Sprint and Kyocera team up yet again to make that mid-range phone that does just enough to make you consider it if you're in the right price bracket

Sprint and Kyocera are a bit of a dynamic duo in the U.S. wireless market, releasing new devices together every time you turn around. Between Sprint itself and its prepaid carriers Boost and Virgin Mobile, Kyocera pretty heftily blankets the low- to mid-range market with solid, waterproof and often rugged devices. The Kyocera Hydro Vibe on Sprint is another entrant squarely in that mid-range group, offering a few neat features, respectable hardware and access to Sprint's Spark LTE network for just $29 on-contract or $229 without any agreement.

That's not a whole lot to ask for a phone with some pretty competent specs, including a quad-core processor, 4.5-inch display, complete waterproofing and a neat bone-conducting speaker. But in many ways it's just what everyone expected — the Hydro Vibe was never going to be a device with barn-burning performance or crazy features, it's meant to fill a very specific niche on Sprint's network that Kyocera has been filling for years. And they keep making these devices because people keep buying them — read along and see if you should consider being one of those customers with our full review of the Kyocera Hydro Vibe.

Hardware

Kyocera Hydro Vibe

It's pretty easy to pick out a Kyocera phone from a crowd, as its devices follow a distinct design language. They're not the most striking or svelte phones out there, and are often a tad on the thick side with many rugged design features. The Hydro Vibe is much the same, though it doesn't quite yell "construction site gear" like some of the more purpose-built rugged phones from the manufacturer.

The Kyocera Hydro Vibe is a small and thick, by today's standards, with gratuitous use of hard plastic and a few different textures and finishes that try to make it look fancy but generally make it seem cheap. You've got a shiny chrome plastic rim that encircles the screen and down the edges, which then meets up with a shiny black plastic rim and continues to a textured removable back plate. There's a shiny chrome (but different shade from the other chrome) power button on top, volume keys on the left side and camera button on the bottom right. Kyocera painted its logo above the screen on a bezel that doesn't have a speaker grille due to its use of a bone-conducting speaker, and three capacitive keys are found opposite it on the bottom bezel.

Even without any overtly-rugged design elements, the Hydro Vibe is IP 57 water and dust resistant, meaning it can survive a dunk in water up to three and a half feet for 30 minutes — far more than you'll need in any usual situation with a phone. An added bonus is that Kyocera doesn't cover up any of the ports or buttons with little flaps (see, it is possible, Samsung) that will eventually break off anyway. It protects the removable battery, SIM and SDcard with a rubber gasket-sealed back panel.

This is a solidly-made device, and while I would be even happier with the design if Kyocera had cut back on the layers of shiny plastic, it isn't going to stand out as much as some of its previous devices. This is more of a "normal" phone done up in the Kyocera style, and that's not all bad.

Display quality

Kyocera Hydro Vibe

One of the first things to go when cutting costs on a device is the display, and that's exactly what has happened here. The Hydro Vibe shows off a 4.5-inch IPS display at 960 x 540 resolution, coming out to just 244 ppi. The fact that it's an IPS LCD helps with viewing angles, color reproduction and overall quality, but this isn't an industry-leading panel by any means. The low resolution is noticeable on icons, fonts and images, particularly because this is a smaller device that you hold a bit closer to your eyes in regular use. It isn't quite as bright as higher-end phones, and there's some noticeable light leakage at the bottom of the display, but those things are hard to complain about when you consider the price.

This is a far step above previous low-end Kyocera phones, thankfully, which had displays that were downright painful on the eyes. The odd color banding, noticeable display gap and odd grain are drastically diminished here, and we hope Kyocera continues on this path with future device displays.

Internals

Kyocera Hydro Vibe

For a mere $229 without an agreement or $29 on-contract, you can't really expect much in terms of internals. That being said, the Hydro Vibe has some pretty solid specs for the price, matching what you'd get for about $200 from any other manufacturer. You're getting a Snapdragon 400 processor, 1.5GB of RAM, 8GB of (expandable) storage, a 4.5-inch qHD display and an 8MP camera. Sounds about right for the price point.

Category Features
OS Android 4.3 Jelly Bean
Chipset Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8926 1.2GHz quad-core
RAM 1.5GB
Display Size 4.5-inches
Display Resolution 960 x 540, 244 ppi
Cameras 8MP rear
2MP front
Internal Storage 8GB
External Storage SDcard up to 32GB
Radios CDMA / LTE
Sprint Spark
Connectivity Wifi, GPS, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC
Dimensions 5.01 x 2.5 x 0.43-inches
Weight 5.9 oz
Battery 2000mAh removable
Water resistance IP 57 water and dust resistant

Sprint network

Kyocera Hydro Vibe Network Settings

Talking about network performance is always a point of contention in any review, but even more so when we're talking about Sprint. While there are many places across the country that Sprint has deployed LTE, and even upgraded it with higher-speed Sprint Spark, my home market of Seattle is not one of those locations for some reason. Originally one of the launch areas for Sprint's first foray into 4G technologies, WiMax, Seattle is still sitting woefully in the age of 3G on the Sprint network.

Aside from the occasional blip onto LTE — which I've been seeing for several months off-and-on as it's built out — the entirety of Seattle is experiencing network speeds from Sprint that are the worst out of any major carrier. Sprint's 3G network struggles to provide over 1mbps download speeds (on a good day), and nothing over 500kbps on the upload, in the city. To be fair you can get those speeds practically anywhere I have traveled, including out of state, which provides some nice consistency but at some point you'd be happy to take slightly less coverage for actually usable speeds.

When I did happen to find some Sprint LTE, primarily around the SeaTac airport and in downtown Tacoma (if you're familiar with the area), I was pleased by the speeds available. The Hydro Vibe had no problem pulling upwards of 30mbps on the download and 5mbps on the upload, which is right in the range that we've come to expect from AT&T and T-Mobile, the other strong carriers here. Now it's just time for Sprint to actually expand that LTE coverage to more places — Seattle isn't the only major city in the U.S. that is still stuck on Sprint 3G and hating it.

Software

Kyocera Hydro Vibe

Kyocera has loaded up the Hydro Vibe with similar software to what we've seen on previous devices — a very last-gen design language, with blocky buttons and menus, superfluous animations and extra lights and sounds you just don't want. Performance is thankfully acceptable, but not amazing by any stretch. Considering the resolution of the screen and the hardware under the hood, the Hydro Vibe on paper has more than enough power to push around a build of Android 4.3 Jelly Bean. Sadly it seems Kyocera's software customization is letting us down a bit in the performance category, with a few unfortunate bits of choppiness and stutter around the interface at inopportune times.

Kyocera Hydro Vibe Software

We've seen plenty of devices running a Snapdragon 400 processor and even less RAM perform better than this, and it's sad to see it happen on what would otherwise be a very capable device. You can kill two birds with one stone and improve both the looks and performance of the device with a launcher replacement and uninstalling or disabling a lot of the pre-installed apps, but you still notice performance hiccups when you unlock the device and manage multiple apps. Single-app performance in terms of responsiveness, scrolling and interaction seem just fine, but the move between apps and through the interface is where you notice the slowdowns. There's nothing deal-breaking here, particularly for this class of device, but it's just not as snappy and responsive as someone would want when you take price out of consideration.

This is really a case where you wish that Kyocera would give up its thoughts of branding the software to fit the needs of it and its carrier partners, and instead go with something a little simpler and lightweight in order to improve both the visuals and performance.

Cameras

Kyocera Hydro Vibe

You'll find a no-frills 8MP camera on the back of the Hydro Vibe, paired with a standard camera interface that helps you take quick snaps and the occasional specialized shot. The interface itself is basic, gives you access to both stills and video with one tap, has a variety of simple shooting modes but most importantly is quick to let you tap to focus and capture pictures.

Hydro Vibe Camera UI

Photo quality was surprisingly good under standard conditions, letting in plenty of light and keeping grain to a minimum when in automatic mode. HDR seemed to go a bit overboard, letting in too much light, but thankfully the quality of auto means you won't bother with HDR (and subsequently long processing times) to get good shots.

Nobody is coming into buying the Hydro Vibe expecting great photos, nor will they be blowing them up to print and frame, and I'd expect more than a few people to be surprised by the pictures out of this phone because of that.

Bottom Line

Kyocera Hydro Vibe

Nobody that has the Kyocera Hydro Vibe on their radar when walking into a Sprint store will be comparing it to the latest and greatest from Samsung, HTC or LG — and because of its price point, it actually has a lot going for it. At just $29 on-contract or $229 if you're not ready for a contract extension, the Hydro Vibe actually does offers quite a lot.

You're getting an improved screen over previous models, acceptable internal specs, solid battery life and a competent camera. While the software is a bit of a drawback in terms of performance and looks, it's hard to be picky if you're trying to pinch pennies and get something that'll work well enough to tide you over for a while. Whether or not the Sprint network is a downside for you should probably be determined well before you start looking at which device on the carrier you'll be buying, so we can leave that out of the equation as well.

If you're looking for an inexpensive, waterproof, easy-to-hold, Sprint Spark-enabled device that you won't demand much out of in terms of intense usage, the Hydro Vibe may be a good choice when you're put between a rock and a price point. If you're able (and willing) to re-up a two-year contract, you should probably consider spending a little extra to get oh-so-much more, but for a certain set of consumers, this is a solid choice.