Cat S42 review: an extra rugged phone for an affordable price

The Cat S42 is an obvious choice for a tough, go-anywhere Android phone

Cat S42
(Image credit: Cat)
T3 Verdict

The Cat S42 just has two real selling points – the ability to withstand drops, heat, cold, water, dust and more besides; and how easy it is to clean. If those would be big benefits for you, then the Cat S42 is one of the cheapest and most appealing rugged phones currently on the market.

Reasons to buy
  • +

    The low price appeals

  • +

    Very rugged and tough

  • +

    Curated app selection

Reasons to avoid
  • -

    Slow internal processor

  • -

    Average camera setup

  • -

    Relatively small screen

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The Cat S42 is all about being a durable and rugged phone, one of the latest handsets from the Caterpillar Inc brand (of construction machinery fame) under licence to Bullitt Group – Caterpillar Inc isn't actually making the phones, but it's the same sort of aesthetic.

In terms of the Cat range, the S42 sits somewhere in the middle, without the advanced features or higher price of something like the S62 Pro. If you need a tough phone that you can basically take anywhere you go without worrying, then this handset is worth a look.

Sure, other phones have waterproofing and can survive the odd fall, but the Cat S42 and its wider family can take some serious punishment: we're talking about bumps and scrapes on a level that you wouldn't experience around a normal home or office.

As a result, the Cat S42 is only going to appeal to a niche audience – but if you fit into that audience then you might find it's the perfect phone pick for you. We've covered durability, battery life, performance, camera quality and more in our comprehensive Cat S42 review.

Cat S42 review: price and availability

The Cat S42 is currently available to preorder in the UK for £229, direct from the Catphones website or through the Clove retailer. A release in the US is planned, but as yet we're still waiting on an exact date.

Shipping in the UK is expected around the middle of August with wider availability at other retailers and operators from October.

Cat S42 review: design and screen

Cat S42

(Image credit: Future)

The Cat S42 comes wrapped in a chunky, rubberised, non-removable casing that meets IP68 (waterproofing and dustproofing) and MIL-SPEC 810H military standards – so it's certified to withstand extremes of pressure, temperature, vibrations and drops. It's a lot tougher than your average smartphone, and it shows as soon as you take it out of the box.

It certainly feels well protected and incredibly solid to hold, and the extra padding at each of the corners is a really clever touch as well. The phone doesn't feel too unwieldy – it weighs in at 220 grams or 0.49 pounds – but obviously all this additional protection adds some bulk to the handset. At 12.7 mm (0.5 inches) thick, it's not exactly going to glide into a pocket or a bag.

The relatively small 5.5-inch IPS LCD display, offering a resolution of 1440 x 720 pixels, helps keep the device compact enough for one-handed use, just about. It's one of the weaker parts of the whole Cat S42 experience, and is certainly not as bright or as crisp as even a standard mid-range phone, but it gets the job done. It's fine for browsing through documents and webpages, and even for a bit of light movie watching.

We do like the extra programmable key that the Cat S42 has included on its side: you can use it to turn the phone into a push-to-talk walkie talkie (with a suitable app), to launch any of the apps on your phone, or as a way to quickly access notifications, the flashlight, and more. If you're out in an environment where operating your phone as normal is tricky, it can really come in handy.

Cat S42 review: other specs and features

Cat S42

(Image credit: Future)

The main and indeed the only reason you're going to buy the Cat S42 is because of its extra toughness, so we should start there. The phone can officially survive drops of up to 1.8 metres (5.9 feet) but unofficially we reckon it can take more punishment than that; it's also rated for lasting for 35 minutes in water at a depth of 1.5 metres (4.9 feet). From building site to nature trail, this is a handset that's going to last you.

We don't feel particularly comfortable throwing gadgets around the house or the garden, but we tried to give the Cat S42 as much of a test as we could manage, lockdown and social distancing rules permitting. The claims on durability certainly seem to hold up from what we can tell, though we'll have to wait for our next wilderness adventure to give it a full test. It certainly survived drops of a significant height and being dunked in bowls of water while we were testing it. It's also worth noting that the phone is easy to clean, because you can use hot, soapy water.

The Cat S42 does make some compromises with performance – there's a budget Mediatek Helio A20 processor and just 3GB of RAM inside, which means that day-to-day performance is hardly super-speedy. While you won't come across any lag that gets in the way of your normal phone use, there are occasional millisecond delays that you'll notice, and the phone is going to struggle with the most demanding games.

There's just 32GB of internal storage, but you can expand this via a memory card if you need to. Software-wise, Android 10 is on board, with only a few little tweaks – we like the Toolbox app that guides you towards apps you might find useful (calculators, measuring tools, constructions apps and the like). For companies, the phone supports the features of Android Enterprise too, should you need them.

Cat S42 review: camera and battery

Cat S42

(Image credit: Future)

Ordinarily, the phone camera would be one of the bigger considerations when it comes to choosing a smartphone; with the Cat S42, not so much. There's a single-lens 13MP camera on the back (together with a very bright flash), and a single-lens 5MP camera on the front – both of these get the job done but not really much more than that. If you need top-of-the-line photo capabilities, don't get the Cat S42.

The phone is fine for some quick pointing and shooting, but if you need to take detailed snaps of documents or epic landscapes then you're better off looking elsewhere. Low light shots come across as pretty average, and you don't get the cool thermal camera capabilities that are available on some of the more expensive Cat phones – so no trying to spot wildlife in the garden in the dead of night.

We were very impressed with the time you get between charges from the 4,200mAh battery: the phone usually drained by less than 50 percent during a day of (light) usage, and it's not inconceivable that you could get a couple of days between charges if you're careful. In our two-hour video streaming test, the battery level dropped from 100 percent to 84 percent – media playback is hardly a priority for this phone, but that does show the Cat S42 holds up very well against other handsets in this department.

The phone also seems very good at holding its battery charge when it's not being used, going down just a small number of percentage points every hour when in standby. It should last many hours while tucked away in a pocket (of course the small screen and low-powered processor helps with that). It is worth noting that there's no wireless charging here, and the phone uses an older microUSB connection port.

Cat S42 review: price and verdict

Cat S42

(Image credit: Cat)

The Cat S42 phone really just has the one major selling point: its toughness. If you're not interested in a rugged phone then the Cat S42 won't be on your radar, but if you are looking for something that can take more punishment and resist damage better than most handsets then this definitely appeals.

All Cat phones offer plenty of protection, but this is cheaper than most – it's the budget option if you're after a tough, easy to clean phone that is going to survive just about anything, and yet still runs everything you get on Android. We do like the curated section for app tools as well, which gives you some idea of what the Cat S42 can be used for.

Aside from the way it's made, the Cat S42 doesn't have much going for it – but then again it doesn't necessarily have to. The internal components are definitely on the budget side, the screen is small and unlikely to wow you, and the camera isn't going to take photos as well as some other phones at this price point.

You're really spending your money on all that drop protection, waterproofing, and military grade toughness – so if that's important to you then get the Cat S42 on your shortlist. If you have a bit more money to spend, check out the other rugged phones on the market, including the rest of the Cat line-up.

David Nield

Dave has over 20 years' experience in the tech journalism industry, covering hardware and software across mobile, computing, smart home, home entertainment, wearables, gaming and the web – you can find his writing online, in print, and even in the occasional scientific paper, across major tech titles like T3, TechRadar, Gizmodo and Wired. Outside of work, he enjoys long walks in the countryside, skiing down mountains, watching football matches (as long as his team is winning) and keeping up with the latest movies.