Kyocera Torque review: a rugged phone delivering superior sound

Sacrificing a smartphone's thin and sleek form factor with a case is tantamount to sacrilege in some circles. Others feel little comfort venturing outdoors without having their phone wrapped safely in one sleeve or another. Sprint's Kyocera Torque, though, is for people who demand more than just a sheath of silicone to keep their device safe. Instead of relying on a case for its protection, it's durable in its own right, with an IP67 rating and Military Standard 810G certification to help it withstand everything from water to salt fog.

In addition, the handset carries the distinction of being the very first phone released in the US with Kyocera's Smart Sonic Receiver tissue-conduction tech, which does away with the traditional earpiece. We put the Now Network's first LTE push-to-talk phone through our review gauntlet not only to gauge how tough it is, but also to find out how well it performs. Head past the break to see how it fared.

Kyocera Torque Review: Hardware

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Hardware


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If you've ever used an Otterbox Defender case, you'll feel at home with the Torque.

If you've ever used an Otterbox Defender case, you'll feel eerily at home with the Torque. It's encased in a rubberized shell, and comes in at just a hair slimmer than an iPhone 4 wrapped in an Otterbox case, measuring in at 5.06 x 2.69 x 0.5 inches. While it's built to take a licking, the hardware isn't heavy -- in fact, it feels a tad light at 5.94 ounces (168.5g), considering the sort of beating it's designed to take. With IP67 and MIL-STD-810G ratings, the Torque can stand up to blowing rain, dust, humidity, shock, low pressure, salt fog, solar radiation, temperature extremes, vibration and being immersed for as long as 30 minutes in up to one meter of water.

When it comes to ruggedized smartphones, there's not much that can be said for style, but the Torque manages to keep a respectable profile despite the additional padding. Folks will know you mean business, but they won't wonder why you've stumbled out of a construction zone with an industrial walkie-talkie. However, when you want to keep it out of sight you'll find it slips comfortably in and out of jean pockets. In general, extracting a portly smartphone from your pocket can be a challenge, especially if it has a rubberized shell, but the Torque's plastic exterior is minimally gummy, which makes the whole affair an easy process.

Rather than relying on a specialized coating to make the device withstand the elements (see: the Xperia Z or Liquipel), the Torque uses seals and flaps to keep out dust and water. For example, the battery cover packs a rubber lining that locks up vital components and keeps the handset from being breached. The backside also sports a metal lock mechanism to keep the entire cover in place. Fortunately, it's easy enough to turn with your nail or the tip of a finger, but it's not so loose that it's likely to open accidentally. A 3.5mm headphone jack sits atop the headset, also hidden beneath a flap, and it's flanked by a pair of buttons: one for switching power on and off, and another to toggle speaker mode for Sprint's Direct Connect feature. The speaker mode button on one of our test units appeared to be somewhat stuck and didn't depress as it should have, but on another, it felt considerably more tactile. We suspect the damage might have been sustained during one of our drop tests.

Only a handy dedicated camera button occupies the right side of the Torque, but the left edge sports a volume rocker and a dedicated push-to-talk key. Pressing the direct connect button with the home screen up launches the Direct Connect menu. Another press initializes a session with the last phone contacted via push-to-talk. Of course, holding the button allows users to yammer away as if they were using an old-fashioned two-way radio. The addition is certainly helpful, but gripping the handset firmly means that you'll often push the button down without intending to go into DC mode. Luckily, push-to-talk will only be activated when the phone is on the home screen, so jamming the trigger when you're using other apps won't foul anything up. However, being able to hit the button without anything happening might feel a tad unnatural -- though we'll take that over being kicked unceremoniously out of an app. If you don't have DC flipped on, you can map the button to another function.

Underneath the screen, you'll notice the standard back, home and menu keys, along with a pair of chrome speaker grilles. Not only is this phone built to take a beating, but it also pushes out surprisingly robust sound. Everything from ringtones to speakerphone audio is fantastically loud, so it's easy to picture it excelling in a noisy construction zone, or making itself heard from the bottom of a hiking backpack. Even turn-by-turn directions were easy to hear over music we had playing on a car stereo. Unfortunately, that means your "I didn't hear the phone ring" excuse will be null and void once friends and family get an earful of its auditory force.

Something you may not notice at first glance is that the phone lacks a speaker slot where users listen to calls. Instead, Kyocera has baked in its Smart Sonic Receiver tissue-conduction technology under the hood, and the Torque is the first phone with this technology released in the US. Using a piezoelectric transducer, the system transmits sound through vibrations that can even find their way through on-ear headphones. Just touch the phone's earpiece area to the headset (or your ear, of course), and the sound will come through. We're not convinced this will have many practical applications, but we imagine it could be handy if some of your other headgear is getting in the way.

Like traditional speakers, however, your ear doesn't need to be pressed right up against the smartphone's body to hear what's being said. The quality and loudness of call audio is on par with other handsets -- in fact, it's difficult to tell the difference between Kyocera's newfangled setup and old-format speakers. Presumably, leaving out the speaker slot makes it so that there's one less breach point for the likes of water and dust.

Inside, the Sprint LTE-capable handset totes a dual-core 1.2GHz MSM8960 Snapdragon S4 Plus processor flanked by 1GB of RAM and 4GB of built-in storage. On the battery front, it comes loaded with a 2,500mAh pack that's rated for 18.9 hours of talk time. Visuals on the devices are served up by a 4-inch, impact-resistant IPS touch display with a WVGA (800 x 480) resolution. It's not a standout screen by any means, but it gets the job done. The hardware's auto-brightness feature fails to keep the display visible when in direct sunlight, but manually kicking up its brightness fixes the issue.

As for connectivity, the durable device boasts LTE over Band 25, a CDMA 800 / 1900 radio with support for HD voice, 802.11b/g/n and 4.0 + LE / EDR. The Torque also features NFC support that plays nice with Google Wallet, an accelerometer, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, compass and barometer. When it comes to imaging, the smartphone sports a 5-megapixel, rear-facing autofocus camera accompanied by an LED flash and a 1.3-megapixel shooter in front.

Ruggedness


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Now, for the main attraction. Just how much of a beating can the Torque take? Quite a lot, it turns out. To put the phone through the ringer, we conducted our drop tests outside on a concrete floor next to a pool. To simulate a fall, we held the handset in mainly two positions: as if taking a picture or video, and making a call. For this editor, that translates into a range of roughly 5- to 6-foot drops. Drop after drop, Kyocera's mobile fortress clung to life. On some occasions, the battery cover lifted along the edges. If the battery unseated itself just enough, the phone would shut down, but fitting the cover back on revealed that the Torque was fully functional. This could be a serious problem if the handset lands in water, but it shouldn't spell doom for the smartphone otherwise.

Kyocera Torque review: Ruggedness

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The screen, meanwhile, remained unscathed, with nary a crack or scratch. The same can't be said for other areas of the phone, but what damage it sustained was purely cosmetic. In one instance, one of its ornamental rivets came loose, but we were able to push it back into its place without a problem. Since the rubberized edges bore the brunt of the falls, the corners of the device received the most noticeable nicks and scratches, but they don't ruin what good looks the phone has. While the back sustained a number of very minor scratches, paint flecks from the concrete sticking to the rubber material were the largest nuisance. With a bit of H2O and elbow grease, we easily rubbed out the stains.

DNP Kyocera Torque review ruggedized Android for $99

We took the phone out for a spin at a local lake and fully submerged it near the shore (after making sure its ports were plugged, of course). For good measure, we tossed it around in the sand as well. The Torque kept ticking -- though some of the sand continued to shake out over time. The smartphone also survived being immersed in a vase with water for 30 minutes. Again, the torture was nothing the Torque couldn't handle. If you're dreaming about using the phone while underwater, we have some news to break to you: it becomes inoperable. When dipped in water, the touchscreen registers liquid lapping against the screen as input, making for a nigh uncontrollable mess of an experience. If you're crafty, however, you can manage to start a video recording that continues capturing footage when it goes underwater. As you can imagine, the captures feature nothing but the not-so-pleasant aquatic ambience.

Camera


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Outfitted with a 5MP autofocusing camera, the Torque can compete spec-wise with the likes of the iPhone 4, but not contemporary flagship devices with 8- to 13-megapixel cameras, of course. Nonetheless, its 2,592 x 1,944 photos are fairly solid -- even when viewed on a MacBook Pro Retina display. In some instances, however, the shooter captures muted colors, but flipping it into HDR mode largely remedies the situation. Even when it comes to action shots, the hardware performs admirably -- we were even able to nail a shot with birds spreading their wings as they took flight. Macro shots could stand to be a bit sharper, but they hold up decently when not blown up to full-screen on a PC.

Image quality suffers in lower-lit conditions. The "night scenery" mode baked into the default software notably -- but not vastly -- bumps up the exposure when photograph subjects are near, but becomes much less effective when objects are farther away. Regardless, using the specialty mode provides a somewhat markedly better picture than sticking with "auto." When it's sufficiently dark, focusing on distant scenery proves to be difficult for the Torque's sensor.

Kyocera Torque review: Sample Photos

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Despite stand-up photo quality during the daytime, the handset hits a snag with its default camera app since it lacks a tap-to-focus feature and its continuous shooting mode only captures images in VGA resolution. To its credit, the application does include a panorama mode that stitches together photos with a maximum resolution of 1,280 x 720. As for the front-facing camera, things aren't so peachy as its quality is reminiscent of a low-end webcam.

As for video, the handset can capture 1080p footage at 30 fps. At maximum resolution, recorded video looks fairly solid. Our prime gripe when it comes to video actually relates to storage. Though it may pack 4GB of built-in storage (not including extra space courtesy of a microSD card), only 1GB is usable as the rest is filled up by the operating system and essential files. Because of that, capturing 1080p video fills it up fast -- especially when much of that space is already occupied by apps, pictures and other footage. We freed up space by deleting a video, and were able to record a one-minute, 38-second video that clocks in at 235.4MB. Anyone with a hankering for shooting photos or downloading games will need to plunk down the cash for a microSD card.

Software


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Kyocera's ruggedized smartphone totes mostly stock Android 4.0.4 (Ice Cream Sandwich), but carries a few Sprint-flavored tweaks. Namely, a few carrier-specific apps such as its Sprint ID suite, Mobile Sync to back up contacts and Sprint Zone. In addition, the handset also packs Eco Mode, which is a pretty nifty automation of what smartphone users have trained themselves to already do: shut off functions to conserve power as the day goes on. With the feature, folks can specify a certain battery level that, when reached, will make the app trigger user settings ranging from lower brightness to shorter tolerances for sleep mode. The Torque also has Swype baked into its virtual keyboard.

Ice Cream Sandwich doesn't please your palate? Sprint says the phone's set to receive an upgrade to Jelly Bean in the next few months, but doesn't come laden with it since it doesn't natively support Qualcomm's QChat, which Sprint uses for push-to-talk. Given the wait times and inconsistency of carrier-distributed Android updates, though, you shouldn't hold your breath for the Torque to be graced with the latest flavor of Android.

Performance and battery life


Kyocera Torque HTC One X (AT&T) Samsung Galaxy S III (T-Mo)
Quadrant (v2) 4,408 5,385 4,853
Vellamo (v2.0 HTML5) 1,748

1,638

1,517
AnTuTu 10,764 7,013 6,765
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 2,113.8

1,274

1,764
GLBenchmark 2.5 Egypt Offscreen (fps) 14 14 13
CF-Bench 7,311 9,490 8,759
Battery life (rundown test) 9:15 8:55 8:58
SunSpider: lower scores are better

When it comes to performance, the phone is responsive and snappy swiping through screens, menus and running apps thanks to a 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Plus processor. Kyocera's Torque carries the same silicon as the HTC One X for AT&T and T-Mobile's Samsung Galasy S III, but it falls short of their scores in the majority of horsepower benchmarks.

The hardware is a far cry from a gaming machine since it scored 14 fps in our benchmarks, but it can run 3D games fairly well, with some stutters when GPU-intensive events occur. Really, what hamstrings the handset is having only 1GB of available memory, which means games over 1GB or so are out of reach without a microSD card. Despite its lack of accommodation for gaming, the smartphone holds up as an email and social-networking machine.

On our standard rundown test, the Torque was able to squeeze out nine hours and 15 minutes of life from its 2,500mAh battery, but fared well in day-to-day use. On a day out fishing and taking in the sights at a Renaissance fair, the device stayed alive even as this editor compulsively checked email and social networks, and made a few calls over 3G. Not only did it survive a 24-hour long day, it putted along with leftover juice for an extra 12 hours mostly on standby.

Though it's outfitted with an LTE radio, we didn't encounter a 4G network while using it. With that said, our 3G speed tests conducted around Kissimmee and St. Cloud, Fla., averaged about 564 Kbps for downloads and 410 Kbps for uploads.

Wrap-up


Within the spectrum of Android phones, the Torque is ultimately an underpowered handset. It'll set owners back $99 (after a mail-in rebate) and hitches them to a two-year contract with Sprint. If your primary concerns are aesthetics and power, you're better off going with the latest flagship phone from the sundry outfits battling it out for smartphone supremacy. However, if ruggedness beats out your thirst for sheer horsepower and sleek looks, the Torque may fit nicely in your pocket -- if you don't mind picking up a microSD card to remedy its frustrating 1GB of available storage, that is. Sure, you could drop the cash on the latest and greatest smartphone and buy a case that'll keep it safe while marring its good looks, but the Torque offers a somewhat reasonable deal: a decent Android experience on affordable, ruggedized hardware.

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Kyocera

Kyocera Torque

Pros

  • Durable design
  • Shockingly loud

Cons

  • Low-resolution screen
  • Only 1GB of usable built-in memory
  • Screen washes out in direct sunlight
Conclusion

The Torque isn't a flawless device, but it's loud and durable enough for field workers who plan on using their phone in the great outdoors.

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Kyocera Torque review: a rugged phone delivering superior sound