Instead of striving to be the thinnest, lightest or most powerful phone, the Kyocera Brigadier ($99 on Verizon with two-year contract) offers military-spec toughness that is rugged enough to tackle the everyday battles of modern life -- and then some. While its Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 chip can't keep up with more powerful phones, this Android phone will outlast any flagship.
The first thing I thought when I got the Brigadier was, "I got a brick to review." This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the Brigadier possesses the heft and chunky design that immediately identifies it as a smartphone that can withstand the bumpier parts of life.
The Brigadier's Sapphire Shield screen is surrounded by a strong black plastic bezel, accompanied by three physical buttons along the bottom for back, home and menu.
The left side features a large red programmable button and volume rocker, while the right houses a rubber flap covering the microSD and micro SIM ports. On the bottom, the microUSB port is covered by another rubber flap. The top of the smartphone has the headphone jack (covered by a rubber flap), lock button and speaker button.
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The back features a heavy, shieldlike back plate surrounded by rubber bumpers along the edge and a rubber inset surrounding the 8-megapixel rear camera and flash. While the Brigadier doesn't look as sleek as other rugged phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S5 Active, it is significantly more durable.
Aside from the Sapphire display, my favorite thing about the Brigadier is the large, programmable button. It was originally intended as a Push-to-Talk key (coming in the future), but since that feature is not yet supported, you can assign it to do other things such as wake up the phone, show recent apps or launch any app on the phone.
At 6.6 ounces, the heavily armored Brigadier weighs even more than the 6-ounce Galaxy S5 Active. Measuring 5.37 x 2.69 x 0.52 inches, it is also significantly thicker than Samsung's 5.7 x 2.9 x 0.35-inch device.
Click to EnlargeAll this business with the flaps is not for naught, as the Brigadier lives up to its combat-inspired namesake with a Military Standard 810G rating for protection against dust, shock, heat and water.
There's a sort of sadistic joy that you get from purposely trying to damage a phone, and the Brigadier soaked up every hit and stab while begging for more. Knives to the screen, underwater submersions (it's rated to 6 feet for up to 30 minutes), and even some forceful spikes onto carpet, wood and concrete left the Brigadier largely unscathed. I even exceeded the recommended drop height of 4 feet with several 6-foot plummets; the only blemish was some scuffed plastic on the top-left corner caused by the Brigadier's encounter with concrete.
The only hurdle the Brigadier couldn't clear was full use of its touch screen underwater, so taking photos while it is submerged is very difficult. Unfortunately, unlike the S5 Active, you can't configure the programmable button to serve as a shutter control.
The next most rugged phone is the Samsung Galaxy S5 Active, which also features a military-grade 810G rating. This means it has the same resistance to water, shock and humidity, but without the Sapphire Shield screen, the most important part of the phone is still vulnerable. And unlike the S5 Active, whose back plate fell off during drop tests, the Brigadier survived falls without losing any components.
Click to EnlargeThe Brigadier's Sapphire Shield screen is its most impressive feature. With a rating on the Mohs hardness scale second only to diamond, the screen is resistant to almost anything you can throw at it -- literally. I tried scratching the screen with keys, rocks, nails and knives, all to no effect.
Aside from its outstanding resilience, the Sapphire screen also allows you to use the touch controls while wearing gloves up to 3mm thick or while it's raining, although using it while it is fully submerged is not possible.
The 1280 x 720-pixel, 4.5-inch display gets very bright. Using our light meter, the Brigadier registered a stunning 523 nits, which is much greater than the S5 Active's (1920 x 1080) 364 nits, and the category average of 353 nits. This makes the Brigadier easier to view outdoors compared with other phones.
However, the Brigadier recreated just 61.7 percent of the sRGB color spectrum, far below the 154.9 of the S5 Active and the smartphone average of 115.9 percent. Color accuracy was also low, with the Brigadier recording a Delta-E rating of 12 (closer to zero is better). This is far worse than the S5 Active's Delta-E of 1.9 and the smartphone average of 4.89.
When I watched the trailer for Fox's new Gotham TV series, I noticed a slight green tinge to the video, and blacks weren't as deep as I would have liked.
Kyocera claims the Brigadier can reach a peak volume of 100 decibels. It didn't get quite that high in our testing, but this is one of the loudest smartphones we've ever used. The Brigadier's front-facing stereo speakers produced 91 decibels of sound measured from 13 inches away. This is significantly louder than the 78 dB of the S5 Active and the smartphone average of 80 dB.
When listening to Phoenix's Too Young, I was blown away by the powerful bass -- something which most phones lack. Overall audio quality was quite good, although I noticed some muddiness in the highs.
Interface and OS
Click to EnlargeThe Brigadier runs Android 4.4.2 with a UI skin that mirrors its rugged exterior. The Dura Grid widget allows you to choose from a six- or nine-position layout that uses large, high-contrast icons for better outdoor visibility. This makes it easy to choose apps even when you're wearing gloves, which the Brigadier accommodates.
Aside from the UI, the Brigadier features the familiar Android KitKat experience with a notifications menu that can be pulled down from the top and an easy-to-find app drawer for keeping your programs out of sight.
Click to EnlargeAdventurous explorers will appreciate such preloaded apps as the Barometer, Altimeter, Compass and Flashlight. These apps are located by default in the Dura Grid widget, with the Flashlight app providing easy, one-touch access to extra luminance.
I ran into an issue with the Altimeter, which seemed confused. At the time of writing, the Brigadier gave us a reading of -92 feet despite being on the ninth floor of our building. There is a way to manually calibrate the Altimeter, but if I could do that, then I wouldn't need the app in the first place.
The Brigadier is loaded with the usual Verizon app package, including VZ Navigator, VZ Protect, Verizon Tones, Voice Mail and Voice Dialer. Polaris Office 5 is also included for when you're trying to be a little more productive.
Kyocera equips the Brigadier with a 1.4-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of flash memory. While not the most powerful CPU, the phone flipped quickly between pages on the home screen, and I had no problem playing Activision's Wipeout 2 obstacle course game.
However, in our benchmark tests, the Brigadier fell behind the competition. It launched N.O.V.A. 3 in 19 seconds, which is 3 seconds longer the Samsung S5 Active and the smartphone average of 16 seconds.
Using Vidtrim, the Brigadier transcoded a 204MB video clip from 1080p to 480p in 10 minutes and 26 seconds. That's more than twice as long as the Galaxy S5 Active (4:11) and slower than the smartphone average of 7:38 seconds.
On Geekbench 3, which measures overall performance, the Brigadier scored 1,305, which is less than half of the Galaxy S5 Active's 2,977 and below the category average of 1,981.
On the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited graphics test, the Brigadier scored 4,764, which was less than a quarter of the S5 Active's 18,691 and far below the smartphone average of 13,400.
Click to EnlargeThe Brigadier comes with two cameras: an 8-megapixel main camera and a 2-megapixel front camera. Indoors, shots of our office came out reddish, with the hardwood floor looking too orange. Photos on the street near Union Square were better in terms of color, although images tended to be on the dark side. In addition, some details were lost in the tires of the cab and on the trees in the median.
Click to EnlargeSelfies taken using the front camera were impressively sharp, capturing lots of detail in my hair, dark shirt and track jacket.
The camera includes various shot modes, like portrait, landscape, night photos and action. There's also high-speed shooting, smile detection and various fun filters.
The rear camera can shoot 1080p videos at 30 fps. Movies were sharp, but there was a lot of camera shake, even with the stabilization turned on.
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4G LTE Performance
Using Ookla's Speedtest App, the Brigadier recorded speeds of 20 Mbps for both uploads and downloads in New York's Flatiron District on Verizon's XLTE network. I also experienced similar speeds in East Harlem, and had no trouble streaming live footage on the NFL Mobile app in both locations.
Battery Life and Wireless Charging
Click to EnlargeFor a smartphone with such a strong focus on durability, I was hoping for more endurance. Unfortunately the 3,100-mAh battery in the Brigadier is merely mortal, with a battery life of 7 hours and 38 minutes when surfing the Web over 4G LTE. This is almost an hour less than the category average of 8:30 and 2 hours less than the Samsung Galaxy S5 Active's 9:37.
To help preserve battery life, the Brigadier features an Eco Mode with MaxiMZR that saves power by adjusting or disabling things such as sleep time, touch vibrations and even the wallpaper. The Brigadier also supports Qi wireless charging, although the necessary charging mat is sold separately (for about $20 to $30). Lastly, Kyocera includes a 1,500-mA Quick Charge 1.0 charging cable so you can quickly top off the battery.
Click to EnlargeWhere other phones falter when dropped or dunked in water, the Kyocera Brigadier soldiers on. While I wish the battery lasted a little bit longer, its Sapphire Shield screen and durable, waterproof construction mean this handset will last longer than most other smartphones. And, at $100, you won't need a defense department-style budget to add the Brigadier to your arsenal.
The $200 Samsung Galaxy S5 Active is faster, has a better-looking display and lasts longer on a charge, but it's nowhere near as durable. If you play hard or you work in a real tough environment, the Brigadier's battle-ready design will have your back when you need it most.