REVIEW: Cat S60’s design, speed, built-in FLIR thermal camera combine for the ultimate construction phone

Updated Sep 15, 2016

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Let’s go ahead and get something out of the way: the S60 is Cat’s best smartphone yet. With that said, and maybe more importantly, this device is also the most likable Cat phone to date.

The S60 has a distinctive character to it, a quality slowly disappearing from smartphone design as manufacturers race to create phones with bigger screens, smaller bezels and thinner bodies. Bullitt Group, the UK firm which designs and manufactures all of Cat’s smartphones, on the other hand, is largely uninterested in what the Apples and Samsungs of the world are doing. And because of that, the S60 is refreshingly unencumbered by such design constraints.

In the S60, Bullitt has delivered what is by far one of the coolest gadgets to hit the market in some time. It’s got a built-in thermal camera for Pete’s sake. And beyond that, it’s just cool. It’s got a cool look, the FLIR camera lets it do some cool stuff and it seems damn near indestructible. It’s definitely not a device for everyone. But for those working in construction, the trades or any other job made easier by a smartphone that also constantly puts such a device at risk, it was literally designed for you. And it shows.

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Since the S60’s dual camera setup is the device’s key feature, we’ll dig into that first.

Cat S60 FLIR giphyWith an embedded FLIR camera, the S60 is the first smartphone with built-in thermal imaging. And it works as advertised. At a resolution of 640 x 480, the images the FLIR camera produces themselves are nothing too special, but the data supplied is extremely reliable. Even through obscurants such as smoke, the camera can detect heat and measure surface temperatures from a distance of 50 to 100 feet.

It displays these differences though 9 different filters which differ in the way they lay out cool and hot temperatures. The default is called “Iron” and shows cool temperatures as purple while showing increased temps as red, then orange, yellow and eventually white. Another filter, aptly called “Rainbow” displays several more colors to provide more differentiation in the temperature range, while other filters prioritize colder or hotter temperatures  to make it easier to spot one over the other.

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In addition to still images, the FLIR camera can also take panoramas, videos (an example of which you can see here) and time-lapses. One particularly cool feature is the ability to place a crosshair over what you’re looking at through the camera to display the temperature specific to that spot. And this crosshair, like the one in the image below, can even be applied to display the surface temp of an object in a photo after it’s been taken.

flir_20160817T154430The only knocks on the FLIR camera I have is that it can be a bit slow to open and there is a quarter-second-or-so delay as you pan the phone around. But since there’s quite a bit being processed here, those are relatively minor niggles given the potential usefulness of something like this in the field.

What’s not forgivable is how bad the non-FLIR camera is. The camera has been a glaring weakness on all the Cat Phones to date and the S60 is no different. At 13 megapixels, it looks good on a spec sheet, but it’s one of the worst cameras on any Android device I’ve used.  Based on experiences with past Cat Phones like the S40, I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by the camera in the S60, but in many cases, the S60’s shooter performs even worse.

While the camera loads up fast enough, there is a very noticeable delay as you pan around, autofocus takes forever and usually doesn’t work anyway. Due to shutter lag, I was largely unable to take a photo with this phone that I would want to share with someone else. Nine times out of 10, I would tap to focus on an object hit the shutter button and several seconds later, find a blurred image. And on photos where the camera was able to focus, images would appear hazy.

On low-end smartphone cameras like the S60’s, you expect crummy performance in low-light situations. That’s true on the S60 too, but you usually expect situations with a lot of light to vastly improve image quality. But with the S60, great lighting only seemed to wash images out. To be honest, I was able to take better pictures by awkwardly turning the device away from me and taking photos with the phone’s front-facing camera, which is only 5 MP.

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When I first picked up the S60, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the original iPhone. It’s surrounded by these nice, curved aluminum edges which finish near the screen with a slight chamfer. It’s similar in thickness to that first generation iPhone as well, though about 1 millimeter thicker at 12.7mm—about half an inch.

In regard to that thickness, some may scoff, especially considering that the S60 is nearly twice as thick as the iPhone 6S’s 7mm frame. But if you’re one of the scores of contractors, laborers and operators using an iPhone in the field each day, you likely have it in a tough case like an OtterBox and if that’s the case (pun not intended), you’re not concerned about thickness anyway.

Plus, the S60’s military-spec construction, strengthened by a die-cast steel frame, makes it waterproof in up to 16 feet of water for one hour and drop-proof at heights up to 6 feet. This is Cat’s most rugged phone yet—no case is going to provide this kind of protection. The only downside to this heft is that you feel it whenever you pick the phone up or put it in your jeans pocket. The S60 weighs in at just a tick under half a pound.

As for the waterproofing, it works! It works so well that you can use the S60 as an underwater camera, though as I detailed above, you shouldn’t expect any breathtaking images. We’ll have findings and video from our underwater testing in a follow-up post.

Evidence of that waterproofing is found all over the phone. The charging and headphone ports and ‘SOS’ button are all covered by waterproof flaps smartly integrated into the phone’s aluminum body. The dual-SIM card/microSD ports even have their own dedicated waterproof door on the back of the device and the front-facing speakers are adorned with gold switches that activate increased waterproofing. When flipped down, the speakers operate at full volume but waterproofing is limited to 2m. When flipped up, the speakers are covered, and therefore muffled, but waterproofing increases to the full 5m. It’s something you’d never see on an iPhone, but it’s a decidedly utilitarian quirk that fits right in on the S60.

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Getting back to the SOS button mentioned above, this will automatically call for help in emergency situations when uncovered and pressed for a few seconds and is one more really nice touch for those working construction and other dangerous outdoor jobs. Just above that button on the left side of the device is a Cat-yellow auxiliary button that can be assigned to carry out your choice of two out of several provided functions. For example, on my test unit I assigned a quick double press of the button to turning on the phone’s LED flash as a flashlight (very handy), while a long press opened the FLIR thermal camera.

The device runs Android and Bullitt opted for physical navigation buttons instead of the soft-touch or software variety. In most situations this would be a negative, but physical nav buttons simply make sense on a phone that will be used with gloves (even though the S60’s screen responds to gloved touches) and the rough finish of the buttons has a nice tactile feel.

One final design note on another quirk of this device: the FLIR camera bump. As smartphone camera sensors and lenses have gotten more advanced in recent years, we’ve seen more devices sport a camera hump on back. The obvious downside to this is that the hump creates an uneven surface which can cause some phones to rock when set down. To avoid this, designer Bullitt placed its camera bump on top of the device. Most would probably consider this unsightly and they’re probably right, but I appreciate the back of the phone being completely flat and feel it adds a bit more character to the look of the phone.

Performance and battery

We’ll end on what is probably the most impressive thing about the S60: its performance and battery life.

Whenever Cat first announced this device, I saw that Bullitt had opted to use Qualcomm’s eight-core Snapdragon 617. It’s not top-of-the line, but I hoped doubling the computing cores from the four used on the S40 and increasing RAM from 1 gigabyte to 3GB would have some kind of impact on performance.

And boy did it ever.

While I’ve experienced constant slowdowns on previous Cat phones, especially when moving between apps, opening the camera or downloading documents or app updates, the S60 absolutely flies. I tried for a good 30 minutes to to slow this phone down and finally gave up. I started up a few games, opened the camera and downloaded multiple apps all while performing various web searches and it simply never stuttered.

The funny thing is, the S60 still scores hilariously low on benchmark tests for CPU performance. But in real-world and exaggerated use cases, the S60 performs like a champ.

The phone’s quick feel is helped by Bullitt’s decision to run stock Android. The S60 runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow and while there are a few elements of customization such as a widget suggesting construction-related apps and Cat’s App Toolbox app, these can be hidden and won’t slow you down at all. Another important note is that Bullitt is fairly prompt on providing Google’s monthly Android security updates.

Battery life is another impressive feature of this phone. Bullitt has packed in a massive 3,800 mAh battery into the S60 and, when combined with the relatively low power use of the device’s 4.7-inch 720p display, it regularly achieved 36-hour battery life with normal use. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some folks squeeze two work days out of it.

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Cat Phones will likely never achieve huge commercial success. Heck, even Samsung’s rugged device, the Galaxy S7 Active, remains a niche device and that’s with millions of dollars in marketing.

But Bullitt is firmly aware of this. And because they’re not designing Cat Phones to appeal to the masses, they’re able to focus solely on what those guys and gals on the jobsite need from a smartphone. Cat and Bullitt have built a phone with great design, insane battery life and impressive performance, and they topped it with a really interesting feature in thermal imaging.

It remains to be seen whether or not thermal imaging is something people in the trades want in a smartphone, but I can tell you that it’s not the primary reason you should consider the S60.

I’ve said before that each new device from Cat Phones is better than the last. The S60 keeps in that tradition and while the FLIR camera is a great marketing angle, it also adds to the cost of this phone, which, at $600 is the most expensive Cat Phone to date. As a result, the S60 left me hoping for another Cat-branded device that keeps this level of performance but loses the FLIR camera and gets closer to a $300 price tag. That would be extremely compelling.

There is an intent to the form and function of the S60 that anybody working in construction will be able to pick up on and enjoy. And in the current smartphone market, it’s something only Cat is truly providing.

The Cat S60 is available for pre-order now on the Cat Phones website.