Smartphones have become quite sophisticated in recent years, but thanks to the glass, plastic and aluminum being used in manufacturing, they're getting more fragile as well. While this is a windfall for third-party case makers, it creates a dilemma for those who work in extreme environments.
That's where the Sprint Torque by Kyocera comes into play. There's no need for a case with this particular Android-powered smartphone, because it's already ruggedized against water, dust or even a drop from nearly six feet high, right out of the box.
As you might expect from any smartphone endorsed by Bear Grylls of Man vs. Wild, the Torque actually meets military standards for dust, vibration, extreme temperatures and even water immersion up to 3.28 feet (more on that in a bit). The downside is this armor adds a more bulk and weight, although it's negligible for those used to adding cases from Otterbox and the like.
The ruggedized exterior extends to three plastic Android navigation keys for Back, Home and Menu – all of which have been textured along with the rest of the non-slip, Dura-Grip reinforced housing. It's a handsome, if somewhat intimidating, handset.
Up top are dedicated speaker and power buttons, with a headphone jack hidden below a protective cap, which also shields the micro-USB jack at bottom. Along the lower right side is a camera shutter button, while a volume rocker and push-to-talk Direct Connect button (ringed in yellow plastic) round out the left edge.
There's a solid heft to the Torque at 5.54 ounces, and the 4.44 x 2.38 x 0.56-inch frame may take a little getting used to in smaller hands. The back features a 5-megapixel camera with LED flash, while a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera gets the job done for video chatting on the go.
Sprint has priced the Torque by Kyocera affordably: $349.99 contract-free, but after with two-year contract and a $50 mail-in rebate, this rugged beast can be yours for absolutely free.
Interface, calling and internet
At its heart, the Torque is a fairly run-of-the-mill Android 4.0.4: Ice Cream Sandwich handset. This is the most up to date version of ICS, but Sprint isn't saying whether or not the device will be upgraded to Jelly Bean. It's doubtful that it will happen, since JB doesn't support Qualcomm's push-to-talk QChat, the technology powering the Sprint's Direct Connect feature.
The four-inch, WVGA IPS display contains a humble 800 x 480 resolution, but otherwise the screen is clear and bright, with a good balance of saturation and contrast. Our only complaint here was the automatic brightness setting occasionally wigged out, making the display too dark in sunlight.
While the Torque isn't quite stock Android, it's pretty close – Sprint showed some welcome restraint when it comes to preloaded apps. One carrier-added extra of note is Sprint ID, which allows users to download free packs to customize the look and feel of the device.
ID packs range from new wallpapers to full-on branded experiences like ABC News, eBay, Yahoo and even movies such as Sony's new "Evil Dead" remake, which adds customized ringtones, photos and quick links to various social media dedicated to promoting the film.
Installing new Sprint ID packs actually required us to turn off any available Wi-Fi connection, since they can only be downloaded over the carrier's network. Otherwise, this feature is a fun way to customize the Torque and switch between packs with just a few taps whenever the mood strikes us.
There's potential good news for those who plan to use the Torque for wireless data as well as actually making calls: Kyocera's handset is the first rugged Sprint device to take advantage of its fledgling 4G LTE network, and it's got one of the loudest speakers we've ever heard on a mobile device. It would be great for someone who works in a noisy environment.
Sadly, our testing was done far from any Sprint LTE location, so we had to settle for the carrier's traditionally poky CDMA-based 3G network. Our informal SpeedTest.net findings produced a dismal 0.68Mbps down and an even creakier 0.25Mbps up, so the Torque is far from a speed demon on legacy networks.
Thankfully, the Torque performed much better in our calling tests. While the earpiece produced occasionally digitized sound on our end, callers remarked how crystal-clear our voice was at their end.
Kyocera boasts that the Torque includes "Smart Sonic Receiver," which uses tissue and air conduction in the eardrum to boost call volume, even in loud environments such as concerts or sporting arenas. We certainly noticed the difference, although the twin speakers along the bottom front of the handset impressed us even more.
We like to occasionally drive with the free iHeartRadio app serving up our favorite Los Angeles-area talk radio station, but the frequent mix of clearly miked host and phone-in caller can be challenging for even the best speakers. No such problems with the Torque, whose speakers were loud and clear for both types of audio, even with the volume below full blast.
For business users, Sprint and Kyocera have also included push-to-talk Direct Connect, a feature we were unable to test (and is disabled anytime the device is in LTE mode anyway). The push-to-talk button is hard to miss, however: We wound up pressing it by mistake nearly every other time we picked up the device.
Camera and video
Kyocera has infused the Torque with a respectable 5MP rear-facing camera, which produces JPEG images sized at 2592 x 1944. Unlike many midrange smartphone cameras, photos from the Torque had good contrast with accurate color saturation.
While images tended to be a little soft around some edges, the Torque produced remarkably clear photos outdoors, with the quality dropping off accordingly as we moved indoors. Pictures taken with the LED flash were garishly yellow at times, with most of the light focused at the center of frame.
While the Torque produces decent results, it can be quite slow on the draw: It takes three full seconds to launch the Camera app, and there's a long pause after pressing the dedicated camera button on the right edge before the shutter actually snaps. This is also a single-stage button, so you'll want to check focus and exposure before pressing it.
Kyocera has made welcome improvements to the stock Ice Cream Sandwich Camera app, including HDR, continuous shooting, Instagram-style live effects, smile shutter and panorama courtesy of Morpho's Quick Panorama app (which is built into the Camera app, but also has its own icon on the home screen).
Make the quality is set to 1080p to get a clear idea of the of the Torque's video capabilities.
Battery life, durability and performance
The Torque by Kyocera includes a removable, 2500mAh Lithium Ion battery tucked beneath a ruggedized cover held firmly in place by a large screw above the micro-USB port. Thankfully, a screwdriver isn't required – we were able to open and close the cover easily with a thumbnail.
Sprint rates the Torque talk time at a whopping 18 hours, a claim we're hard-pressed to dispute. The carrier doesn't rate the device for standby, but based on the week we spent with it, the included battery certainly outlasts more expensive competing handsets.
Underneath the battery is a micro-SIM slot, now required for Sprint 4G LTE devices. A micro-SD slot is also tucked away just below a notch used to eject the battery, capable of up to 32GB of additional, user-provided storage.
The device also includes 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, mobile hotspot connectivity for up to eight devices and stereo Bluetooth 4.0 wireless, all of which performed as expected.
So just how rugged is the Torque? Kyocera claims the device meets an IP67 rating for dust and water immersion as well as Military Standard 810G for just about any condition you can imagine, including solar radiation (!!), humidity and other temperature extremes.
To test these claims, TechRadar took the Torque on a hike through the woods, tossing it into grass, mud and against trees with no ill effects. A passing thunderstorm also gave us the opportunity to stand out in the pouring rain while engaged in a speakerphone call – unthinkable with any other handset, but the Torque passed the test with flying colors.
Perhaps the boldest claim Sprint and Kyocera make with the Torque is its ability to withstand 30 minutes of being immersed in up to 3.28 feet (one meter) of water. Naturally, we had to try this for ourselves using a bathtub full of water, even calling the handset from another line just because we could. Once again, the Torque came out no worse for the wear.
Just for good measure, we also gave the Torque a toss onto the lawn. Not only did it keep on ticking, it didn't stop shooting either. Warning, not for the easily dizzied.
While few would accuse the armored Torque by Kyocera of being a slouch in the durability field, its 1.2Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8969 dual-core processor is dated, and you can feel it. The Torque boots up in a poky 40 seconds but once started, we found the processor largely acceptable in daily use.
As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding: Version 3.3 of the AnTuTu Benchmark app came back with a score of 10521, which again puts it just below the HTC One S (10644), but pales in comparison to a flagship device like the Samsung Galaxy S3 (16301). The processor is aided by a 4GB ROM coupled with 1GB RAM and an equal amount of onboard storage.
Sprint bundles a sprinkling of bloatware with the Torque, including ICE for emergency contacts, Mobile Sync for free, cloud-based contact sync, Polaris Viewer for opening Microsoft Office documents and Sprint Zone for accessing account information, carrier news and even music, movies and TV shows through the Entertain Me portal.
In addition to the aforementioned Sprint ID app, the provider also includes shortcuts to Battery, Direct Connect, LED Flashlight, Eco Mode (battery-saving features) and iZat, Qualcomm's built-in enhanced location technology. All in all, Sprint has shown restraint by not overloading the Torque with unwanted features, but we did miss the traditional built-in Notepad app, a curious omission.
Aside from rugged good looks, the Torque by Kyocera makes a fine midrange device for Sprint users on a budget. We consider it a plus that it can withstand such brutal conditions, even if we're more likely to drop it while getting out of the car instead of something more exciting, like making calls in the midst of a hurricane.
The Torque is one tough cookie – we definitely wound never put our iPhone 5 through any of the battle testing Kyocera's handset endured for this review, and the black ruggedized exterior is as handsome as it is practical.
Hands-down, our favorite feature is the quality and volume of the speakers, which were the loudest and clearest we've ever come across, although nearly stock Android was a nice plus. The Torque also takes surprisingly decent still images with great contrast and color saturation.
Although the rear-facing camera takes decent photos, the slow shutter speed makes this a half-hearted recommendation, especially for snapping pics of kids or animals. It's also not the best 1080p HD video shooter around.
While it was a pleasant surprise to come powered by a more recent version of Android, by this point Ice Cream Sandwich doesn't quite have the same level of freshness it did a year or two ago. Our only real hardware complaint was that darned Direct Connect button, which is just large enough to accidentally press exactly when you don't mean to.
Bear Gryllis adventures aside, the Kyocera Torque would be a good fit for anyone who works outdoors in noisy environments and tends to be rough on their phones. This would be an ideal work phone for a construction worker, and it costs nothing after a mail-in rebate and two-year agreement.
Kyocera may not be a name normally associated with quality Android handsets, but the manufacturer has found a nice niche with the Torque that's worthy of a look for Sprint customers.