Kyocera DuraForce Pro Review: Unbreakable Exterior with a Blah Battery

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Instead of buying a new phone and packing it deep inside protective gear, why not turn to a device that's made to be durable on its own? That's the thinking behind the $408 Kyocera DuraForce Pro, which not only looks better than most phones wearing cases, but is also in a completely different league from most competitors when it comes to withstanding punishment.

The DuraForce Pro features military-grade 810G protection for things including solar radiation, salt fog and shock; it also offers water resistance for up to 6.5 feet for 30 minutes and a virtually scratchproof 5-inch display. And while the DuraForce Pro's performance or battery life aren't exactly class-leading, it's great for active junkies, contractors or anyone who spends more time outside than not. It's is one of the few phones that can take a real beating and keep on ticking.

Design: Going ballistic

Aside from the old-fashioned physical menu buttons on this device's bottom bezel — good for operating the phone if you've got work gloves on — the front of the DuraForce Pro doesn't look that much different from that of a puny civilian smartphone. However, a peek at the DuraForce Pro's sides and back reveals that this phone is made of much sterner stuff.

Along its edges, the DuraForce Pro features a number of reinforced buttons for lock, volume and camera functions. There's even a dedicated button to switch calls from the phone's earpiece to its speakers, and another that launches push-to-talk functionality. On the bottom, a removable gasket covers the phone's micro USB port to make sure things stay nice and dry.

Around back, the DuraForce looks damn-near ballistic, with a reinforced plastic back and big, chunky bumpers surrounding the camera and bottom micro USB port. But even more impressive than the DuraForce's no-nonsense exterior are little touches like FIDO-certified fingerprint reader built into the lock button and a touch screen that supports input recognition even when your fingers are wet or when you're wearing gloves.

Measuring 5.84 x 2.89 x 0.51 inches and weighing 8.1 ounces, the DuraForce Pro definitely isn't very sleek. It looks quite husky next to Samsung's Galaxy S7 Active (5.86 x 2.95 x 0.39 inches and 6.53 ounces), which also has 810G-rated durability. However, when compared to a typical phone stuck inside a protective case, the DuraForce doesn't feel nearly as cumbersome.

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Durability: Hard to break

This phone can really take a beating. I kicked the DuraForce Pro down a flight of stairs, submerged it in a bucket of water for half an hour and used the phone as makeshift basketball when I shot a three-pointer into a nearby trash can. After all that, the only damage the phone sustained came from some inconsequential scuffs on the its corners and back.

However, the device's durability credentials include a military-grade 810G rating, IP68 certification for resistance against dust and water, plus a screen made from either specially hardened glass or Kyocera's patented Sapphire Shield glass (the latter is available only on the model Verizon sells). So, I probably could have done a lot more to this phone without compromising its build.

Unlike less resilient water-resistant phones like the Galaxy S7 or iPhone 7, the DuraForce Pro uses removable gaskets to ensure the integrity of its ports instead of going au naturel. That can make plugging in a cable for charging a tiny bit more annoying. However, since the DuraForce does have Qi wireless charging, that may not be a big issue for some users.

Display and Audio: Built for brightness

With a peak brightness of a 691 nits, the DuraForce Pro's outdoor visibility is never a concern. And while its 5-inch, full-HD screen might seem a bit small these days, when 5.5-inch displays are quickly becoming the new norm, the smaller display does help keep the phone from feeling too unwieldy.

The DuraForce Pro is almost three times brighter than the S7 Active (334 nits when we tested it last year), and more than twice as bright as the 435-nit smartphone average.

However, with a gamut that covered just 107.9 percent of the sRGB color space, the DuraForce Pro's colors weren't nearly as rich as those of the S7 Active, which had a gamut of 181 percent thanks to its more vivid AMOLED display.

The DuraForce's color accuracy was just OK, with a Delta-E rating of 4.53. The current smartphone average stands at 4.14, while the S7 Active's Delta-E was even more precise, at 3.59. (Numbers closer to zero are better.)  

As for audio, the DuraForce Pro features booming front-facing speakers that are some of the loudest I've ever experienced on a smartphone. Unfortunately, Kyocera seems to have traded volume for clarity, because when I listened to the orchestral version of Hybrid's "Finished Symphony," I lost some of the richness and delicacy in the song's string instruments.

Performance: A big trade-off

With a midrange Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 chip, 2GB of RAM and 32GB of onboard storage, high performance definitely isn't one of the DuraForce Pro's attributes. Flipping among apps and scrolling through home pages feels snappy enough, but if you want to play games like Star Wars Force Arena, effects like explosions or extended firefights often cause the phone to lag.

On Geekbench 4, which measures overall system performance, the DuraForce Pro's 1,947 score was barely half what the Snapdragon 820-powered S7 Active posted (3,599) and quite a ways off the 3,265 smartphone average.

Results were similar when we ran 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited graphics test. The DuraForce scored 9,853 versus 18,160 for the S7 Active, while the smartphone average stood at 16,972.

Even on the JetStream 1.1 JavaScript test, which gauges web-browsing performance, the DuraForce's score of 23.88 lagged behind numbers from the S7 Active (28.55) and the smartphone average (37.31). (Larger numbers are better.)

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Camera: Passable images with some flaws

When you first take a look at pictures from the DuraForce Pro — whether they're shot by the main 13-megapixel rear camera or the 5-MP front cam — you might think the images are pretty good. Compare them to shots from the Samsung S7 Active, though, and you realize the DuraForce's pics are merely passable. The DuraForce's photos often look soft and are lacking in color, which makes it feel like the cameras are a full generation behind what you get on the Active. (That's not necessarily surprising, because the S7 Active features the same camera found in the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, currently our top pick for camera phones.)

In a shot overlooking the Hudson River, the colors in the DuraForce Pro's picture look very muted compared to the S7 Active's pic, especially on the buildings, and its focus is nowhere near as crisp.

Indoors, in bright light, the DuraForce Pro's shot once again looks fuzzy compared to the Active's picture. It also lacks the same level of dynamic range or detail.

And when I tried to take a shot of a Furby in low-light conditions, the DuraForce Pro's photo suffered from heavy noise, poor exposure and an inability to make out the texture of the stuffed animal's bright pink fur.

Aside from its two standard cameras, the DuraForce Pro also has a super-wide-angle action camera with a 1080p resolution. That camera features a expansive 135-degree field of view, but suffers from the sort of distortion you'd get from a traditional fish-eye lens. It's great for capturing large vistas, but a GoPro replacement it is not. The main reason is that like a lot of smartphone cameras, the DuraForce's action cam is plagued by "jelly roll," which makes it look like the camera is constantly wobbling as long as it's not held perfectly still. So without the addition of some sort of image stabilization, you'll be better off buying a real action cam instead of trying to mount the DuraForce to your head or backpack if you want to record extreme adventures.

Software and OS: Aging Android

While the DuraForce Pro runs an older version of Android (6.0 Marshmallow instead of 7.0 Nougat), things are pretty straightforward from there out. Kyocera has added some handy features such as an underwater mode for controlling the camera using only the hardware buttons and a Dura Grid widget, which offers large icons with high-contrast colors to make finding apps easier when you're outdoors.

My favorite addition may be the Outdoor Report apps. They offer a bunch of handy outdoor tools, so you can figure out the altitude, the air pressure, when the sun will set, or even if the fish are biting at a nearby lake or ocean. The app fits in with the DuraForce Pro's rugged, outdoor-centric design.

Battery Life: A big disappointment

Durability is nice, but you also want a phone that can withstand the march of time as easily as it can accidental drops. Here, the DuraForce Pro is a disappointment, falling below the average smartphone in our battery test (continuous web surfing over an LTE network, Verizon's in this case.)

The DuraForce Pro lasted just 7 hours and 22 minutes when we tested it. Not only did that fall behind the average smartphone's time of 9:13, but it was also bested by the Cat S60, our current pick for most durable smartphone, which held out for 12:42. The Galaxy S7 Active also bested the DuraForce Pro, with a time of 11 hours.

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Bottom Line

The DuraForce Pro is one of the toughest, most outdoor-friendly phones we've tested. And while its cameras and overall performance are just OK, this device has the durability to withstand trials and hardships that would make other phones quiver in their boots. The bigger issue is the DuraForce Pro's lackluster battery life, which doesn't measure up to showings by other durable smartphones.

That said, with a retail price of $404 for the DuraForce Pro versus $794 for the Samsung S7 Active or $612 for the Cat S60, the Kyocera's value proposition is undeniable. On top of that, the DuraForce is available on a number of networks, as it's sold through AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. The S7 Active is an AT&T exclusive, while the Cat S60 works only on GSM networks. So if you're looking for a tougher-than-nails phone and aren't on Ma Bell, the DuraForce Pro is a phone you need to check out.

Photo credit: Jeremy Lips/Tom's Guide

Sam is a Senior Writer at Engadget and previously worked at Gizmodo as a Senior Reporter. Before that, he worked at Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag as a Staff Writer and Senior Product Review Analyst, overseeing benchmarks and testing for countless product reviews. He was also an archery instructor and a penguin trainer too (really).