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Kyocera Hydro XTRM review: Despite waterproof capabilities, call quality sinks

While hydrophiles will dig the Hydro XTRM's resistance to splashes, the handset's call and camera quality can barely tread water.

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.
Lynn La
6 min read

Rest assured, it's no fun dropping your smartphone in water. Whether you have an active lifestyle and go swimming often, or you're just milling around the kitchen, once your device hits water, it's often the beginning of the end.


Kyocera Hydro XTRM

The Good

The <b>Kyocera Hydro XTRM</b> is competitively priced, waterproof, and has 4G LTE capabilities.

The Bad

Depending on your carrier, the Hydro XTRM has poor call quality. It also takes mediocre pictures, and its internal speeds can be slow at times.

The Bottom Line

If waterproof capabilities are an absolute must, consider the Kyocera Hydro XTRM. If not, skip this for some better alternatives.

Fortunately, the Kyocera Hydro XTRM (pronounced "extreme") isn't only dustproof and shock-resistant, it's waterproof as well -- meaning it doesn't have to spend a night in a bowl full of uncooked rice in case it accidentally takes a dive in the ocean.

But even with its splashproof features and low price, the Hydro XTRM isn't exactly the Michael Phelps of phones. Depending on your carrier, it has less-than-desirable call quality. It also has a mediocre camera, so you should keep your options open for other handsets if waterproof capabilities aren't a necessity.

Currently, the device is available to consumers on U.S. Cellular for $0.01 with contract, and prepaid for $169 on MetroPCS. T-Mobile is offering it (it is the carrier's first Kyocera handset) as well, but only through the carrier's business-to-business channel.

Editors' note, December 13, 2013: This review was updated to include analysis of the MetroPCS and T-Mobile version of the Kyocera Hydro XTRM.

Because the Kyocera Hydro XTRM fulfills certain military spec standards for shockproof capabilities, it has a bulkier build than that of most smartphones. I like its dark, faux-metallic edging that encircles the body, and while the rear's dimpled battery door isn't too attractive, the rubber exterior provides more friction and helps with grip.

The handset measures 4.88 inches tall, 2.52 inches wide, 0.42 inch thick, and it weighs 4.9 ounces. Within a few moments of holding the device in my hand, its heftiness was apparent, but after a short while, I stopped noticing its weight and it wasn't distracting at all.

Kyocera Hydro XTRM (waterproof)
The Hydro XTRM's waterproof capabilities mean you don't have to worry about it around the kitchen sink. Josh Miller/CNET

Located on the left edge is a volume rocker. The top edge features a sleep/power button and a 3.5mm headphone jack, and the bottom edge houses a Micro-USB port for charging. Neither port is covered by any plug or small door.

It sports a 4-inch IPS WVGA display with a 800x480-pixel resolution. Obviously, this isn't the touch screen of a top-tier smartphone (for example, you'll see a noticeable amount of "speckling" when viewing a blank white field). However, I had no problem viewing images or text, the display was aptly bright, and the screen was sensitive and responsive to the touch.

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 XTRM features Smart Sonic Receiver technology. This means that it uses a ceramic transducer inside to transmit audio via the hard tissue inside your ear.

On the back you'll find the camera and accompanying LED flash below it. Two small slits for the speaker sit to the left of the lens. Using a small indentation, you can pry off the battery door to access the microSD card slot, which accepts cards with capacities of up to 32GB, and the 2,000mAh battery. Considering the back plate needs to be sealed tight to keep out water, removing and reapplying it does require a bit of muscle.

Splash away with the Kyocera Hydro XTRM (pictures)

See all photos

Software features
The phone runs on Android 4.1.2 and comes with such Google mainstays as Chrome, Gmail, Plus, Maps with Navigation, Messenger, several Google Play apps, Search, Talk, and YouTube.

Basic task management apps include a native browser and e-mail client, a calculator, a calendar, a clock with alarm functions, a music player, a news-and-weather app, a sound recorder, and a voice dialer.

Under the Settings menu, there's also a software feature called MaxiMZR. This lets you limit the data connection of apps running in the background to conserve battery life. There is also a MagniFont Mode option for those who want to improve text readability by increasing the font size one level larger than the "Extra Large" or "Huge" setting that is common on Android handsets.

Kyocera Hydro XTRM (MagniFont)
Selecting the MagniFont option in Settings (left) enlarges text size significantly. Lynn La/CNET

There are also several apps specifically from U.S. Cellular, like City ID, Daily Perks (which notifies you of deals from the carrier), Wi-Fi Now, apps for getting ringtones and games, and a navigator app.

Other apps include several from Amazon (for its retail site, Appstore, Amazon MP3, Kindle, Audible, and Zappos), the game Oregon Trail American (which is disappointingly nothing like the original), Slacker Radio, Twitter, ICE (which stores emergency contact info), and Eco Mode, a battery- and energy-conserving app.

Kyocera Hydro XTRM (transducer)
Instead of having an in-ear speaker above the display, the XTRM uses a ceramic transducer inside to transmit sound waves. Josh Miller/CNET

Meanwhile, MetroPCS preloaded its 4G hot-spot app; an app store portal; a privacy app called Metro Block-it; and Metro411, which searches for and locates nearby businesses and restaurants. The carrier also included its visual voice mail feature; a news app called MetroZone; and MyMetro, which lets you check your account balance and plan.

The T-Mobile model features a conservative amount of preloaded apps. There's T-Mobile My Account, which gives you information about your phone and data plan; a trial subscription to the caller ID service Name ID; and two apps that help set up your visual voice mail and mobile hot spot.

Additional features include Bluetooth 4.0 and 4GB of onboard storage.

Camera and video
The 5-megapixel camera has six photo sizes (ranging from 640x480 to 2,592x1,944 pixels), digital zoom, a flash, three focuses, six scene modes, geotagging, three image qualities, three auto exposures, five ISO levels, five white balances, and four color effects.

The front-facing camera has all the same features except it only has four photo sizes (ranging from 640x480 to 1,280x960 pixels) and four ISO levels, and it doesn't have a flash or any scene modes.

Video settings for the rear shooter include six video sizes (ranging from a 30-second MMS to 1080p HD), digital zoom, a flash, time lapse, and the same white balance, color effects, geotagging, and auto exposure settings. Recording options for the 1.3-megapixel camera are the same, except there are only three video sizes (from MMS to VGA), and there's no flash.

Kyocera Hydro XTRM (indoor)
In this indoor image, you can see a notable amount of digital noise and the harsh back-lighting. Lynn La/CNET

Kyocera Hydro XTRM (outdoor)
Even with a still hand, these flowers still look a bit blurry. But the colors are accurate. Lynn La/CNET

Kyocera Hydro XTRM (SSI)
In our standard studio shot, you can see the flash casts a blue hue onto the background. Josh Miller/CNET

Photo quality was respectable, but mediocre. Though you'll have no problem capturing your main image or a general scene, photos aren't as focused and clear, especially in dimmer lighting. And despite colors being true-to-life, dark hues are hard to distinguish from one another, edges aren't very well-defined, and you'll see some digital noise with your photographs.

Fortunately, recording video on 1080p yielded better results. Audio cam in clearly, and images were adequately sharp. Moving objects, like passing cars, remained in focus and colors were accurate. In addition, there was little lag between my moving of the camera and the feedback I saw on the viewfinder.

I tested the Kyocera Hydro XTRM in our San Francisco offices. Unfortunately, call quality was poor on U.S. Cellular. Though none of my calls dropped and audio didn't clip in and out, throughout my calls, I could hear a continuous high-pitched tone. I could hear this sound while someone talked and during times of absolute silence. Voices also came off scratchy, and I was told I sounded muffled and staticky as well. And while audio speaker sounded great and full of depth with music, phone calls sounded a bit harsh and tinny.

Call quality on MetroPCS and T-Mobile, however, fared much better. Again, it had no trouble keeping my calls connected. However, there were no high-pitched noises or buzzing this time. Voices did still sound a bit muffled too, and there were times when my calling partner's voice sounded notably hollow, but neither issues became overly distracting. As for the other end of the line, I was told that my voice sounded clearest while on the MetroPCS unit, and that while the T-Mobile model still performed well, I sounded more staticky when I turned on speakerphone.

Kyocera Hydro XTRM (U.S. Cellular) call quality sample

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Kyocera Hydro XTRM (MetroPCS) call quality sample

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Kyocera Hydro XTRM (T-Mobile) call quality sample

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Because we didn't receive U.S. Cellular's 4G LTE coverage during our initial testing with the carrier, I browsed the Internet using the carrier's 3G roaming network. On average, data speeds were glacial. CNET's mobile site loaded in a minute and 38 seconds and our desktop site, oddly, took less time, a minute and 20 seconds. The New York Times' mobile site took about 27 seconds, while its desktop version took 2 minutes and 30 seconds. ESPN's mobile site took 34 seconds, and its full site loaded in a minute and 52 seconds. Ookla's Speedtest app showed me an average of 0.1Mbps down and 0.13Mbps up. It took a whopping 30 minutes and 32 seconds to download the (then) 32.41MB game Temple Run 2.

We were, however, able to get 4G LTE speeds on both MetroPCS and T-Mobile. For the former unit, it loaded CNET, The New York Times, and ESPN's mobile site in 6, 7, and 8 seconds respectively. Desktop versions of these same sites loaded in 22, 15, and 10 seconds. On average, it took about 58 seconds for it to download and install the now 40.89MB game Temple Run 2. Speedtest clocked in 11.64Mbps down and 6.97Mbps up.

Our T-Mobile unit showed similarly fast and consistent data times. CNET's mobile site loaded in 5 seconds, while its full site loaded in 15. The New York Times' mobile site finished displaying after 6 seconds, and the desktop version took 12. The mobile and desktop site for ESPN clocked in at 9 and 8 seconds, respectively. Temple Run 2, again at 40.89MB large, finished in 57 seconds, and Ookla's app averaged out with 11.47Mbps down and 6.62Mbps up.

U.S. Cellular (running 3G) MetroPCS (running 4G LTE) T-Mobile (running 4G LTE)
Average download speed 0.1Mbps 11.64Mbps 11.47Mbps
Average upload speed 0.13Mbps 6.97Mbps 6.62Mbps
Downloading Temple Run 2 30 minutes, 32 seconds (32.41MB) 58 seconds (40.89MB) 57 seconds (40.89MB)
CNET mobile site load (seconds) 98 6 5
CNET desktop site load (seconds) 80 22 15
Restart time (seconds) 48 45 42
Camera boot time (seconds) 1.66 1.71 1.81

The device is powered by a dual-core Snapdragon 1.2GHz processor. At times, it can be slow. It takes a few moments for it to switch from landscape to portrait mode and vice versa, and for it to unlock the home screen. In general, however, it has no problem carrying out daily but necessary tasks like opening up simple apps, returning to the home pages, or scrolling through Web sites. Though what carrier you have plays no role on the processing speeds of a phone, on average, it took the U.S. Cellular model about 48 seconds to reboot the phone, and 1.66 seconds to launch the camera. The MetroPCS unit took 45 and 1.71 seconds for the same tasks, and the T-Model device took 42 and 1.81 seconds on average.

As for its water resistance, the handset is certainly waterproof, and it can reportedly be submerged in up to a meter of water for 30 minutes. Our review unit survived multiple dunkings, 30 minutes completely submerged in a shallow bowl, and sitting inside a running shower for 20 minutes. Furthermore, I knocked it down a flight of cement stairs a few times. While that resulted in a lot of scuffs and scratches, the handset itself still kept on ticking and the touch screen didn't crack.

During our battery drain test, the device lasted 5.53 hours for continuous video playback. Anecdotally, it has a decent battery life. It has a reported talk time of up to 12.4 hours. Though it couldn't last the weekend on standby, with minimal usage, it can survive a workday without a charge. According to FCC radiation standards, the U.S. Cellular model has a digital SAR rating of 1.27W/kg. For MetroPCS and T-Mobile, it is 1.44W/kg.

For U.S. Cellular customers, if you want absolute peace of mind the next time you're at the beach or a pool party, the Kyocera Hydro XTRM will surely survive any splashes coming its way. In addition, compared to the equally-priced, water resistant Motorola Defy XT, the XTRM has 4G LTE, more internal storage, and a more powerful processor.

However, if having a waterproof device isn't a priority, consider the carrier's more higher-tiered devices like the reliable LG Optimus F7 or the stylish Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini (which both have the same contract price).

As for MetroPCS users, the XTRM is the only waterproof handset in its lineup, so you'll do well with it if you want a splashproof phone. If you can live without that feature, the cheaper $149 LG Optimus F3 retains the 4-inch screen size, but it has a bigger battery and a faster internal performance.

Though regular T-Mobile customers won't be able to casually buy the XTRM, business customers on the carrier will be able to purchase it. And if it's a waterproof handset you're looking for, consider the XTRM. You may not have the fastest phone on the market, nor will you be able to take the best photos, but it's still a satisfactory and reliable LTE handset that does well at keeping water at bay.


Kyocera Hydro XTRM

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 8Performance 6