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Verykool RS90 Vortex (unlocked) review: Boring features can't match the rugged design

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Verykool's Vortex smartphone can hold up to a great deal of physical abuse: It's dustproof, water-resistant, shock-resistant, and all-around rugged.

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6.3

Verykool RS90 Vortex (unlocked)

The Good

The <b>Verykool Vortex</b> comes unlocked, is affordable, and it's tough enough to stand up to dust and water.

The Bad

Accessing the battery, SIM, and SD card through the waterproof seal takes a lot of effort. The phone’s Android 4.0 operating system is outdated.

The Bottom Line

At $280, the Vortex is a good deal for a rugged phone, but those looking for a high-end Android phone should look elsewhere.

But look past its rugged exterior and you get a device with so-so specs. Verykool says the RS90 Vortex (the phone's official name), is the most powerful phone in its lineup, but that's not saying much. With Android 4.0, an average 5-megapixel camera, and no 4G support, it doesn't stack up well against other waterproof phones on the market.

You can take the Verykool Vortex to the beach (pictures)

See all photos

Still, the Vortex's low cost makes it a worthy option for anyone who lives an active lifestyle, doesn't want to lose a phone to water damage, and can put up with not having the latest mobile technology.

Made by San Diego-based manufacturer Verykool, the $280 Vortex comes unlocked and can be used with any GSM carrier in the world.

Editor's note: In light of the release of the Verykool Black Pearl, we've lowered the rating for the Vortex on November 13, 2013.

Design
The Vortex has a rugged polycarbonate exterior, yet the phone still has a sleek profile. At 5.6 inches tall, 2.9 inches wide, 0.4 inch thick, and weighing 7 ounces, it's bulky and heavy, though it does feel solid and sturdy in your hand. Since the Vortex is so thick, if you slide it into a back pocket and try to sit on it, you'll feel it.

Thanks to its hefty waterproof case, the Vortex is just barely too big for me to use it one-handed. It also feels large when I hold it up to my face for a phone call, though I can still reach the volume rocker with ease.

It has a textured back cover, screwed-in side panels, and a bright orange detail surrounding the Micro-USB charging port on the bottom. Aside from that pop of orange, the phone is all black and gray.

The Vortex has a rugged polycarbonate exterior. Josh Miller/CNET

On the left side of the phone is the power/lock button. Along the right side there's the volume rocker. If you look closely, you'll see a tiny flashlight icon above the rocker. If you turn on the Vortex's screen, but don't unlock the phone, and press and hold the volume-up button, the phone's back flashlight will turn on. That's a nice feature for when you're searching for your keys in the dark.

As is the case with most water-resistant phones, the headphone jack on the top of the Vortex has a cover with a seal to keep water out when the phone gets phone wet.

There's a plastic cover that seals the battery, SIM card, and SD card slots to protect them from water damage. Josh Miller/CNET

There are two covers that protect the battery, SD card, and SIM card. One is the phone's back cover and the other seals off the battery and card slots, to guard against water damage. Getting past those two covers is a hassle and involves removing the Vortex's back cover by sliding it down to unhook it, then prying the seal off, which requires a bit of force. You must reattach the smaller cover and press down the seal in the correct order (instructions are shown on the plastic covering) to make sure it stays watertight.

The Vortex features a 4.5-inch LCD IPS 960x540-pixel-resolution (244 ppi) screen. The display looks bright and pixels aren't immediately obvious. Background and icon colors look natural, though a bit muted.

A major plus is that the display is bright enough to read in full sunlight, even at half brightness, and there's hardly any glare. It's also easy to read text on the screen in any lighting conditions.

The screen on the Vortex is bright and easy to read in sunlight. Josh Miller/CNET

The Vortex comes with a setting called dynamic brightness, which Verykool says improves video quality while saving power when playing video clips. There are three dynamic brightness levels: 0, 1, and 2. The lower the number, the less battery power the phone uses and the dimmer the screen is.

I tested all three levels and compared them with normal automatic brightness, and I didn't see a difference in video quality or brightness at all.

Water-resistant and dustproof
The Vortex has an Ingress Protection Rating of 67, which means it's completely protected against dust and waterproof up to 1 meter (about 3 feet). Essentially, it's the perfect phone to take to Burning Man for when those dust storms kick up (not that you'd necessarily get a cell signal).

Since I don't have access to a swimming pool, I dunked the Vortex in a smaller container of water for 30 minutes to test that it really was water-resistant. After its time in the bath, the phone was still kicking and worked as normal.

Yep, the phone is water resistant. You can even take it into the shower. Josh Miller/CNET

Verykool also says the Vortex is shock-resistant, though no one in the industry really knows what that means. Hoping to recreate a few real-world situations in which your phone would slip tragically from your hands and possibly meet its untimely end, I dropped the Vortex a few times.

First, I dropped it from about two feet above a carpeted floor; the back cover immediately popped off, but the phone stayed on. Next I let it fall from roughly one foot above a hardwood floor and once it hit the ground it shut off. To get it back on, I had to take off the back covers, pull out the battery and reinsert it, though I was able to turn it back on once I removed and replaced the battery.

I definitely wouldn't hurl the Vortex at a concrete wall, but it will hold up against the typical tumble -- just drop it at your own risk.

OS and features

With Android 4.4 KitKat likely due in October, it's disappointing that the Vortex is still running 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, which was released in 2011.

It's even more disappointing that while the phone is running what looks like a pure version of Android, Verykool has made its own modifications that feel rough around the edges.

For example, the text that walks you through setting up the proximity calibration in settings has glaring grammatical errors. In the notification pull-down menu, Verykool included its own icons for the settings buttons, which look dated compared with the rest of the operating system.

Aside from the few modifications from Verykool, the phone has the same look and functionality as other Android devices. There's the Google Play store, where you can download apps, music, games, books, and movies, and all the other stock Google apps -- Gmail, YouTube, and Search. Skype, Facebook, and Twitter also come preloaded.

Verykool sells both a single and dual-SIM model of the Vortex. If you don't know, dual SIM devices, which are still rare in the US, let you have two phone numbers one one phone. I tested the single-SIM model.

Like other Android phones, the Vortex has portable WiFi hotspot capabilities. It worked fine in my test, but keep in mind some carriers may require you have a special data plan to use this feature.

The Vortex comes with 2GB of internal storage, but you can add up to 32GB with a microSD card.

Camera and video
On the back of the Vortex, there's a 5-megapixel camera. There's also a 0.3-megapixel front-facing camera near the earpiece. The camera loads quickly, but it takes several seconds to focus and snap the shot. At least a few times, thinking the phone had already snapped the picture, I moved the phone too quickly and ended up with a blurry image.

This studio shot is missing fine details and has a dark green tint in the right corner. Josh Miller/CNET

Indoor close-up shots turned out really well, with a lot of fine details showing up sharp. Colors looked natural and the lighting looked normal.

In this indoor shot, you can clearly see the details on the mug. Sarah Mitroff/CNET

However, in outdoor shots, both up close and not, colors look oversaturated. In every picture I snapped, indoors and out, the camera makes any area with bright natural light look completely washed out.

The light reflecting off these white flowers showed up too bright in photos shot by the Vortex. Sarah Mitroff/CNET

In my standard studio shot, the Vortex's camera struggled to pick up fine details, and there was a dark green tint on one half of the photo.

The camera shoots video in 480p. While video playback is smooth, the videos I shot looked fuzzy and low-quality.

You can see how the Vortex's camera chops compare with other smartphones in our cell phone photo gallery.

Call quality
The unlocked Verykool Vortex supports 3G HSPA (7.2/5.67) dual-band (850/1900) and 2G GSM quad band (850/900/1800/1900), and can be used with any carrier worldwide. In the US, the phone will run on all GSM networks, including AT&T and T-Mobile. You cannot use the phone on a CDMA network, so that means it won't work on Verizon Wireless, Sprint, MetroPCS, Cricket, or U.S. Cellular.

Call quality was less than impressive on the Vortex. To test it, I called another cell phone using T-Mobile's network in San Francisco. My tester said my voice sounded tinny and unnatural. On my end, background noise was loud and distracting, and my caller's voice sounded robotic.

Speakerphone sounded worse. The person I called said I sounded too quiet whenever I moved the phone away from directly in front of my mouth and no matter where I held the phone, her voice sounded muffled, even at max volume.

Verykool Vortex call quality sample Listen now:

Performance
The Vortex is far from lightning-fast, but the phone performs well when launching apps and swiping through menus. Inside, it has a 1.2 GHz dual-core processor and 512MB of RAM. That combo handles most popular mobile games, such as Temple Run 2, with ease.

During testing, I found that the back of the phone near the camera got hot while I talked on the phone for more than 5 minutes and when the phone was handling several processes at once, such as downloading an app and streaming a video. It doesn't seem to be a serious issue, but it makes the Vortex uncomfortable to hold.

Verykool Vortex
Average 3G download speed 1.1Mbps
Average 3G upload speed 0.3Mbps
App download (Temple Run 2) 32.5MB in 4 minutes and 24 seconds
CNET mobile site load 8.1 seconds
CNET desktop site load 27 seconds
Restart time 28 seconds
Camera boot time 2.4 seconds

The phone supports 3G HSPA and 2G data connections. Seeing that most phones today, even most rugged, low-cost phones, support 4G, it's a knock against the Vortex that it can't take advantage of faster networks.

The slower network speeds mean that apps will take longer to download and Web pages will load slower. I was able to stream YouTube videos over 3G, but I had a hard time getting high-quality (720p) videos to load. I tested the Vortex on T-Mobile's network in San Francisco, and had a 3G signal at almost all times.

The Vortex is running Android 4.0. Josh Miller/CNET

The Vortex's 1,800 mAh battery promises 9 hours of talk time and 192 hours on standby. In my testing, using the phone for 7 hours off and on, the battery drained quickly with the screen alternating between full and half brightness. On an average day of checking e-mails, looking at your social networks, making a few calls, and spending 10 minutes playing a game, you'll need to top off your battery during the day or risk it dying in the evening. The phone failed both the CNET video and call battery tests. During the call test, the phone would hang up after four hours and immediately shut down, even though it still had more than half battery power left.

Conclusion
I picture the perfect Vortex customer as someone who spends their time at the beach and doesn't want their phone to get ruined by the sand and surf, so it's fitting that Verykool is based in San Diego. If you spend a lot of time around water and need phone that can handle the elements, the Vortex is worth a look.

Though the phone's outdated operating system and so-so camera aren't doing it any favors, the Vortex has a few redeeming qualities, most notably its bright screen and stable performance.

At the $280, Verykool Vortex is also good deal for an unlocked phone you can take to any carrier. In fact, of the water-resistant phones that CNET has tested, the Vortex is the only unlocked model and one of the cheapest outright.

If you're looking for the best of both worlds -- a waterproof phone that also has other impressive features, you'll need to pick a model that's tied to a carrier. A few options I recommend are AT&T's Samsung Galaxy S4 Active and the Kyocera Hydro Edge for Sprint and Boost Mobile.

However, if the only thing luring you to the Vortex is that it's unlocked, I'd consider the Samsung Galaxy Grand instead. For just a few more dollars, the $300 phone has a newer version of Android and much more impressive specs.

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6.3

Verykool RS90 Vortex (unlocked)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Performance 6