Kyocera Torque: Hands-On With Sprint's First 4G LTE Ultra-Rugged Android

Review: The Kyocera Torque is an ultra-rugged, LTE Android smartphone that—so long, Nextel—offers Sprint's push-to-talk Direct Connect service.

The Kyocera Torque, the first ultra-rugged 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) Android smartphone on the Sprint network, is not for everyone.

But for those it suits—people who work in loud, dirty, or particularly hot or cold environments, like fisherman or truck drivers or bartenders at those center-of-the-pool resort cocktail bars, or people who can benefit from walkie-talkie-like Direct Connect (DC) technology or are prone to cracking iPhone screens—it's likely to serve them well.

It will be available this spring exclusively through Sprint for $100, after a $50 mail-in rebate and with a two-year unlimited service plan.

The Torque features a 4-inch LCD that's a bit recessed inside a rubbery, black, incredibly rugged chassis with visible screws. The screws are part of its just-try-it aesthetic. There's a giant screw on the back of the Torque that can be opened with half a turn of a thumbnail or a paperclip, offering access to the Torque's battery and, below it, SIM card and microSD slot.

The back of the device honestly pops off that simply—more simply than most—and still this is a phone that can survive a fall into a stream, a pool or a sink of sudsy dishes.

On top of the Torque is a slightly raised power button and a slightly raised button to activate the phone's Direct Connect speaker. Neither is very big, but you can feel them through gloves. (And if you can't feel them very well through your glove, just push—there's nothing you're going to press instead.) Between them is an earphone jack under an easy-to-lift flap, and on the bottom of the Torque is a similarly easy-to-open flap, covering the mini-USB port.

The ease with which these ports can be accessed makes a person, again, second-guess the rigors the phone can withstand. I've fiddled in frustration with flaps on phones not meant to witness a drizzly day—never mind being used in a gale force. Yet each time the Torque responded with aplomb. I dropped it in a bowl of water. I washed it under the faucet. I may have let it slip down some stairs. I let my toddler play with it.

The Torque kept on going.

The Torque runs Android 4.0 and offers the expected Android experience. It's fine. (In email you can go from message to message without having to return to the inbox, which is nice.)

On the front of the phone are three rugged, protruding buttons—back, home and menu—which users may be more accustomed to tapping on the screen, instead of stepping out of the box, as it were, to tap the physical device. But in very little time, one gets used to this.

Even easier to get used to is the Torque's battery, which offers nearly 19 hours of talk time. Were you to take it camping, say, and worry about where to juice it, there's an Eco mode to help extend battery life. (It does things like turning off the vibration alerts, the accelerometer and dimming the screen.)

The Torque has a front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera and rear-facing 5-megapixel camera, both of which can be used with a dedicated shutter button on the side of the phone. While a physical camera button is normally a feature I love to have, on the Torque, it added to my feeling of not knowing how to hold the phone without inadvertently pushing something. On the phone's right side is that camera button, on the left is the voice toggle and, below it, the DC button. (Even when nothing happens as a result of pushing a button, it makes for an uneasy feeling.)

It's not a phone that makes you crazy-excited to play around with its software, which works fine and is there when you need it. It's the hardware that's the focus here. And to that end, another impressive feature is the Torque's speaker—or speakers—with grilles nearly like a car's.

The speakerphone, the Direct Connect, the alerts—these come across incredibly loudly. Someone on a construction site is, happily, going to be able to hear everything. (Someone making coffee in a quiet kitchen and not expecting an alert from the Torque may feel less excited about the power of those speakers.)

Sprint, you may have heard, has been struggling in recent years, generally since its ill-fated decision to acquire Nextel's push-to-talk (PTT) network. Sprint is now in the final stages of shuttering that network and transitioning some of its spectrum to the LTE network it's rolling out. The Torque's Direct Connect technology benefits from that.

Sprint officials have said that in 2012 the carrier added more coverage to its DC PTT service, creating three times the PTT coverage area that the Nextel network had, plus with roaming and Sprint 1xRTT coverage. And Sprint's LTE network, which the Torque can access, is now in 58 markets and growing.

More bragging rights go to Kyocera's Smart Sonic Receiver technology. The Torque is the first phone in the United States to offer a receiver that, Sprint explains, "transmits sounds not only as traditional sound waves, but also as vibrations carried by body tissue directly to the eardrum and inner ear for unparalleled sound clarity, even in the noisiest environments."

While it may be loud enough on the user's end, on some traditional calls that I made, clarity was an issue for those on the receiving end. (DC calls were loud and clear.) I moved from ear buds to speaker phone and back to pressing the slab to my head, with people telling me I sounded "distant" and "tinny."

"What is this phone you're calling from?" my mother asked. "You sound all garbled."

"It's pretty cool, actually," I told her. "You can drop it in a lake, and it'll keep on working."

"Well," she answered, unimpressed. "Who cares about that, when it can't even make a normal phone call?"

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