Should the S50 be your new Toughphone?
When you hear the word CAT, you first thought is probably a four legged fluffy friend, but the next thing you probably think of is big yellow diggers, construction equipment and all things related to the building trade.
Whilst I do not blame you for thinking about the household pet, we are actually referring to the latter. The CAT brand is at home in construction but over the last couple of years CAT have branched out into the mobile space, producing phones that fit the needs of your builder, plumber or groundworker amongst others. They are essentially designed to be tough and reliable.
These devices might fit the needs of many, but put one next to an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy and there is an obvious difference in looks.
The S50 has been designed from the ground up to be more visually appealing and more capable, yet retain the rugged nature that CAT equipment and phones have become synonymous for.
On first glance, the S50 looks like a B15Q that has been run over by a road roller, perhaps a little harsh, but only said because it is significantly thinner and wider.
Let’s take a look in a bit more depth at the S50 and see what it has to offer. Check out our video review below or continue reading for the full written review.
The S50 is a rather feature rich device and even those who do not require a rugged phone should appreciate the specifications here.
Some may comment CAT and similar phones are weaker than more established brands due to their choice of processor, but CAT have even addressed these concerns replacing MediaTek for Qualcomm.
The hardware is not going to pip the flagship smartphones, but the S50 really is not far off. Fancy dropping a Galaxy S5 or HTC One M8 onto concrete from a height of 1.8 meters?!
Headline specifications are as follows on the S50:
- Android 4.4 operating system
- Quad core 1.2 GHz Snapdragon processor
- 4.7” touchscreen with toughened Gorilla Glass
- 2,630 mAh battery with Qi wireless charging
- MicroSD memory card slot (support for 64GB cards)
- 8GB internal memory
- 12.6mm thick / 140 grams
- Mil Spec 810G / IP67 rated
- WiFi / Bluetooth 4.0 / GPS / FM radio
- 4G LTE
The S50 conforms to the highest rating of dust resistance and can be immersed in water of 1 meter in depth for up to 30 minutes. It must be fresh water and all port covers must be closed. However, should it be dropped in the mud, in sand, in a pond, in a bucket or even down a loo, then the S50 will live to tell the tale.
The Mil Spec 810G rating means the device is designed and tested to survive falls onto concrete from a height of 1.8 meters. So whether you are emergency service personnel, in a trade, moutain rescue or just a user who wants a tougher phone, the S50 is probably as good as it gets.
Another feature that is often overlooked is the extreme temperatures you can use this phone in. If you are in the mountains one minute or the desert the next, the S50 has an operation temperature range that surpasses most others: 13°F (-25°C) to 131°F (55 °C)
Samsung’s Galaxy S4 Active whilst very different, is the best example of how I could compare the S50 to a more consumer-focused phone than the ‘toughphone’ category many would sit the S50 in.
You do not need to be a smartphone expert to see that the S50 is carrying a little extra bulk around the edges. This weight does serve a very important purpose.
Surrounding the 4.7” touchscreen that dominates the front of the device, the rugged protection will ensure that the handset survives when dropped from a height of 1.8m. It is a mixture of tough plastics, silver in colour to look like metal, and thick rubber most noticeable in the 4 corners.
Whilst not the most attractive, this combination is also not the most unsightly unlike some other very bulky toughphones. It is a very solid feeling handset that also manages to sit quite comfortably in the hand. It does not have quite such soft edges as some, but they are chamfered for grip.
Above the display is the earpiece, logos, various sensors and front facing camera.
On the upper right side of the device is a cover, that when opened reveals the microSD memory card slot and the micro SIM card slot. There are icons on the covers to symbolise this.
Further down the edge are 3 other buttons: a volume up key, a torch button (press and hold to switch the rear LED flash on or off) and the volume down key.
On the base there are no ports or controls, just 2 screws which also appear on other sides of the device and give the S50 that tough and rugged look.
The left side is home to the power key which is centrally located, with the microUSB port being hidden under a cover on the upper left side.
On the top, a 3.5mm headphone jack sits to the left side also under a cover.
Flip the phone over and the centre of the back cover is dominated by a shiny CAT logo with the camera, flash and microphone sat above this.
Below the logo is a loudspeaker.
The back of the handset has a rubbery feeling texture with neatly designed ridges to assist with grip.
The cover is not removable. Previous Cat devices have removable batteries, however everything is sealed internally in the S50. This assists with keeping the device thin and ensuring the IP rating is maintained.
Another point to note is that for many a power button on the right side of the device will feel more natural than the one on the left, as it is on the S50. The good news though is that the torch button can be used to power on the screen.
A criticism of tough phones has always been the screen resolution.
The lower resolution ensures that battery performance is good, but does not necessarily help when you want to view images or really appreciate digital content.
Thankfully the S50 does away with the lower screen resolution and now has a 4.7” 720 x 1280 resolution display. This is the same resolution found on the powerful Z1 Compact from Sony.
It is not full HD, but it is a marked improvement and a great middle ground in offering improved visual experience without compromising on battery life.
I have to say I was a little disappointed with the screen. Whilst better than the B15Q it certainly does not have the same punch of the Z1 Compact’s screen. It lacks a hit of colour and vibrancy I would have expected from a screen of this type.
That said for reading and replying to emails, text messages, social network comments and more this was perfectly adequate. Where the weakness is felt most is with media such as images and video.
The touchscreen is used for most interaction with the device, there are few physical buttons. Touch or swipe on screen to access different content. Press and hold or pinch for different options.
All phones at some time or another come into contact with things that can leave unwanted marks on our device screen, whether it is keys or coins in our pockets and bags or something worse. To this end the S50 has Corning Gorilla Glass to protect the screen, which is engineered to be more resistant to scratches and impact. The result should be fewer scratches and marks on the S50 display over the time of ownership in comparison to similar devices.
I have spoken about the IP rating, but an added bonus is how the S50 deals with wet fingers on the display. It has ‘wet finger tracking’ which handles the response of moisture on the screen better than many counterparts. A natural tendency is to dry our hands before using a phone, but if you are working in the rain or by the water, it could be useful.
There is a term often used in conjunction with software on Android smartphones, this term is ‘Stock Android’.
This refers to Android as Google intended it to be without any additional tweaks or customisation from the manufacturer of the Android phone.
Some customisation can add real value to you as the user whilst other additions and changes may affect the experience and leave unwanted content on the phone.
CAT have left the S50 in virtually a stock condition with only a few alterations.
The benefit of this is you get the Android experience almost as Google experienced it. Performance is fairly snappy when you consider there is a quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM built in.
The lack of additional software out of the box also means that you get around 5GB of the 8GB internal memory free to use.
One small addition is a keyboard that goes by the name of ‘Swype’. You may have heard of it, it is one of the most popular aftermarket additions that usually costs extra money, but is included free on the S50. As the name implies, you can ‘swype’ your finger to different letters to input a word. This is a bit of a bonus.
As an Android device you are granted full access to the Google Play Store, meaning you can add any apps you then choose from the marketplace, to the device and personalise the handset the way you want.
Download your favourite games, social media apps or productivity tools, there are all there for you.
There is an FM radio and of course Google services which include:
- Chrome browser
Cat have also added three shortcuts to the app drawer which are web links to CAT websites for rental and used equipment, cat parts, cat.com and catphones support
If you are into your sharks (yes the fish), CAT have also partnered with Ocearch to bring you their global shark tracker app. This is one of the more interesting additions I have seen on a smartphone, with information on sharks and videos.
I feel that I and many others look at tough phones negatively but CAT for one have done a good job of making sure their devices are up to speed with market trends. The S50 is no exception here.
Out of the box, the device has quad band GSM, tri band 3G support along with support for 6 different 4G frequencies (bands 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 20).
The S50 takes a single micro SIM card which you probably already have or can easily obtain from your network provider.
Connect a set of 3.5mm headphones and use the FM radio whilst navigation from point A to B with the included GPS support.
CAT has included GPS, aGPS and GLONASS, so wherever you are a satellite signal should be possible. Also because Android comes with Google Maps included, street level navigation on a global scale is possible (just make sure you have a good data connection).
We all use WiFi to connect to the internet at some point, and the S50 has WiFi built in, but an added bonus now is the support for the 5 GHz wireless band which will comes as a big bonus to the more technical users.
You can even use the S50 as a wireless hotspot. Providing you have a data connection through the network provider, share this with other handsets and act like a wireless router you would have in your home or office for others to connect to.
Near Field Communication (NFC) is included so simple sharing of files and pairing with other NFC enabled devices is possible. Just touch two NFC enabled phones together to share files. If you have got NFC enabled accessories such a wireless speaker, touch the S50 against this to activating the reading and pairing process.
The S50 also has USB On The Go (OTG) support. This means that with the appropriate cable you can connect a memory stick up to the S50 and share files between the phone and the memory stick. This is particularly useful when copying large files such as photos or presentations. You might refer to it as an old fashioned way of doing it with wires, but it is a reliable addition.
Bluetooth is also included. Version 4 is the latest in releases and this will ensure a smooth and more reliable connection to modern peripherals as well as drawing less power.
Waves Audio is a technology that has been built into this CAT phone.
The comprehensive audio processing software looks to provide you and I as the listener with the best audio experience possible, depending on the source of the sounds we are listening too.
Offering deeper bass, crisper highs and generally better clarity, the audio experience should surpass competing devices, whilst also winning points for the fact that it actually allows you as the user to customise (from the set profiles) to your particular taste.
There was a clear difference when Waves was switched on. Sounds were most certainly deeper, richer and generally more pleasant to listen to and whilst not scientifically tested, louder too.
The decibel meter produced some reasonable readings in the high to low 90’s which is extremely useful when this device is likely to be used in some noisy environments.
Whilst the single rear speaker is not too easy to muffle when in the hand, lay it flat on a desktop and all sounds is lost as there is no room for it to escape. IN short, if listening to any audio, use headphones or hold the device in your hand.
The main camera on the S50 sits on the rear of the phone and is rated at 8 megapixels.
It has autofocus and an LED flash as well as being capable of 1080p HD video recording. It also has a silver bezel around it shaped like a nut from a nut and bolt. It is a nice little touch.
When it comes to the camera it is not all about megapixels and the S50 does just enough to scrape through with passable results.
There is also a VGA front facing camera on the S50.
Whilst I suspect many users of this handset will not be ‘selfie’ crazy, it would have been nice to have seen at 2 megapixel camera on the front bearing in mind the other specs on the phone. It is quite possible though to still use for video calls and the odd recording when out and about.
The camera application is the default camera app from Google and whilst functional it is not the most inspiring. Most importantly it works but you do not get lots of value added features.
The layout is not the most intuitive in my mind, but that is just my opinion.
Third party camera apps are available if you feel the same.
Whilst on first glance there is no dedicated camera shutter button, the torch and volume keys do act as a camera shutter buttons.
Image and video results were nothing more than ok given the right lighting conditions. They are just passable and on many occasions I feel you will be disappointed with the results. If anything this was the weakest part of the device.
General image quality, despite being set to the highest resolution was poor. Whites were blown out and over exposed with yellows and other light colours oversaturated. Using HDR did not give any better results to speak of really.
Zoom into an image and the quality is quite quickly lost.
The odd shot came out quite nicely but on the whole the results were less than impressive.
This experience with images was the same with recorded video. Just generally a bit disappointing. The microphone also records audio very quietly.
A small bonus is that you can zoom in with the camera by pinching and zooming on screen when taking a still or video. You can not use the volume controls.
Sample video and images
With a 2,630mAh battery built into the S50, whether you need to ring clients or wholesalers, navigate from job to job, send images of sites to colleagues or kill some time on your lunch break playing games that the S5 will last.
Your usage will be different to mine, but the vast majority can be confident that from the moment you leave the house to the time you return the S50 will still be powered and ready to go. Lighter users may even get 2 days out of it.
Whilst the display is 720p HD and draws more power than lower resolution counterparts, it is not at such a resolution that the battery becomes sacrificed.
Should you find yourself short of power for whatever reason the S50 has Qi (Chee) wireless charging built in. A feature often found only on high end phones. You can sit your S50 on a wireless charging plate and not need to connect any wires to the handset itself.
There is of course the traditional microUSB connection on the left side of the device. Just open up the cover and pop the charging cable in.
Any concerns about needing the battery to be removable should be overlooked. Batteries generally last longer than the time you have the device nowadays and with some careful management, even after 24 months of ownership you will still be powering through a working day.
Size & Weight
Measuring 144.5 x 77 x 12.6 mm the S50 is not small, but it is not massive either.
It does not feel or look as slick as an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy but the robust nature of the handset inevitably means the additional size and bulk. I felt quite comfortable with it, considering my personal preference is for smaller sized devices and having spoken and demonstrated this handset to a few iPhone users who work in the trades whilst many were not immediately sold saw the potential and would consider the device next time they were in the market for a new phone.
You will not see the biggest range of accessories with the S50, but essential ones are set to be made available from CAT.
There will be no cases (you do not really need one), but there is a car charger, belt clip, stereo headset and wireless charging mat to take advantage of the Qi wireless charging.
Some third parties may get in on the act and produce some, but I think you could do a lot worse than investing in a Qi enabled phone holder for your vehicle, that way when travelling from job to job you can ensure it is always topped up.
The availability of various wireless charging plates and even in vehicle mounts mean it is extremely simple to keep your device charged. A Qi wireless vehicle mount will give your phone a little top up charge as you drive between jobs.
At the time of writing (prior to launch) the final RRP is still to be confirmed but is likely to be around the £325-£350 price point inclusive of VAT.
I think this price is justifiable and in line with comparable devices for those who need a tough phone that does not look like it has been designed to be tough and nothing else. You will most certainly not be paying over the odds.
Should it fall below the £300 price point it will be an excellent value handset that many more should consider purchasing if you are aware of the pros and cons of this phone.
The S50 is a logical addition to the CAT phone range. Whilst there is no stereotype for this device it is one I can see in the hands of independent traders jumping from job to job, a site foreman or the individual managing an emergency situation.
The specification has taken a much needed boost to make it more premium and the price tag reflects this.
The IP67 and Mil Spec 810G are obvious advantages and reasons why the thickness, bulk and price of this handset are increased whilst in some respects reducing the desire to certain individuals.
Comparing it to a flagship from HTC, LG, Sony and Samsung is not exactly fair, it will lose out on spec and desirability. That said it has a specification that is much closer to these than many other tough phones.
Tough phones are a bit of a niche. There is an obvious need for them in both a business and consumer world, but they are often the unspoken or looked down on as being inferior. The S50 has the specification and visual appeal to be successful for a large number of smartphone users, but the brand and association of trades will impact on the success I feel. Rebadge the S50 with one of the flagship brands names and add active to the name and this would get a lot more publicity.
If you are smart enough to look beyond the fact the S50 will not be in every phone store window and there will not be the same glitzy marketing or the apparent value added software additions that the likes of Samsung and LG offer; then you will be making a very sensible purchase and one that comes at a lower price point had it been made by another firm.