Cat’s ruggedised B15 smartphone reviewed in full
We’ve had the Cat B15 Tough Smartphone available for sale for a little while now and have seen some really positive response for the handset. Our overview from a few weeks ago outlined the basic features and made a point of it being the first device in the increasingly cramped niche of toughened devices that has raised the bar in raw specifications.
One of the most important aspects about the B15 is that it runs Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean). Practically every other smartphone in this area is stuck on older versions of Android, generally 2.3 Gingerbread, with little to suggest that they will be updated. Whilst Gingerbread is stable, it does hamper new Android devices by not including newer features that have become standard, restricting the apps that can be installed and basically not making the most of what has now become a very mature operating system. Cat’s B15 breaks the mould in this space significantly by not assuming that those looking for a tough smartphone are willing to compromise on power and functionality. With major flagship devices such as the Sony Xperia Z and Samsung Galaxy S4 Active beginning to include decent outdoor protection in their specifications, the B15 is hopefully the start of a new range of phones that provide modern performance alongside the ability to take a real beating!
Our video unboxing below provides a great overview of the Cat B15, and you can follow the break for my complete thoughts
Design and Build
One of the first things that struck me about the Cat B15 is that it doesn’t look like an ordinary rugged device. One of the main ways that a device can be toughened is to simply encase the whole thing in a thick layer of rubber, much like the JCB devices which found some favour last year. This of course adds plenty of protection and shock absorption however creates a really bulky device which isn’t the most pleasing to look at. Also, for some reason manufacturer’s have opted to use garish oranges and yellows to colour them, useful for spotting the device in some mud for instance, but once again not the nicest thing to have sat on the desk or to pull out of your pocket and compare with your mates at the pub!
Cat have resisted the temptation to use their trademark bright yellow livery on the B15 aside from a little splash on the side mounted volume and camera shutter keys, which is a good start. The rest of the device is a simple yet effective monochrome black and silver, including the Cat logo on the rear. The rubber has been toned down compared to others as well, with only the corners and edging of the B15 protected in this way. This still provides ample protection from drops – up to 1.8 metres screen first onto concrete according to Cat’s specification. That screen also utilises Corning Gorilla Glass with wet finger tracking so it can withstand scratching and still still be used in the rain or after being fished out of a puddle.
Most of the handset is built with impact resistant aluminium, offering a rigid body that can easily withstand regular knocks. One other major difference to other rugged devices is the back plate. The likes of JCB and the more recent Seals have employed a cover that needs to be screwed into place to reach the water resistant IP67 rating. The B15 goes in a different direction and has a clip on cover reminiscent of the original Motorola Defy. The cover does feel a little flimsy in the hand when it removed however this doesn’t detract from the performance – B15 is water resistant to 1 metre for up to 30 minutes. There’s even a little bit of magic going on: somehow the speaker grill is on the back cover yet the device doesn’t let any water in through it. A nice bit of engineering there.
Overall the B15 gives off the impression from looks alone that it will stand up to some serious use without severely compromising on aesthetics for the more looks conscious smartphone owner. A big thumbs up.
The B15 isn’t going to be challenging any of the high end flagship devices in the raw power department but it does have a very respectable hardware set that again allows it to stand out from the rugged crowd:
- 1 GHz MTK 6577 dual core processor
- 512 MB RAM
- 4 inch WVGA capacitive LCD with Corning Gorilla Glass
- 4 GB internal storage
- 5 MP camera and VGA front facing
- Micro SD up to 32 GB
- Bluetooth 3.0 + HS
- 802.11 WiFi b/g/n
- FM radio
- 2000 mAh battery
It’s a half-decent mid range specification that compliments the price point well. You can’t blame Cat for not pushing the boat out when it comes to raw power on a device like this, although it would have been nice to have a slightly beefy processor and a touch more storage, the trade off for bringing the B15 in at under £300 including VAT is worth it.
The B15 will handle everything a standard day’s use could throw at it and is purely functional in that regard. This isn’t the phone for serious multimedia or gaming however will handle a day’s work of calls, messages, emails, document sharing, browsing etc. without batting an eyelid.
Display / Audio
It’s almost completely back to basics with the B15 although that’s no bad thing. The display is a solid 4 inch WVGA LCD, again purely functional. Cat were clearly never going to challenge AMOLED or Retina technology so they have stuck to a simple 2 point capacitive screen that gets the job done. If you’re used to expensive, high-resolution, super-bright displays from other manufacturers then the B15 screen is going to look a bit dim and flat but for the target audience it gets the job done well.
Cat have also strengthened the display with Corning Gorilla Glass so it will resist all but the hardest scratches and should come off best for most face first drops. Wet finger tracking is a neat addition too and great if you’re working outside in the rain.
It’s the same story with the audio – the speaker is loud and clear enough to take a voice call on speakerphone and the quality through the earpiece isn’t distorted in any way. You wont want to be listening to your favourite tunes on the device any time soon without a pair of headphones, honestly though smartphone speakers have always been pretty poor and ever since the HTC One raised the bar, everything else has sounded even tinnier than usual to my ears.
There’s an FM radio hidden away as well which is good to see as this is a feature that is starting to disappear from newer devices. You’ll need to use headphones (to act as the aerial) but this has always been the case for radios on phones.
Options are relatively spartan on the B15 but as is the recurring theme; the basics are catered for well. Out of the box you will find support for WiFi b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0 + HS, and GPS as well as 2G / 3G on 850/900/1800/1900 MHz & 900 / 2100 MHz respectively.
Mod cons such as NFC, DLNA and MHL video out are absent but once again considering the target demographic this is only to be expected.
Early reviews for the Cat B15 mentioned that it had dual SIM capabilities. It seems that this is now not the case. Possibly due to difficulty in getting a dual SIM device approved in the UK, the B15 has launched as single SIM (the other SIM slot is still visible but unusable). This is a shame as there is distinct lack of good quality dual SIM devices in the UK, however Cat aren’t to be berated for this as I expect the final decision was either out of their hands or it was made too difficult to continue with the plan.
Cat have included a 5 megapixel camera and you won’t find any software enhancements beyond the stock Android camera app. It’ll take decent enough pictures in good light or indoors, so if you need to use the B15 for taking site pictures or anything else more important than snaps to be uploaded to Facebook, then it will perform just about as well as any other rugged device available.
We already have a post and gallery of sample images from the Cat B15 HERE, the best of which is below
One big omission though is the lack of a flash. Whether this was a design decision to reduce costs or battery use or perhaps even if there were difficulties keeping the water resistant IP67 rating intact, it’s a very strange one. It’s not a massive problem but could turn a few people away to other devices if they take pictures in lowlight and a flash is important. This also means of course that using a torch app or similar to turn the B15 into an impromptu flashlight is out of the question.
A removable 2000 mAh battery is included. This is a decent size and with lower specifications for processor and screen tech than other similarly sized devices, easily lasts a full day. It’s refreshing to use a device that actually still has a decent amount of charge left over at the end of the working day. It’s another point in the argument that the battery issues that plague more expensive devices are likely due to their power sucking processors and screens.
Like any device, with more intensive use (long periods of GPS / data connection for instance) then you might not have the same experience, however I’m positive about the B15’s longevity.
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is installed and it’s about as close to a stock experience as you’ll find outside of a Nexus device pre 4.2. Jelly Bean is smooth and responsive and doesn’t tax the lower end specification of the B15 too much. It’s not quite stock Android as Cat have hidden a few little bonuses of their own. First off is the scheduled power on and off feature which is a useful little tool hiding in the settings that can save battery life by automatically turning the phone off and on when you set it.
Aside from this there are also a few Cat specific apps which when opened are in fact shortcuts to some of their online services such as Cat Rental and Cat Used services and also the catphones and main cat.com websites.
Android’s installation and whatever other tweaks Cat have made has left just under 1GB of usable space from the stock 4GB of storage, so I definitely recommend a microSD card (up to 32GB) for those looking to put some music or take a lot of pictures. The kind of huge apps that would eat the 1GB internal such as games aren’t really compatible with the B15 so this shouldn’t cause any issues in the real world although it would be good to see Cat seriously expand on this amount should they release an update or new handset in the future.
The Cat B15 does everything you could ask of it. It lives up to the promise of a tough handset that not only provides access to a more modern smartphone experience than its competitors, but also looks the part as well. None of the features stand out as anything particularly special but that again is part of the charm of the B15. It is an affordable and unassuming device that gets the job done and provides peace of mind for the outdoor (or just plain clumsy) user. It’s definitely the best of the lower end rugged devices, so for anyone who doesn’t want or need to drop a lot more money on the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active then the B15 definitely has my recommendation.
The Cat B15 is currently available to order from Clove at 245 GBP + VAT & delivery