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Will outdoorsy Kiwis take to the sturdy Cat S60 smartphone?

The Cat S60 is water-resistant to 5m. Photo / Supplied

I have a friend who is constantly dropping his smartphone. I watch him texting with his thumbs on a screen that is perpetually shattered.

I’m considering doing a whip around his circle of friends to buy him the Cat S60, possibly the toughest smartphone on the market. It is designed by Caterpillar, better known for making bulldozers and trucks.

For starters, the Cat S60 has a two-year guarantee on its toughened Gorilla Glass screen, so if you smash it, they’ll replace it.

It’s plastic polymer and steel frame is built to withstand a drop from 1.8 metres and is totally waterproof, meaning the S60 can be submerged to a depth of five metres for up to an hour. Every cavity in the phone - its headphone jack, SIM and MicroSD card slots and charging port are covered with rubber-sealed lids to keep out water and dust.

Tough tech

In 1996, Panasonic debuted the Toughbook, a laptop for extreme conditions, which could withstand wildly fluctuating temperatures, drops, spills and vibration. It was an immediate hit with the military, tradespeople and scientists and is still a strong seller over 20 years on. The idea is the same with the Cat S60 - give people all the functionality of a smartphone, but in a chassis that will ensure it doesn’t die on you with a bit of rough treatment.

Regular smartphones have toughened up themselves. Screens, the usual casualty in a drop, generally employ reinforced glass and frames are stronger - though the trend towards all-glass phones makes some of them more prone to cracks.

Waterproofing has come to a wide range of smartphones. The Samsung S9+ for instance, has an IP (Ingress Protection) rating of IP68, meaning it has a waterproof seal over it allowing it to be used in the rain or even submerged in fresh water to a depth of 1.5 metres for up to 30 minutes.

That’s pretty impressive. But the S9+ isn’t intended to be regularly immersed in water. The S60 also has an IP68 rating, but is truly designed for full immersion and lengthy periods in water. It has little levels on it you can switch on to waterproof the speakers when taking it underwater and the Cat S60 can withstand jets of water.

I didn’t have a swimming pool deep enough to test the 5m water resistance of the S60 but it survived everything I splashed at it and 45 minutes submerged in my sink.

The Cat S60's thermal imaging sensor is a world first, with great appeal to tradies. Photo / supplied

Predator vision

Based on a reasonably clean version of the Android operating system, the S60 will run all of the applications you can download from the Google Play store. But there are a few specialist apps that really extend its functionality beyond most smartphones.

Its pièce de résistance is a dedicated thermal imaging sensor, a world first, which sees in infra-red and can accurately gauge temperature up to a distance of 30 metres. It does a fairly good job of seeing in the dark, presenting on the phone’s screen, a psychedelic view of the world, like the alien in that 1980’s movie Predator experienced.

The thermal imaging, using specialist hardware and software from industry specialist FLIR, will mainly appeal to tradespeople who need to be able to see temperature contrasts. It could be a gasfitter looking for leaks in pipes, or an electrician trying to find the cables behind some plasterboard.

The S60 confirmed for me that some of the gas elements on my Weber barbeque aren’t working. I’m not sure if you could rely on it to tell you whether a cow has a fever, but its potential uses are numerous.

Cat also has a dedicated app store full of useful apps with practical purposes, such as a digital tape measure and a spirit level.

Built for extremes

All over the S60, you’ll come across features that point to its intended use in industrial or outdoor settings. There’s a physical SOS button on its side that can be pushed to immediately contact emergency services and an app can let you track the location of members of your work team for safety purposes. It can even support push-to-talk functionality, turning it into a type of walkie-talkie.

The S60’s screen has been adapted so that you can swipe, tap and type with wet fingers - try doing that on your own phone.

The battery is enormous at 3,800mHa (milliamp hours). I found that with regular use of apps, and a lot of experimenting with the thermal imaging, it got through a day and a half before needing charging. But the large battery gives it an impressive 44 days in standby mode, a great feature if you are going to be out in the bush and without access to power sources. You can even charge other devices from it using the Battery Share feature.

It's chunky - but sturdy and practical. Photo / supplied

No iPhone X

Elsewhere the S60 has pretty standard hardware specifications for a phone at this price. It doesn’t have a retina display screen or a top-flight processor powering it. The front and rear cameras are adequate but nowhere near as good as what you’ll get with the Huawei P20 Pro.

At 12.7mm thick, the S60 is also seriously chunky, twice as thick as most modern smartphones. You’ll get some raised eyebrows when you whip this thing out over dinner to take a food selfie.

But all of those are understandable compromises. You are unlikely to be spending a lot of time watching Netflix or playing Pokemon Go on this smartphone. You trade the specifications and aesthetics for sturdiness and practicality.

The S60’s appeal

Cat is aiming the S60, which has been on sale overseas for a couple of years but is hitting the market here for the first time, at “those in construction, agriculture, security, and vehicle repair, or who enjoy outdoor activities such as fishing, hiking, boating and biking”.

That covers a heck of a lot of Kiwis, who may be using a regular smartphone with a sturdy cover in the field but still finding they are prone to failure when roughly handled.

I see a great use for the S60 among the hiking community, where a digital compass and access to maps and GPS can come in handy, but where you are likely to be above the snowline, crossing rivers or scrambling over rocky areas.

I can see a mountain biker with an S60 strapped to her arm, a jet skier with one in his pocket for safety.

The S60 is a welcome addition to the smartphone market here that will appeal to those who rely on their device to get through some tough situations.

Pros

Best ruggedised and waterproofed ratings

Sophisticated thermal imaging

Safety features like SOS hot button

Cons

Middling hardware specs

Chunky body


Rating 8/10

Price: $1,099

More about the Cat S60. On sale at Spark online and in selected Spark stores, JA Russell and Cat Gough dealerships, PB Tech, and online at JB Hi-Fi and Noel Leeming.

The Cat range also includes the Cat S41 ($749) and Cat S31 ($549).