessary improvements. But with the $49.99 on-contract Hydro Elite from Verizon, I'm glad to see Kyocera made even bigger strikes.

True, Verizon offers plenty of great, if not better, non-waterproof phones as well, and the handset's still hampered by some of the same problems often seen in Kyocera smartphones--a slow processor and average call quality, for example. But its notable spec improvements make it the best Hydro phone Kyocera yet.

Living up to its "elite" name, the device sports a more stylish design and an upgraded 8-megapixel camera. In addition, not only does it have 4G LTE (bringing the total now to three Kyocera handsets in the US with LTE), but it's also the company's first Android smartphone on Verizon Wireless.

Compared to Kyocera's past line of Hydros (which include the original, the Edge, and the Xtrm), the Elite looks the most modern and compact. Gone are the bulbous profile and the toy-like rounded corners I usually expect. Instead, much like the sleek Sony Xperia Z, you wouldn't be able to guess that they are both waterproof devices, and with its squarish corners and narrow width, the Elite actually looks a bit like the iPhone 4.

The Elite measures 4.82 inches tall, 2.38 inches wide, 0.43 inches thick, and weighs 4.51 ounces. Its left and right edges house a volume rocker and Micro-USB port, respectively. Up top are a 3.5mm headphone jack and a sleep/power button marked by a small red line.

Kyocera Hydro Elite (back)
The Elite's back is stylized with lines that resemble a wood panel. Josh Miller/CNET

Its back's top half is stylized with a glossy, wood-panel design, and features a rear-facing camera, LED flash, and two small slits for the audio speaker. The bottom half (which makes up the battery door) has a matte, dimpled texture that helps with grip. A small indentation at the bottom edge enables you to pry off the battery door. Inside, you'll find a 2,100mAh battery, and slots for a microSD card (up to 32GB) and SIM card.

Clear and responsive, the smartphone's 4.3-inch HD touch screen has a 1,280x720-pixel resolution. Although I could see speckling when the screen displays a swatch of white, as well as some color banding with dark colors when I watched HQ videos on YouTube, for the most part, text and icons looked sharp, the screen was adequately bright, and it was sensitive to the touch. It was one of the more accurate screens I handled from Kyocera, and as a result, texting was much easier on the device's digital keyboard than other past products.

Below the display to the right is a small light that blinks on and off for notifications. Above the display is a 1.3-megapixel camera. You'll notice that there is no in-ear speaker next to it. That's because the Elite features Smart Sonic Receiver technology. This means that the phone has a ceramic transducer inside that transmits audio via the hard tissue inside your ear, thus providing audio without the need for another speaker. It works comparably to an in-ear speaker, though with the phone's call quality (which I will explain in more detail below), I didn't find it to perform any better than having a speaker.

Go ahead and dunk it
The handset can withstand being splashed with water and "blowing rain," according to Kyocera. It can also reportedly survive a full dunking in up to a meter's depth for 30 minutes. Though we didn't have a deep pool to test that spec out, I can attest that the Elite is indeed waterproof enough for our tests. It kept on ticking after several dunkings, and lived through 30 minutes of being completely underwater in a shallow bowl. Lastly, it endured staying in a 20 minute shower, where it repeatedly got wet and splashed.

Kyocera Hydro Elite (water)
No harm, no foul: The Elite can withstand up to 30 minutes under a meter of water. Josh Miller/CNET

Software features
Three software add-ons that are unique to Kyocera handsets are MagniFont, MaxiMZR, and EcoMode. MagniFont improves text readability by increasing the font size one level larger than the "Extra Large" or "Huge" setting that is common in Android. Tucked under the Settings menu is MaxiMZR, which lets you limit the data connection of apps running in the background to conserve battery life. Finally, EcoMode adjusts certain device settings (like the dimness of your screen or turning on/off haptic feedback) to conserve energy.

Out of the box, the phone runs Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean. Though I'd like to see a more recent version of the OS, the Elite still packs plenty of features like Google Now, which you can access by long-pressing the home key and swiping up. It also comes with Chrome, Gmail, Plus, Local, Maps with Navigation, Messenger, Search, Talk, and YouTube. The Google Play stores for Books, Magazines, Movies & TV, and Music are included as well.

Verizon threw in a bunch of its own apps too, like My Verizon Mobile, which lets you check your data use and minutes; Verizon Tones music and media store; the video portal, Viewdini; and an app for video calling that just prompts you to download either ooVoo or Tango. The carrier also included apps for setting up visual voice mail and your mobile hot spot, its branded navigating app, and VZ Security.

Kyocera Hydro Elite (software)
MagniFont (left) increases text size while EcoMode helps conserve battery power. Lynn La/CNET

There are also basic task-management apps, such as an alarm clock, a calculator, a calendar, a native e-mail client, a video editor, an audio recorder, two redundant weather apps (though one of them includes news), and a voice dialer.

Other apps include several Amazon apps (the store itself, Kindle, MP3, its app store, and Audible), an app for American Express cardholders, Facebook, NFL Mobile, the mobile office suite Polaris Office 4.0, a gaming portal, a DiXiM media player, Slacker Radio, and the IMDB movie database app.

Lastly, you'll get Bluetooth 4.0, 16GB of internal storage, 1.5GB of RAM, and wireless charging -- a first for a Kyocera smartphone in the US.

As an aside, it's important to note that while you can always transfer files (like photos and videos) from your Elite to your computer via a microSD card or Bluetooth, I personally ran into some trouble transferring files directly from the handset to my computer through a direct USB cable connection. Kyocera has confirmed with me that this is a compatibility issue that the Elite has with some PCs. According to the company's statement, it will address this issue in an "upcoming over-the-air-software update to Hydro Elite."

Camera and video
Unlike past Hydro devices that usually feature a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera, this handset packs an 8-megapixel camera instead. And while photo quality still had room to improve, especially in terms of focus and sharpness, pictures taken on the Elite were some of the better ones I've seen on any Kyocera phone. Overall, images were easy to make out, colors were true-to-life (though could've been a bit more vibrant), and touch focus worked quickly enough.

The rear-facing and 1.3-megapixel cameras both had three different auto exposures, a brightness meter, five white balance options, image stabilization, three picture qualities, a timer, optional grid lines, and geotagging.

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