The Cat B15Q takes a beating without being bulky, but a poor display and limited hardware sours the experience.
Caterpillar: the name invokes images of bugs, but also gigantic yellow construction vehicles, belching smoke and hurling mounds of earth. And apparently, smartphones: the $349 (£249.99) Cat B15Q is the company's latest effort, a rugged device that wants to prove that surviving the elements needn't involve garish cases or massive rubber bumpers. I reviewed the dual-SIM model, which is available from Home Depot for $359.
I've dropped it, I've drowned it and I've called a few friends: it's still kicking, and still looking good. But a well-rounded smartphone experience needs to deliver in many respects, and the B15Q, while a strong contender, comes with quite a few caveats.
Rugged phones are pitched as devices that can withstand tumbles down hills, sitting out in sheeting rain and days spent toiling in dusty workshops. The reality is less romantic. Consider the Kyocera Torque : it's a run-of-the-mill Android phone that's swaddled in rubber, because you're a klutz.
The Cat B15Q is different. This a phone sold in places like Home Depot and presumably built for Caterpillar's clientele, grizzled professionals who'll tuck the device into their jumpsuits before donning a helmet to do something brave or dangerous or both. It's small, just shy of 3 inches wide with a 4-inch display. It's also just over half an inch thick -- not exactly svelte, but far more pocketable than your average ruggedized brick. And it weighs just under 6 ounces: again, relatively tiny compared to its peers. Caterpillar has released a few of its phones in Europe, including the Cat B100 , and the Cat S50 , both which carry on this rugged them.
A silver-anodized aluminum shell is a big part of the puzzle, lending strength without going overboard on weight. The rubber bumpers on the top and bottom of the phone help soften the edges so that it feels nice in hand, and add a bit of extra protection should you drop the device on its corners. And then there's the CAT logo up top, which evokes thoughts of big yellow machines tearing through giant mounds of dirt. The phone has a kind of industrial quality that just feels cool -- those screws on the side help.
The Cat B15Q is IP67-certified, which means it's dustproof and waterproof for up to 30 minutes at a depth of one meter (a bit over 3 feet). Cat says the the phone, while not indestructible, will be able to withstand the force of a fall from a height of up to 6 feet on hard surfaces like concrete. It did just fine in my testing, and while there are some scrapes on the aluminum side plates, the Gorilla Glass 2 display has held up just fine. Cat also touts the phone's "wet-finger tracking," which means you can still use the display when your hands are wet, provided the phone's display isn't drenched. It works in the rain and in less realistic tests involving a garden hose -- you just need to make sure too much water doesn't collect on the screen. I can't imagine too many scenarios where I'm soaked but my phone's display isn't, but here we are.
A Micro-USB port is on the left, hidden behind a flap. The power button sits up top, alongside the headphone jack sits, which is also hidden behind a flap: when you remove a USB cable or a pair of headphones from their requisite port, a little dialog window pops up on the screen, reminding you to seal the phone back up -- a neat little reminder that may save a few phones. There's no such warning when removing the phone's backplate though, which I suspect will be a far bigger risk.
The right side of the phone hosts the volume controls and a dedicated camera button in Caterpillar's signature yellow. I love the inclusion of a dedicated camera button, which presumably could come in pretty handy on a busy work site or while you're off mountaineering or what have you. It's a shame that the camera isn't all that great -- more on that in a bit.
There's actually a bigger problem, in the disappointing display. The 800x480-pixel resolution is low, which could be forgivable if you aren't planning on showing off photos or watching HD videos. But when I think Caterpillar, I think great big outdoor construction sites, and the glossy display becomes fairly hard to see in direct sunlight. Hold the phone upright and the contrast degrades to the point where it's actually impossible to make out what's on the screen. I found myself constantly tilting the phone back to keep things clear, which feels like a minor nit to pick until you're trying to show someone an app or a picture and constantly need to adjust your grip.
The back of the phone hosts the 5-megapixel camera and a great big CAT logo. It looks and feels good, par for the course with this whole package. A locking switch holds the backplate in place; slide to unlock it (revealing that Caterpillar yellow), pry off the backplate, and you'll find the 2,000mAh battery, the microSD card slot and the dual SIM card slots. The backplate is fairly easy to lock back into place and snaps assuredly.
The B15Q runs Android 4.4.2 KitKat. I was told that there are currently no plans to upgrade the device to Android 5.0 Lollipop , which is disappointing. That said, you're getting close to an unadulterated Android experience here. There's an app for the FM Radio, a File Manager, a checklist app called ToDo and a video editing app. I'm not entirely sure why that last one is present, but if your work site or campsite needs to pull together an impromptu Harlem Shake performance, you can make it happen. I'm of the opinion that less bloatware is always best, so Cat gets a nod of approval here.
The phone's 1.3GHz quad-core CPU isn't exactly a powerhouse, but it never got in the way while I was testing. I flipped through menus and websites with ease, without any hint of lag or stuttering. I wasn't expecting much in the way of gaming performance, but I wasn't disappointed: I generally stuck to casual games, and things like Angry Birds: Transformers offer smooth, responsive gameplay.
Limited storage proves far more annoying: once apps and the like have been accounted for, you're left with just under 2GB to work with, which means you'll need to grab a microSD card if you want to install many apps, or take lots of photos.
The dual-SIM phone is unlocked, but uses full-size SIM cards, which are quite rare these days. I tested it on T-Mobile's network here in San Francisco, and quality was great -- I could hear everyone I spoke to just fine, though I did occasionally have to press the earpiece a little closer to my ear as traffic roared past.
There was no such trouble on my end, care of the phone's noise-canceling microphone. I stood just a few feet away from passing and idling trucks, and the folks I spoke to reported that they scarcely noticed them. That will prove ideal for the busy construction sites where this phone will likely make its home. The speaker isn't as impressive, though: it's a bit loud, but also on the back of the phone, so I found myself flipping the phone over to be able to hear what anyone was saying. While this is a quad-band phone it's limited to 3G connectivity, which is unfortunate.
The 2,000mAh battery is rated at up to 16 hours of talk time. My own use consisted of lots of Web browsing and video streaming, snapping photos, and "accidentally" dropping the phone all over the place, and generally saw well over a day and a half of use before I reached for a charger.
There's a 5-megapixel camera on the rear, though its quality is largely hit or miss. In ideal circumstances -- a static subject on a bright, sunny day -- I got perfectly respectable pictures. Colors are a little muted and intricate details like the cracks in brickwork are softened, but it's otherwise perfectly serviceable.
In well-lit indoor environments my subjects always remained clear, but details were lost to noise and the washed-out colors become even more apparent.
Static objects in poorly lit environments fared a bit worse. My subjects always remained clear, but fine details are lost to noise. The camera's autofocus is also pretty sluggish, which becomes problematic if you're trying to grab a shot of a moving subject.
The Cat B15Q is easily the first rugged phone I wouldn't feel awkward being seen with. It just looks cool, the metal chassis and spare use of rubber lending it a sort of industrial-chic vibe that's only amplified by that big CAT logo stamped into the backplate.
So it's a shame that all of this potential comes with so many caveats. Calls sound great, and support for two SIMs is a fine touch, but where's the LTE connectivity? The use of archaic, full-size SIMs is a bit annoying, too: the beauty of an unlocked phone is how easy it is to pop in any active SIM card you have on hand, and most phones have moved on to Micro-SIMs (or smaller). A waterproof device that you can use while both you and it are wet is an excellent value-add for the oft-soaked professional, but then you're stuck with a screen that's hard to see outdoors, or at particular angles.
Rugged phones are already a minute niche, and an asking price of $350 (unlocked) is well over what your average klutz would expect to pay for something a little less dainty than the shattered remnants of their old smartphone. If you're spending that much, you'll be better served by something like the Kyocera Brigadier ($50 on contract, $400 unlocked), which is a bit larger, but offers a better display and speedier hardware. And that of course puts you within sight of the Samsung Galaxy S5 Active ($200 on contract), a costlier but ultimately superior device. The Cat B15Q looks and feels promising, but ultimately leaves me wanting more.