Cat S42 review: Rugged and enterprise-ready, with great battery life but sluggish performance

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Cat-branded smartphones, which are designed and manufactured by the Bullitt Group, range from fully rugged, feature-laden devices like the flagship 5.2-inch Cat S61 (£649) to the 5.65-inch S52 (£380), which while still impressively robust, offers a sleeker and more consumer-friendly design.

Filling a gap between these devices comes the new 5.5-inch Cat S42, an enterprise-ready rugged smartphone aimed at field workers, first responders, hospital staff and anyone else who needs a tough, easy-to-clean device that can handle mainstream workloads.

With the consumer sector rapidly saturating, the enterprise and ‘firstline’ sectors are getting increasing attention, with Samsung, for example, recently offering its first rugged phone for some time in the shape of the Galaxy XCover Pro.

The Cat S42’s enterprise credentials include three years of security patch cover and at least one Android version update during its lifetime. It supports the Android Enterprise feature set, including Google’s Zero-touch enrolment program, and has been tested against a range of enrolment and policy deployment test cases with leading EMM solution providers (VMware Workspace ONE, IBM MaaS 360, SOTI, Mobile Iron).

The Cat S42, which succeeds the late-2017 Cat S41, costs £229 and is listed as ‘coming soon’ on Cat phones’ UK website at the time of writing.

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The 5.5-inch Cat S42 has an IP68 rating for dust/water resistance and is MIL-STD 810H compliant. It runs on the MediaTek Helio A20 chipset with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage, powered by a 4,200mAh battery.

Images: Charles McLellan / ZDNet

Design

The Cat S42 looks like a proper rugged phone: it’s chunky and relatively heavy for a 5.5-inch handset, measuring 77.2mm wide by 161.3mm deep by 12.7mm thick and weighing 220g. It has a grippy, ribbed matte-black rubberised back plate, protective bumpers on the corners, plus hinged covers for the (legacy) Micro-USB charge/connection port at the bottom, the 3.5mm headset jack on the top, and the SIM/MicroSD card tray on the left side.

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There are large bezels surrounding the 5.5-inch screen, which give the Cat S42 something of an old-fashioned look — the screen-to-body ratio is just 62.7%, compared to modern minimal-bezel phones with ratios over 90%.

The screen itself is an IPS panel with moderate HD+ resolution (1,440 x 720 pixels, 293ppi), good maximum brightness and wide viewing angles. It’s usable with wet fingers and when wearing gloves, is protected by Gorilla Glass 5 and also slightly recessed, with the surrounding ridge giving additional protection. Image quality is fine for relatively static images, but scrolling could be smoother and the sluggish adaptive brightness feature didn’t work well for me: I had to switch to manual and turn up the brightness to get decent outdoor readability, and even then the reflective screen meant I often had to seek a shady spot.

SEE: 5G smartphones: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

There’s no fingerprint sensor or face recognition: you unlock this phone with a traditional 6-digit PIN. If you don’t want to keep entering your PIN throughout the day, you can use Android’s Smart Lock feature to keep the handset unlocked when it’s about your person, in certain trusted places and when connected to trusted devices like a Bluetooth watch or your car’s infotainment system.

The Cat S42 has an IP68 rating, which means it can resist the ingress of sand, dust and dirt, and can handle immersion in water to 1.5m depth for up to 35 minutes. It’s also MIL-STD 810H compliant and can therefore cope with specified levels of thermal shock, vibration, humidity and salt mist. The handset has also been drop-tested on every side and corner multiple times from 1.8 metres (6 feet) onto a steel surface. 

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The Cat S42 can accommodate two SIMs and a MicroSD card at the same time. The copper-coloured Programmable Key can also initiate a PTT (Push To Talk) call.

Image: Charles McLellan / ZDNet

There are ports and controls on all sides of the Cat S42. The right side has a textured power button and volume up/down controls, while the SIM/MicroSD card tray is behind a cover on the left, next to copper-coloured Programmable Key, which can also initiate PTT (Push To Talk) mode with suitable app support. The dual-SIM variant of the S42 reviewed here can accommodate two SIMs and a MicroSD card at the same time, which is useful. There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack under a cover at the top, and a speaker grille at the bottom, next to the covered Micro-USB 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 5MP front camera, earpiece and ambient light sensor, while the back has the main 13MP camera and an LED flash unit.

Features

The Cat S42 is powered by an entry-level MediaTek Helio A20 chipset with a quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 CPU running at up to 1.8GHz and a 550MHz IMG PowerVR GE8300 GPU. There is a modest 3GB of RAM and a miserly 32GB of internal storage — although as noted above, this can be augmented with external MicroSD storage (up to 128GB).

The Cat S42’s 4G LTE modem supports 9 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 (2.4/5GHz 802.11ac), Bluetooth (5), NFC and GPS (GPS, AGPS, Glonass, BeiDou, Galileo). There’s also an FM radio, plus an e-compass, proximity, ambient light and accelerometer sensors.

The Cat S42’s main 13MP camera has an f/2.0 lens and can best be described as adequate (see images below) — a description that also applies to the 5MP front camera. Photography isn’t a priority for this rugged phone, but it delivers acceptable point-and-shoot images.

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Images from the Cat S42’s 13MP main camera.

Images: Charles McLellan / ZDNet

Android 10 was installed on our review unit; There’s no OS overlay, but a fair amount of pre-installed software including Toolbox, which presents a curated selection of apps under various headings — Business Tools, Cat Apps, Construction, Farming, Outdoors, Rugged Tools. If you find that the 32GB of internal storage is filling up fast, you can always uninstall some of the third-party apps (or buy a MicroSD card).

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As well as a number of third-party apps, the Cat S42 comes with Toolbox, which curates a range of apps suitable for a rugged phone.

Images: Charles McLellan / ZDNet

The battery is a sizeable 4,200mAh unit with fast charging support (although it’s not as sizeable as the 5,000mAh battery in the Cat S41). There’s no support for wireless charging.

Performance & battery life

Performance is the Cat S42’s weakest area, thanks to its entry-level Helio A20 chipset and 3GB of RAM. It delivered average scores of 132 (single core) and 483 (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 900 (single core) and 3300 (multi core) at the time of writing.

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 4915, which is on the low side — class-leading handsets currently come in at over 13000.

Under the PCMark Work 2.0 battery test, the Cat S42 took 18 hours 37 minutes to go from 100% to 20% of the 4,200mAh battery’s capacity. On this basis, you should get at least two working days of battery life before requiring a recharge, which is impressive. This also beats the reported 13h 16m result for its predecessor, the Cat S41, despite the latter’s bigger 5,000mAh battery.

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Images: Cat Phones

Conclusions

The Cat S42 is something of a mixed bag. It’s properly rugged, affordable at £229, offers good enterprise features, and the battery life is excellent. On the other hand, the combination of the Helio A20 chipset, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage is distinctly entry-level, and there are screen issues (scrolling, adaptive brightness, reflectivity), limited 4G frequency support, plus a legacy Micro-USB port to contend with.

Organisations with budgetary constraints may find the Cat S42 adequate for their needs, but Samsung’s renewed push into the enterprise rugged smartphone space with the $499.99/£529 Galaxy XCover Pro will be tempting if cost is less of an issue.

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