Lately, smartphones are growing larger, lighter and thinner, making them increasingly frail to the point where we might have to worry about a $1,000 iPhone 6 Plus warping or bending in a back pocket. Amid this strange new status quo, the Kyocera Brigadier is the increasingly rare phone that need not be handled with care.
The Brigadier, the latest in Kyocera's line of rugged, Bear Grylls-endorsed, almost-indestructible phones, actually has the scratch-free sapphire screen that the iPhone 6 was rumored to get. It's also waterproof and resistant to dust, shocks and vibration.
I spent a few weeks using the Brigadier rather carelessly and it still performs like a champ for the most part. During the same period of time, my first-generation Moto X – which I actually try to take good care of as my primary phone – suffered a shattered screen after falling just 2 ft (60 cm) onto asphalt.
For weeks I've tossed the Brigadier around, including a few times in the pool, sauna and shower. I've taken it on bone-jarring mountain bike rides on the dirty and dusty trails of the American southwest's high desert, making sure to drop it several times along the way. After all this, the only evidence of my casual abuse are a few knicks in the phone's plastic shell and physical buttons. The sapphire screen is indeed about as shiny, scuff and scratch-free as the day it arrived.
However, what makes the Brigadier so burly will certainly be seen as one of its main downsides by those who have grown accustomed to the feather-light and razor-thin latest generation smartphones. Compared to the latest flagship phones like the iPhone 6, Galaxy S5 or new Moto X, the Brigadier feels like a brick.
With a 4.5-in 1,280 x 720 HD display and weighing in at 6.6 ounces (187 grams), this phone feels more like an earlier generation iPhone or Motorola Droid, especially considering that it measures over a half-inch thick, giving it almost twice as much girth as an iPhone 6.
Of course, if you're taking an interest in the Brigadier, it's probably safe to presume that a thin profile isn't your chief concern. There are other compromises that come with selecting a phone that's designed to be military grade and stand up to pretty much anything you might run into in the field. For starters, its Snapdragon 400 processor is decidedly mid-range and found in the likes of the LG G Watch Android Wear watch.
The 8 megapixel rear and 2 MP front cameras are also average – they wont wow but wont disappoint most looking for a basic smartphone camera either.
These few shortcomings become easily forgivable when the Brigadier's price is taken into account. With a new contract from Verizon Wireless, this phone can be had for only $99, or $399 off-contract. Consider that we've previously declared the Moto G to be one of the best smartphone deals at $179 off-contract. The Brigadier and Moto G both run off a Snapdragon 400, but with the Brigadier you get 4G LTE data, the first mass market sapphire screen, the aforementioned ruggedized treatment, physical buttons, and front-facing speakers capable of impressive volume, even in the shower.
Don't think this phone is so tough that you'll be able to take it scuba diving, however. It won't actually function underwater, but its IPX8 rating means it can withstand immersion in water up to 6 feet deep for as long as thirty minutes without being damaged or destroyed. That said, the sapphire touch screen has been designed to perform much better than the average touch screen when it's wet or while wearing gloves.
Following the theme of being the workman's phone, the Brigaider is compatible with a suite of enterprise features and has hard keys, including the regular Android buttons for navigation and additional keys for speakerphone, camera and an extra programmable side key.
Kyocera's skin takes a relatively light touch to Android 4.4 KitKat, adding a set of widgets also specifically designed with large icons for easy access to frequently used apps or settings with gloved fingers. Sticking with the outdoorsy theme, compass, flashlight and weather widgets also come standard.
The Brigadier packs a substantial 3,100 mAh battery, which I found to be more than adequate for a full day of use, if not two, between charges. It also takes advantage of Qualcomm's quick charging technology with the included charger and is compatible with Qi standard wireless charging units, something that, for some reason, neither Kyocera nor Verizon has made much of an effort to mention.
If you're looking for a tough phone on a budget and you're willing to sacrifice some of the bells and whistles and smoking speed found in the top phones of the moment, this is probably your best choice for now.
The Brigadier is available from Verizon and Amazon, but even the off-contract models, which have both CDMA and GSM radios, come locked to the Verizon network.