Cat Phones unveils the S52: A rugged smartphone for the mainstream crowd

If you've broken one too many slippery smartphone screens, check out this slimmed-down but still durable handset.

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The rugged Cat S52 smartphone costs €499/£449 and will be available in Europe from 12 November.

Image: Cat Phones

Cat smartphones, which are designed and manufactured for Caterpillar by Bullitt Group, have traditionally been aimed at the 'hard hat' market and look the part -- chunky, weighty and well-protected from drops, bumps and dust/water ingress. Now, with the mid-range S52 model, Cat Phones is looking to reach a wider market by redefining "consumer expectations of what a rugged phone looks like, combining military grade toughness with a pocket-friendly design that is thinner than a mainstream smartphone in an often-bulky case that offers limited protection".

Behind this move, Tim Shepherd, senior director applications at Bullitt Group, told ZDNet, is the high damage rate that owners of regular 'slab of glass' smartphones experience (1 in 3 in the last three years among Europeans, according to the company). Even when fitted with a case, Shepherd argued that "it's only going to afford you a certain level of protection -- the innards of the product have not been engineered for it to be dropped, or fully waterproofed...for people who repeatedly drop phones, this is going to be a problem." 

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Shepherd also pointed to 2019 survey research from analyst firm CCS Insights, which shows that durability ranks third for US and UK smartphone buyers when upgrading, behind price and battery life:

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Durability ranks highly when consumers are considering smartphone upgrades.

Image: CCS Insight

Cat's answer is the S52, a 5.65-inch handset that retains the IP68 and MIL-STD 810G ruggedness credentials of stablemates like the S61 and S41, but in a much sleeker, more consumer-friendly chassis.

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The S52, which weighs 210g, has a 5.65-inch,1440-by-720 resolution IPS screen protected by Gorilla Glass 6. It's powered by a 2.3GHz, 8-core MediaTek Helio P35 processor with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage.

Images: Cat Phones

The S52, which is 9.69mm thick and weighs 210g, has an aluminium frame and a grippy, rubberised backplate housing the 12MP main camera and a fingerprint reader (not previously a priority for Cat's overtly rugged phones, whose users often wear gloves). The 1,440-by-720 resolution IPS screen is protected by an extra-thick (0.7mm) layer of the latest Gorilla Glass 6, and is slightly recessed for protection, with sizeable bezels above and below.

An IP68 rating means the S52 resists the ingress of sand, dust and dirt, and can handle immersion in water to 1.5m depth for up to 35 minutes. MIL-STD 810G testing involves thermal shock, vibration, plus humidity and salt mist. Cat Phones has also drop-tested the S52 on every side and corner 30 times from 1.5 metres (5 feet) onto a concrete surface.

Mid-range specs and price

The S52 is built on a mid-range platform comprising a MediaTek Helio P35 8-core processor running at 2.3GHz, with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage, expandable via MicroSD. It's available in single and dual-SIM variants, and unlike in some dual-SIM phones, you can have two SIMs and a MicroSD card at the same time. It's an LTE Cat 6 phone with dual-band 802.11ac wi-fi, Bluetooth 5, NFC and GPS (GPS, Glonass, BeiDou and Galileo). USB-C is used for power and wired connectivity, and there's a 3.5mm audio jack. The S52 will launch will Android 9, with an upgrade to 10 'around the corner', Shepherd says.

The 12MP main camera uses a Sony dual pixel sensor with EIS (Electronic Image Stabilisation) for improved low-light performance, plus an f/1.8 lens. This is a step up in camera quality from previous Cat phones. The front camera is an 8MP unit.

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Image: Cat Phones

The battery is a non-removable 3,100mAh unit with fast-charging support. Talk time (3G/4G) is a claimed 29.5 hours, and Shepherd told ZDNet that he and colleagues were currently getting 1.5-2 days' use from the S52 between charges.

The Cat S52 will sell for a recommended price of €499/£449 and will be available from 12 November from www.catphones.com and major European carriers and retailers. Look out for a full review in due course.

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