The problem with most ruggedized mobile phones is that they compromise too much in the name of durability. Due to customer typecasting on the part of carriers and manufacturers, “rugged phones” are far too often synonymous with “low-end phones.” As a result, many such hardened devices have historically been relegated to the dumbphone arena.
But with the rising popularity of smartphones in the business sector, and millions of Nextel customers in search of a new home in the face of the impending iDEN shutdown, Sprint finds itself in need of a rugged, walkie-talkie-capable smartphone for its CDMA network. That’s more true now than ever before, considering competitor AT&T’s renewed attempts to pick away at the Nextel carcass with its own push-to-talk solution.
Enter the Kyocera Torque: a beastly tank of a smartphone built to mil-spec standards for durability and packing a (somewhat) modern Android OS. Will the convergence of brains and brawn open a new chapter for rugged smartphones, or will the trend of excessive compromise continue? Read on to find out.
Videos · Specs/Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance
Specs & Hardware
Unlike on higher-end smartphones, the Torque’s most eye-catching figures aren’t found on the spec sheet. The dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Plus is clocked at 1.2GHz and backed up by a single gig of RAM, and the paltry 4GB of onboard storage means only 0.98GB of memory is accessible to the user on first boot. Yes, that’s expandable via microSD, but as our own Taylor Martin recently explained, that’s not always a catch-all solution to low on-board storage. The 4-inch IPS display, while readable enough at maximum brightness, is similarly underwhelming at a 480×800 resolution, with washed-out colors and some of the narrowest viewing angles we’ve seen.
But the purpose of the Torque isn’t to deliver outrageous specs; it’s to deliver an Android experience in a casing capable of withstanding abuse. And, on paper at least, it’s rated to do that very well: the combined MIL-STD 810G and IP67 durability ratings mean the Torque is certified to withstand exposure to dust, shock, vibration, extreme temperatures, low atmospheric pressure, solar radiation, blowing rain, salt fog, and immersion for up to 30 minutes in up to 1 meter of water. We tested that last bit on a recent episode of the Pocketnow Live, and found the Torque to be completely unaffected by immersion in a pitcher of water for almost the entire episode.
That resistance to all manner of insult is impressive, and it carries on Nextel’s tradition of tough-as-nails hardware. It also helps justify the phone’s substantial 156g weight and 14mm-thick casing. The Torque’s still a beastly device to hold in the hand or slide into a pocket: its rubberized coating makes it catch on clothing as readily as it sticks to a palm, and the sunken screen makes navigating the software a pain near the bezel. Also, the Direct Connect button is far too easy to press, and since that button-press turns on the screen backlight (with no option to disable this behavior), you’ll probably find yourself accidentally unlocking the phone more often than you’d like.
Speaking of Direct Connect: other carry-overs from the Nextel days are nice to see here. The physical Android keys below the screen are counterbalanced by a pair of toggles along the top of the device whose placement will be familiar to any iDEN user of yore: a power/standby button takes the place of Nextel’s old Smart Key, but the speakerphone toggle is right where it should be, ready to convert your walkie-talkie calls from public to private with a single tap. That speakerphone refreshingly breaks with recent tradition in that it’s a front-firing model instead of being squirreled around back, and it’s loud. It’s possibly the loudest speaker we’ve encountered on a non-iDEN device, which renders everything from blasting Spotify and Netflix to making speakerphone calls very easy, even in noisy environments.
Kyocera went a different route for the earpiece, replacing the traditional ear speaker with a ceramic transducer mounted above the display, beneath the faceplate. This technology, which the company calls a “Smart Sonic Receiver,” eliminates the need for a hole in the facing glass and works via the principle of tissue conduction. The results aren’t terribly impressive in everyday use -see the Performance section below- but they do allow users to take calls even when wearing industrial-grade ear protection, which should help the Torque stand out among construction workers and the like.
Everything else on the Torque’s beefy body, from the exposed screws to the gasketed battery cover to the robust plugs protecting the USB port and headphone jack, screams quality – quality we’re frankly not used to seeing from Kyocera products. In conjunction with nice touches like the responsive clicks from the Android buttons and the inclusion of a dedicated shutter key for the 5MP primary camera -handy for underwater photos- the hardware provides an excellent overall impression. We have no hesitation saying this is the best-built Kyocera smartphone we’ve ever laid our hands on.
The Torque runs a very close approximation of stock Android, Kyocera having resisted the urge to meddle too much with this flavor of Ice Cream Sandwich. That dated build -Android 4.0.4, if you’re wondering- is due not to a manufacturer skin mucking things up, but to the software Sprint is using to power its CDMA Direct Connect experience. That software doesn’t yet support Jelly Bean, though Kyocera has stated that it plans to upgrade the Torque to a more recent Android version when Sprint does finally get around to upgrading Direct Connect’s compatibility. Since push-to-talk is crucial to the Torque’s relevance in the Sprint lineup, this is a sacrifice we think is justified.
Sprint has included a bevy of power-saving customizations with the Torque’s software, in keeping with its continued obsession with “green-ifying” its operations. A persistent shortcut to “Eco Mode” lives in the notification tray, providing battery-saving options and settings tweaks, and a feature called “MaxiMZR” is available via the settings menu to govern your data connections in an effort to further protect your power reserves. That these features are included on a device whose battery endurance is already excellent is a little gratuitous, but true road warriors won’t be complaining.
Walkie-talkie users will find the integration of Direct Connect into the Android software fairly seamless. Rather than relying on the kludgy solution of a third-party app, Sprint has built Direct Connect right into the dialer application, giving PTT calls their own subsection between recent calls and contacts. Keeping the dialer up during a PTT call retains on-screen controls and a visual representation of who has the “floor” in the conversation; minimizing the dialer results in the call’s information moving unobtrusively to the notification bar up top, allowing for easy in-call multitasking. The Direct Connect button can be tied to any number of walkie-talkie-related shortcut actions via the settings menu. Aside from a few usability hiccups, the entire experience is fairly logical and straightforward, and it’s integrated surprisingly well into the Android OS.
Kyocera has done a nice job customizing the stock Android camera application, fleshing out its viewfinder with custom shooting settings in both still and video modes. As a result, users with enough patience should be able to find a suitable combination of settings to produce fairly good photos given the right conditions. Relying on automatic settings will yield less impressive results, due to curious omissions like the lack of touch-to-focus support on the screen, and half-press-to-focus functionality on the physical camera button. We missed both of those dearly during our time with the Torque.
Results overall depend on your perspective: in terms of a rugged phone, this is a great mobile-phone camera compared to other alternatives, especially the Motorola devices Nextel transplants will be coming from. Taking the entire smartphone sector into account, though, these results are just about average for a midrange 5MP shooter. Color reproduction is fairly good, but we were disappointed in the camera’s exposure problems, fuzzy edges on images, and a serious discoloration problem at the center of some photos. Overall, the stills will work for casual photos and social media sharing – just don’t expect any miracles.
The first example below is an underwater photo featuring a sink drain plug; we’re not sure how the Torque would fare with more exotic underwater subjects, but aquatically-inclined users will be happy to know the capability is there.
Video comes out fine at 1080p, though we wish the end result featured smoother playback during fast pans. Continuous autofocus doesn’t appear to be supported, which is a shame. Also, the Torque seems especially sensitive to high audio levels; the passing train in our test caused the mic to peak painfully several times at the start of the video.
We tested the Torque over the course of 11 days in the Greater Boston area, using both Sprint’s 3G CDMA and 4G LTE networks, as well as that of a roaming partner (Verizon Wireless) in certain extended-area zones like the subway system. We found reception to be solid on both networks and throughput over LTE to be acceptable, averaging about 10Mbps down and about 4Mbps up during our testing period.
We definitely didn’t spend all our time on LTE, unfortunately. That’s not because of Sprint’s nascent 4G buildout, either; we were quite surprised, actually, by how quickly the carrier has managed to build its LTE presence in Boston. Rather, we were constantly forced to switch back to 3G CDMA in order to use Sprint Direct Connect, which doesn’t function over LTE. That limitation is annoying, to say the least, and it significantly impairs the usefulness of the Torque’s PTT functionality. You could make the argument that PTT users aren’t necessarily data hounds and vice-versa, but it still strikes us as unwise to make users choose between acceptable data speeds and walkie-talkie functionality – both critical features of the device. In fact, this restriction recalls the early days of the Sprint-Nextel merger with its hybrid iDEN/CDMA devices, phones that packed so much compromise they ended up pleasing very few.
Still, over 3G, Direct Connect calls went smoothly with both Nextel Direct Connect and Sprint Direct Connect customers. Sprint appears finally to have unlocked the mystery of providing a solid PTT experience on its CDMA network.
In terms of standard interconnect (phone) calls, though, the Torque delivered below-average performance. Callers said we sounded far-away, with one caller saying we sounded like we were in a tunnel, and another telling us we sounded as though we were talking through a blanket. On our end, callers came through loudly over the Smart Sonic Receiver earpiece, though voices were accented with a bit more raspy fuzz than we’ve grown used to hearing. As mentioned before, calls taken over the loud and clear speakerphone were stunningly good, at least on our end.
Sadly, though the Torque delivered adequate results in synthetic benchmarks, scoring an average of 1298 in GeekBench and 4223 in Quadrant Standard, it suffered tremendously in interface responsiveness. Not so much in the usual swiping and tapping; the Torque was no speed demon, certainly, but it wasn’t a total failure in that regard. Rather, during our testing, the area in which the Torque failed most profoundly was its keyboard.
In short: the device just can’t keep up. Unless you’re poking out a sentence in the most deliberate, plodding manner possible, the Torque lags behind. Horribly. The lag is plainly evident in the haptic feedback, which is so slow and erratic that you’ll want to immediately disable it, but it doesn’t stop there. The keyboard itself is unable to keep up with keystrokes, routinely dropping inputs at all but the slowest of typing speeds. In our experience, that held true regardless of whether we used the out-of-box Swype keyboard, the stock Android one, or even a third-party install. The problem even persisted after a factory reset. Typing on this device is unavoidably, unusably slow, and it seriously diminishes the experience of using the Torque.
In terms of endurance, Sprint quotes an extreme 18.9 hours of talk time on the phone’s 2500 mAh battery – and indeed, the device did very well in our testing. The Torque easily lasted more than a full day with moderate use, and even held up admirably after 18 hours of heavy usage, which included running a series of 20 sequential benchmarks while syncing multiple email and social media accounts, along with frequent phone- and PTT calls. That’s some impressive performance, and that’s without using any of the power-management features we talked about above.
And we were still beating up on the poor subject the whole time through. In addition to the aforementioned water-resistance tests, the Torque held up well to more conventional abuse as well. Leaving it in a pile of snow for several minutes had no effect on its performance when we finally dug it out. Pressing it into service as a boom-box in the shower taught us that neither the display nor the speakers function well when wet, but that once they dry out, they work as well as they did before. Multiple drop tests failed to dislodge the phone’s battery door, though the memory card did come unseated more than once after a drop onto a wooden deck from about waist-height; you’ll want to back up your stored data on a consistent basis if you think you’ll frequently be using the Torque as a hockey puck.
+ Excellent build quality with extensive durability certifications
+ Solid Direct Connect call quality
+ Outstanding speakerphone
+ Very good battery life
– Serious lag in keyboard makes text input very difficult
– Fuzzy phone call quality
– Direct Connect doesn’t function in LTE mode
– Low-res, washed-out display with poor viewing angles
– Old Android version with uncertain upgrade future
Pricing and Availability
The Torque is a Sprint exclusive, and can be had for $99.99 on a two-year contract with the nation’s third-largest carrier. For those not anxious to sign their lives over to Big Yellow for the next 24 months, Sprint lists the Torque’s contract-free, regular retail price as $349.99.
There are two ways of looking at the Kyocera Torque. The first is from the perspective of a Nextel subscriber, someone who’s always been forced into specialized, out-of-date mobile hardware by virtue of the need for Nextel’s special flavor of push-to-talk communication. These customers won’t find the Torque perfect, but coming from truly disappointing iDEN devices like the Motorola i1, they’ll probably find a lot to like in its reassuringly beefy construction, smooth Direct Connect integration, passable camera, and more modern Android experience. It’s for these subscribers that the Torque was presumably built, and many of them will likely be satisfied with it – at least, as long as they remain reliant upon Direct Connect and don’t spend too much time texting.
The other perspective is that of the more typical smartphone shopper, someone with average needs, looking for more-robust hardware. To this person, the older version of Android and the unreliable upgrade schedule caused by Sprint’s PTT needs won’t be terribly attractive. Nor will the washed-out display or the bulky chassis. And until Kyocera and Sprint are able to deliver on a Jelly Bean update -something the former says is being worked on- the laggy-input issue will continue to be a sticking point for anyone who uses a smartphone to compose text messages, emails, status updates, and the like. To many of these folks, the Kyocera Torque will remain un-buyable, another victim of the thinking that says durable phones can’t be amazing phones.
The bottom line: the Torque has an awful lot going for it, but it’s also packing a whole lot of compromise. For a very specific type of buyer, it’s perfect; everyone else should probably wait until after the promised software update before pulling the trigger.