REVIEW: Caterpillar S40’s excellent durability, battery life come with major sacrifices

Updated Dec 29, 2015

No. 6 Story in 2015


Cat S400

It’s not often that Caterpillar is beaten handily by competitors when it comes to power.

But that’s exactly where the company’s smartphone lineup finds itself. However, it’s not exactly due to a design failure. It’s more of a consequence of trying to find the right mix of features for the customer.

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 10.53.49 AMThe company has a three-device lineup now with the B15Q, the snappier upgrade to its original smartphone the B15; the sleeker but slightly more fragile S50; and the new best-of-both worlds S40.

If you’re not familiar with these phones, you’re likely in the majority. To be sure, the company, overwhelmingly known for its yellow iron, has increased its marketing efforts around its phones over the past year or so. But in terms of mind share, the phones might have less in that department than Cat’s lineup of work boots.

Which speaks to the power major tech giants like Apple, Google and Samsung wield in the mobile space. When it comes time to buy a new phone (still every two years for most of us) the majority of people walk into their carrier’s local store and walk out with a new iPhone or a new Galaxy device. As things currently stand, Cat has been unable to secure a deal with any carrier to place its phones on store shelves, though it’s still trying.

It’s a hard game to break into, even for a 90-year-old company used to selling at the high-end of its own high-price-tag business.

But here’s the thing. You should know about Cat phones, particularly if you work in construction or use your phone in wet, dirty or other environments that are unforgiving to electrified slabs of glass. And not just because of the nice, big Cat logo on the back of these devices. Because Cat, and its UK-based phone design partner Bullitt, are listening very closely to their customers and what they want and need out of a rugged smartphone.

In turn, these phones with the Cat logo are becoming so good at their job, they’re beginning to blur the line between rugged and non-rugged devices. But they still have plenty of ground to make up with the best of the best phones on the market.


Cat S403

The original B15 was a surprising phone. Beyond the fact that it was Cat’s first crack at a smartphone, it was actually a pretty good device. The processor was a bit underpowered, but the device was surprisingly snappy and, unlike many popular phones from Samsung, LG, HTC and the like, the B15 ran stock Android. That means there was no extra bloat software or interface “enhancements” slowing the device down or mucking up the way Google intends for you to use Android devices.

And even though it was a bit bulky, it wasn’t too heavy or uncomfortable to pocket or hold. The rubber and aluminum casing gave the phone a substantial, quality feel, not to mention made it impervious to water, dust and most drops.

All of these things still apply to Cat’s latest phone the S40. However, this new device also manages to best its predecessor in just about every way that really matters. And at a pretty attractive price point: $400 off contract. The phone launched in the U.S. earlier this month, but there’s still no link to buy it on the Cat Phones website.

For starters, the S40 is thinner. Not by a whole lot, (2.5 millimeters) but an appreciable amount when it comes to sliding it in and out of a pair of jeans all day. And considering the fact that the S40 is a much taller phone than the B15, the designers did a great job in carrying over that original device’s look and feel in a package that adds no noticeable bulk.

It’s worth noting that like the B15, the S40 can survive drops to concrete from 6 feet and is dust and water proof to military specifications. Plus, you can use the screen even when it’s wet (see the video below) and with gloves on.

And with that thinner frame come a few notable changes from the B15, some for the worse, some for the better.

Starting with the better, like the B15, the S40 is a distinctive device thanks to the combination of rubber and aluminum that make up the body. And with the added width and height, the device is actually easier to hold, especially while wearing gloves.

Another improvement is Cat’s addition of physical navigation buttons on the S40, which replace the soft touch buttons on the B15. However, it would be nice to see the next version of the S40 forego buttons altogether for the on-screen nav buttons on the slightly more expensive, slightly less rugged S50.

Since it’s waterproof, the S40 features covered headphone, charging, and SD card slots—protection you usually have to go and buy a case for.

And speaking of cases, if you’re wondering just how much heft a phone like the S40 adds over something like an iPhone 6/6S, it’s basically the same thing as carrying around an iPhone inside an OtterBox or a LifeProof case. If you prefer the extra grip and protection one of those premium cases provides for your phone, you’ll really like the design Cat has come up with.

Now some of the bad things. The new power and volume buttons on the right side of the S40 are a bit mushy and way too easy to accidentally press while holding and putting in your pocket. I can’t tell you how many times I accidentally turned the screen off while trying to turn up the volume or just rotate the device to take a picture or watch a video. That’s mostly because beyond being sensitive, the buttons aren’t very prominent and aren’t well defined from the frame of the phone.

Cat S402Despite having a solid overall feel, the back of the S40 carries over the same hollow, flimsy feel as the back of the B15. With the B15 that feel was a bit more understandable, however, since it had a removable battery and a peel-off battery door. The S40’s battery, on the other hand, is sealed. On the next version of this phone, I’d like to see Cat implement a bit more metal into the back of the device for a more solid feel.

But the most obvious physical change, is that the S40 has a bigger display.

During a talk with Bullitt back in August, we learned that the S40’s 4.7-inch display is the brightest the design firm has put in a device to date. The larger, brighter screen is a welcome improvement over the B15 and, to the naked eye compares favorably to the new iPhone 6S in terms of brightness.

Where the S40’s display doesn’t stand up as well to phones from Apple and Samsung, however, is resolution and overall screen quality. It’s not necessarily a deal breaker, since reading and watching videos on the device aren’t overly affected. While color reproduction is above average, interface elements such as buttons, app icons and the menu bar are noticeably fuzzier when compared to higher quality screens, as are photos.

The S40’s screen resolution is 960 x 540. And when you compare that to the iPhone 6S’s resolution of 1334 x 750 or the Galaxy S6’s 2560 x 1440, the disparity starts to make a lot more sense.

It doesn’t ruin using the phone, but having anything less than a true-HD display on a smartphone in 2015 gives a device a decidedly cheap feel, which is a shame on a phone well designed in just about every other facet.


Here’s where things start to get really tricky for the S40.

Despite the fact that the phone is fairly snappy when waking the screen and popping in and out of navigation menus and apps, when compared to other phones on the market, it’s vastly underpowered.

The S40 has a quad-core, 1.1 GHz processor, which on paper sounds nice. But when coupled with only 1 gigabyte of RAM, things get awfully choppy whenever you start playing a game, downloading apps, or loading dense Web pages.

On particularly heavy Web pages, scrolling was often an issue, becoming a bit jerky and sometimes difficult to stop the page from scrolling past a section I was trying to read. While playing even graphically-tame games like Crossy Road, lag would set in occasionally, and during more graphically-intense games touch input would register so late the game became nearly unplayable.

I put the phone through a full benchmark test using the AnTuTu app which checks CPU performance, RAM, graphics capabilities and more. The results weren’t pretty, with the S40 finishing with the lowest score of all phones on the market. When compared with a premium Android phone like the Samsung Galaxy S6, the S40 delivered just about a fifth of total computing power.

That being said, benchmarks are typically only pertinent to power users and its hard to knock a device too much given that most users of the Cat S40 won’t be playing a lot of graphic-intense games or using it as their primary email tool.

But given the amount of time most people keep their phones, and given how performance tends to only get worse with the age of a phone, the limits of the S40’s guts do concern me, especially considering that many users may want to use image-heavy construction collaboration apps for viewing PDFs, blueprints and more in the field. If that’s you, the S40 may be a gamble.


Cat S404

Given how important and commonplace snapping photos with our phones has become, the S40’s camera might be a deal breaker for many.

With an 8 megapixel sensor on the rear camera capable of shooting 1080p HD video, I had hopes that the camera would at least be above average. That is not the case.

While shooting in ample light outdoors, even on a cloudy day, the camera produces respectable results with fairly accurate color reproduction. However, even in that ample lighting I experienced quite a bit of trouble getting the camera to properly focus, which oftentimes resulted in a soft image.

Indoors and in low-light situations, the camera becomes nearly useless. As you can see in the photo of the ball in the gallery below, images in low light become so grainy that the carpet beneath the ball starts to look more like static. And the flash doesn’t help much, adding only a very brown tint to still-grainy pictures.

A smartphone that’s going to be used as part of a planning and collaboration workflow on a construction site needs to have a good camera. If you plan on using the S40 outdoors in good lighting, it might just be good enough. But using it indoors or as a means of snapping inspection photos in poorly lit areas will likely result only in headaches.


Before we wrap things up, we’ll end on a good note. Battery life on the S40 is excellent. After putting the phone through an intensive 6-hour battery test that included setting brightness at 60 percent, maxing out the phone’s processor, playing videos and games and browsing the Web, the S40 finished with one of the highest scores among all Android phones on the market. And even after the test was over, the phone still had 20 percent battery life which lasted me well into half of the next day.

It’s impressive, though not particularly surprising as the S40 packs a giant battery rated at 3,000 mAh. For comparison’s sake, the iPhone 6S ships with a 1,715 mAh battery while the Samsung Galaxy S6 has a 2,550 mAh battery.

Cat says this phone should get you through an entire day of use on the jobsite. I say it will get you through that and much more.


I’ll admit to being a bit torn on the Cat S40. I admire the progression Cat’s young smartphone lineup has shown in the last two years. Cat and designer Bullitt have shown that they care deeply about user feedback and are putting that input to good use during the development of smartphones that are undergoing meaningful iteration.

Plus, it’s such a liberating feeling holding a smartphone and knowing that you don’t have to worry about destroying it. As powerful, fast and beautiful devices like the iPhone and Galaxy phones are, they wear their fragility on their sleeves, leaving users fully aware that one wrong step or forgetful moment could end up in a shattered screen or a drenched phone.

With the S40, all of that goes away. It’s a very hard phone to drop and it’s an even harder phone to break.

But power and speed are still hugely important when it comes to handheld computers. As is the camera. And those are the S40’s most glaring weakness.

But when you take into consideration the device’s amazing battery life, its rugged exterior and its super bright display, it’s clear a concession in processing power likely had to be made in order to keep battery life at a maximum while keeping the price point attractive.

For most operators and laborers in construction today, the S40 is probably up to the task of 90 percent they’ll want to do with their phones. But for foremen, project managers, and contractors who depend on their devices to accomplish tasks with speed and efficiency, it’s a hard phone to recommend against an iPhone in a waterproof case.