CAT S41 Review: A Rugged Smartphone for People Tired of Expensive Gimmicks

By Tom Pritchard on at

These days, phone makers are doing a lot of things to try and make you buy the latest overpriced model, complete with a bunch of extra features they want you to care about. The problem is that despite all the wondrous technological advances, those phones are fragile as fuck. Even the iPhone 8's back glass, which is supposedly stronger than everything else, proved to be fragile as fuck.

Enter the CAT S41. A rugged smartphone with none of the flash. Because the company's own research showed that people generally don't care about all that. They cared about things durability and battery life. So they made a phone that matched those needs. How does it hold up?

Specs

  • 5-inch Gorilla Glass 5 1080p LCD display
  • Android 7.0
  • 5,000 mAh battery
  • Octacore 2.3GHz processor
  • 3GB of RAM
  • 13MP rear camera, 8MP front camera
  • microUSB and 3.5mm ports
  • 32GB of storage with microSD support (up to 2TB)
  • IP68 water and dustproofing (up to 2 metres of water for 60 minutes)
  • Drop tested to a height of 1.8 metres/six feet
  • Wi-Fi, LTE, Bluetooth 4.1, and NFC connectivity
  • Nano SIM, with dual and single SIM variants
  • 152 x 75 x 12.85 mm, 215 grams

Other points of note

  • Programmable button on the left hand-side
  • Physical navigation buttons
  • E-compass
  • Battery Share
  • No biometric security
  • Single speaker
  • Pump Express 2.0 fast charging
  • FM Radio

Design

Let's get this out of the way now: the CAT S41 isn't going to win any beauty contests. But while companies like Apple spend time and resources trying to put together phone equivalent of a supermodel, CAT is more interested in creating a phone that doesn't need to be wrapped up in a big case. After all, what good is a good-looking phone if you're just going to hide it away?

Up there is a picture of my day-to-day phone, better known as the Galaxy S7. Ever since it arrived, it's been wrapped up in an Otterbox Defender to keep it safe. As you can see the screen protector is covered in scratches, but underneath the phone is fine. But that's my point. The S7 is a nice looking phone, but because it's inherently fragile you don't get to experience that very often. The CAT phone might look a big monstrous in comparison to a lot of case-free smartphones, but you know it's going to be fine without one.

In fact, I've already done some light stress testing on the Cat S41, so if you want to see some everyday abuse make sure to check that out.

That screen is Gorilla Glass 5 too. GG 5 was launched last summer, and promises to be even more indestructible that GG 4. While the CAT S41 is far from the only phone to come with a GG 5 screen, it's still not very common. In case you're worried about the durability, just remember that I attacked it with a Stanley knife and my keys without causing any visible scratching. It does love to pick up fingerprints, however, so make sure you have that microfibre cloth handy!

There is a screen protector in the box, however (one of the regular stick-on ones people generally suck at), for those of you who are extra paranoid.

The phone is also has IP68 rated water and dustproofing, which means it can handle being left to soak in up to two metres of water for an hour. It important to point out, however, that the phones ports are 100 per cent not waterproof. [Update: turns out the ports are waterproof, but the SIM and microSD card slot is not. My bad! ]. 

Also worth noting is the operating temperature that ranges from -25°C and 55°C. As for dropping, the phone has been extensively tested, and is capable of surviving drops as high as 1.8 metres (6 feet) onto concrete.

The durability isn't without its faults, however. During my second drop test it bounced off the concrete and hit a metal grate in my backyard - which caused some cosmetic damage to the outer casing. It was only cosmetic, and didn't affect the phone's inner workings, but it did show that as tough as the CAT S41 is, it's not indestructible.

The S41 is bulkier and feels heavier than what people are going to be used to in 2017, but it's like that for a reason. It's also not really a big deal anyway, since the phone is small enough to slip into a pocket without difficulty. It'll happily stay there being as discrete as a phone can possibly be until you need it. You're not going to forget it's there (which is probably a good thing), but its presence isn't going to piss you off while you go about your day.

The only design point to note is that this has physical buttons rather than the virtual stuff we've seen on most Android phones the past few years. So home, back, and menu are there, and you actually need to push them rather than swiping up and tapping the screen. I don't know why this is the case, but all of CAT's Android phones do. I guess it's an aesthetic choice, not that it really matters. At least it has the buttons in the correct order, unlike some manufacturers (Samsung).

Battery

Even if you do care about how sleek and elegant your phone looks (even though CAT ordered a study that claimed most people don't), the size of the battery might pique your interest. It's got a 5,000 mAh battery, which is significantly higher than the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 (3,300 mAh) and what the iPhone X is rumoured to have (2,716 mAh). I left the phone on my desk (fully charged) doing nothing, and a week later I picked it up to find that it still had a decent amount of juice. Probably not enough to last a day of actual use, but that's an incredibly impressive standby lifespan by modern standards.

CAT promises that the phone will last 44 days on standby and 38 hours of talk time. I have my doubts it could last a month and a half without power (mine didn't, and it was literally sitting around not being used), but the fact a smartphone could last over a week without a charge is almost unheard of. At least it is with a mainstream brand.

Doing the typical battery life test, I had the S41 stream Star Trek: First Contact (1h 50m) from Netflix to see how much power it would drain. That was over Wi-Fi with brightness and volume on maximum (adaptive brightness off), plus Bluetooth and Location switched on.

By the end of it the S41 still had 95 per cent of its battery left. Which is pretty fucking spectacular if you ask me.

The S41 does have fast charging, but the tech seems a bit old. It uses MediaTek's Pump Express 2.0, which is quite a few years old. Pump Express 3.0 was launched last May, promising faster charging speeds, better efficiency, and lower temperatures. So CAT is a bit behind, which seems a bit strange. It will charge the phone up to 75% in half an hour, though, and considering the size of the battery that's a pretty impressive feat.

Charging is micro-USB, and inside is a cable that lets you use the S41's Battery Share feature. That turns the phone into a portable battery pack, letting you juice up another gadget via USB.

As you can see in the image above, there is a sliding dial that lets you set how much power you want to leave in the S41. Because CAT uses a proprietary Battery Share cable (included in the box) it's able to stop once the S41's battery reaches a certain point. That way you're not going to be giving your friend a kick start and find you only have five minutes of life left. Fast charging is also available, provided you have an appropriate fast charging cable handy, but this does switch off the S41 when activated.

Unfortunately you will need to use the Battery Share cable, because a random USB to microUSB adaptor doesn't work. I can't see replacements for sale on CAT's store, so make sure to look after it.

Camera

These days the high-end phone market is placing a lot of focus on the camera. Dual lenses, better apertures, optical zoom, and all the other things that we haven't really seen before. The S41 has none of that. The camera offerings fairly fairly basic, much like everything else the phone has to offer, but I don't say that as a bad thing. It's got a 13MP rear camera (with autofocus) and an 8MP front camera. Video capabilities reach 1080p at 30 frames per second. So like I said, basic, but there's nothing really missing.

It has some filters, which aren't all that special anyway, though it does have HDR. That's a good thing, so just remember to turn it on.

I gave the camera a quick test in three different conditions: indoors, outdoors,and low light. Then I'm comparing them both to the same shots from the Samsung Galaxy S7 and Galaxy Note 8.

Indoors

The S41 suffers a bit because the picture itself isn't as bright as the other two, meaning the colours look a little bit more washed out, but aside from that it doesn't look too dissimilar. The picture is clear and the focus is pretty consistent across all three phones.

Outdoors

Surprise, here it looks like the Galaxy S7 comes in last. That picture is not very good. It's overexposed, and it almost looks as though there's a thick fog coming in from behind the fence. Fortunately I do not live in a Stephen King book. In comparison, the S41 really lets the colours pop. It is still a bit overexposed at the top where the sun is shining through the leaves, but considering these photos were taken seconds apart the difference is a bit shocking.

The Note 8 is a bit clearer, but still suffers from some of the same problems as the S7. I'm blaming that on the weather, though, since the clouds had rolled in by the time the Note 8 had fully charged.

Low Light

As you can see, the S41 did not perform well in a low light environment. It's darker, noisier, and I had to take multiple photos to try and get a shot that didn't look ridiculously blurry. The Note 8 is the clear winner here, since it doesn't even look like the same room. Both the Note 8 and S7 are so much brighter, it's hard to believe they were taken in the same conditions. The S7 certainly looks a little bit clearer, but the colour is off. It's almost as though it was taken with a filter in place.

Needless to say the S41 didn't come out all that well.

Overall

The S41 doesn't have the best camera out there, but for what it is you can't complain. There are areas where it could be better, particularly in low light, but it should be able to handle what you throw at it. The conditions will be a factor, as you can see with that outdoor shot, but you can get yourself some decent shots. Imagine what you could accomplish with HDR switched on, though.

Special Features

Because the S41 won't instantly fry the second it comes into contact with moisture, it has been designed to let you use the camera underwater. A bit like those Sony Xperia adverts, but without CAT being sued for misleading consumers about its capabilities. The dedicated Under Water mode can be accessed from the quick launch menu, and activating it opens up the camera and locks the rest of the phone down.

The only part of the screen that works is the sliding bar that you can see in the image above, and that's only to deactivate Under Water mode. Everything else is locked, though the power and volume buttons continue to work. The power button, naturally, locks the phone when you press it, while the volume buttons both activate the camera. Press it in photo mode and it'll snap a picture. Hit it in video mode and it'll start and stop the recording. Nice and simple, and pretty handy.

The touchscreen doesn't work underwater, nor when its more than slightly damp, which is well worth bearing in mind. The volume buttons still activate the shutter, even when you're not in Under Water mode, which helps. As for the quality of the images, they don't look half bad. Bear in mind that I had to take this in my sink tray (the only thing I could fill deep enough and still see what I was doing), which is why it the mug is so close.

Also included is a glove mode, which isn't unique, but it does mean people can continue to use the touchscreen without having to take their gloves off first (or use a stylus).

The S41 also has a gold-coloured programmable button on the left-hand side of the device. There's a lot of stuff you can do with this, but the default options are Push-to-Talk mode, and an Underwater Mode toggle. That way you can activate the camera underwater without all the faffing about in the quick launch menu.

But unlike Samsung's Bixby button, this is designed to be set up by you. That means you can use program the button to do  something, like opening an app, turning on the torch showing notifications, or answering calls. It also lets you differentiate between long and short presses, making this a two-in-one button that enhances what your phone can do.

These days phones have stopped including a dedicated camera button, which is a massive shame, but with this you can bring it back. Or use it for something else. It's up to you.

Using it

The S41 runs Android, as you might expect, though the updates haven't pushed it beyond 7.0 yet. The experience is almost pure stock Android, though, with a few bits of extra software for the CAT specific stuff like battery share, underwater mode, and the 'app toolbox' that lets CAT recommend apps to you.

Those have no impact on the user experience though, and aside from the usual Google crap there isn't much uninstallable bloat. Three things to be exact, and one of those is battery share which you'll want to keep around anyway.

The phone is comfortable though. It looks a bit bulky, but it's a decent size, and not too difficult to use. If you're happy with a 5-inch phone, this one isn't going to give you any surprises. Well, other than the fact the screen is a smudge magnet.

What's Missing?

There are no biometrics, which is a bit of a shame, though I imagine there might be a reason for that. This phone is designed for professionals and workers, the kind of people who usually wear gloves. While the phone still works with gloves on, a fingerprint scanner would not. And with facial recognition still in its infancy, it's not the kind of thing you can expect on a phone this cheap. But you've still got pattern, PIN, and passcode lock, which is good enough.

When can I get it?

The CAT S41 is out now, and it costs £399. It's by no means a budget phone, but it's still less than half the price of the Galaxy Note 8 and iPhone X. It's even cheaper when you factor in the money you save by not needing a case.

According to one of CAT's representatives who I spoke with at IFA, the people who buy CAT phones tend to keep them a lot longer than they would another device. She told me that some people still have phones that don't get new updates, but they like it so much they never felt the need to get something new. They were tradesmen and professionals who need a rugged phone like this for work, rather than your everyday consumer, but that's still an impressive feat.

The S41 can be purchased directly from CAT, or from big retailers like Amazon.

TL;DR

  • It's not stylish, nor will it win any beauty contests, but it's got a big battery (5,000 mAh) and can cope with some torture
  • The battery can be used to charge other devices, up to a pre-set level
  • Drop proof to 1.8 metres, IP68 water and dust proofing (two hours in a metre of water)
  • Seems bulky, but it's no bulkier than a high-end protective case, like an Otterbox or similar
  • No gimmicks of OTT features, but it's not missing anything major - barring the fingerprint scanner
  • Comfortable, familiar, and simple to use
  • Perfect for the person who's sick of prices being driven up by aesthetics and pointless things like thinness. It's the low-end of the high spec range, but it's a reasonably priced no-nonsense phone with everything you need. And it won't break because someone sneezed on the other end of the room.