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Cat S41 Rugged Smartphone Review

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Durable, rugged, good smartphones aren’t abundant. High-end smartphones offer more water-resistance than most people need, and a case is often enough for protection. Rugged smartphones are targeted at a niche audience — people who often spend a bulk of their time at accident-prone and hazardous environments, like a construction site. It makes sense then that Caterpillar, a company best known for its construction machinery, sells phones built to last.

But Cat-branded phones aren’t actually built by Caterpillar – the brand is licensed to a company called Bullitt Mobile, a white label company that makes phones for niche audiences, like the Kodak Ektra. The latest entry is the Cat S41, which boasts a durable build, IP68 water-resistance, and a long-lasting battery life. In our Cat S41 review, we found the phone to offer a great software experience and strong battery life, but a poor camera and lackluster performance make it tough to recommend.

Sacrifices in design

Rugged phones are hardly ever pretty. The only device that comes close to looking good is Samsung’s Galaxy S8 Active, and even that rugged, bezel-less smartphone isn’t going to win any design awards. The Cat S41 doesn’t buck any trends here; in fact, the design fully embraces its sturdy and tough build quality.

Imagine an Otterbox Defender case on your smartphone — that’s more or less what you can expect the Cat S41 to look and feel like. It’s thick (12.9mm) and heavy, and even though it only packs a 5-inch screen, it can still be a little hard to hold one-handed.

Christian de Looper/Digital Trends

The back of the phone features a textured, rubberized material that helps make it a little more grippy. You’ll only find the Cat logo here, as well as a camera on the top left-hand corner. What’s more distinct is how all four corners of the phone slope down at an angle, instead of the traditional rounded or angular corners.

The front is quick the opposite of the minimal rear — there’s a lot going on. It’s not very pretty to look at, due to the extremely chunky edges (bezels) on the top, bottom, and sides of the screen as well as the thick navigation buttons. Unlike the Galaxy S8 Active, you won’t find an edge-to-edge display here. The buttons are clicky and satisfying to press.

Around the phone, there’s a plastic frame that mixes with the rubberized material. You’ll find screws holding the two sides together, adding to the rugged aesthetic; and the MicroSD card and SIM slot, headphone jack, as well as the MicroUSB port, have rubber flaps to make sure the phone stays protected from interactions with water.

Unlike the Galaxy S8 Active, you won’t find an edge-to-edge display here.

The phone’s IP68 water-resistance means it can survive 2 meters underwater for an hour. It’s also MIL-STD-810G compliant, which essentially means it survived extreme environmental conditions covered by the standard. We’ll dive into durability a little more soon.

We would have liked to see a USB Type-C port here. It’s 2017, and considering the Cat S41 costs more than $400, it should have the latest port that would have charged the phone quickly. There’s also no fingerprint sensor, which means you have to rely on a PIN code or pattern to unlock the phone.

On the left is an orange-colored button you can program to open different apps or trigger certain functions, like Blackberry’s Convenience Key, and the power button and the volume rocker sit on the right edge.

The 5-inch TFT screen is average. It’s a little dull, but still visible in direct sunlight. The screen is colorful, but blacks aren’t as inky as an OLED. The best feature here is the 1,920 x 1,080 pixel resolution, as it offers crisp details on the small screen.

Compare the Cat S41 with the LG X Venture, a cheaper rugged phone, and we think the latter wins out. The X Venture has a thinner profile, and it looks a lot sleeker. While both have a MicroUSB port and a dedicated quick action key, LG’s phone has a convenient fingerprint sensor.

Average performance, simple software

Under the hood, the Cat S41 is powered by a MediaTek Helio P20 chipset, coupled with 3GB of RAM. The Helio P20 may be an aging chip, but it offers enough performance for everyday tasks.

We found the Android 7.0 software experience to be smooth and responsive, and the phone was able to handle games like Asphalt 8: Airborne with only occasional stutters. Intensive tasks like juggling multiple apps quickly or multitasking will certainly put a strain on performance, and your best bet is the Galaxy S8 Active, with its high-end Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor.

Still, the Cat S41 beats out the LG X Venture, which we found to be sluggish in our review. Here are the results of our benchmark tests:

  • AnTuTu: 61,667
  • GeekBench 4: 861 single-core; 3,690 multi-core
  • 3DMark Sling Shot Extreme: 719

The X Venture only hit 41,501 in its AnTuTu tests, and another competitor, the Kyocera DuraForce Pro, only made it to 45,540. The S41’s performance is average, and it’s far from a top-performing phone. For reference, the Galaxy S8 Active’s 3DMark score is 2,374. Even still, for just $50 more, you can get a much better performing phone, minus the rugged protection.

The Bullitt Group, the company behind the phone, isn’t known for fast updates.

The Android 7.0 software is close to stock Android and it’s fairly bare bones. That’s a good thing, because it means it doesn’t look cluttered or have a hideous Android “skin” or theme. That’s not to say there aren’t any Cat-specific additions. App Toolbox serves as a curated list of apps filled with functional tools like a tape measure or level app — clicking on them open links to download from the Google Play Store.

A “Share” app lets you turn the Cat S41 into a power bank and charge another phone, provided you have the right cable. Other pre-installed services include an FM tuner app so you can listen to the radio. You can uninstall many of the pre-installed apps on the device.

We do wish this phone came with the latest version of Android — 8.0 Oreo. We don’t expect this update to come any time soon, as the Bullitt Group, the company behind the phone, isn’t known for fast updates.

It will survive a more than a few drops

As we mentioned earlier, the Cat S41 is IP68-rated, meaning it’s water-resistant, and it is MIL-STD-810G compliant. It should be able to withstand everything you throw at it – or throw it at. We tested the basics of its durability and didn’t have any problems.

Christian de Looper/Digital Trends

We dropped the Cat S41 in a beer stein filled with water. After 30 minutes, we took it out and dried it off, and it worked perfectly fine. You’ll want to make sure you let everything dry properly before plugging in a headphone jack or a charging cable. The speakers sounded a little muffled at first, but it went back to normal after an an hour of letting the phone dry off.

But you’re more likely to drop your smartphone on concrete than in water. We dropped the Cat S41 three times on concrete roughly 1.5 meters above the ground — each from slightly different angles. It didn’t escape completely unscathed, but the Gorilla Glass 5 protecting the screen never cracked. There were only a few scratches and dents on the device. That puts the phone’s durability roughly on par with other ultra-rugged phones we’ve tested, including the Galaxy S8 Active and LG X Venture.

Stunning battery life, marred by a terrible camera

There’s a reason the Cat S41 is a little more than half an inch thick: It packs a behemoth of a battery with a 5,000mAh capacity. It’s 900mAh more than the LG X Venture’s battery and it shows — Caterpillar claims the battery can keep the phone in standby mode for 44 days. With moderate to heavy use, though, we easily were able to keep the S41 running for more than two days. It’s great news if you aren’t able to charge your phone at work, or if you’re traveling and forgot your charger.

Christian de Looper/Digital Trends

But then there’s the camera. The rear camera on the phone has 13 megapixels, and it’s a serious point of failure. HDR mode did the opposite of what it’s meant to do, making photos look overexposed with little contrast. Turning HDR mode off yielded slightly better contrast, but the camera is still not good at all. We’ve seen cheaper phones like the Moto G5S Plus offering better photos, and even the LG X Venture has a capable camera.

The front-facing camera packs 8 megapixels, and it performs just okay. Both cameras are nothing to write home about.

Warranty, pricing, and availability

The Cat S41 comes with a one-year limited warranty, with included accessories offering a six-month warranty. The limited warranty covers manufacturer defects, meaning you’ll have to pay for repairs from accidental damage.

It costs $450 if you purchase it directly from Caterpillar’s website. The phone is compatible with any GSM network – namely T-Mobile and AT&T, meaning it won’t work on Sprint or Verizon. You can also buy it through Best Buy, The Home Depot, Amazon, and B&H.

Our Take

The Cat S41 is simply too expensive for what it offers. Your phone will be able to suffer multiple drops and will get amazing battery life, but you’ll have to suffer through average performance, a near-worthless camera, and boring design.

Is there a better alternative?

Yes. The LG X Venture is a good alternative that’s a little more than $100 cheaper, has a better design, and a capable camera, but its performance isn’t as good as the Cat S41. If you can spend more, we recommend the Galaxy S8 Active.

If not, you’re honestly better off grabbing one of our best cheap smartphones, such as the $500 OnePlus 5T, or the $280 Moto G5S Plus, and putting a big, protective case on. You’ll likely get software updates for a longer period of time, as well as far better performance and a better camera.

How long will it last?

This device should physically last well beyond the standard two-year phone upgrade cycle, and its decent performance should help make it powerful enough for the average user during that time. The point of failure for this phone won’t be water damage or a cracked body – it likely won’t get updated after the first year on market.

Should you buy it?

No. As durable and long-lasting the Cat S41 is, we don’t think those are enough reasons to buy it with its current price tag.

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