Kyocera Hydro Vibe review: A rugged mid-range phone with a few glaring flaws

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Credit: Michael Homnick

The latest and greatest flagship phone can sometimes cost an arm and a leg, especially if you don’t qualify for subsidized pricing from your carrier. Also, maybe you’re not really aching for all of the latest specifications and features that manufacturers like Samsung and HTC pack with their handsets. That's where low-end and mid-range phones come in: they’re typically solid smartphones packed with one or two premium features, all rolled up into a cheaper package.

The Kyocera Hydro Vibe has some premium elements to it, like the fact that it’s waterproof and shoots 1080p video, but it also falls short where phones in its class can't afford to. That's a shame, because the competition among mid-range phones is heating up. 

A little more of the same

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The Kyocera Hydro Vibe is a bit smaller than other phones in its class, about the size of the Moto X. It sports a simple black and gray design with a grippy plastic backing and a removable 2,000 mAh battery pack. Its 4.5-inch LCD display is bright and fairly usable outdoors, but it's not a high-resolution display. Its viewing angles are passable, but not perfect, and the colors appear a bit faded on some applications. 

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On the left there's a volume rocker, with the headphone jack and power button residing at the top. There's a button on the bottom left for quick camera access, which is neat but a gesture would have sufficed. It's also waterproof and can withstand up to 3.28 feet of water for up to half an hour as long as the back is tightly secured. Unlike many other waterproof phones, it doesn't have any annoying flaps you have to deal with. You can't use it while it's dunked, however, which is the only time that the physical camera button actually comes in handy.

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Struggling to keep up

Inside, the Kyocera Hydro Vibe is powered by a quad-core, 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400 processor and 1.5GB of RAM. That puts it on par with phones like the Motorola Moto G, HTC One mini, and Samsung Galaxy S4 mini.

Android 4.4 KitKat may require fewer resources than previous versions of the OS, but I question whether the Hydro Vibe will last to the next version since its interface lags as you pan through screens. It's also still on Jelly Bean, which likely contributes to some of the lag, but it’s just jerky enough that you can tell it’s struggling to keep up. It did just alright with intensive apps like games once you load them up, but there was still a bit of waiting time while multitasking between apps, too.

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The best feature of the Hydro Vibe is its long-lasting battery life. It lasted for five days on standby with Airplane Mode on, and managed a bit more than 8 hours in our video playback test. There's also an EcoMode to squeeze out a bit more life out of it. 

A slow, capable camera

You may not care for a high-throttle processor or a high resolution display, but if you're on the prowl for a low-end to mid-range phone, the least you should have is a decent camera. 

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The Kyocera Hydro Vibe's camera capabilities are about average, which makes it good enough for posting photos to social media. Its 8-megapixel camera lens takes better photos than the Moto X’s 10-megapixel camera, but its focus time and shutter speed are painstakingly slow. Even the panorama feature is difficult to use; the slightest shake will blur the end result.

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An indoor shot taken with the Hydro Vibe.

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A zoomed in photo that shows some JPEG distortion.

Close up, the photos also suffer some JPEG distortion. There are a few different scenes and white balance modes you can utilize to get a better photo, and generally the Hydro Vibe took better photos outdoors than indoors.

Not stock Android

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In a perfect world, every manufacturer making a low-end or mid-range handset would stick with stock Android and add a few of its own little apps here and there. Kyocera not only stuck with its own custom interface, it pasted it on top of the aging Android 4.3.

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There are still elements of Android sprinkled throughout—the Notifications shade remains untouched, for instance, and all the Google apps are all there—but the icons and other custom user interface elements speckled throughout make the phone feel outdated. I’m also curious about how quickly software updates will happen with each new iteration of Android.

At least you can dunk it in water

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The Kyocera Hydro Vibe wouldn’t be my first choice for a mid-range handset. I’d much rather go for the phablet-sized ZTE Boost Max even though it's much bigger. But it is waterproof, which not many low-end or mid-range phones are, and its long-lasting battery life would be great for the Bear Grylls-types who are always out hiking and don't care too much for a high-end phone. 

Of course, if you do have subsidized pricing with your carrier, you could also consider one of last year's rugged phones for purchase, like the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active. Basically, don't set your sights on the Hydro Vibe until you've seen what else you can get for your cash.

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