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Andrew Hayward / Lifewire
Rugged, durable design
Decent daytime photos
No biometric sensor
Poor low-light photos
Washed-out, low-res screen
Limited internal storage
The CAT S42 is only really worth the cash if your work or activities demand a seriously element-resistant phone. Otherwise, buy a more powerful phone and wrap it up in a quality case.
CAT provided us with a review unit for our writer to test, which they sent back after their thorough evaluation. Read on for their full take.
While the durability of screens has improved over the years, your average “glass sandwich” smartphone—with glass on both sides connected via the frame—is still very susceptible to damage. That’s where specialized rugged phones come in, and the CAT S42 is the latest model bearing the CAT construction equipment brand (manufactured by the Bullitt Group) and built to target the same kind of audience with a similar product ethos.
The CAT S42 is tough, no doubt, with chunky plastic frame and backing that give this Android 10 phone not only a more grippable nature, but also significant protection against drops along with everyday wear and tear. At $300, it’s one of the more budget-friendly rugged phones on the market, but the trade-off comes with sluggish performance, a low-resolution screen, and a mediocre camera. Still, that balance of durability, price, and power could hit the spot for users in certain professions.
Just one look at the CAT S42 makes it clear that this is a beefy handset. At half an inch thick, it’s meatier than any other smartphone I’ve wielded in years, and there’s a lot of extraneous bezel and bulk for a phone that has a relatively small 5.5-inch screen. That’s intentional, of course: the grippable plastic shell that comprises the back and frame is designed to absorb drops and tolerate nicks and scratches with ease.
The physical buttons on the phone have a metallic sheen (but feel like plastic) set against the matte black shell, with power and volume up and down buttons on the right, and a customizable orange button on the left side of the frame. The ports, meanwhile, are covered by connected flaps that snap into place. There’s a headphone jack on the top, a microSD and SIM card slot on the left, and a micro USB port at the bottom for charging. Yes, micro USB: the CAT S42 is one of the very rare Android phones on the market today that hasn’t made the upgrade to USB-C charging.
The CAT S42 is built to survive some rough drops and tough scenarios. According to the manufacturer, it was drop tested from 6 feet onto steel. I dropped my review unit onto hard floors several times from the same height and did not crack or damage the screen at all. It’s IP68 and IP69 rated for water and dust resistance, and rated to withstand being submerged in up to 1.5m of water for 35 minutes. It can be washed with soap and water, which I did without issue, which makes it a potentially ideal option for essential workers who may be exposed to COVID-19.
It’s also tested to MIL SPEC 810H and rated to withstand thermal shock, with Bullitt suggesting that it can handle temperatures between -22 Fahrenheit and 167 Fahrenheit for up to 30 minutes. Inspired by a colleague who froze another CAT phone model overnight and saw it survive the test, I performed the same test with the CAT S42—well beyond the amount of time it’s rated for.
I froze the CAT S42 overnight and found that the screen powered on and the phone worked fine once it thawed out the next day. However, once the battery ran out, I tried charging it again to no avail: the phone just got very warm and wouldn’t power on. In short: don’t freeze the CAT S42 for a long period of time. It might not survive the experience, but again, it’s not promised to. The CAT S42 passed the tests performed within the stated parameters, but was slain by a much more extreme trial.
There’s only 32GB of internal storage within, which isn’t a whole lot to play with for apps and media, but luckily you can slot in an affordable microSD card up to 128GB to boost that tally.
The 5.5-inch screen is on the smaller end for today’s smartphones, whereas the phone’s size and weight suggest something much larger (like the 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max). It’s large enough to get the job done, however, but the low-resolution 720x1440 screen is a bit fuzzy compared to 1080p (or higher) rivals, and this modestly bright LCD panel also tends to look washed out. This isn’t the phone you should buy if watching videos and playing games are among your primary uses.
You can get around the interface, send messages, make calls, open up apps, and browse the web, but almost everything is a couple of beats slower than seen with today’s top mid-range phones.
The CAT S42 functions just like any other Android 10 phone at heart, and it sets up the same. Just hold in the power button on the right side of the phone and then follow the setup prompts that appear on the screen thereafter. You’ll need to log into a Google account, agree to the terms and conditions, and choose your way through a few other quick options prompts, but it shouldn’t take very long to get to the home screen and start using the phone.
The CAT S42 clearly put its priorities elsewhere, and performance is severely lacking on this rugged phone. The quad-core Mediatek Helio A20 processor (with 3GB RAM alongside) is significantly less powerful than the kind of Qualcomm Snapdragon processor you’d find in a non-rugged $300 phone, and delivers a fraction of the performance seen in today’s pricier flagship phones.
It’s functional, thankfully—but nearly everything feels slow. You can get around the interface, send messages, make calls, open up apps, and browse the web, but almost everything is a couple of beats slower than seen with today’s top mid-range phones (like the $349 Google Pixel 4a, for example). Apps and menus open with hitches and can take a while to fully load. The CAT S42 can get the job done, but it never feels particularly swift or responsive.
The CAT S42 can be washed with soap and water, which I did without issue, which makes it a potentially ideal option for essential workers who may be exposed to COVID-19.
Benchmark testing bears out that experience in raw numbers. With the PCMark Work 2.0 performance test, the CAT S42 reported a score of just 4,834. Compare that to the 8,210 on the significantly smoother Pixel 4a, and results above 10,000 for today’s top flagship-level phones. Geekbench 5 benchmark scores showed even more of a valley between them, with the CAT S42 reporting a single-core score of just 130 and a multi-score score of 439. Compare that to 528/1,513 with the Pixel 4a.
The CAT S42 definitely isn’t intended to handle high-performance games, either. After a lengthy loading process, it was able to play the 3D racing game Asphalt 9: Legends, but very sluggishly and with graphical issues. I wouldn’t bother trying anything that has more than simplistic graphics. The GFXBench scores of just 3.3 frames per second on the Car Chase benchmark and 18fps on the less-intensive T-Rex benchmark bear that out, too.
The CAT S42 is compatible with GSM carriers, so AT&T and T-Mobile will work in the United States, but not Verizon. It’s limited to 4G LTE coverage, and the lack of 5G is no surprise given the price and level of technical components here. On AT&T’s 4G network just north of Chicago, I saw a maximum download speed of 50Mbps and an upload max of 28Mbps—both on par for the service in this testing area.
With one tiny speaker at the bottom of the phone, the CAT S42 isn’t primed for booming sound. The mono speaker gets loud, but sounds tinny. It works fine for speakerphone and watching videos, but the limited range is evident when listening to music. Even so, for playing tunes while washing the dishes or on a lunch break, it’s adequate.
It’s built to last: with modest use, you should be able to stretch the CAT S42 out across two full days (morning to bedtime) on a single charge, or potentially more.
The single 13-megapixel rear camera here takes perfectly usable and solidly detailed shots in ample daylight. The colors are noticeably muted when shooting side-by-side with the Pixel 4a, which packs a flagship-quality camera in its budget frame, but you’ll have no problem taking photos of job sites, equipment, or documents with this camera.
In lesser light, the results are much softer and a lot of the detail disappears. It’s not a great camera overall, but like a lot of the components of the CAT S42, it’s just good enough for its intended work-centric uses. Likewise, the video footage you get will be fine for quick purposes, but it maxes out at 1080p resolution at just 30 frames per second, so you’re not going to get particularly stellar results from it.
The 4,200mAh battery pack here is solidly sizable, and especially so for a low-powered phone with a smaller, low-resolution screen. As a result, it’s built to last: with modest use, you should be able to stretch the CAT S42 out across two full days (morning to bedtime) on a single charge, or potentially more. I used the CAT S42 as my everyday phone and typically ended a day with 50-60 percent left in the tank, and that resilience should be very handy for professional usage.
I dropped my review unit onto hard floors several times from the same height and did not crack or damage the screen at all.
The CAT S42 ships with Android 10 installed, and an Android 11 upgrade has been promised at some point down the line. The software largely looks and feels like stock Android, albeit with some CAT flourishes. There’s a pre-installed Toolbox app here that essentially points you towards an array of apps from CAT and its partners, which you’ll then need to download from the Play Store.
As mentioned, the low-end processor means that Android feels sluggish here throughout, and sometimes it takes a moment or two for the operating system to respond to a tap. Every so often, it doesn’t respond at all when you tap something. That’s not great, but aside from those occasional blips, the CAT S42 can accomplish everyday tasks, just slowly at times.
The programmable orange key on the left side of the phone can be used for push-to-talk modes on supported carriers, plus you can assign actions—like launching the flashlight, camera, or waking the screen—to either a double-tap or long press. With no fingerprint sensor or other sort of biometric security on the device, unfortunately, you’ll have to stick with a screen lock such as a PIN code, password, or pattern.
The CAT S42 has the tech and specs of a much cheaper non-rugged budget phone, similar to 2019’s Motorola Moto E6, which launched at $150 and now sells for about $100. At $300 for the CAT S42, you’re paying a significant premium for elements like enhanced waterproofing and drop protection.
Given that, I only recommend spending that kind of money if your work or lifestyle demands a seriously hearty phone that can withstand the elements and/or rough work conditions. Otherwise, you can get a much more capable phone without the ruggedized elements around the same price. Anyone who just wants a solid phone with added protection can get more for their money elsewhere, and then simply pair it with a tough case.
How much phone can you get around $300 if you can live without the ruggedized design? The Google Pixel 4a is arguably the best phone you can buy for less than $400, and at $349, you get a handset with mostly smooth performance, an excellent camera, a great 1080p screen, and solid full-day battery life.
It won’t give you two days of uptime like the CAT S42 can, and I certainly wouldn’t wash it with soap and water—it doesn’t have an IP water and dust resistance rating. But it’s a much more capable and pleasurable everyday phone than the CAT S42, plus you can buy a rugged case for the Pixel 4a to help keep it safe from bumps and bruises.
Still need some more time before making a decision? See our guide to the best rugged smartphones.
A phone for a very specific audience.
For construction workers or essential workers who care more about durability than speedy performance, the CAT S42 might meet your needs. Between its tough shell and waterproof assurances, it is far better-protected than your average smartphone. That said, you’ll pay a premium for what is effectively a low-powered budget phone. If you don’t absolutely need the hearty exterior and washability, you can get a much better phone for similar cash.
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