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Kyocera Hydro Icon review: Waterproof Icon fails to make a splash

The Kyocera Hydro Icon is waterproof and only $150, but it doesn't offer much else.

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Nate Ralph
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Nate Ralph

Associate Editor

Associate Editor Nate Ralph is an aspiring wordsmith, covering mobile software and hardware for CNET Reviews. His hobbies include dismantling gadgets, waxing poetic about obscure ASCII games, and wandering through airports.

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9 min read

Kyocera seems hell-bent on cornering the waterproof phone market. The company has cranked out droves of Android phones with so-so performance and humble designs, phones whose primary claim to fame is the ability to withstand falls and splashes with minimal fuss. Available for a respectable $150 on Boost Mobile's no-contract service, the Kyocera Hydro Icon is every bit as unassuming as its water-resistant brethren.

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5.0

Kyocera Hydro Icon

The Good

The Kyocera Hydro Icon is a sturdy, relatively inexpensive smartphone that can stand up to falls and splashes.

The Bad

Inconsistent call quality, humble performance and a sluggish camera drag this smartphone down.

The Bottom Line

The Kyocera Hydro Icon might be inexpensive and waterproof, but a general lack of noteworthy features and a rather poor camera make this one tough to recommend.

The Hydro line of rugged, waterproof phones have proven fairly consistent. They're generally affordable devices, running a version or two behind the latest generation of Android and offering meager call and camera quality -- consider the Hydro Vibe , for example. The Icon is no different: this LTE-capable phone delivers packs a decent processor and it certainly doesn't fear the average fishbowl or shower, but inconsistent call quality, a sluggish camera, and a lack of any noteworthy features make this Android smartphone one to pass up.

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The Hydro Icon can take a few bumps and splashes with ease. James Martin/CNET

Design

To most of us, a ruggedized phone means rubber brick with a cellular radio stuffed inside. They're bulky, heavy, and fairly ugly -- consider the Casio G'zOne , with a chassis only a professional stuntman (or serial klutz) could love. So it stands to reason that the comparatively svelte Kyocera Hydro Icon wouldn't inspire too much in the way of confidence. The 5.1-ounce phone is 0.43-inch thick: that isn't quite as slim as the 0.35-inches thick Samsung Galaxy S5 Active , but not bad for a device that's built to military specs, and designed to take life's splashes and tumbles with aplomb.

Take a closer look at the Kyocera Hydro Icon (pictures)

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The Kyocera Icon's 4.5-inch IPS display has a 960x540-pixel resolution -- I'll admit I've grown spoiled by devices with higher resolutions, but this is an expected tradeoff for smartphones at this price. It's actually a decent display; glare proves problematic with bright lighting in office environments and in direct sunlight, but I found I generally had to work to find the glare, tilting the display away from my eyes just so. Viewing angles are great, and no matter how awkwardly I held or tilted the phone, text remained crisp and clear, and there was little to no color shifting in images.

Behind that display is a 1.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor coupled with 1.5GB of RAM, and 8GB of internal storage, though only 4GB are accessible for apps and the like so you'll want to get a microSD card in there. The Icon supports up to 32GB cards but you'll need to remove the battery to get to the microSD and SIM card tray, which is a bit inconvenient.

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Really, who hasn't dropped their smartphone in the shower? James Martin/CNET

Many ruggedized phones use some manner of locking mechanism to guarantee that you've sealed the device correctly, whether it's a switch to slide or a screw to turn. With the Icon, you simply need to press down on the backplate to seal it -- my latent inner-worrywart will always second-guess how securely I've sealed it, but it's certainly feels rather snug, and requires a fair bit of effort to pry off. If you look on the battery-facing end of the backplate you'll also notice a rubber ring that wraps around the battery, offering up a snug last line of defense. The phone's military-standard 810G rating means it's also designed to resist drops and shocks, so the least careful of phone-owners can likely rest easy. As it stands, the phone stood up to the requisite "leaving it in the sink" and "dropping it on the ground" tests, in spite of my worries.

Software features

The Kyocera Icon seems absolutely slathered in bloatware, but there's little you can't uninstall -- most of the "apps" are actually links to the Google Play store, so you can get rid of those shortcuts. Swype comes pre-installed, which is a nice touch, and all of Google's stock apps are present and accounted for. You won't be able to remove the Boost Zone app, which serves as Boost Mobile's account management tool, as well as a third-party app marketplace. The phone is saddled with Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, but that still includes access to Google Now, you can still issue commands by way of "Ok, Google," and you can set up lock-screen widgets. You will of course be missing out on a lot of the new features introduced in Android 4.4 KitKat if the phone never gets upgraded.

A few of Kyorcera's own tools have also come along for the ride. EcoMode can tweak settings like screen brightness, haptic feedback, and vibration when your battery dips below a certain level. MaxiMZR lets you prevent certain apps from using background data when you're not actively using them, potentially saving you some battery life. Finally there's MagniFont, which lets you tweak text readability by increasing or decreasing the phone's font size. There are no game changers here, but they could prove useful to some -- if not, you can always disable (but not remove) them, and ignore them entirely.

The Icon isn't too heavily skinned, but there are a few minute differences from the stock Android experience. To start, you can choose between two user experiences: Standard mode behaves like your typical Android smartphone, while Easy mode transforms the phone into something like a souped-up feature phone. Icons become larger, and commonly used ones are automatically fixed to the primary home screen where they can't be moved. The app tray transforms into an alphabetical scrolling list of installed apps, and the notification shade (which you can still drag down to access) becomes accessible via an Alerts button running along the bottom of the phone. This is a great feature for the uninitiated, as it simplifies the smartphone experience without locking away any of the device's potential -- Samsung offers a nigh-identical feature on its own phones.

The other differences are largely cosmetic. The apps and widgets tabs that appeared in Android 4.3 Jelly Bean are accompanied by search and download tabs, while things like the dialer and camera and the appearance of folders have a decidedly different look and feel. One change to the lock screen is actually rather convenient. You can place up to three apps on a shortcut menu on the screen, and swipe for quick access to them. The defaults are the stock dialer and messaging app and the phone's camera, but you can add anything you'd like, which is incredibly convenient if you need to get to Twitter right this instant.

Camera and video

Kyocera equipped the Icon with an 8-megapixel rear shooter with an LED flash, and a 2-megapixel front-facing camera. It's a fairly sluggish shooter, taking about 2 seconds to startup, another few moments to focus, and then another second or two to capture your shot, for good measure.

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In this bright outdoor shot, many of the details appear fuzzy, but the subject is still rather clear. Nate Ralph/CNET

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Blown out highlights and muddied colors mar this outdoor shot. Nate Ralph/CNET

With a fair bit of light and a steady subject you're sure to get a fine image, though too much sunlight tends to lead to over-exposed shots. Fortunately the phone offers a few manual controls, so you can tweak the ISO or exposure settings to try and tease out a decent image.

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The camera performs best in well-lit indoor environments, though details are still lost to noise. Nate Ralph/CNET

Video is a lost cause. While the Icon can technically record 1080p video the phone struggles to perform, capturing a slow, juddering mess. Couple that with the same sluggish autofocus as the still camera, and you've got moving pictures with subjects that are pretty much unrecognizable. Things get a little bit better when you dial the recording quality to 720p or lower, but it remains a disappointing experience.

Performance and call quality

The Icon's quad-core, 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400 CPU can't really stand up a juggernaut like the Samsung Galaxy S5, but it's definitely no slouch. I never ran into any lag or stuttering while flipping through menus, and apps loaded in a nice and timely manner. The Icon fares rather well in the gaming department too. In hardware-intensive games like Dead Trigger 2, I could eke out a decent frame rate by dialing the quality settings down to medium. The less intensive Real Racing 3 sped along with nary a hitch, serving up a stutter-free experience.

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Network performance improves considerably outside of San Francisco (right), and results in Quadrant were fair (left). Screenshots by Nate Ralph/CNET

Call quality is a bit of a mixed bag. In my test calls I could generally hear my calling partners just fine, though they occasionally sounded a bit distant, and there were a few instances a static or scratchiness on my end. The Icon is equipped with what Kyocera calls a Smart Sonic Receiver, instead of a traditional speaker. The receiver transmits audio by pushing vibrations through the hard cartilage in your ear. The technology is present in a few Kyocera phones, like the Hydro Edge and Torque . The point is to boost call clarity by circumventing ambient noise, and it works well enough: despite all of the construction going on outside CNET's office, I could hear everyone I spoke with during my test calls fairly clearly.

It isn't a foolproof solution, and loud noises will still drown out audio, but it's still a nice touch. That said, the folks I spoke to occasionally sounded a bit distant, and there were a few instances where our chats peppered with slight bits of static or scratchiness. The speakerphone on the phone's rear isn't bad either. Voices occasionally sounded a bit scratchy and muffled but the audio is fairly loud, and it works well if you're driving or outdoors. Things were less rosy on the opposite end of my calls. The people I spoke to would complain of an inconsistent echo, sometimes it persisted throughout the entire call, sometimes it dissipated after a few minutes, and sometimes it never appeared at all. I couldn't reproduce the effect, which happened whether I was indoors or outside.

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Boost Mobile's service suffers in parts of San Francisco. James Martin/CNET

Boost Mobile runs on Sprint's Network, and data speeds during most of my tests were disappointing. That isn't surprising: a quick peek at Boost Mobile's coverage map reveals that the network's 4G LTE offerings are generally located outside of San Francisco, which left me stuck at 3G speeds here at CNET offices and across town in my apartment. Download speeds consistently hovered between 0.12 and 0.36Mbps, with upload speeds getting as high as 1.12Mbps, and dipping to 0.41Mbps, or as low as 0.07Mbps. When I took the phone further south and well outside of San Francisco, I sidled right into Boost Mobile's LTE-territory and saw download and upload speeds hovering around the 9.6Mbps mark. That's not blisteringly fast, but it's much better -- as with any mobile service provider, you'll want to check coverage maps before signing up or you'll be in for a rough time.

The Icon's 2,000mAh battery is rated at just shy of 14 hours of talk time, and eight days of stand-by time. During our official test for talk time, it lasted 13 hours and 58 minutes. I spent the average workday browsing Reddit and YouTube, making a few phone calls and taking a few photos, and regularly managed to bring the phone to its knees before the end of the work day. With lighter usage -- plenty of Web browsing on Wi-Fi and 3G but little else -- I didn't need to track down a charger for a full day. The phone's EcoMode and MaxiMZR tools will net you a few more hours of battery life, but I'm rarely away from a charger for more than a day, and the Icon never left me hunting for an outlet. Another plus: the Icon offers wireless charging, with support for PMA-enabled charge pads.

Conclusion

The Kyocera Hydro Icon joins a long line of phones locked in a constant struggle for relevance. It won't cost you very much, and if you live in the a 4G coverage area you'll even see decent network speeds. But unless tumbling into approximately 3 feet of water is a recurring ordeal for you, there actually isn't all that much to recommend here. Performance is fine, though you'll need to make some concessions in more demanding mobile games. The camera disappoints, but if you only need to take the occasional outdoor snapshot, it'll do in a pinch. The phone isn't bulky -- especially considering its sturdy build -- and it isn't unsightly either. It's your run-of-the-mill, 4.5-inch smartphone, with a neat trick you can show off at (wading) pool parties. That makes things a little boring.

Kyocera has a seemingly endless supply of these features: the Hydro Edge , the Hydro Elite , the Hydro Xtrm and, more recently, the Hydro Vibe . A device for just about every network, all delivering on the same promise of affordability and water-resistance without offering much else. If you're looking for something that can take a beating and aren't especially concerned with photo quality or hardware-intensive apps, the Kyocera Torque remains a solid contender, with a proper rugged shell and great call quality. If there's a bit more room in your budget and you can stand to be a little more careful, check out the Motorola Moto G 4G LTE , which is $220 off-contract.

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5.0

Kyocera Hydro Icon

Score Breakdown

Design 5Features 5Performance 5
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