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printed November 20, 2017
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Hands On with the CAT S41 and S31

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Sep 1, 2017, 2:19 AM   by Rich Brome and Eric M. Zeman   @rbrome

Cat's latest rugged smartphones are the S41 and the S31. These two handsets are tough hombres that can handle plenty of punishment thanks to their mil-spec 810G and IP68 ratings. With stock Android Nougat on board and advanced features such as wet-finger tracking and underwater photography, there's plenty to like about these chunky work phones. Here are our initial impressions.

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Cat Phones is at IFA this year with two new phones, the S41 and the S31. The handsets are remarkably similar in size and appearance and differ more under the hood that is apparent outwardly. Cat Phones are made by Bullitt Group, which licenses the brand name from Cat the equipment company. Given what Cat does, Cat Phones have always been rugged beasts suitable for use on work sites and construction projects.

Both the S41 and S31 are fully ruggedized Android smartphones. They meet mil-spec 810G an can handle just about any type of abuse you might heap upon them. Cat says they are dropped 26 time from a height of 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) to ensure they won't break. Why 1.8 meters? Cat figures because that's the average height of a man. The chunky housing of each phones protects the innards and also makes them easy to get hold of. The outer rubberized plastic material is strong and grippy. The texture isn't sticky, but it comes close to feeling that way. Ridge lines that run back and forth on the rear surfaces of the phones help you hold onto them when they're wet or when you're wearing gloves. The mil-spec rating means the phones can handle not only drops and shock, but moisture, dust, altitude and temperature extremes, and other forms of punishments.

The phones are fully waterproof, too, thanks to the IP68 rating. Hatches adorn the side edges to protect the various inputs on each phone. The hatches that cover the SIM card and memory card trays do indeed need to be shut to make the phones waterproof. However, Cat told us the 3.5mm headset jack and microUSB ports are waterproof without using the hatches. The hatches covering this components are there more to prevent gunk and dirt from getting into the phone than they are to stop water ingress. (I guess it's common to drop phones into mud on work sites.)

Cat S41

The S41 is the larger and somewhat more capable of the two phones. It's screen measures 5 inches across the diagonal and offers full HD resolution. It is covered with Gorilla Glass 5 and, oddly, a screen protector. Cat explained it installs screen protectors on all its phones to help prevent scratches. Owners can pull the protector off if they wish. The display on the S41 looked decent. I though it was bright enough for outdoor use, though viewing angles were not the greatest. The screen works when wet and through gloves. We demoed these features and found they live up to Cat's claims. This means you don't have to pull your gloves off to answer calls and such.

CAT S41  

Three hardware buttons sit below the screen. Cat angled the S41's shin outward ever-so-slightly to help make the buttons easier to and use when wearing gloves. All three buttons are wide and worked well.

The phone itself is monstrously big and features an octagonal shape. The four corners along the side edges have been flattened out, which Cat says helps strengthen them. The rubber/plastic material is confidence-inspiring to say the least.

You'll find the programmable PTT button on the left edge. It's orange, so it stands out visually, though not is rather hard to find by feel. The button sits flush with the side edge surface and doesn't offer great feedback. This button should be unmistakably easy to find and use. I think most people on a work site will find it by accident more so than intent. A hatch above the PTT button protects the SIM/memory card slots. By design, it's rather hard to peel off. Tucking it back into place, however, is no chore. A similar hatch on top edge covers the 3.5mm headset jack and yet another on the bottom edge covers the USB port. Both were simple to interact with. The small volume toggles are on the right edge. Like the PTT button, these are not easy enough to find and use.

The rear panel is a simple matte black affair. The camera element is positioned in the upper left corner and a single LED flash sits just below the lens. The Cat brand is stamped into the rear panel in large letters.

As for software, the S41 runs stock Android 7 Nougat. The only difference found on the S41 compared to the S31 is the camera app. The S41 supports underwater shooting and has a special mode to access it. Once you access the underwater mode, the screen is locked into the camera app. You have to unlock the underwater camera to return to the regular user interface. It's kind of awkward. Still, underwater photography. Yay!

S41 UI  

On the spec side of things, the S41 is powered by a 2.3 GHz octa-core MediaTek processor with 3 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage. The main camera has a 13-megapixel sensor with LED flash and PDAF, while the selfie camera has an 8-megapixel sensor. The battery measures in at a whopping 5,000mAh and provides up to 44 days of standby time or 38 hours of talk time. That's crazy big. It's so big, in fact, that the S41 can be used to power up other devices. You have to enter a special charging mode to make this work.

The S41 costs about $475 and will go on sale in Europe beginning August 31. Cat said it might be available to U.S. buyers online in October.

Cat S31

The S31 is more of the same, just smaller. Notably, the screen measures 4.7 inches across the diagonal and drops down to 720p resolution. This size and resolution work well together. Like the larger S41, the S31 was easy to see under harsh light and viewing angles were okay. The phone includes similar hardware controls under the display, though the buttons are simple rectangles and look rather plebeian to me. They do work well, even with gloves on.

CAT S31  

I'm glad the S31 is smaller than the S41, but it's still super huge. There's no getting away from the fact that it's a ruggedized, chunky handset that needs special materials and housing to protect the components within. It has similar rubberized plastic formed ridges along the sides, and a flat rear panel with thick lines crossing the back to help aid with grip.

Cat changed up the configuration of buttons and hatches on the S31. Th left side has two buttons: the screen lock button and the programmable PTT button. They are not placed well. The screen lock button will clearly be used more than the programmable PTT button, and yet it is perched nearly at the top left corner of the device. The PTT button is in a more reachable spot below it. It's totally awkward to reach up to tap the screen lock button. To make matters worse, the keys are practically flush with the side edge of the phone. At least travel and feedback are better.

The volume toggles are opposite on the right side. These two separate buttons are easy to spot thanks to they bright metal coloring. I thought travel and feedback was decent, though I to think they are too small for easy use when you're wearing gloves. You'll find two separate hatches below the volume toggle for the SIM and memory cards. These hatches were a bit of a pain to open, but simple to push closed. Cat assumes owners will really only need to interact with them once. The S31 has the same hatches as the S41 covering the headphone jack on top and USB port on bottom. They worked well.

The phone's rear surface is almost identical to that of the S41. The logo is smaller and the pattern of ridges lines is slightly changed. The camera and flash are moved to the center of the chassis, near the top edge.

Like the S41, the S31 runs stock Android 7 Nougat. It was a bit janky on the unit we saw. I noticed a lot of sluggish behavior, with slow scrolling and slow-loading apps. Hopefully these are bugs in the prototypes that will be ironed out by the time the device ships laster this year.

The S31 relies on a quad-core 1.3 GHz Snapdragon 210 processor from Qualcomm with 2 GB of RAM and 16 GB of storage. The main camera has an 8-megapixel sensor while the front camera has a 2-megapixel sensor. It doesn't support underwater shooting. The S31 has a somewhat smaller 4,000mAh battery, but that's still plenty huge for most people. It doesn't have the fancy charging feature of the S41. Cat said the S31 might be available to U.S. buyers come November. It costs about $355.

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IFA 2017
Android
 

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