Lots of unique features • Durable to very high specifications • Different than anything else on the market
Buggy software • Mediocre specs • especially considering the price
The Cat S61 is an interesting phone, which is a label that doesn’t fit too many phones these days. However, the software needs work, and the price tag is too high for what it offers.
Here’s a quick test to see whether you need a phone like the Cat S61: Do you work in construction? Do you often repair stuff around the house? Do you drop your phone once a week or more? Do you use your phone in very inhospitable conditions, such as extreme cold or wet places?
If you recognize yourself in any (or all) of the above, the Cat S61 could be a good fit. If not, you probably shouldn’t bother.
The Cat S61, which I’ve used as my main phone for about a week in August, is the latest flagship from Bullitt, a company that sells extra-tough phones under the Cat brand. Its Cat S60 was the world’s first phone with a thermal camera when it launched in 2016; now, the Cat S61 adds some significant improvements into the mix.
These include an improved thermal camera, a laser-based metering tool, an air quality sensor, and an overall bump in specs. This combination of tools, which aren’t just software-based gimmicks, makes the Cat S61 a unique phone on the market: It’s not just incredibly tough (up to IP69 specifications), but it’s also a bit of a Swiss Army knife for people who work with their hands.
Unfortunately, some of its software sorely needs work; the phone sometimes feels sluggish, and, at 799.99 pounds ($1,022) it’s quite pricey. It’s still a good buy for someone that really needs its particular set of features, but for everyone else, there are better options out there.
Rugged, gnarly, tough
I love the Cat S61’s look and feel, probably because it’s so different from most phones these days. It’s unapologetically big and thick. It has tons of physical buttons (which makes it usable underwater — more on that later). Its rubber back gives you a great grip, making it harder for you to accidentally drop it. I even like its large camera/antenna bump on top, as it bestows a distinctive look.
And if you think you can get the same level of toughness by applying a case to your normal phone, the answer is no. The Cat S61 can be held underwater, in depths up to 3 meters (9.84 feet) for up to 60 minutes. It’s resistant to sand, dust, dirt, humidity, salt mist and strong vibrations. It can be dropped onto concrete from up to 1.8m (6 feet) of height. And it can handle extreme temperatures (between -25 and 55 degrees C) and fast temperature changes as per the U.S. military’s MIL SPEC 810G specifications.
Another important point: The S61’s 1,920 x 1,080 LCD screen will work with wet fingers and gloves, as even Android’s typical Back/Home/Overview buttons are physical instead of virtual. This meant nothing to me as I never wear gloves, but I suspect it will be a very important feature for a lot of people working in construction or living in colder climates.
The phone’s ruggedness does have drawbacks. For example, the charging port and the headphone jack (yes, it has one) are covered with plastic flaps that protect from water damage, but aren’t easy to open, and it can be a chore to properly close them. And it doesn’t have a fingerprint or a face scanner: It’s back to the old PIN/password data protection on this phone.
A couple more details: From a phone like this, I expected a strong flashlight, and it delivered — it’s far brighter than the flashlight on, say, the iPhone X. Also, I often used the shortcut button on the left side of the phone, which I’ve set to open Chrome on a short press and start/stop the flashlight on a long press. The screen is protected by Gorilla Glass 5, meaning it’s not indestructible; it’ll still likely will break if you drop it directly on a sharp rock. But it’s slightly recessed and comes with a pre-applied screen protector, which is all you can ask in terms of additional protection.
At one point during testing, I thought I may have found a chink in S61’s armor. After sticking it into wet sand to take the lead photo for this article, I’ve noticed that the sound from the speaker has become tinny and feeble, as if some water managed to got in. The effect cleared after half a day. I’ve asked Bullitt about it and they told me that’s “expected behavior.”
“When the Cat S61 gets wet, and particularly if it is submerged, water can come into contact with the speakers on the product, and this can, of course, muffle the sound. (…) Once the device — and specifically the speaker cavity — dries out, audio will return to normal, as you experienced. It can take up to a few hours to fully dry out, though the process can be aided by tapping the phone to help expel water,” the company told me in a statement.
OK, so the S61 is built to survive a war. But is that worth the price premium? If you’re worried about your phone breaking, just regularly backup your stuff and if the phone does break, buy a new one — you can get one with the same specs as Cat S61 for a third of its price.
But the Cat S61 is dependable (there are some software-related caveats to that — more details below). If you take it to a mountaineering expedition, or if you work at a dirty, dusty construction site, the chances of it kicking the bucket are lower than probably any other phone. If this type of reliability is important to you, then the price premium you’ll have to pay for the Cat S61 might be worth it.
The Cat S61 really becomes interesting when you consider its special features, which aren’t present on your typical phone. The phone has a thermal camera which actually has a use beyond pretending you’re in a Mission: Impossible movie, as it can help you identify overheating appliances, moisture, and heat loss around windows and doors. In my experience, it works as advertised; there’s noticeable lag as you turn your phone around but it’s not deal-breaking. The camera comes with several different modes which apply to different scenarios; for example, the ‘Coldest’ mode will let you see levels of fluid inside a tank. It’s this sort of stuff that makes the S61 really fun to use.
I can’t say the same for the Measure tool, which should ideally be one or two notches above similar apps (including the one from Apple) as it uses an actual laser for measurements. Unfortunately, the app’s UI is ugly, it’s painfully slow, and not even that accurate (even after I calibrated it).
Lastly, there’s the air quality monitor. Here, the software works well — it’s a simple app that shows you humidity, temperature and quality of the air around you. It takes two days to calibrate, but even after that, its results appeared pretty random to me, as it bounced between “excellent” and “moderate” (seemingly) regardless of where I was. I didn’t have access to any professional tool to measure the air quality monitor’s accuracy, though.
For all of these tools, the same principle applies: They’re not as good as professional, standalone tools built for the specific task, but since your phone is almost always with you, they’re far more convenient. I wasn’t satisfied with how some of these worked, but I definitely appreciated having some options that I don’t normally see on phones.
Set aside all the extra features, and the Cat S61 is a pretty regular midrange phone. It has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 processor, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, a 16-megapixel rear camera and an 8-megapixel camera. I’ve tested several phones with a similar configuration and they worked well, but the Cat S61 did feel a little sluggish (the fact that I switched to it from an iPhone X didn’t help). It never got really bad, but I wouldn’t mind a faster processor, especially considering the price.
Worse than sometimes sluggish performance were bugs, which were abundant. A particularly nasty one would turn the phone’s screen into a seizure-inducing glitch fest after I’d switch to videos from the main camera screen. Another time, I couldn’t answer a call, no matter how many times I slid the virtual “answer” button up across the screen. Most of the time, the phone worked alright, but I’ve gotten used to our phones being so dependable that any bug such as these is unacceptable.
Battery life was excellent, thanks to a massive 4,500mAh cell. I’ve regularly gotten two full days of heavy use.
The camera is barebones and far from amazing, but it got the job done. Daylight photos were often oversaturated; low-light photos were too dark, but I was always able to produce a decent photo. In the comparison below, Cat S61 struggled with a tough scene with lots of contrast; the blue sky in the background was badly burned, and the stone ruins in the foreground were too dark. The iPhone X, unsurprisingly, produced a far better photo.
In an evening scene, the iPhone X overdoes it with sharpening but manages to produce a significantly brighter photo. The Cat S61’s photo is a little blurry and has an unnatural yellowish tint but is overall not too bad considering the conditions.
You’re not buying this phone for the amazing photos, though; basically any phone in this price range will do a better job.
On the software side, the S61 comes with Android Oreo, but Bullitt promises the phone will be updated to Pie, which is important as most users will likely be buying it to last a couple of years. Hopefully, down the line the phone’s software will be ironed out, bugs squashed, and (one can dream) performance improved.
The price of ruggedness
The Cat S61 is different, but in a good way. It’s a phone that will appeal to many, the crazy high price tag be damned, because it simply feels more durable than most phones out there. Its special features are hit-and-miss. The thermal camera works well and appears to be useful, if you’re into that sort of thing. But the measuring tool definitely needs to be improved to be useful to anyone.
Alternatives include phones like the AGM X2, which beats the Cat S61 in terms of specs, but doesn’t offer all the features or the protection that the S61 offers (in fact, no phone on the market that I could find has that level of protection). You can also buy a rugged case for a regular phone, but it won’t give you stuff like the thermal camera or the air quality sensor.
I’d feel better about recommending the S61 if it were a little faster and a little less buggy. The sense of ruggedness it gives from a hardware standpoint diminishes when you realize that software issues can be just as detrimental to your experience as damage due to an accidental drop. With those caveats, if you must have the toughest phone out there, or you’re one of those users that often encounter conditions that wreck all other phones, the S61 might be a good choice.