Cat S52 review: A mid-range rugged smartphone in consumer disguise

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  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent

Pros

  • Slim and compact for a rugged handset
  • IP68 and MIL-STD 801G certifications
  • Good performance for mainstream productivity tasks
  • Good-quality main camera
  • Simultaneous dual SIM and MicroSD card support

Cons

  • GPU performance and battery life could be better
  • Only 64GB of internal storage

Cat-branded smartphones, which are designed and manufactured by the Bullitt Group, are for the most part chunky, rugged devices aimed at field workers. The Cat S61, with its integrated thermal imaging camera, laser distance tool and air quality monitor, is the current flagship device in the range.

October last year saw a twist on the business model with the launch of the Cat S52, which, while retaining exemplary ruggedness, aims for a wider market with a sleeker, more consumer-friendly design. It's a mid-range phone costing £449 (€499): will mainstream users -- particularly those who have dropped and damaged too many shiny, slippery handsets -- go for it?

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The 5.65-inch Cat S52 is powered by an 8-core MediaTek Helio P35 processor with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage.

Images: Cat Phones

Design

At first glance, the Cat S52 doesn't shout 'rugged phone: it's relatively slim (9.69mm) and light (210g), with a smart-looking metal frame and a grippy matte-black rubberised back plate. Having said that, the large bezels surrounding the 5.65-inch screen give it a somewhat conservative look -- the screen-to-body ratio is 68%, compared to modern minimal-bezel phones with ratios approaching 90%.

The screen itself is an IPS panel with moderate HD+ resolution (1,440 x 720 pixels, 285ppi), good brightness and wide viewing angles. It's usable with wet fingers and when wearing gloves, is protected by an extra-thick (0.7mm) layer of Gorilla Glass 6 and also slightly recessed, with the surrounding ridge giving additional protection. Image quality and outdoor viewability is good for mainstream tasks, although the display's response times may not satisfy gamers.

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MicroSD/SIM card tray and slot (top); power and volume buttons (above).

Images: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

Despite its consumer-friendly appearance, the Cat S52 ticks an impressive array of ruggedness boxes. An IP68 rating means the handset resists the ingress of sand, dust and dirt, and can handle immersion in water to 1.5m depth for up to 35 minutes. The Cat S52 is MIL-STD 810G compliant, which means it can handle specified levels of thermal shock, vibration, humidity and salt mist. The handset has also been drop-tested on every side and corner 30 times from 1.5 metres (5 feet) onto a concrete surface. 

We were unable to inflict any damage on the Cat S52 in several weeks of testing, which is not always the case with review units.

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The aluminium frame houses the handset's ports and controls. On the right side are the textured power button and volume up/down controls, while the SIM/MicroSD card tray is behind a door on the left (you'll get a warning to close this when replacing the SIM tray). The dual SIM variant of the S52 reviewed here can accommodate two SIMs and a MicroSD card at the same time, which is useful. There's a 3.5mm headphone jack at the top, and a speaker grille at the bottom, next to the USB-C charging/connection port. Audio quality from the speaker is reasonable, but you'll want to use headphones or a Bluetooth speaker for the best audio experience.

At the front, the top bezel houses the front camera, earpiece, ambient light sensor and a notification LED, while the back has the main camera and a fingerprint reader. The latter is a first for a Cat smartphone, and a sign of its broader target audience.

Features

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Image shot with the S52's 12MP main camera.

Image: Charles McLellan/ZDNet
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Close-up image shot with the S52's 12MP main camera.

Image: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

The Cat S52 is powered by the mid-range MediaTek Helio P35 chipset with an 8-core ARM Cortex-A53 CPU running at up to 2.3GHz and a 68MHz IMG PowerVR GE8320 GPU. It has 4GB of RAM and a moderate 64GB of internal storage, although as noted above, this can be augmented with external MicroSD storage.

The Cat S52's 4G LTE modem supports 10 LTE bands, which is less than the S61's 14, so take note if you're planning to travel widely. For other wireless connections, you get wi-fi (802.11ac), Bluetooth (5), NFC and GPS (GPS, Glonass, BieDou, Galileo). There's an FM radio too, and a good set of sensors -- fingerprint, e-compass, proximity, ambient light, accelerometer and gyroscope.

SEE: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF)

The Cat S52's main 12MP camera is a cut above the usual standard for a rugged phone. It's based on a dual-pixel Sony sensor with 1.4μm pixels, an f/1.8 wide-angle lens and EIS (Electronic Image Stabilisation) for video shooting (1080p/30fps). Image quality is good (see sample images), although it's never going to rival the multi-camera handsets that head up the DXOMARK ratings, for example. The front camera is an 8MP unit that delivers perfectly adequate results.

Android 9 was installed on our review unit, with an upgrade to Android 10 promised, although there's no word on when that will happen. There's no OS overlay, but a fair amount of pre-installed software. The main one that's surfaced is Toolbox, which presents a curated selection of apps under various headings -- Business Tools, Construction, Farming, Outdoors, Rugged Tools. If you find that the other third-party apps are taking up too much of the limited 64GB of internal storage, you can always uninstall them.

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There are quite a few third-party apps pre-installed on the S52, including Toolbox (right), a curated collection of apps.

Images: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

The battery is a 3,100mAh unit with fast charging support. There's no support for wireless charging.

Performance & battery life

The Cat S52 performs pretty well for a mid-range rugged smartphone, but of course it's not going to break any speed records.

It delivered average scores of 165 (single core) and 1010 (multi core) in the Geekbench 5 CPU test, but failed to run the Compute GPU test. Leading scores for Android phones in the CPU tests approach 770 and 3080 at the time of writing.

Graphics performance averaged 799 on the 3DMark Sling Shot benchmark, which is around ten times slower than class-leading Android handsets. Don't look to the S52 if you're into demanding smartphone games.

We also ran the PCMark for Android Work 2.0 suite, which covers web browsing, video editing, writing, photo editing and data manipulation. The overall Work 2.0 score was 5702, which is respectable -- class-leading handsets come in at around 12000.

Work 2.0 also has a battery test, which reported 10 hours 14 minutes to go from 100% to 20% of the 3,100mAh battery's capacity while running the productivity benchmark. On this basis, you should get all-day battery life with the S52 unless you're working it very hard, but you'll probably need to charge it every night. Once again, the S52 is a long way from the leading edge when it comes to Work 2.0 battery life scores, which is around 30 hours.

Conclusions

It doesn't look like a rugged phone, but the mid-range Cat S52 can still handle rough treatment while delivering decent performance for mainstream tasks. Graphics performance and battery life could be better, but overall this is an impressive handset that could attract interest beyond the usual vertical markets.

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