Kyocera DuraForce review: Meet the Android phone designed for The Hulk

If you work in punishing environments, here's a phone that will withstand some of the abuse

The Hulk
Credit: Michael Carian

In a world of me-too Android smartphones, the Kyocera DuraForce stands out. Way out. It's heavy, bulky, and not exactly pretty. Something The Hulk would carry around.

But as the name suggests, the DuraForce is not meant to be stylish. Instead, it's designed to be abused yet continue working. This ruggedized Android smartphone is meant for construction workers, utility linemen, oil riggers, security guards, coaches, park rangers, and other folks whose work environments are rough and tumble.

Kyocera markets the DuraForce as a smartphone that can withstand the elements -- extreme temperatures, dust, shock, solar radiation, salt fog, "blowing rain," and shallow-water immersion (six feet) for as long as 30 minutes -- in compliance with the IP68 rating and the Mil-Std-810G standard for hardened gear.

Kyocera DuraForce toilet test Galen Gruman | InfoWorld

I dropped the Kyocera DuraForce into a toilet for 10 minutes, with no ill effect on the hardened Android smartphone.

Kyocera challenged me to abuse the DuraForce. Which I happily did. First, I did the toilet test, since smartphones on work belts and work jackets seem to like to fall in the toilet. I let the DuraForce sit, turned on, in a clean toilet bowl for 10 minutes. Its screen stayed on while soaking, and the smartphone worked without issue when I retrieved it. (There's no way I would try this with my iPhone. There's a reason Apple techs swab the iPhone's ports for moisture when a customer brings in a dead unit.)

I then froze the DuraForce to 2ºF for a half hour. It still worked fine, even as the frozen drops melted.

Kyocera DuraForce freezer test Galen Gruman | InfoWorld

The Kyocera DuraForce was unaffected by a 30-minute stint in my freezer.

Next, I dropped the Duraforce six feet onto a thin pillow to see how it reacted to a shock. It was unperturbed. But that's not a big drop -- my iPhone can handle it, too. So I then dropped it 15 feet, with a little English added, over my balcony into the garden below. The DuraForce remained unperturbed. 

By that point, I had no compunction putting it under a running faucet to clean off the dirt. I wouldn't do that with any other smartphone!

Finally, I did a second toilet test, this time with the audio port open so I could simulate what would happen to the DuraForce if it were dropped into water while being used to listen to music or make a phone call with earbuds. Again, the DuraForce soldiered on as if nothing had happened.

Well, except that the next morning, the power button at the top of the DuraForce no longer responded to being pressed. I'm not sure what caused that button to stop working, but it is located right next to the audio jack port I left open in the second toilet test, so my guess is that water did intrude enough to cause an issue.

Whatever the cause, it shows that the DuraForce is not impervious to damage despite its armoring. (Kyocera says the power-button failure I experienced at the end of my testing is abnormal, and the company is surprised that it occurred.) Still, it's clear the DuraForce can take a lot more abuse than your typical smartphone.

Unfortunately, I had no way to test its ability to withstand dust, solar radiation, salt fog, or blowing rain. Maybe next time!

Kyocera DuraForce AT&T

To get its durability, Kyocera has basically armored the DuraForce, which makes it a real brute of a smartphone. And that shows up in some of the design choices.

The DuraForce weighs 7 oz., versus the 5.1 oz. of the Android business flagship Samsung Galaxy S5. The DuraForce is 0.55 inches thick, versus the S5's 0.32 inches. Basically, it's half again as heavy and half again as thick as the typical smartphone.

Believe me, you really notice how bulky and heavy it is -- this device belongs on a tool belt, not in your shirt pocket. Yet its screen is smaller than most: just 4.5 inches diagonally.

Another compromise is the screen's responsiveness. The touchscreen sometimes doesn't detect taps, so you need to tap a little harder to get the DuraForce to respond. The need for that extra force does have an upside: It's less likely to register inadvertent taps whenever your fingers accidentally brush the screen.

The physical buttons on the Kyocera DuraForce take some getting used to. The two buttons at the top look identical, so it's easy to get confused as to which one is the power button and which is the speaker key.

The big, red-lined button on the left side is a key unique to the DuraForce. You can program what it does, which is nice in theory but can be annoying in practice because it's so easy to press it by mistake. I set my loaner unit to pull down notifications when the programmable button is pressed, because that action does no harm when done inadvertently.

The physical Home, Back, and Recent Apps buttons are both a good idea and a bad idea. Good because they're easy to press and because they respond even when you're wearing work gloves. Bad because they're easy to press accidentally while rooting around your pocket or tool belt. In this case, the good outweighs the bad.

The DuraForce's ports are all covered, so they don't get plugged with dirt or allow in liquids that could fry the device. That means there are awkward tabs hanging to the side when you charge the phone or plug in your earbuds -- an acceptable trade-off for the extra protection needed in harsh environments.

When you get past the DuraForce's armored hardware you have a vanilla Android smartphone, with the usual Android apps preinstalled. The AT&T version, which I tested, also has the usual AT&T bloatware. 

One software difference from standard Android, though, is an unwelcome one: The lock screen makes you use a widget to choose what you want to do when you unlock the smartphone: make a call, use the camera, or go to the home screen. It's meant to provide quick access to the phone and camera, but what it really does is slow down your access to the device's features. I wish it were optional.

Battery life is good, with a charge lasting at least a day of normal use.

The DuraForce runs Android 4.4.2 KitKat and comes with 16GB of internal storage, plus it supports an SD card for additional storage. In the U.S., both AT&T and U.S. Cellular offer it, for $399 with no contract. As you'd expect, it supports LTE networks, Bluetooth Low Energy, Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n, but not 802.11ac), and NFC (near fleld communications).

All in all, the Kyocera DuraForce is rough in ways mainly good. If you work in punishing environments, or you are a rough user like The Hulk, the DuraForce is clearly worth your consideration. Otherwise, get something else more elegant, if less tough.

This story, "Kyocera DuraForce review: Meet the Android phone designed for The Hulk" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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