After releasing the tank-like $899.99 DuraForce Ultra 5G UW in April 2021, Kyocera is back with a more subtly rugged (and more affordable) phone — the $579.99 DuraSport 5G UW. If you want a sub-$600 rugged phone that works on Verizon’s millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G network, the DuraSport 5G UW is really your only choice. Roughly the size of the Google Pixel 5A with 5G, the DuraSport is small but strong: it’s dust, sand, and waterproof in up to 6.5 ft of water for 30 minutes (IP68), as well as MIL 810H-certified to survive five-foot drops.
Underneath that toughness, the DuraSport is a sub-$300 phone at heart. It shares similar specs as the $239.99 OnePlus Nord N200 5G: they both use the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 480 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of internal storage. But the DuraSport has a smaller 4,500mAh battery and comes with some unique outdoor apps and camera features. This leads to the obvious question: is a budget rugged phone worth the premium, or are you better off getting a cheap 5G phone and adding a very protective case around it?
DuraSport 5G UW Design
At a time when every new budget phone seems to be over 6.5 inches tall, the DuraSport is surprisingly compact. It’s similar to the Google Pixel 5A with 5G but thicker and slightly more narrow (6.09 x 2.78 x 0.39-inch or 154.7 x 70.7 x 9.9mm). They even look alike, with the same rounded corners and fingerprint sensor on the back — handy for unlocking the phone when you’re wearing a mask. This phone fits nicely in my small hands, and I can stuff it into most pockets.
For a phone built to survive the rigorous military-grade tests for dust, sand, water, and drop protection, the DuraSport’s design doesn’t scream rugged. Unlike its more expensive sibling, the DuraSport has normal dimensions and proportions. But it still obviates the need for a separate case: not only is its screen protected by Gorilla Glass 6, but it has reinforced corners, water-tight seams around its buttons, and a Dragontrail Glass over its rear cameras. Despite its extra bits of engineering, the Kyocera weighs about the same as the Pixel 5A.
While the DuraSport’s hard plastic shell can withstand a lot of abuse, it’s not the most comfortable to hold. Kyocera added some light texture to its back cover and along the sides, but they don’t provide much substantial grip to the device. Not that this phone needs the extra protection, but a case would make the phone easier to hold.
Among the many ways you can customize this phone, the most obvious is the programmable button on the left side. You can set it to open the exact camera mode you need in a hurry (underwater shutter button) or open a particular app if you double-press the button. I kept hitting the programmable button by accident because that’s where my thumb lands when I hold the phone; the actual power button is a bit too low for my liking.
DuraSport 5G UW Performance
Despite its mid-range price tag, the DuraSport has low-end internal components. Its processor is the budget-tier Qualcomm Snapdragon 480 with 4GB of RAM, which makes the DuraSport just a beat slower to open a webpage or switch between portrait and landscape mode when watching a YouTube video. This was particularly evident when playing a round of Pokémon Unite, where the middle of a battle slowed to such a crawl that I couldn’t move my Pokémon out of the way to dodge an attack. While a sub-$300 phone can get away with just 64GB of storage, it’s mismatched to the DuraSport’s nearly $600 price tag, even if it has a microSD card slot for expansion.
The DuraSport somewhat redeems itself with a 6.1-inch 1080p IPS LCD display that is quite bright (500 nits), making it possible to use the screen at just 60 percent brightness in direct sunlight. When you look at high-res photos like The Verge’s 2021: A Year in Art, the images look smooth and detailed even when you pixel-peep, thanks to this screen’s over 400PPI pixel density. Best of all, the touchscreen is functional when I’m wearing gloves or there is water on the screen, which is a huge help during winter.
This phone is preloaded with apps for outdoor enthusiasts: an Outdoor Portal, Compass, Barometer, Sun&Moon, Weather, Tide (if you fish or have a boat), and Solunar (if you want to meet or avoid certain animals). In my case, I skate on an outdoor rink in the winter but am extremely picky about when I do so: the temperature needs to be at least 32 degrees or below the night before and throughout the day, with minimal wind, and after sunset so the ice has a chance to harden. I used the Outdoor Portal to monitor my local weather and sunset / sunrise data rather than cycle between multiple apps. While I appreciate the convenience of having these apps on my phone, I was not impressed that I had to give the apps non-stop access to my location, even though they said I could just limit the data collection to when I use the apps. If you don’t care to use these apps at all, you don’t have to worry about the location tracking, but they are a big part of the DuraSport’s selling points.
Beyond these outdoor apps, the DuraSport essentially runs an unmodified version of Android 11. As one of the phones selected for the Android Enterprise Recommended program, Kyocera is already committed to providing quarterly security updates to the DuraSport until November 2023. This, along with the fact Kyocera provides two years of warranty, compared to the industry standard of just one year, means this phone should last you a few years.
The DuraSport’s 4,500mAh battery is actually quite energy-efficient and able to go without a charge after two days of use — and that’s from using mostly 4G LTE. After listening to a couple of hour-long podcasts, taking some photos and videos, posting and scrolling through social media, and reading various articles, I got about 15.5 hours of screen time out of the DuraSport over two days. Using the included charger, I was able to recharge the phone within 2.5 hours, which isn’t particularly fast. The DuraSport also lacks wireless charging — you have to step up to the Ultra model if you want that.
DuraSport 5G UW Camera
Let’s get this out of the way: if you’re serious about photography, then you won’t like the cameras on the DuraSport.
The phone has two cameras on the back, a 48-megapixel main and a 16-megapixel ultrawide, as well as an 8-megapixel front camera. The cameras take perfectly fine photos in good lighting conditions, but they’re not designed for anything challenging like low-light or action photography.
Its cameras share the same problems that plague other sub-$300 phones. Not only do the colors differ between the main and ultrawide camera, but the main camera also sometimes has trouble focusing and separating the subject from the background in portrait mode. I’ve also noticed that photos from low-light environments look as if there is vignetting around the edges — whether they were captured with the main, ultrawide, or selfie camera.
The DuraSport tries to make up for its technical deficiencies with some unique video interfaces like the Action Overlay and beauty filters. (I did not have access to ANT Plus compatible fitness sensors, so I could not test the Action Overlay being linked to my fitness data in real-time.) Ultimately, it’s let down by a camera app that is slow at switching between cameras and will randomly close for no reason, which makes it frustrating to take photos with it.
There is no doubt you’re paying a premium for the rugged design of the $579.99 DuraSport 5G UW — despite the fact it has cheap components that are more common in sub-$300 budget phones. It’s a shame it doesn’t use a faster processor or feature better cameras for a phone that is almost $600.
There are plenty of other, better phones in this price range, including Google’s own Pixel 6. But if you’re looking for a rugged phone and want to use Verizon’s faster mmWave 5G network, the DuraSport is really the only budget rugged 5G phone available.
If having excellent cameras on your phone is more important to you, and you are willing to accept a water-resistant (IP67) rather than a waterproof one (IP68), then the $449 Pixel 5A with 5G would be a better choice. After all, they look and feel almost identical to each other, anyway.
The peace of mind of having a phone that can handle serious spills and drops without needing to be replaced within a few years, thanks to Kyocera’s two-year warranty, is worthwhile, but most of us are better off just investing in a durable case for another phone.
Photography by Gloria Sin / The Verge