CAT S61 Review: A Well-Rounded Rugged Phone, With a Hefty Pricetag

By Tom Pritchard on at

In this day and age, smartphones feel like they cost the Earth. The big names all seem to be loaded with gimmicks, and still seem as fragile as a champagne glass in an opera house. Then you have rugged phones, which are hardier and more durable, but are often overlooked because their primary focus is trade workers and people who need a phone capable of handling more dangerous situations.

CAT has been one of the more recognisable names developing those phones, and the latest offering is the S61 - the successor to the thermal camera-toting S60 from 2016. But the question is: is this phone is better off in the hands of professionals that can make use of all the features, or is it worth looking into as a regular person? Let's find out.

Specs

  • 5.2-inch Gorilla Glass 5 1080p LCD display
  • Android 8.0, with P upgrade planned
  • 4,500 mAh battery
  • 4GB of RAM
  • 64GB storage, with microSD expansion
  • 16MP rear camera, 8MP front camera
  • Snapdragon 630 octa-core chipset
  • IP68 and IP69 water and dust resistance
  • Bluetooth 5, USB-C, NFC
  • 150 x 76 x 13 mm, 250g
  • £799.99

Other points of Note

  • FLIR thermal camera
  • Built-in thermometer, humidity, and air quality sensors
  • Quick Charge 4.0 compatible
  • Laser measurement tool
  • 6ft/1.8m drop tested
  • Temperature resistance from -25 Celsius to 55 Celsius for up to 24 hours

Design

There's no hiding the fact that the S61 is chunky. It's roughly double the thickness of the OnePlus 6 out of its case, and it definitely feels quite bulky in your hand. That said, most phones are so obsessed with being thin and skinny these days that it's not hard to feel like that if your phone is bucking the trend. Plus this is, after all, a rugged phone that's been designed to take some torture and not the kind of thing that's going to shatter when a fly lands on it. Some extra heft is to be expected.

There's rather an industrial feel to the design, in terms of the buttons and the various points that would normally be exposed on a regular phone. The S61 is designed to handle some incredibly harsh conditions, including underwater, so measures have been taken to ensure the inner workings of the phone are kept safe. The USB-C port is hidden under the standard rubber seal you'd find in some old-school waterproof phones (think the Xperia Z2/3 era), while the headphone jack and card slots are a little harder to get into. Both are under metal flaps with their own seals, making them slightly awkward if you need to get at them. The headphone jack is easy enough most of the time, even for someone who keeps their nails far too short, but I couldn't get into the SIM/card slot without help.

That's probably for the best, though. The USB port is going to be used far more regularly, and you'd be lucky if the card slot gets opened up more than a couple of times throughout the phone's lifetime. It's also not waterproof under the flap, so you can excuse some over the top protection from the elements.

Likewise the buttons take on a more robust feel than your average smartphone. The power and volume buttons are all distinct and have a heftier metal feel than you might be used to - no doubt because they're also meant to work with gloves. The navigation buttons are also pretty chunky, again likely because of the gloves thing. Unlike most phone companies CAT hasn't opted for a virtual navigation bar, it's kept the proper three button system. Like other CAT phones it also has a single gold-coloured programmable key that you can use to open up an app or feature on the phone. It's in the same place as Samsung's Bixby button, but has the advantage of not being restricted to a single feature nobody wants or needs.

There's only a single speaker, sadly, which is a bit of a pain, especially since the call receiver is still pretty big. But this is mainly designed as a work phone, and media isn't (or shouldn't) be a major priority for people on the job. In terms of display CAT has continued to rock the super-strong Gorilla Glass 5, which is good because that can handle some absurd torture. But just in case you don't trust glass on its own, the S61 does come with a screen protector already attached. No scratches for you! Not on the phone anyway, and there are no air bubbles or trapped dust to contend with.

The most unique thing about the S61's design is the bump at the very top, which, much like the S60, seems to be designed to accommodate the FLIR thermal camera. While it would be nice to have a more symmetrical shape, it's another one of those compromises you have to make based on the kind of phone this is. It's one of two smartphones that have the FLIR camera built in, and they both have the same design. If you want that particular feature you're just going to have to deal with it. Not that it actually makes much difference in the long run.

There's also a laser on the bottom, which can be used to measure distances without the use of augmented reality. Another niche feature, to be sure, but invaluable if you actually need it.

Battery

The S61 has a pretty large battery by smartphone standards, packing 4,500 mAh of capacity inside its shell. It's not as high as last year's 5,000 mAh S41 but it's significantly better than most other mainstream offerings of this size. Given the size of the battery you can understand why this phone is as thick as it is, and it's a trade-off most of us could probably live with. But a large battery is only as good as how it's used, so I put it through the usual test. One film streamed from Netflix, over Wi-Fi, with brightness on max, and no wireless audio. In this case it was the 1h59m Deadpool.

At the end of it the S61 came out with 86 per cent battery life, which is pretty impressive. It's not quite as impressive as the S41, which had 95 per cent left over after a similar test, but was slightly better than the 83 per cent result on the OnePlus 6 - which is significant given the OnePlus 6's battery is 1,200 mAh smaller. It's not a bad result by any means, but that does put it into perspective. It also inadvertently showcases just how well the OnePlus 6 does perform under similar conditions.

But that's not to knock the S61 in anyway. 86 per cent is more than admirable, and it means you could watch Deadpool seven times before you run out of juice. That's a long time to spend watching Ryan Reynolds dick around in his best Freddy Kreuger cosplay.

Unlike the S41 which used the older the older PumpExpress 2.0, the S61 now support Qualcomm's Quick Charge 4. That means should you ever run out of juice, or decide you want to watch Deadpool for the eighth time in a row, you can recharge to 50 per cent in just 15 minutes. It's worth pointing out that it's Quick Charge 4, not 4+, so it doesn't have all the benefits of the absolute latest version of Qualcomm's fast charging tech.

Camera

For many the camera can be a dealbreaker, and despite the S61's rugged advantage (for some, anyway) the quality of the camera is important. To test it out we've comparing the quality with the OnePlus 6, Huawei P20 Pro, and the iPhone X in various conditions. There's outdoor (plus zoom), indoor with plenty of natural light, indoor with artificial light, and then low-light. The S61's camera isn't it's biggest selling point, and unlike the other three it's stuck with a single-lens camera system with a 16MP sensor. From a raw specs point of view it doesn't sound too bad. Remarkably average and uninspiring, but still not bad.

Outdoor

Outdoors the CAT S61 doesn't perform too badly. It's nothing outstanding, and the colour is a little washed out in places, but for the most part the pictures are acceptable. The colouring isn't as good in places, but I'd say the final product comes out better than Huawei's triple-camera system. It's still kind of shocking that even on such a bright day those photos were coming out as dark as they were.

I'd still say the iPhone X and OnePlus 6 come out better, simply because the colours a little bit more believable and don't have that layer of grey over the top. But the CAT S61 performs admirably, even with a 2x zoom.

Indoor

As you can see the S61's low-light performance is the worst of the bunch. The picture came out brighter than the room felt, but there's still very little to see beyond the silhouette of the ship. It's not much worse than the OnePlus 6's performance, which is pretty dark and uninspiring, but it has more detail. Likewise the iPhone X and P20 Pro are both brighter and clearer, more so with the latter.

Artificial light means it comes out in the middle of the bunch. It's clearer and brighter than the P20 Pro, but the final images comes out more washed out and saturated than the iPhone X and OnePlus 6. It was also quite difficult to get a good shot that wasn't too blurry. The natural light shot was a different story, with one of the nicest and brightest shots of the bunch. The colours seem more natural than the iPhone, with the cup coming out looking white and not that weird yellowish colour, and brighter than both the OnePlus 6 and P20 Pro. That said the OnePlus 6 was a little more defined and focused.

Overall? The CAT S61 isn't too bad. It's not spectacular, and certainly isn't going to be breaking any records, but that's to be expected. It's fine, and it'll do the job, so if you need something basic for simple photos then it's going to do exactly what you need. But if you want the best photos possible, especially with the £800 pricetag, this definitely isn't the phone for you.

FLIR Camera

The FLIR thermal camera is a bit of a gimmick, let's be honest. It's quite cool to integrate that tech into a phone (again), But it's not the kind of thing most people will want. Again, it was included because the S61 is primarily a work phone, but that doesn't mean it's not fun to play with. Have you ever wondered just how hot your dog is? Wonder no more, because the thermal camera does more than just let you see the effective range of temperatures in an area. There's a little cross at the top that lets you add various temperature gauges onto the screen. A box that shows the average temperature of everything on screen, a smaller adjustable box that lets you see the average in a select area, and a cross that shows the temperature of a specific point.

That's how I know that my dog's face was 31.1 degrees Celsius.

The FLIR camera has a lot of different functions, and pretty much all of them aren't clearly labelled. Which is helpful if you're trying to mess around and figure out what you're supposed to be doing. For that reason there are links to video tutorials built into the phone - which you can access through the camera itself. They don't go hugely in depth, though, so if you need anything more you'll have to go to the community section for help. Thankfully that link is in exactly the same place - the Flir camera menu.

On top of this the FLIR camera has various modes, including video, time lapse, and live streaming (via YouTube) as well as the option to see any thermal images in regular visible spectrum light. Just find the picture in the gallery, swipe, and hold it. Whether you're a serious user or just interested in messing about, make no mistake the FLIR camera is going to require some learning to get working properly.

Special Features

One of the big extras in the S61 is that it comes with a built-in air quality sensor - which includes local humidity and temperature. While it makes sure to warn you that it's not accurate enough to be as a serious professional tool or used in potentially life-threatening conditions, it's just used as a rough idea of what's going on in your current location. Air quality tests are automatically taken every four seconds, and use a five tier quality ranking ranging from very good to poor.

As you can see above the quality level is shown as a line graph of sorts, letting you go back in time and see how things have changed over the past day. Results are also collected as graphs, so you can see a breakdown of how good or bad your air has been in the recent past. Which is nice. It's a nice tool, and could be helpful in minor situations, but it's very basic. Proper air quality tools will likely let you export those statistics for data crunching, and can likely better detect exactly what's in the air. Those devices also won't mistake your sweaty pocket or dark bag for an area of terrible air.

That said if you don't trust your landlord to have checked there isn't stuff growing in your walls, it's enough to put your mind at ease. Or tell them the air quality is at slum-like levels.

There's also a laser-guided measurement tool on the back. It requires a significant amount of effort to get calibrated, which does require a proper tape measure, but it's the kind of thing that could be invaluable to a lot of people - whether they need it for work or not. It's certainly more comforting to use than an AR camera. As it the norm with CAT phones and the market they generally focus on, the touchscreen can also be used by someone wearing gloves.

It's also worth mentioning that this phone has zero biometrics. It's meant to work with gloves on, so a fingerprint scanner is out of the question, but there's no level of facial recognition either. That's probably for the best, given the state of most Android facial recognition tech, but it does mean you;re restricted to old school password, PIN, or pattern protection.

Using It

The thing about the S61 is that it feels like a phone. It's a fairly hefty phone, and if you transition from a thinner device it's going to take some time before you acclimatise. Other than that it behaves much the same as any other Android device. It runs as close to stock Android as you can get, and CAT has stressed it's not big on adding unnecessary bloatware to the device.

Obviously it has specialised app for the hardware features, like the FLIR camera and the air sensor, but other than that it's pretty basic. There's a support section, the toolbox app for finding specialised rugged phone apps that appears on every CAT phone, plus AVG anti-virus and Office Suite. The latter two can be removed, but you might want to keep toolbox and the support section handy.

There's not much to say here. It's an Android phone that has a regular size screen, rather than one of the fancy new high resolution bezel-less designs that we've started seeing. It's fine. There's nothing overly special about what it has to offer, beyond the design, but there's nothing bad about it either. Just because it doesn't have the most RAM, or the fastest processors, or the best display doesn't mean a thing. It's like the Michael Cera of phones. It looks a bit awkward and some people may wonder why it's there in the first place, but it can get the job done without having to be all flashy about it.

Whether a strong phone is necessary for your job, or if you're a clutz, there are worse options out there. It also helps that this phone doesn't need an extra protection from whatever crazy situations you and your posse may find themselves in.

Price

The price may be a dealbreaker, though, since £800 is more than the base model Samsung Galaxy S9 was at launch. Even more so when you compare it to last year's S41. The price mostly seems to come from the FLIR camera, which is itself a niche product, so that's something to consider if you're thinking about getting this phone. If you want a tough phone, but don't want this price tag, get the S41. It still runs Android Nougat, and there's no word on whether Oreo or Pie are coming, but you'll get all the same bits as the S61 without the flashy sensors. Or alternatively wait and see if they announce anything new at IFA at the end of the month.

TL;DR

  • A fairly basic and clean Android experience, with no major surprises
  • Designed to handle some torture, and conditions that would kill most smartphones
  • A very basic camera that isn't going to win any awards, but gets the job done well enough
  • The FLIR camera is fun, but it requires a lot of learning and won't be useful to a lot of people
  • Air quality is nice, but you stop paying any attention after a while
  • Great battery. Not the best, but far better than what most people are used to.
  • Expensive at £800, no doubt thanks to the FLIR camera, which will put some people off.