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

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The Good The Kyocera Hydro XTRM 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.

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6.7 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 8
  • Performance 6

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.

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.

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