Kyocera Hydro Elite

Kyocera is one of those phone manufacturers that has never been known as a maker of high-end devices, but rather a combination of spec phones for carriers and an interesting line of rugged or specialized devices for certain people. Along with Sprint and many prepaid carriers, Verizon is building a relationship with Kyocera for a variety of low-end devices to help anchor its product lines.

Although its "Elite" name may make you think it should be a bit higher-end, the Kyocera Hydro Elite is yet another low-end device that can be sold quick and cheap to just the right consumer, and likely be put on sale for $0.99 when the holidays come around. For the moment the Hydro Elite is anchoring the lower end of Verizon's lineup, and also happens to be one of its few waterproof options.

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Read along after the break to see the merits of the Kyocera Hydro Elite on Verizon.

Inside this review: Hardware | Software | Cameras | Bottom line

Considering the branding and $49.99 on-contract price, you naturally will set the bar a bit lower for what you can expect out of the Hydro Elite. And in the end, you'd be partially right in doing so. While the device's design isn't going to "wow" anyone or win any design awards, it has its own bit of personality and does everything by the book.

The Hydro Elite has all of the parts you're expecting, with few extra frills.

What we mean by that is the Hydro Elite simply has all of the parts you're expecting out of a modern phone, with few extra frills. This is a regular black rectangular phone with a power button on top and volume buttons on the sides, a pair of cameras, a USB port on the side and a textured back plate.

With just a 4.3-inch display it isn't particularly large, and it will likely be a refreshingly nice size for some first-time smart phone buyers that don't want to jump from a feature phone up to a giant screen. And that's really the case for most of what the Hydro Elite has to offer — it isn't meant to surprise anyone, it's meant to be a stepping stone device that's cheap on-contract.

Kyocera Hydro Elite

Two of the most interesting features of the Hydro Elite are ones that you can't see, but make a big difference in how you'll use the device. The first is complete waterproofing, which Kyocera claims will keep the Hydro Elite (the name makes sense now, right?) safe in up to 3 feet of water for 30 minutes. Naturally there is a disclaimer that you shouldn't actually try to get the phone wet, but our review unit took a dunk in a public fountain for several minutes and was no worse off when we pulled it out and dried it off. The nice part about the waterproofing is that it doesn't require flaps or doors on any of the ports — you simply have a sealed battery door and that's it.

We wish more manufacturers used bone conducting speakers in their phones.

The second unseen but important feature is the bone-conducting handset speaker used for calls. It's the exact same technology we used on the Kyocera Torque, called Smart Sonic Receiver, which actually causes small vibrations in your eardrum that are picked up by your body as sounds. The effect is awesome simply because it sounds no different than a regular speaker — if you didn't notice that there's no speaker grille above the screen you may not think about what technology is at play here. Not only does this give one less point of entry for water on the phone, it also has the bonus of giving you extremely clear audio quality no matter how noisy your environment is. We actually wish more phone manufacturers used this technology.

Kyocera Hydro Elite

In terms of feel while the device is in your hand and you're using it, the Hydro Elite is actually quite nice. It isn't particularly curvy or svelte (at just over 10mm thick), but it doesn't need to be when it is so small. People with hands of any size will have no problem using the Hydro Elite in one hand, manipulating the entire screen and using every function without repositioning. The hard plastic texturized back will be hit-or-miss depending on how you like that sort of thing, but it certainly does its job of adding a lot of grip to the phone.

The display offers ample pixel density, but colors just don't pop like you want them to.

Although how the device feels in your hand is important, likely more important is how the screen looks while you're holding it. In the case of the Hydro Elite you're going to get a screen with quality fitting of its price tag — usable, but hardly top-of-the-line. The 4.3-inch 720x1280 display provides ample pixel density, but colors just don't quite pop like you want them to. Things don't hold strong when viewing the screen off-axis either, and the picture quickly gets washed out. Again, for a first-time smart phone buyer this screen is far more than they'll be expecting and it is certainly good enough for this price.

Kyocera Hydro Elite Software

Getting beyond the screen and into interacting with the software, you'll find a build of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean on-board along with Kyocera's tweaks to the interface and Verizon's bloat in the app drawer — none of which can be uninstalled or even disabled. The software customizations are relatively unoffensive, simple and a little more friendly than stock android — perfect for the target audience of this phone — but can feel a little tacked-on at times.

Kyocera should have spent its software development time on performance, rather than redesigning icons.

The system icons for the clock, camera, file manager and settings just don't really fit in with an otherwise "Stock" build of Android, and we really think that if Kyocera would've just left things the way they come from Google the Hydro Elite's software would feel a bit more cohesive.

Software performance really leaves a lot to be desired, and is something that Kyocera should've spent more time on. Simple movements like swiping through the launcher and app drawer have noticeable stutter, which is troubling considering that there is more than enough hardware under the hood to make things go smoother. General app usage seems completely fine, but as soon as you step into even a moderately intense game the stutters set back in again. It really felt like a hit-or-miss affair when using the Hydro Elite — you didn't know when you'd get acceptable performance and when you'd be let down.

The Specs:

  • 4.3-inch 720x1280 display
  • Dual-core 1.5GHz (MSM8960) processor
  • 1.5GB of RAM
  • 16GB storage, expandable by SDcard
  • 2100mAh removable battery
  • 8MP rear / 1.3MP front camera
  • Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, Wifi a/b/g/n
  • MHL and DLNA support

With a basic set of specs inside and just a 4.3-inch display, the Hydro Elite sipped on its 2100mAh battery. With our normal usage of primarily staying on Wifi and keeping up with social media and messaging, the battery easily lasted all day.

Kyocera Hydro Elite Camera

The Hydro Elite has an 8MP rear-facing camera that is also capable of recording 1080p video. The camera interface is pretty basic, and has a simple set of controls for switching between camera modes and tweaking simple settings like contrast, exposure and to different scene modes.

Hydro Elite Camera Sample 1 Hydro Elite Camera Sample 2

Hydro Elite Camera Sample 3 Hydro Elite Camera Sample 4

Hydro Elite Camera Sample 5 Hydro Elite Camera Sample 6

Camera quality is a bit of a mixed bag, but the Hydro Elite is capable of taking some decent snapshots provided you have a good eye and keep the camera locked into HDR mode. You won't be able to take crisp close-up macro shots or expect lots of detail in dark scenes, but the 8MP camera offers plenty of quality for this level of phone.

Kyocera Hydro Elite

After spending some time with the Kyocera Hydro Elite, we came away with such a lackluster feeling about the device. Now this isn't exactly surprising to us — the phone was never meant to blow anyone away in the first place. But even for what the device is, it comes up short in terms of being able to offer a solid user experience for anyone but the most basic user out there. There are a few great features like complete waterproofing and a bone-conducting speaker on-board, but the software just leaves a bad taste in your mouth (for lack of a better phrase) and the hardware is uninspiring.

While Verizon needs devices like this to fill out its smart phone ranks at all price points, there are still better choices on Big Red for about the same price on-contract. In a world where you can buy a Droid DNA for the same $49.99, a Galaxy S3 for $99.99 or even brand new Droid Mini for $99.99, it's hard to see how the Hydro Elite could be an overall better choice than these other solid phones on the carrier.