The Kyocera DuraForce Ultra 5G is a rugged phone that doesn’t mean you have to forego too many modern conveniences to take advantage of extreme durability. Rugged phones often have older processors and lack modern features. These phones often have special uses such as scanning barcodes or receiving payments and more or less just need to continue working in harsh environments.
The DuraForce Ultra 5G offers both the durability of a rugged phone and modern features such as 5G, wireless charging, a high-quality processor and two rear cameras. At $ 899, it’s an expensive phone – you can get a very nice, non-rugged phone for that much money – but if durability is a must and you don’t want to miss out on performance or practical features, the DuraForce 5G (im literally) a solid choice.
Robust features of the Kyocera DuraForce Ultra 5G
Take the DuraForce Ultra 5G and you will immediately know that you have a rugged device in your hands. The top and bottom of the phone are wrapped in thick plastic bumpers, the sides are textured, and at 278g, it’s a lot heavier than your standard smartphone. The screen itself isn’t very big – just a 5.45-inch 1080p LCD panel – but the large bezels and thick chin make it a chunky device overall.
Despite its size, it’s actually easy to use with one hand as the screen itself is relatively small. The phone fits in a jacket pocket, but is too bulky for any of my jeans pockets. Haptics are aggressive, even at the default Medium setting, which is a good thing for a phone you might use with gloves on. Otherwise, you can set touch vibration to low or off.
The phone is rated IP65 and IP68, which means that it offers generous protection against ingress of water from both jets and immersion (up to 6.5 feet for up to 30 minutes). The DuraForce Ultra 5G meets the specifications of the military standard 810H and offers protection from vibration, dust and sand, temperature extremes, drops from five feet on concrete, high altitude and many other hostile conditions.
I haven’t been able to test it in all of these conditions, but I have abused the phone a lot, including staying in the freezer for an hour, soaking in the sink for 30 minutes, exposing it to sand, and dropping about five feet on driveway asphalt. Aside from a few small signs of wear and tear that were noted during the entry test, the DuraForce Ultra 5G only shrugged at my efforts and continued to function flawlessly. Kyocera grants a two-year guarantee on purchase. As long as you are using the phone in the conditions it can withstand, you shouldn’t put your purchase at risk.
In addition to the robust features, the DuraForce Ultra 5G is only equipped with buttons. There is an on / off switch with an integrated fingerprint sensor, three programmable buttons and a large volume rocker that is easy to press with gloves. I frequently accidentally pressed one of the programmable buttons when packing the phone – they’re easy to get to when you’re using the phone, but unfortunately that also means a lot of unintentional presses. These buttons require a long press to access their assigned shortcut function, so a short press does nothing. You can also assign “do nothing” to each of them when you press on them if you’d rather not use them.
Kyocera DuraForce Ultra 5G screen, performance and battery
Aside from the obvious difference in looks and ergonomics, the DuraForce Ultra 5G works as well as any other Android device. The screen looks a bit poor in contrast compared to your standard display – probably because the panel is optimized for visibility in bright sunlight. This is probably more important to the target user of the phone than a rich multimedia viewing experience, and the panel can be used even in very bright direct light.
The screen’s protective “Sapphire Shield” remained scratch-free during my tests, but it picks up reflections outdoors more easily than other phones with Gorilla Glass. It wasn’t enough to bother me, but someone planning to use the phone outside in bright light could often find it annoying.
The DuraForce Ultra 5G comes with Android 10. Kyocera says there will be an update to 11, but the timeframe is yet to be set. Android 10 is fine for now, but given Google Prepare Android 12 for the publicIt’s definitely a step back. Kyocera says it will provide at least two years of security updates, which is a common, if not terribly generous, guideline.
The DuraForce Ultra 5G uses a Snapdragon 765G processor with 6GB of RAM, making the overall performance on par with a midrange phone. There’s a slight stutter when quickly scrolling through screens with lots of pictures and videos, and a noticeable pause after taking a photo in the camera app, but otherwise it keeps up well – especially given the lower performance bar in the rugged class.
A 4,500 mAh battery is built into the DuraForce Ultra 5G. It’s a comparatively large battery for the class and got me through a full day of moderate to heavy use. The phone supports Qi wireless charging, which is unusual for rugged phones. The phone was a bit fussy with my Belkin stand-style wireless charger, but it eventually worked when set on the charger in landscape mode.
And of course there is one of the namesake functions of the DuraForce Ultra 5G: 5G. This model works at both widespread frequencies below 6 GHz and hard-to-find but much faster mmWave frequencies (also known as Ultra Wideband by Verizon, hence the UW in the phone’s name). It’s only sold through Verizon in the US, which makes sense: the company has pushed mmWave much more than the other big carriers and offers more coverage, although it’s still relatively rare. Verizon’s 5G network is currently rather poor overall, but it will improve over the next few years. It’s a good feature for a phone that you will be clinging to for a while, but definitely don’t buy this (or any phone, really) just for mmWave as you will likely have a hard time finding a signal anyway.
Kyocera DuraForce Ultra 5G camera
The rear-view camera array of the DuraForce Ultra consists of a 24-megapixel 1: 1.8 standard and a 16-megapixel 1: 2.2 ultra-wide as well as a time-of-flight sensor. There is an 8 megapixel 1: 2.0 selfie camera on the front. That’s a cut above what is offered on many rugged phones. Taking photos is likely not a high priority for prospective DuraForce Ultra owners, and the image quality certainly isn’t what you’d find on traditional $ 900 phones, but it does the job.
Photos in good light look good, even if they are a bit poor in contrast and washed out. Exposure and color can shift noticeably between two images taken with the same camera at slightly different angles, and I noticed some strange flaws here and there, like a blurry shot of a static subject where it looked like the camera had trying to apply too much HDR. But most of the time in bright light, photos are perfectly fine and a cut above what I would expect from a rugged phone.
There is also a mode that superimposes live information on your still or video about any extreme situation you are in, including your location, altitude, speed and G-force. Extreme activities are generally not recommended in your second trimester of pregnancy, so I didn’t really test this. I imagine if you are into mountain biking or rock climbing and you want to record this type of information with your activity, you probably already have a better way of doing it. In any case, it’s there and it’s definitely more of a casual, fun function than a practical one.
If you’re just curious about a rugged phone lifestyle, the DuraForce Ultra 5G is not for you. The extremely rugged specifications of the phone will appeal to anyone who is nervous about dropping their phone or occasionally bringing their phone into harsh environments like beaches or backcountry camping. If it’s you, spend your $ 900 on a good standard phone (many are IP68 certified) and a sturdy housing. You get better performance, better camera, more recent software updates – basically a lot more for the money.
For example, if you’re a frontline worker, first responder, or construction worker in need of a rugged phone, the DuraForce Ultra 5G makes a lot more sense – especially if it’s your primary off-job phone and you’re really into a few extra bells and whistles. The integration of 5G, wireless charging, and computing power that outperforms the rest of the class makes it a good tool on and off the construction site.
However, $ 900 is a lot of money to buy a phone, and I think that a very specific type of customer for this phone is a pretty small group. You could buy a cheaper, more rugged phone with more limited features like Kyocera’s own DuraForce model from last year and a damn good midrange for about the same price. You probably can’t get mmWave 5G this way, but that’s not a huge loss.
Even so, the DuraForce Ultra 5G is a convenient option for a certain type of person when two phones are too much of a fuss. It certainly handled whatever I threw it at and acted as a daily companion for more pedestrian chores like scrolling social media and navigating the city. If extreme durability is a must and you don’t want to give up too much to get it, the DuraForce Ultra 5G is a great choice.
Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge