Cat S60 Review: A Tough Sell

CAT S60 Buried 01

If you go by my first look of the indestructible Cat S60 smartphone, you might wonder if it was the greatest thing to have graced the planet since the internal combustion engine. And that is exactly what the S60 does – grabs your eyeballs with its rugged good looks and stands out from the crowd. In fact, in the three weeks that I carried around the rugged phone, the office folks would invariably stop me to ask about it. It didn’t take long for me to turn that into a comic routine where I would begin to talk about the phone and nonchalantly drop it to the ground mid-sentence, much to their horror.

The Cat S60 is incredibly tough, which is not a surprise since it survived at least one drop a day onto hard flooring for nearly three weeks. Targeted at the sort of men who work under tough conditions at offshore oil rigs and other inhospitable places, the phone consists of a sturdy steel frame protecting the innards, which is further bolstered by a carbon fibre back panel and tough aluminium chassis. Then there’s old-school waterproofing by the means of ugly flaps and levers that mechanically shut off the microphone as well as speaker, thereby allowing the phone to survive under water for up to five metres. Frankly, you should be more concerned about drowning than your phone at this depth.

CAT S60 Flaps
Flaps for waterproofing is so 2013

Cat S60: Over-engineered or Badly Designed?

This is where one begins to wonder if the phone is simply over-engineered for durability, or is Bullitt Mobile Ltd (the company licensed to make this phone by Caterpillar Inc) not quite competent at designing smartphones. I believe it’s the latter because pretty much every modern waterproof smartphone has done away with flaps. Furthermore, phones such as the LG G6 manage to comply with the same US Military Standard 810G as the Cat S60, without having to trifle with annoying flaps and mechanical levers for waterproofing.

The phone can survive under water for up to five metres. Frankly, you should be more concerned about drowning than your phone at this depth.

What’s more, I found that the LG G6 was more resistant to sand as well. When I exposed the Cat S60 to coarse sand, I found that the physical membrane switches for the Home, Back, and Overview buttons tend to trap sand underneath, which renders them almost inoperable until all the sand is washed off. The lack of design prudence extends to the button layout, with the power and programmable buttons arranged on the left-hand side and a pair of buttons for volume control on the right-hand side.

Because these buttons are arranged symmetrically on either sides, you invariably end up pressing the programmable button while adjusting volume and vice versa. There’s a good reason why virtually no mobile manufacturer uses such arrangement, and I learned it the hard way by inadvertently launching the camera app (that I had associated with the programmable button) each time I tried to adjust volume during video and music playback. The flaps shrouding the SOS button and USB charging ports too tend to trap gravel and dust due to an opening in the middle.

The choice of using tactile membrane keys also proved to be a terrible idea in the long run, because it sure sucks having to press hard (relatively, as opposed to their capacitive counterparts) on the buttons when it’s so much easier to use capacitive buttons employed by regular smartphones. I understand that physical Android buttons make the phone operable under water, but something tells me that the average person is going to use the phone more often on the land than in the deep murky depths of the sea. The phone may be built strong, but its design underscores Bullitt Mobiles’ lack of maturity.

CAT S60 Camera
The lack of OIS and a slow shutter require you have the steady hands of a sniper

Cat S60: Disappointing Display and Camera

The screen is another huge disappointment. A resolution of 720×1280 might not sound bad on a 4.7-inch screen, as the pixel density works out to a decent 312ppi, but Bullitt Mobiles has opted for AUO’s a-Si LCD panel. Quite frankly, this LCD panel is pretty much the worst I have witnessed in any modern smartphone. That comes as no surprise because a-Si backplane technology is usually employed to save cost and not as a pinnacle of quality. Even the cheapest phone in the Xiaomi range (and you can’t get cheaper than that) outperforms the Cat S60’s display by a long mile.

At times the camera’s white balance got so bad that my distinctly brown girlfriend was rendered in She-Hulk green, especially when she wore a pink top.

One can understand why Bullitt Mobiles may have skipped OIS (Optical Image Stabilisation) for the S60, considering it’s a tough phone that is liable to dropped often, which usually doesn’t bode well for the delicate electro-mechanical underpinnings of the hardware OIS system. This can even be overlooked even when phones costing half as much incorporate OIS, since this is a deliberate design decision meant to uphold durability over camera functionality. Having said that, a competent smartphone manufacturer compensates for the lack of OIS with certain tweaks to camera design. These include a shorter shutter speed/exposure time and increased ISO sensitivity, in addition to other tweaks designed to prevent blurring.

The Cat S60’s camera, however, has none of these optimisations. Unless you are shooting under bright sunlight or in a brightly lit room, it’s humanly impossible to snap photographs that aren’t horribly blurred out. The dual-LED, dual tone flash helps matters, but it makes photos look flat and washed out. Low light performance is laughable to say the least. There are times when the white balance goes completely out of whack as you can see through the skin tones in some of the camera samples above and also in the one below.

At times it got so bad that my distinctly brown girlfriend was rendered in She-Hulk green (as evidenced by the camera sample below), especially when she wore a pink top. Needless to say, the main camera is largely disappointing with its lack of detail and poor colour accuracy. The 5 megapixel front camera is even worse, so don’t expect to shoot decent selfies with the S60 anytime soon. The inbuilt thermal imaging camera is not only a lot of fun, but it has genuine use cases for the phone’s target demographic. Click here to read about the onboard FLIR thermal imaging camera.

Cat S60 Camera Sample She-Hulk
The last time I checked, skin tone wasn’t supposed to be green

Cat S60: Performance or the Lack of It

This isn’t a hyperbole, but the happiest moment during the Cat S60 review was switching back to my primary phone. Much of the misery I suffered for the duration of the review stemmed from the piss-poor performance of the device. Make no mistake, the Qualcomm MSM8952 Snapdragon 617 SoC serves as a decent, albeit dated, mid-range chipset. However, the Cat S60 feels woefully underpowered because it hasn’t been optimised too well.

Even then, whole chunks of letters fail to register and your posts and messages end up looking like an attempt at SMS lingo by someone with mental disability.

If the stuttering and lag wasn’t bad enough, the phone’s unresponsiveness makes typing nigh impossible. It’s so bad that you can type out a few words altogether before the first letter can even show up in the text entry fields of apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook. Even then, whole chunks of letters fail to register and your posts and messages end up looking like an attempt at SMS lingo by someone with mental disability.

CAT S60 Android Menu Buttons
The physical membrane buttons are a pain to use in the long term

It’s not like the phone is starved for RAM either. With 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage, which can be further bolstered with a microSD slot expandable up to 256GB, there’s no disputing the fact that Bullitt Mobiles has spectacularly failed at optimising the chipset. In fact, such glaring lack of basic usability makes waxing eloquent on gaming performance and benchmark scores an exercise in futility.

The lack of Wi-Fi 802.11ac connectivity meant that I was left out of the faster (and less populated) 5GHz networks in the office. The call reception too was poor compared to other phones, as I frequently dropped calls and was plagued with poor voice quality during phone calls that did manage to hold. In fact, switching the SIM back to my primary phone fixed the issues. While I must say that the network coverage for both Airtel and Vodafone is poor in these neck of the woods, the dropped calls and abysmal voice quality can still squarely be blamed on the Cat S60 because other phones manage just fine with the same quality of (or rather the lack thereof) network coverage.

CAT S60 Notification Shade
The near stock Android UI has some glaring bugs and isn’t optimised well

Cat S60: Software and Battery

The Cat S60 ships with a near stock version of Android 6.0 (Marshmallow), which is disappointing considering how pretty much all new phones ship with Nougat these days. Furthermore, the official Facebook page, Cat Rugged Phones, itself states that there are no plans to bring the Nougat update to the S60 in the near future, so don’t get your hopes up. The most tragic part, about having stock Android on a phone as unoptimised and sluggish as the S60, is that you get the worst of the both worlds. This phone neither has the bells and whistles of custom Android forks from other manufacturers such as LG and Sony, nor does it make up for that with the sort of performance you expect from near stock Android implementations.

Pair the Rs 7,000 Redmi 4 to the FLIR One thermal camera attachment and put it all in a tough case and you have a phone that’s faster, well optimised, and more feature packed than the Cat S60.

But how bad is it really? Well, the clear all button on the notification shade disappears when you have more than four notifications, thereby forcing you to manually swipe away hundreds of notifications. Glaring oversights such as these make one wonder if Bullitt Mobiles has been incompetent or just plain careless here.

The 3800 mAh battery provided an average back-up of anywhere between 18 to 20 hours, with a screen-on time varying between 5.5 to 6.5 hours. That may not sound bad, but let’s not forget that we’re dealing with a low-performance chipset paired to a larger-than-average battery. I expected better battery backup given these factors. Having said that, the phone would last me the entire day with mixed 4G and Wi-Fi internet usage, streaming videos, moderate GPS navigation, and heavy social media and messaging, with no gaming.

Cat S60 FLIR thermal camera
The FLIR camera isn’t exclusive to the phone, but available as a USB attachment for all Android and iOS phones

Cat S60: Verdict

At Rs 65,000, the Cat S60 makes absolutely no sense unless all that you value in the package is its ruggedness and the excellent thermal imaging camera. Even then, you can spend a fraction of S60’s cost on any budget or mid-range phone and pair it with a rugged waterproof phone case to same effect. What’s more, FLIR even sells a better version of its thermal imaging camera for $200 that can be attached to any phone through the USB port.

Pair the Rs 7,000 Redmi 4 to the FLIR One thermal camera attachment and put it all in a tough case and you have a phone that’s faster, well optimised, and more feature packed than the Cat S60. I, for one, can’t think of any valid reason to recommend the S60, not even at its current reduced street price of Rs 50,000. The phone is just too sluggish and unoptimised for its own good.

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Content peddler by day and avid gamer by night, Nachiket has been obsessed with computers since the days of the 8086. He has worked with some of the reknowned tech publications and media houses like UTV, Network 18, Digit, Chip, TechTree, Tech2, International Business Times Australia, and DNA. His free time is meant for tinkering with hobby grade R/C, or just sharpening his knives. He also has a kitten named Nigel and is ready to give up his aquariums for him.