So you want a smartphone that you can drop, kick, drop-kick, dent or drown by mistake? (NOTE: phones do NOT respond well to fire, do NOT set it alight.) The Cat S42 may not have the best specs but it'll survive most of what a hazardous work environment will throw at it. And that's... kinda the point of it.
Unless you’ve spent time at the Stuff offices (or homes, as 2020 has mandated), you’re probably unaware just how many smartphones we see in the average year. It’s not enough that we write about them and follow the news, we just… handle… so… many… that they start to get a little… well, boring. Which might explain why we like the unusual when it comes to smartphones — particularly rugged ones like the Cat S42, from the company that makes boots and construction equipment.
Though, technically, this handset is made by a company called Bullitt Group, which also makes handsets for Land Rover. But it’s made with Cat’s construction heritage in mind, and that’s really the main point — how much of a beating can this phone take? The answer is: a surprising amount.
We’ve got you covered
Cat’s rugged smartphone, visually, is exactly what you’d expect from a rugged device. From a distance it looks beefy, a textured black rubberised slab that seems like it’d bounce like a rubber brick when dropped. Up close, however, it shows in a little less of a positive light.
The size has little heft to it, detracting from that confidence-building visual impression. While this does mean that the phone won’t drag your pants off constantly, it also feels a touch more fragile than it looks. But it’s much tougher than your average smartphone. We just wish it wasn’t so old-fashioned. The 5.5in display sports massive bezels, there are four physical buttons arrayed on the sides (one of them programmable) and the rubberised edges are are covered in covers.
Covers for the charger, the headphone jack, the SIM card (and microSD) slot — and covers are the largest irritation we experience with rugged devices of this type. It’s more or less excusable since Cat’s entry here is a mere R7,500 but we still really, really hate having to muck with port covers. They always break, eventually.
But the port covers have their place and that place is securing the Cat S42’s IP6( rating, meaning it’ll survive dust and water (up to and including immersion in 1.5 meters of liquid for up to 30min). That’s just the sort of thing you want if you’re working out in the elements where dropping your phone in a muddy puddle (and having a car drive over it) is a serious hazard. The S42 also conforms to the MIL-STD-810H standard and should survive a drop onto concrete from up to 1.8 meters. Just because the casing feels hollow doesn’t mean it can’t take a beating.
But, while it’s built to resist having the crap kicked out of it when you’re mixing cement, it’s a little less impressive in terms of actual performance. Specs are… adequate, really. Workmanlike. Utilitarian. They get the job done. Okay, we’ll stop now.
Softer on the inside
While the Cat S42 may be encased in a hard outer shell, on the inside it’s a bit soft and squishy. There’s a MediaTek Helio A20 processor running the show, a quad-core chip that we’d expect to see in a more budget-minded handset. There’s also a mere 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage in the device, reinforcing the sense that this belongs at the lower end of the mid-range. And that’s technically true.
Because the screen also follows suit. It’s bright and clear but the 5.5in IPS LCD panel also only features a 720 x 1,440 resolution — not what you’d expect from a R7,500 smartphone. But then, you’ve also got to consider who this phone is intended for. Performance isn’t great if you’re asking for multitasking, gaming, heavy social media use or an office in your pocket. But that’s not what the Cat S42 is. It’s supposed to offer up messages, calls and emails from a job site while being as indestructible as possible. Seeing stutters when running several apps at once… that’s a design feature, not a bug.
Not as pretty as a picture
This is further borne out by the S42’s camera/s. There are only two — one front (5MP) and one back (13MP) and the best thing we can say about them is that you take take photographs with them. In good light, you’ll get decent images and in bad light, you’ll get noisy garbage. But you’ll probably also get your point across if you’re just trying to send images of broken pipes to the person out buying replacements from Builder’s Warehouse.
And there are some upsides to this low-spec rugged phone. The Android 10 OS is fairly stock, featuring a few Cat-specific apps that you’ll probably wind up using if you’re using the phone as intended. One of the apps turns the left-hand side button into a push-to-talk key for a walkie-talkie feature.. which rather assumes you’re getting this thing as a work phone that formed part of a bulk purchase by Head Office. If not, you can also remap the gold button for something a little more useful.
And then there’s the 4,200mAh battery, which will keep you going for a full day at least. One of the benefits of not having to power loads of high-end hardware is that the battery lasts. Our only complaint there (besides the charge-port cover)? It’s still using microUSB instead of USB-C. But then… well, look at the rest of the phone.
Cat S42 Verdict
It would be very easy to write off the Cat S42. As far as phones go, just about every other handset in the R7,500 price bracket stomps it into the ground, performance-wise. And camera-wise. And design-wise. And… you get the idea. But those devices don’t feature the rugged bits, like drop-resistance and waterproofing, that the Cat S42 does. The low specs and basic features are designed for a very specific market — those who need a tough phone without too many frills — and in that market the S42 will be extremely successful. So no, you won’t see thing one in any influencer showcases but you’ll probably see more than a few in bakkies or on job-sites, quietly shrugging off hazards that would destroy lesser handsets.