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Kyocera Hydro Vibe review: Splash-happy budget phone cuts corners

With its low $29.99 on-contract price, the Hydro Vibe serves up water resistance, but there are better phones on the carrier.

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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

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For those who have met the unfortunate fate of being thrown into a pool with your smartphone in your pocket, the water-resistant Kyocera Hydro Vibe for Sprint may look tempting. After all, at $29.99 on contract, it's reasonably affordable, and peace of mind isn't just limited to pool parties. Indeed, a device like this would come in handy when you're cooking in the kitchen, or hanging around a beach.

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6.3

Kyocera Hydro Vibe

The Good

Sprint's Kyocera Hydro Vibe is affordable on contract, it's water resistant, and it has a few nifty software features for first-time smartphone users.

The Bad

Call quality was poor, the camera's problems with focus resulted in blurry photos, and data speeds were especially slow, even for 3G.

The Bottom Line

The Kyocera Hydro Vibe is an unmemorable phone that can't outpace its competitors, and is only worth considering if water-resistance is a top priority.

Unfortunately, despite excelling at being water-resistant, the Hydro Vibe struggles with key features. Its 8-megapixel camera is mediocre and has a difficult time steadying its focus, call quality was unimpressive, and performance was buggy at times. So unless you're dead-set on jumping in the pool with your handset, it's best to look elsewhere.

Water lovin' Hydro Vibe has the clean look (pictures)

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Design

Similar to Verizon's Hydro Elite , the Vibe has a simple, austere design with straight edges and clean lines. This look is more modern than past Kyocera devices, and because it doesn't have any port coverings, you wouldn't be able to tell at first glance that this is actually a water-resistant handset. It measures 5.02 inches tall, 2.5 inches wide, and 0.43-inch thick (127.4 x 63.5 x 10.9mm), and can fit easily in your front jeans pockets or handbag. Weighing in at 4.9 ounces (139g), it's also lightweight, and is comfortable to hold. The textured battery door also helps with grip and prevents it from slipping around on slick surfaces.

On the left edge is a volume rocker, while the top houses a 3.5mm headphone jack and the sleep/power button. The right has a shortcut button for quick access to the camera (which you can customize to launch video instead, if that's what you prefer), and on the very bottom is a Micro-USB port for charging.

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The Hydro Vibe includes a shortcut button to launch the camera or video. Josh Miller/CNET

On the back are an 8-megapixel camera and its corresponding flash, as well as two small slits for the audio speaker. A small indentation on the bottom edge allows you to peel off the back cover to reveal the 2,000mAh battery, the SIM card, and the microSD card slot right above. On the underside of the back cover, you can see the water seal (in orange) that protects the phone's innards.

The Hydro Vibe's 4.5-inch IPS screen has a 960x540-pixel resolution and is impact resistant. This means that it's a bit more durable against the daily abuses that people put their devices through, and that it should be able to survive a reasonable fall without cracking. As for the screen, it is responsive to the touch, and I didn't find any trouble tapping on apps or typing on the virtual keyboard. The resolution isn't very crisp compared to higher-tiered handsets, but text and images still look very clear. It also has a wide viewing angle, and I had no problem looking at the phone in bright sunlight.

Water resistant construction

Certified to satisfy IPX5 and IPX7 standards for waterproofing, the Hydro Vibe can survive a good dunking. It can be submerged in up to a 3.28 feet (1 meter) of water for 30 minutes. Just be sure that your back cover is completely secured.

Though I wasn't able to test my review unit in 3-plus feet of water, my device withstood several dunks underwater in a vase and splashes in the sink. And although I could see a few water droplets underneath the battery door when I removed it, the handset continued to function just fine. In addition, it kept on ticking after being in the shower for 20 minutes, and after being fully submerged in a tall vessel for 30 minutes. It was even able to register an incoming call during its time underwater.

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Splish splash, this device can definitely take a bath. Josh Miller/CNET

Software features

The handset contains a few choice features from Kyocera that make it unique. There's one feature called MagniFont, which increases the interface's text size even greater than the default "large" setting. EcoMode, is an app and a widget that lets users quickly adjust certain settings to conserve battery life. Lastly, there's an Easy Mode option that simplifies and minimizes the UI. This is especially useful for recent smartphone adopters who want an easier time navigating.

The Hydro Vibe runs on Android 4.3 Jelly Bean. While that's not the most recent version of the OS, it's great that the device is the most up-to-date of the Kyocera handsets I've seen. As expected, it has several key Google apps like Chrome, Drive, Gmail, Search, Plus, Hangouts, Maps, YouTube, and a number of the Play Store portals. You can also access Google's digital-assistant feature, Now, by long-pressing the home button.

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The phone's UI with MagniFont activated (left) and Easy Mode (right). Screenshots by Lynn La/CNET

Sprint preloaded a handful of its own apps, such as its digital payment system called Sprint Money, a ringtone portal called Sprint Music Plus, Sprint TV and Movies, and Sprint Zone, which users can use to check their account information and balance. Lastly, there's Sprint ID, an app that enables you to customize your phone with preselected apps, widgets, and other items depending on which ID profile you choose.

Basic task-managing apps include a calculator, a native browser and email clients, a calendar, a clock with alarm functions, a news and weather app, a sound recorder, and a voice dialer. A few other nonstandard goodies thrown in are apps for eBay, CBS Sports, Scout, and NextRadio, as well as a flashlight app, an "In Case of Emergency" app to store pertinent contact and medical information, and an app to help set up your mobile hotspot.

Camera and video

The 8-megapixel camera's photo quality was inconsistent, and just poor in general. Most of the time, the lens had a difficult time focusing. Even after I tapped the screen multiple times to enable touch-to-focus, the camera never quite locked onto any object, which resulted in extremely blurry shots. On the occasions that it did manage to focus, photos were still disappointing. Pictures had a tendency to contain a lot of overblown lighting, especially with outdoor shots. With indoor scenery, colors looked muted and flat. For more on the phone's photo quality, check out the test pictures below. Be sure to click on each one to see it at its full resolution.

Video recording capabilities fared a bit better, though not by much. Both moving and still objects were kept in focus for the most part, and nearby audio was picked up accurately. However, the camera did lag when it came to adjusting for lighting, and audio sources that was somewhat farther than a few feet away were not picked up at all. In addition, there was a subtle but noticeable "pulsating" effect with the recordings when the lens had to readjust itself.

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In this outdoor photo, the top-left side is completely overblown, and the flowers are not in focus at all. Lynn La/CNET

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After multiple trials, I was finally able to snap a clear picture of these roses. Only the left one and a few of its leaves came out sharply, however. Lynn La/CNET

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This indoor shot was taken after several attempts at focusing. You can still see plenty of fuzzy edges, however, and none of the faces are in focus. Lynn La/CNET

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In our standard studio shot, objects are in focus, and the white balance is accurate. However, colors appear muted and washed out. Lynn La/CNET

Both the rear and front-facing cameras have several editing features like five white-balance options, three exposure settings, a meter to adjust brightness, and three quality levels. They also have a self timer, geotagging, and a compositional grid option, and they can record video in two formats with the option of audio muting.

Understandably, the 8-megapixel camera does pack more options. It has seven shooting modes, including HDR, panorama, and continuous shooting, while the front-facing shooter has only four. It has an additional meter to adjust contrast, and one more ISO level (bringing the total to five). The rear camera can take photos up to eight sizes (ranging from 640x480 to 3,264x2,448-pixels) while the front only has four, (and reaches as high as 1,600x1,200-pixels). It also can record up to six resolutions (from MMS to 1080pHD), in comparison to the front, which can shoot three sizes, at 720p.

Finally, the rear shooter has a flash and digital zoom, six scene modes, four focus settings (like macro and auto), blink detection, and time lapse.

Performance

In our San Francisco offices, I tested the dual-band (CDMA 850/1900) Hydro Vibe, where call quality was unimpressive. Although none of my calls dropped, volume range was adequate, and I was able to clearly understand everything my calling partner said without any disruption from extraneous static, audio came off harsh and tinny. Keep in mind that the device is equipped with Smart Sonic Receiver technology. This means that, in lieu of a visible in-ear speaker, the handset has a ceramic transducer inside. This transmits sound waves from the phone through the cartilage in your ear, with the intention of boosting audio quality and clarity.

Although I had no problems with clarity, my friend's voice did sound extremely thin, notably lacking resonance and depth. The moment the conversation began, I could immediately tell how unpleasantly sharp the audio sounded. During times of absolute silence, I also heard a subtle and consistent buzzing sound. It wasn't very distracting but still present nonetheless. The audio speaker sounded a bit better, though not by much. Again, the volume range was appropriate, and my friend's voice had more breadth to it. I was also able to comprehend what was being said, though conversations still sounded too pinched.

Podcast

Though the Hydro Vibe is enabled with Spark, the carrier's branded version of its optimized 4G LTE service, I was not in a location that enabled my review unit to latch onto the network. Instead, it defaulted to 3G, and data speeds were notably slow, even for Sprint's 3G network. On average, it loaded CNET's mobile site in about 36 seconds and our full desktop site in about 1 minute and 12 seconds. The New York Times' mobile and desktop sites took 30 seconds, and 1 minute and 34 seconds to load, respectively. ESPN's mobile site downloaded in about 32 seconds, while it took 42 seconds to load the full site. Downloading the 48.47MB game of Temple Run 2 took especially long; on average, it took a whopping 42 minutes and 25 seconds to download. Finally, the Ookla speed-test app showed me an average of 0.27Mbps down and 0.42Mbps up.

Kyocera Hydro Vibe performance times

Average 3G download speed 0.27
Average 3G upload speed 0.42
App download (Temple Run 2) 48.47MB in 42 minutes and 25 seconds
CNET mobile site load 36 seconds
CNET desktop site load 1 minute and 12 seconds
Restart time 44 seconds
Camera boot time 2.45 seconds

Because it is powered by a quad-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon processor, it is one of the more powerful Kyocera devices available. In general, it didn't have any problems executing common but necessary tasks, like calling up the keyboard, launching the app drawer, or opening simple apps. And though I've seen higher frame rates and more polished graphics when I play the graphics-intensive game Riptide GP 2 on more top-tier handsets, my gaming experience on this phone was smooth. The app never force-quit or stuttered, it was responsive to my moves, and it loaded in an appropriate amount of time.

One problem that I did have with my unit, however, was that random apps would unexpectedly launch even though I didn't touch the device. At one time or another, Google Voice Search, Chrome, the flashlight app, the camera, and other third-party apps would open, even though the handset was laying idle. This happened every 10 or 20 minutes, but if I put the phone to sleep, the issue would stop.

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A few of the phone's 3G data times (left) and its Quadrant highest result. Screenshots by Lynn La/CNET

Benchmark results showed its best Quadrant score was 8,244, and its Linpack result was 227.008MFLOPs in 0.74-second. These results are distinctly midrange, and comparable to that of the Motorola Moto G , which had a Quadrant and Linpack score of 8,526 and 249.887MFLOPs in 0.68 seconds, respectively. The LG Lucid 3 scored 8,989 on Quadrant, and 214.589MFLOPs in 0.79 seconds for Linpack. On average, it took about 44 seconds to restart the the Hydro Vibe and 2.45 seconds to launch its camera.

Anecdotally, the device's 2,000mAh battery appears to be long-lasting. It can easily survive a workday with mild to heavy usage without needing a charge, and it can last overnight on standby without being plugged in. It has a reported talk time of 14 hours, and indeed during our official lab test for talk time, it lasted 14 hours and 55 minutes. According to FCC radiation measurements, the handset has a digital SAR rating of 1.29W/kg.

Conclusion

If you're a Sprint customer in dire need of a water-resistant phone, the Hydro Vibe is one of your best options. It's bigger and much more modern in both looks and OS than the Hydro Edge and the Motorola Admiral . And compared to the latter, it's $40 cheaper on-contract. Though, if you don't mind its ultrarugged looks, I'd recommend the Kyocera Torque above the Vibe. Even though it's an older device, it has fantastic audio speakers and a better camera (despite just having a 5-megapixel lens).

However, if water resistance isn't an absolute priority, the carrier has many better alternatives. The Galaxy S3 , for example, may sound like Samsung's flagship from yesteryear, but this free-contract handset is still solid. It can be updated to Android 4.4 KitKat, and it has a sharper 4.8-inch screen and a higher-capacity battery. If you want something a bit more recent, the Motorola Moto X may cost $20 more with a carrier agreement, but it's customizable, it has reliable camera, and an excellent X8 processor that is much more superior than the Vibe's CPU.

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6.3

Kyocera Hydro Vibe

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 5