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Kyocera makes one claim with its DuraForce XD phone ($449 via AT&T): This giant phone will survive just about any mishap you can throw at it. After dropping, dunking and doing our best to damage the DuraForce XD, we're inclined to agree, though we wish better battery life were part of the mix, too. You'll compromise on some specs like peppy performance in the name of durability, but the DuraForce XD's ability to withstand assorted calamities makes it an ideal choice if demanding worksites are part of your daily grind.
Design: Plus-size smartphone
Be prepared to haul around a lot of phone with the DuraForce XD. The device features a massive 6.57 x 3.4 x 0.55-inch frame, thanks to the protective plastic case housing the phone. The rugged exterior not only helps guard against drops, but it also gives you an easy surface to grab on to; that's important, because the DuraForce XD is a lot to hold on to for all but the largest of hands. Covered headphone and charging ports add to the protective design of the phone.
All this protection comes at the expense of added bulk. The DuraForce XD weighs a hefty 10.8 ounces, roughly the same weight as an iPad mini tablet. The similarly priced Cat S40 smartphone from Caterpillar, which also prizes ruggedness, comes in at a comparatively svelte 6.52 ounces. The Galaxy S7 Active weighs 6.52 ounces.
You will never forget that DuraForce is in your pocket. While toting the phone around, I tried putting my leg on a bench to lace up my boots. The phone's bulk proved so noticeable that I had to take the device out of my pocket so I could tie my shoes unencumbered. I'd recommend a jacket pocket or holster if you're going to carry the DuraForce XD around.
Because Kyocera designed this phone to be operated when you're wearing work gloves, you'll find a few more buttons than you would see on a regular Android handset. Besides the standard power button and volume rocker, the DuraForce HD has a dedicated button to turn on a speaker phone so that you can carry on a conversation at a jobsite without fumbling for headphones. There's also a push-to-talk button located just below the volume rocker; you can program that button as a shortcut for launching other tasks, too. I set the push-to-talk button to fire up the phone's camera without having to wake up or unlock the DuraForce. This generally worked well, though a few times the Camera app would launch before the camera was ready to take a picture. Curiously, there's no physical home button let alone buttons for Back and All Apps as there are on the Cat S40.
MORE: Best Smartphones
Durability: One tough phone
Kyocera promises military-standard protection against things like dust, extreme temperatures, blowing rain, solar radiation and whatever else you're likely to run into during a typical day on the job. The DuraForce XD can survive a 30-minute dip in 6 feet of water, and Kyocera says you'll even be able to use a still-damp screen. The phone is also shock-resistant for drops of 4 feet onto flat surfaces, Kyocera says.
So I dropped the DuraForce XD. A lot. I dropped it on the hardwood floor of my office. I dropped the phone on the concrete sidewalk outside my house. I even made sure to let it fly screen-first toward the unforgiving terrain on several drops. And I continue to have a functioning phone. When the DuraForce landed on one of its edges, it would bounce up like a spiked football before clattering back to earth, with the protective flap over the charging port popping open on impact during one drop test.
On the screen-first drops, a ridge around the screen absorbed the brunt of the impact. The case around the DuraForce XD looked a little worse for the wear after these drops, with some visible scuff marks, but the phone continued to work just fine.
I also blasted the phone with water from a garden hose: The stream of water was forceful enough to launch an app on the phone, but the DuraForce XD suffered no damage from the spray. I could even operate the touch screen without first toweling off the device.
As for full-on dunks into water, the DuraForce XD will emerge unscathed, as long as you don't make the same mistake I did. The phone's back panel is removable, giving you access not only to the device's battery but also to its SIM and microSD card slots. To keep the phone watertight, you've got to slide over a battery lock and carefully pop that panel back into place, something I didn't do before tossing the phone into a sink full of water. The soaked phone worked for a brief time before shutting down in self-defense. I removed the back panel again, wiped everything down and waited for a nerve-wracking day. I'm happy to report that the DuraForce XD is back up and running and that it can survive encounters with water as Kyocera claims. You just need to be really careful that the phone's back panel is secure.
Display and Audio: Big screen, bolder sound
The DuraForce XD's 5.7-inch display is certainly eye-catching the first time you spot it, but that effect quickly disappears due to an underwhelming 1280 x 720 resolution. Still, the screen is decent enough for viewing videos. Explosions tearing apart the Starship Enterprise in the Star Trek Beyond trailer were nice and flashy, while the familiar red, yellow and blue Starfleet uniforms were richly detailed. I really appreciated that I could view the display even from severe angles without too much of a dip in quality.
Measuring 368 nits of brightness on our light meter, the DuraForce XD's display isn't as bright as your typical smartphone — the average is 437 nits — nor does it match the Cat S40's superbright 566 nits. But Kyocera's phone does outshine the slightly more expensive Droid Turbo 2 (300 nits), another phone that makes durability its selling point. And though I'd prefer a brighter screen with less glare, I had no problem making out details on the DuraForce XD's display when using the phone in bright sunlight, something I'm sure will appeal to workers at outdoor job sites.
The DuraForce XD displays 106.7 percent of the sRGB color gamut, which is decent, but less than the 135.2 percent category average. Kyocera's phone does a better job of accurately presenting those colors, though; we measured a Delta-E rating of 1.65. (Numbers closer to zero are better.) That's better than the category average of 2.84, as well the ratings for the S40 and Droid Turbo 2. (Numbers closer to zero are better.)
The front-facing speakers on the DuraForce XD did a great job of pumping out sound. I could listen to "Don't You (Forget About Me)" by Simple Minds with the volume cranked up only halfway, and it still filled my office with sound. I suspect the DuraForce's target audience will be more impressed with how the speakers handle phone calls on speaker mode, producing crisp, clear audio.
Performance: Enough to get the job done
With Kyocera's focus so squarely on durability, you'd expect some trade-offs with performance. A 1.6-GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 powers the DuraForce XD, which is the sort of chip you find in budget to midrange models.
Indeed, the DuraForce XD isn't going to be confused with a powerhouse smartphone, based on our tests. In the Geekbench 3 test, which measures general performance, the DuraForce XD scored 1,501, well off the pace of the average smartphone's tally of 3,123 and left in the dust by the more robust Droid Turbo 2 (4,261). But the DuraForce XD did outperform the Cat S40, giving it an edge among phones designed for jobsites and warehouses.
My everyday use of the phone certainly bore that out. Apps launched after just a few seconds on the DuraForce XD, and the phone handled most of the tasks I threw at it without much of a lag, the notable exception being the occasions when I would activate the camera using the push-to-talk button.
However, the phone struggled with more graphically demanding apps. Playing Modern Combat 5 on the DuraForce XD, I encountered a noticeable lag in responsiveness, which generally left me on the wrong end of a hail of enemy gunfire. True, you're not going to turn to the DuraForce XD for gaming, but my experience does suggest that there are only so many graphical demands the phone can meet.
The DuraForce XD turned in a score of 4,899 on the on 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited, a showing that's a fraction of what the average smartphone (14,552) can do. Still, the DuraForce XD fared slightly better than the Cast S40 (4,338) did on this test.
Camera: Not detail-oriented
Befitting its big screen, the camera app on the DuraForce XD features big buttons for taking pictures and shooting video. A slide-out menu on the side brings up assorted modes such as slow motion, time-lapse, panorama and other photographic effects.
The DuraForce XD's "bigger is better" approach doesn't apply to its rear camera sensor, which is a mere 8 megapixels. You'll get decent shots from the camera, if not especially detailed ones.
Take this the close-up of a dinner I whipped up one night. The beans are a vibrant shade of green, and the camera managed to capture the sear on the rockfish. But the picture lacks sharpness, with the edges of each item on the plate blending into each other.
It's the same story in this photo of a Memorial Day cookout. You get some details, particularly the char on the wood and wisps of smoke, but the tinfoil-wrapped rolls on the top of the grill lack distinct shape and blend into one another.
The DuraForce XD's camera fares best when conditions are ideal. Under a bright June sky, the camera took a fairly detailed picture of Levi's Stadium, with a picture so clear you can even read the banners across the street. Even a truck driving into the shot just as I tapped the shutter button remains in focus.
But the camera really struggles in low-light situations. A lucha libre figurine I tucked into a planter hanging in a dimly lit hallway at dusk is fuzzy and out of focus.
Turning on the camera's flash improved matters somewhat: The green, yellow and orange colors on the luchador's mask pop out, even if the flash has darkened the image's background. If you really care about image quality, you'll be better off with the Galaxy S7 Active.
If the DuraForce HD's rear camera has a secret weapon, it's the ability to capture HD video. A 1920 x 1080 video of an Amtrak train pulling into the Oakland Coliseum station remained crisp and clear, even as the train rolled by. I was particularly impressed by the video camera's ability to capture audio, as station announcements come in loud and clear.
The front camera and its modest 2-MP sensor repeat the same pros and cons of the rear camera, only more so. I shot a selfie in broad daylight that turned out fairly well; the camera caught the sweat glistening on my forehead on the unseasonably warm day plus the pattern on my gray T-shirt. Background details, like the fence and plants behind me, were less focused, and I think my skin looks a little fuzzy.
Shooting indoors in low light produced a grainy self-portrait that looks like it was captured by a surveillance cam.
Battery: More power needed
As important as it is to have a phone that can take a beating, you also want a phone with enough battery power to make it through the day when there's no easy way to charge the device. The DuraForce XD is probably up to that task, but just barely.
In our battery test, we set the phone to continuously surf the web over AT&T's LTE network with the screen set to 150 nits of brightness. The DuraForce XD lasted 7 hours, 58 minutes, long enough to make it through the workday, but a little short of the 8:21 average time for smartphones and well behind the S40's showing of 9:42. The Galaxy S7 Active lasted much longer, at 11 hours.
It's a little surprising the DuraForce XD didn't last longer, given its 3,700-mAh battery, but perhaps the strain of keeping a 5.7-inch display continuously active drained the battery faster.
You can remove the battery by popping off the back of the DuraForce XD. Just make sure that everything pops neatly back into place if you want to keep your smartphone safe from water damage.
Software: Too much bloat
The DuraForce XD runs Android 5.1, a version of the operating system that seems old, especially as more phones are updated to run Marshmallow and as Google turns its attention to the still unnamed Android N. The phone also comes loaded with 62 apps, enough to spill over into a fourth screen. While some of these include Google's useful array of apps (Gmail, YouTube and the like), you also get a bunch from AT&T and other third parties of dubious value. Does a phone aimed at workers really need to have AT&T's Smart Limits parental-control app or Amazon's shopping app preinstalled? No.
The DuraForce XD is aimed at the kind of phone user who doesn't demand a fancy camera or a souped-up processor but just wants a device that can survive the workday. Kyocera's phone is clearly up to the task. The only damage it suffered during our torture tests resulted from human error. The phone would be a more compelling buy with a longer-lasting battery, and some users may balk at the device's size and weight. If you can live with a little less toughness but want a better camera and longer endurance, the more expensive Galaxy S7 Active is a better choice. But the DuraForce XD compares favorably to similarly durable rivals, making it a good companion for handling whatever life throws at you.
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Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.