48 hours with the Cat S52, a rugged phone in a dinner jacket

Cat S52

The rugged smartphone category has been rendered largely useless by mid-range and flagship phones sporting IP ratings and bulky aftermarket cases, but that hasn’t stopped phones like the Cat S52 from appearing.

The device is Bullitt Group’s latest upper-mid range rugged smartphone, sporting some svelte looks for a phone that can take some abuse.

But with all this said, should you invest your cash into a phone like this — a device that’s bulky and strong but plagued by sacrifices?

I’ve been dropping it a few times on purpose for the past 48 hours, and these are my thoughts.

Cat S52

Cat S52 first impressions: the good

  • This is easily the best looking Cat Phone you can get right now. Yes, the S81 has a special place in my heart, but this devices looks a lot more innocuous than its brute of a brother.
  • It’s easy to carry and hold thanks to its shape.
  • The textured rear plate ensures that you won’t drop it even if it’s covered in sand or water. It also feels pretty good.
  • Overall, the metal frame and the chunky buttons also gives the impression that the S52 can take a beating.
  • And yes. It’s hardy. It’ll survive a drop to the floor at arm’s length without a case (I did test), and a drop to concrete from 1.5m (this I didn’t test). It’ll also take a wash under the tap without issue (I tested this too).
  • Gorilla Glass 6 covers the front display, something usually reserved for flagship devices.
  • I love the notification light. It’s a small addition that provides a huge benefit for those who constantly check their devices for new messages and updates.
  • A physical fingerprint sensor at the rear is also a practical, reliable addition, especially if your hands are dirty or wet. It just works.
  • The Cat S52 has fairly unmodified Android 9.0 without much bloatware.
  • This phone comes with NFC, something you don’t often find on rugged smartphones.
  • It also supports GLONASS, GALILEO and BDS, which means you really shouldn’t find yourself without global positioning signal during your adventures.
  • R10 999 is what you’ll pay for this device. It’s not too expensive if you’re looking for a rugged device.

Cat S52 first impressions: the average

  • The Cat S52 is marketed as a lightweight Cat Phone, but that doesn’t make it light. It’s still heavier than the Galaxy Note 9, even though it’s Bullitt’s slimmest device thus far. It weighs down in your pocket, and would also be a pain to carry around the neck.
  • Just 64GB of internal storage on this phone is one of the biggest issues with it. Still, a microSD card slot also features, so it’s not all doom and gloom.
  • The Helio P35 chipset isn’t slow, but it isn’t what I’d call quick either. Swiping away notifications is a stutter-laden affair. You can also feel this while scrolling through update-heavy apps, like Instagram or the Google Play Store.
  • Bullitt needs to widen its priorities to include camera performance. While the 12MP rear snapper is adequate, it’s slow to focus — even with phase detection AF — and incompetent in middling light. You’d be able to snap plans or schematics fairly easily, but you’ll want a more capable camera for sharing your snaps from the Otter Trail.
  • I’m not sure why the S52 ditched the utility button as found on other models like the S31. Allowing users to open an app — or something like the flashlight — with just one button tap is invaluable.

Cat S52

Cat S52 first impressions: the bad

  • Surely Bullitt could’ve squeezed bigger battery into this phone? At 3100mAh, it’s not nearly enough for a smartphone that’s meant to be used outdoors (with high brightness), and after work too. Remember, this device is also meant for use outside, which means extended use with the screen set to its maximum brightness setting.
  • I understand an update to Android 10 is planned, but it would’ve been welcome to see a Cat Phone launch with the latest OS for a change.
  • More importantly, it’s only on the November 2019 patch at the time of writing.
  • Annoyingly, probably due to carrier pressure, my review unit was only equipped to handle a single SIM. I understand dual SIM tech can be enabled for consumers, but it’s something to note if you’re planning to buy this phone and require two SIMs.
  • Finally, a weird critism. The SIM card tray itself is incredibly difficult to remove. It lives behind a water resistant flap, but prying the SIM sled out requires something fairly long and pointy… you know, like a PIN eject tool? Odd design choice. I’m not a fan.

Final thoughts

So, overall then, is the Cat S52 for you? It comes down to use case and personal preference. If you have a thing for chunky phones with big bezels and even bigger outdoor cred, the S52 is your next phone.

For everyone else, you could probably snap up two cheap phones for this price, slap on a case, and be on your merry way (just don’t drop them in a puddle, or the toilet).

Rugged smartphones are in a strange marketing place right now, but Bullitt’s Cat Phone range can still appeal to a mass market that seems more interested in cameras, RAM and bendy screens than actual real world practicality.

The S52 is probably the most average-user friendly phone in its range, and that should be applauded. But the phone does fall markedly short of where it should be in key areas, especially battery life.

Images: the Cat S52, by Andy Walker/Memeburn

Andy Walker
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