Smartphones are supposed to be svelte and trim, with consumer having no expectation other it being the greatest new device to show off to your friends. I talk about durability from time to time and rugged smartphones like the CAT S41 are among a thinning breed; an undeniably tactile choice for those people who really need to their handset to who work as hard as they do.
For occupations that involve hardhats, heavy-duty machinery, and hazardous environments the name Caterpillar should be synonymous with everything construction. However, the brand connection is a strategic licensing tie to Bullitt Mobile, a white label entity best known for producing phones for unique and/or niche markets. It’s a little confusing but all you need to know is that the CAT S41 is a single-minded — but unyielding smartphone — tailor made for physically demanding environments.
But what about the S41? It’s common knowledge that purpose-built phones don’t do pretty and the S41 openly embraces its craftsman-like intentions with pride. Utterly unpretentious, it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a tough exterior that doesn’t give a damn about anything except ruggedness.
You better love bulky because the outward material is reminiscent of a tire right off of a tractor, sporting a hard rubberized shell with stylized tread patterns across the back. It’s an appropriate motif that continues with the shell being raised a bit to protect the screen from unexpected drops at the job site, and will draw obvious comparisons to any cases that Otterbox makes. Even the navigation icon make a return to actual keys, which may seem dated but actually quite responsive and offers tactile menu shortcuts without moving hand positions. Android enthusiasts will certainly this deliberate throwback.
Of course there are SIM (GSM) and microSD card slots, along with the usual power, volume rocker, headphone jack, and (gasp!) microUSB charging port. All of these are also beefed up with either hard plastic or covered by a flap made of identical rubber composite like the shell, effectively shielding opening from the harsher and dirtier elements like water, mud, and dust.
Unsurprisingly, the S41 is engineered to be resilient thanks to an IP68/Mil-Spec 810G certified rating meant to survive being dunked in 6.56 feet (2m) for 60 minutes or a fall from 5.9ft (1.8m). Also, it can theoretically work in temperatures in -13°F/131°F too.
Vital among contractors and site coordinators will be the “Push to Talk” button which is on the left side and in bright orange. In reality this key can be programmable to do anything involving mapping shortcut action or long presses. For groups of people actually getting stuff done it can used to rapidly exchange information and/or messages within close proximity, they just need to have the same type of phone as you do.
That said, there’s still a modern smartphone under all that ruggedness. There’s a relatively crisp 5-inch Full HD 1920×1080 IPS LCD display with Corning’s Gorilla Glass 5, with a pixel density (441 ppi) and colors that exhibit a satisfying pop that you wouldn’t normally expect for a work phone. Hues in particular appear more saturated than accurate but many won’t mind the vibrancy considering how much real estate the bezels (yes plural) eat up. Even better, the touchscreen can be operated with thick gloves and in the pouring rain. It’s a welcome consolation and a rare physical aid that won’t go unappreciated.
But let’s cut to the chase — the CAT S41 is designed for longevity where posher smartphones would buckle under pressure, so you won’t be getting anything advanced spec-wise. The insides make do with a Mediatek T6757 (Helio P20) octacore processor with graphics provided by a Mali-T880 GPU, this is the equivalent of most near mid-range options currently available. Here’s a few more specs in no particular order: 3GB LPDDR4X RAM, 32GB internal storage, microSD support up to 2TB extended storage, GLONASS/GPS/aGPS/Beidou geotracking, NFC, and Android Pay compatibility.
It might not come as a shock but the performance won’t set your world on fire with Android Nougat (no word on firmware being upgraded to Android Oreo), but the S41 is quick enough for any workforce to utilize. You’ll want to keep the S41 on as much as possible because the boot time is longer than it should be — it’s downright atrocious — but fine for YouTube binges or light gaming breaks. the latter of which is strictly limited and some newer titles can’t be enjoyed without some APK side-loading action, this was probably done to avoid taxing the CPU.
Even bloatware is kept to a minimum with only the App Toolbox being the only standout, offering a curated list of free and paid apps that’s ultimately redundant to the Google Play Store.
There is minor stutter when using basic apps such as Google Maps or using the 13MP (rear)/8MP (front) camera for anything. In fact, I should briefly talk about how menial the camera is because taking pictures and video on the S41 lacks contrast and exposure cannot seem to correct itself. The S41 doesn’t know what to do with concentrated sources of light, although things improve a little bit once the shadows are eliminated or try to compensate with HDR mode. However, some of the complaints can be forgiven with the underwater mode that allows you capture moments in shallow depths with the screen locked.
A saving grace of the S41 is the 5000mAh battery that can keep the phone alive with 38 hours of talk time, and an estimated 44 days of standby time. We didn’t have enough time to verify these claims but we never bothered to recharge it for almost four days, which is unheard of nowadays. You can even use your phone as a power bank and share with other devices on their last legs, and monitor the percentage for optimization at which to stop. This is something I wish more phones had out of the box.
There aren’t many smartphones out today that are legitimately engineered to take the world’s hard edges head-on, and the CAT S41 fits comfortably within this category; it’s a commendable performer that favors the construction site over coffee houses. It’s not the thinnest, prettiest, or more glamorous way to connect to the world, but that’s not why you’ll be picking one up. Even if the camera sucks for taking selfies, our only recommendation is to have an occupation as tough as the phone itself.