Verykool's Vortex smartphone can hold up to a great deal of physical abuse: It's dustproof, water-resistant, shock-resistant, and all-around rugged.
But look past its rugged exterior and you get a device with so-so specs. Verykool says the RS90 Vortex (the phone's official name), is the most powerful phone in its lineup, but that's not saying much. With Android 4.0, an average 5-megapixel camera, and no 4G support, it doesn't stack up well against other waterproof phones on the market.
Still, the Vortex's low cost makes it a worthy option for anyone who lives an active lifestyle, doesn't want to lose a phone to water damage, and can put up with not having the latest mobile technology.
Made by San Diego-based manufacturer Verykool, the $280 Vortex comes unlocked and can be used with any GSM carrier in the world.
Editor's note: In light of the release of the Verykool Black Pearl, we've lowered the rating for the Vortex on November 13, 2013.
The Vortex has a rugged polycarbonate exterior, yet the phone still has a sleek profile. At 5.6 inches tall, 2.9 inches wide, 0.4 inch thick, and weighing 7 ounces, it's bulky and heavy, though it does feel solid and sturdy in your hand. Since the Vortex is so thick, if you slide it into a back pocket and try to sit on it, you'll feel it.
Thanks to its hefty waterproof case, the Vortex is just barely too big for me to use it one-handed. It also feels large when I hold it up to my face for a phone call, though I can still reach the volume rocker with ease.
It has a textured back cover, screwed-in side panels, and a bright orange detail surrounding the Micro-USB charging port on the bottom. Aside from that pop of orange, the phone is all black and gray.
On the left side of the phone is the power/lock button. Along the right side there's the volume rocker. If you look closely, you'll see a tiny flashlight icon above the rocker. If you turn on the Vortex's screen, but don't unlock the phone, and press and hold the volume-up button, the phone's back flashlight will turn on. That's a nice feature for when you're searching for your keys in the dark.
As is the case with most water-resistant phones, the headphone jack on the top of the Vortex has a cover with a seal to keep water out when the phone gets phone wet.
There are two covers that protect the battery, SD card, and SIM card. One is the phone's back cover and the other seals off the battery and card slots, to guard against water damage. Getting past those two covers is a hassle and involves removing the Vortex's back cover by sliding it down to unhook it, then prying the seal off, which requires a bit of force. You must reattach the smaller cover and press down the seal in the correct order (instructions are shown on the plastic covering) to make sure it stays watertight.
The Vortex features a 4.5-inch LCD IPS 960x540-pixel-resolution (244 ppi) screen. The display looks bright and pixels aren't immediately obvious. Background and icon colors look natural, though a bit muted.
A major plus is that the display is bright enough to read in full sunlight, even at half brightness, and there's hardly any glare. It's also easy to read text on the screen in any lighting conditions.
The Vortex comes with a setting called dynamic brightness, which Verykool says improves video quality while saving power when playing video clips. There are three dynamic brightness levels: 0, 1, and 2. The lower the number, the less battery power the phone uses and the dimmer the screen is.
I tested all three levels and compared them with normal automatic brightness, and I didn't see a difference in video quality or brightness at all.
Water-resistant and dustproof
The Vortex has an Ingress Protection Rating of 67, which means it's completely protected against dust and waterproof up to 1 meter (about 3 feet). Essentially, it's the perfect phone to take to Burning Man for when those dust storms kick up (not that you'd necessarily get a cell signal).
Since I don't have access to a swimming pool, I dunked the Vortex in a smaller container of water for 30 minutes to test that it really was water-resistant. After its time in the bath, the phone was still kicking and worked as normal.
Verykool also says the Vortex is shock-resistant, though no one in the industry really knows what that means. Hoping to recreate a few real-world situations in which your phone would slip tragically from your hands and possibly meet its untimely end, I dropped the Vortex a few times.
First, I dropped it from about two feet above a carpeted floor; the back cover immediately popped off, but the phone stayed on. Next I let it fall from roughly one foot above a hardwood floor and once it hit the ground it shut off. To get it back on, I had to take off the back covers, pull out the battery and reinsert it, though I was able to turn it back on once I removed and replaced the battery.
I definitely wouldn't hurl the Vortex at a concrete wall, but it will hold up against the typical tumble -- just drop it at your own risk.
OS and features
With Android 4.4 KitKat likely due in October, it's disappointing that the Vortex is still running 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, which was released in 2011.
It's even more disappointing that while the phone is running what looks like a pure version of Android, Verykool has made its own modifications that feel rough around the edges.
For example, the text that walks you through setting up the proximity calibration in settings has glaring grammatical errors. In the notification pull-down menu, Verykool included its own icons for the settings buttons, which look dated compared with the rest of the operating system.
Aside from the few modifications from Verykool, the phone has the same look and functionality as other Android devices. There's the Google Play store, where you can download apps, music, games, books, and movies, and all the other stock Google apps -- Gmail, YouTube, and Search. Skype, Facebook, and Twitter also come preloaded.