CAT S42, as its branding probably suggests, is an ultra-rugged 'essentials' phone geared at serving those who need to put durability and function ahead of aesthetics. Recently sent to Android Headlines for a deeper review, the CAT S42 actually lives up to aspiration that fairly well.
With that said, a lot of what makes this phone not-so-great is found on the software side. More accurately, everything that drags this phone from a 3- or 4-star phone down to just one is on that side of the equation. So it could ultimately be fixed in the future, and should because they aren't small things.
Let's take a closer look at where CAT seems to be aiming with this $300 device and where its shortcomings or positive aspects are.
The CAT S42 hardware is incredibly thoughtful
A MIL-SPEC 810H certification and IP68 water- and dust-proof rating should be more than enough to convince anybody how durable the CAT S42 is. The company drop tested this gadget at up to 6-feet onto cold-hard steel. It also placed covers on all of the input and output ports. Those are almost a perfect balance between easy-to-use and snug enough to not pop open by accident.
But the CAT S42 is not just a rugged phone, upon closer review. It's also incredibly thoughtfully designed. Ridged corners, a wavy back panel, and rubberization that extends just slightly over the Gorilla Glass 5 display are all part of that. As is the fact that even the SIM drawer is covered by one of those above-mentioned flaps. So, no SIM tool needed to access the Dual-SIM + SD Slot drawer.
The result of that design is a sturdy phone that's both easy to get started with and difficult to drop, to begin with. But also protected if you do drop it. That's in addition to protections against thermal shock, vibration, humidity, and salt mist.
Moreover, although the screen is surrounded by relatively enormous bezels, the CAT S42 feels sleek in-hand. At just 220-grams, it's lighter than might be expected. It's smooth, apparently dust-resistant back panel is grippy and rubbery but simultaneously feels firm and premium. The all-metal buttons, including the user-programmable hardware key, are clicky and high-quality. As are the ports.
At the same time, the company built the buttons with a focus on usability too. The main power button is textured, for instance, while the user-programmable button has an orange hue. There's plenty of space around each port to plug in just about any compatible cable.
Now, there are also problems with the design, as we'll cover momentarily. But overall, this is going to be one of the nicest looking and feeling rugged smartphones money can buy.
This display is made to get some work done
One of the sole hardware issues with this device is its lack of a fingerprint scanner or even face unlock, despite its oversized bezels. But the quality of the CAT S42 under review, within the context of this phone's target audience, extends to the display too.
Despite being a relatively inexpensive device with enormous bezels, the screen here is bright and responsive. The photo above, just for starters, was taken under direct sunlight outdoors at maximum brightness. And that's something most phones in this price bracket can't boast.
It's also not the most high-resolution panel, though. While bright and ultimately mostly clear and accurate due to its size and the use of LCD IPS technology, it's also just HD+. That's 1440 x 720 pixels in an 18:9 configuration, respectively. Fortunately, that's not too big of a problem at just five-and-a-half inches. The medium size makes the phone much more comfortable too, despite its oversized bezels.
And CAT makes up for that a bit beyond that by including a glove and wet finger touch sensitivity mode in Settings. Glove mode helps the phone stay responsive, working even when your hands are wet or gloves are worn.
Things started falling apart quickly on the battery front for CAT S42
While reviewing any phone, a battery test is among the first things I tend to do once my day-to-day software is installed. And that test, during my review of the CAT S42, revealed some of the biggest software issues with this device, among other things.
First and foremost, it revealed that the software that reads the remaining battery is inaccurate. At best. The reading on battery drain, apparently randomly, would get stuck at various percentages. During one test, it remained at 44-percent in the notification bar all the way until the battery icon first turned red, and then the phone died. In another instance, it seemed to drain normally before leaping back up to a higher percentage and getting stuck.
Battery life wasn't great either. Just over 3-hours of day-to-day use from web browsing to messaging and calls, three-quarters of an hour of relatively light gaming, and just over an hour of video and audio streaming killed the battery. Combining that approximately 5-hours of screen-on time with the 6 hours and 10 minutes of standby — which drained 15-percent from the battery — resulted in under 12-hours of overall use.
Now, battery life is subjective. But charging wasn't great either. And not just because the green LED indicator kicked on at just 90-percent charged. The phone also took an hour-and-a-half to hit half-charged. And an abysmal 3 hours and 10 minutes to charge completely. From this point in my review, the CAT S42 flew along a roller-coaster of ups and downs caused primarily by the software.
Audio made something of a rebound for this phone
Carrying forward from that software-marred experience, Bluetooth 5 is included with this smartphone. But I couldn't, despite multiple attempts across Bluetooth speakers, headsets, and earbuds, get it to work properly. In fact, the devices all connected and each displayed that it was connected for the proper audio. But each also only worked for calls instead of any multimedia. The gadgets would not play music or video audio from any apps at all with this phone.
Thankfully, wired headphones still worked flawlessly. CAT doesn't include bells and whistles for adjusting the audio. But, thanks to a 3.5mm audio jack included on this handset, just about any wired headphones are going to work and work well.
Audio from the speaker is also above par for the price bracket. It's balanced, with a good representation of the tones across almost all of the auditory frequency spectrum. There isn't, of course, a lot of power for the low end or bass. That's to be expected from a smartphone at this point. So balanced, clear audio is better than muddy audio, without question, even in small speakers.
Audio on the mic-side received no complaints in calls either. And speakerphone worked consistently well, as compared to smartphones in the mid-range bracket.
CAT S42 performance needs some improvement
CAT S42 performance was, at best, inconsistent under review. At worst, it felt completely out of alignment with the price. Not only does the phone only ship with 3GB RAM and 32GB storage at just short of $300. This phone is also powered by a comparatively weak Mediatek Helio A20 MT quad-core chip that feels out of place at this price.
Combined with an apparent lack of software optimizations we'll cover momentarily and hinted at above, the performance doesn't stay stable. And that's not just for heavy games like Call of Duty Mobile either. Even in simple, online titles, the performance sometimes made this phone unusable. Jitter, freezing, and force closing games became a daily occurrence.
But other apps also presented a similar set of problems. Although, system-level functions like messaging and calling worked as expected — with one exception we'll cover below. Overall, the inconsistency in performance made this smartphone unenjoyable to use for just about anything above and beyond its function as a phone.
Now, it's worth pointing out that the CAT S42 is meant for a more utilitarian audience. So most of the apps that are used in professional fields associated with that will probably be usable, at the very least. But it's not a good look all the same when the performance of the phone drops randomly during app use. And that only worsens with multitasking.
CAT got the camera mostly right for the S42, albeit a bit too minimally
Of course, since the focus for this phone is on users who need to get work done in less-than-phone-friendly environments, the camera is hardly at the forefront of design decision-making. And, as a result, there's only a single 13-megapixel sensor at the back and a single 5-megapixel snapper on the front.
Both of those work about as well as can be expected in a budget smartphone but not quite up to snuff with the price tag compared to the competition. Or at least not in every shot. The camera is quick and autofocus is ordinarily accurate, with some exceptions for night mode shots. Color capture, although easily washed out with heavy backlighting or low-light conditions — even in night mode — is accurate more often than it isn't.
But there's nothing about the camera that feels like it's pushing to be the best around. And that shows in the example shots in our Flickr sample gallery for this device. There also aren't many modern features included. CAT stuck to the standard colorized filters, a dedicated Night and Manual mode, a Time-lapse feature, and the usual HDR and flash settings. This simply isn't the phone for those who want a great camera.
Video features follow, with a maximum 1080p resolution at 30 frames-per-second. In keeping with the utilitarian nature of the phone itself, some photos very clearly turn out much better than others and only a software fix is likely to bring any improvement to this minimal camera.
Connectivity is hit and miss on the visual front but otherwise seems solid
The CAT-branded S42 is, when it gets right down to it, great at doing what it's designed to do. That's to be a smartphone. A dual-NANO SIM arrangement with an extra slot for expanded storage is part of the build. And the data connections that enable work across 2G, 3G, and 4G LTE. The connections proved fast, with the CAT S42, via dual-band WiFi 5 under review. And they proved fast and solid on mobile data too.
NFC, Bluetooth 5.0, and all the location technologies that could be hoped for are included. And everything seemed to work really well, even when the software stopped the Quick Settings tiles and Settings app toggles associated with networking from working properly. The sole exception to that, of course, was Bluetooth, which we covered in the audio section.
That means this phone's connections work as well or better than any other smartphone in its bracket. The only problems with that, as noted already, are in the confusing failures on the software UI front. And the fact that Bluetooth 5.0 won't send audio in any of the test devices I used.
All of that can be fixed with software. As a phone, this gadget works well, otherwise. Whether on speakerphone, over a wired headset, on Wi-Fi, or on mobile data.
The CAT S42 software experience is just terrible, as it currently stands
It would be bad enough to leave the software issues alone, as outlined above. But there were also several other noteworthy issues on that front.
During my review of the CAT S42, just for starters, many of the quick Settings tiles in the notification shade stopped working. That was intermittent and apparently random. But they would play an animation as though they'd been clicked. And then they'd stay lit up or turned off instead of responding properly.
When the Settings app was opened, as often as not, the entire device would freeze or the app would close.
Moving onto the pre-installed software, there's plenty of unnecessary bloat on this device too. Not a lot. But more unnecessary than is usually the case. For example, while the Settings are mostly stock and so are most pre-installed apps, there are a few that effectively do nothing at all. One such example is an app that effectively just navigates to the CAT website for phones.
Another is an app called Toolbox, that contains links to tool apps from the Google Play Store — rather than the usual list of camera and hardware-based tools such as a level or AR ruler found on other rugged work-centric phones. The apps aren't installed, the list is just apps that can be installed through the app.
Now, the walkie-talkie-like Zello app is pre-installed and a SOLO app for workers that will be doing potentially dangerous tasks by themselves. And almost everything else is stock Android. Instagram, OfficeSuite, Facebook, FM Radio, and a user experience app are the only other pre-installed apps.
This phone isn't ready to buy, at least not yet
At the end of the day, there is still a fairly wide audience who would be well-served by the CAT S42 even with the caveats outlined in this review. Or by any phone exhibiting the kinds of software problems this Enterprise-ready gadget exhibited. But, at the end of the day, those software problems make it all but unsuitable for the general consumer market.
Unless users are looking chiefly and almost solely at durability, this phone just doesn't check all the right boxes. On everything from the camera, to system navigation and apps, a lack of software optimizations and care for the experience mar the experience too much to recommend.
That's unfortunate too. Because if and when CAT updates its software with fixes and improvements, its S42 could easily be one of the best, most rugged devices I've had the opportunity to review. But, until that point, it's only going to be well suited where that much ruggedization is absolutely paramount.
UPDATE – A secondary review of this smartphone revealed that the device Android Headlines had originally received was defective. In particular, as that pertains to the software-side issues.
Now, some problems do remain with this smartphone. But issues with the Settings application force-closing were not present in the second review unit. Previously noted pre-installed Facebook, Trello, and other third-party applications were provided as an option with the second CAT S42 review unit as well. That's as opposed to being pre-installed, to begin with. And Quick Tiles in the notification shade were responsive.
Performance improved significantly too, allowing a much better user experience. Although performance still dropped during heavy multitasking, albeit to a much lesser extent.
The battery life also improved with the replacement unit, with screen-on time increasing by an hour-and-a-half and problems with battery drain during standby no longer making an appearance.
Overall, the CAT S42 is a device that's going to be easy to recommend if ruggedization with solid battery life, reasonable performance, and a decent display is a must.