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CAT S48c Review: A Simply Indestructible Phone

CAT's latest rugged handset won't crack under pressure, but it's definitely not for everyone.

Our Verdict

CAT's latest rugged handset won't crack under pressure, but it's definitely not for everyone.

For

  • Superrugged
  • Excellent battery life

Against

  • A bit expensive
  • Drab display
  • Disappointing camera
  • No reverse charging
  • No fingerprint sensor

Most of us probably aren't employed in a line of work where we subject our smartphones to treacherous conditions. But for those braving the elements every day, from construction workers to first responders, durability takes priority over bells and whistles.

Bullitt Group makes CAT-branded smartphones especially for this discerning group of people, with the $599 CAT S48c arriving as its latest effort. Clad in a heavily ruggedized body with ample helpings of rubber, physical navigation keys and watertight doors for ports, the S48c won't outrun similarly priced premium handsets, but it will outlast them.

Price and Availability

The CAT S48c retails for $599 and can be purchased through two major wireless carriers, with some caveats.

Sprint customers are able to buy the phone as they would any other, though this variant is equipped with only 32GB of storage space. Once you factor in the size of Android, updates and preinstalled software, you're left with just 20GB of storage for everything else. There is a microSD slot for expandability, though the largest card the phone will accept is 128GB.

Verizon also offers the S48c, and with 64GB of storage as standard, no less. However, only Big Red's business and enterprise clients can get it. We reviewed the Sprint model.

CAT S48c Specs and Price

Price$599
OSAndroid 8.1 Oreo
Screen Size (Resolution)5-inch LCD (1920 x 1080)
CPUQualcomm Snapdragon 630
RAM4GB
Storage32GB (Sprint)/64GB (Verizon)
microSD SlotYes, up to 128GB
Rear Camera13 MP
Front Camera5 MP
Battery Size4,000 mAh
Battery Life (Hrs:Mins)13:08
Water ResistanceYes, IP68
Size5.9 x 3.0 x 0.5 inches

Design and Durability: Simply Indestructible

Tipping the scales at 9.4 ounces, the CAT S48c isn't pretty, easily pocketable or feasible for those with smaller hands, like yours truly. But then, that's not really the point.

The S48c isn't designed to be easy to live with; it's designed to be damn near impossible to kill. That explains the half-inch-thick edges wrapped in resilient soft-touch plastic and the octagonal footprint — all of which were excellent at dissipating impact when we dropped the phone on solid concrete. The S48c brushed off repeated tumbles from 7.5 feet high, showing only light scuffs on the rubber-reinforced corners.

None of this is to say Bullitt hasn't made some nods toward comfort. The back side features ridges that should make the S48c easier to hold onto for those donning heavy-duty gloves. And the trio of physical navigation keys and the extra-large programmable side button guarantee the sort of instant, responsive tactile feedback you want in the most strenuous of use cases.

The S48c isn't designed to be easy to live with; it's designed to be damn near impossible to kill.

We appreciate Bullitt's commitment to the headphone jack, which is shrouded by the same robust, flappy doors that obscure the SIM card and microSD slots, as well as the USB Type-C port. These help earn the S48c its IP68 water-resistance rating, allowing the handset to survive submersion in up to 4 feet of water for a maximum of 30 minutes.

Unfortunately, all that durability has come at the expense of the fingerprint sensor. Just as you must do with 2017's CAT S41, you'll have to manually input PIN codes and passwords to safely unlock the S48c, which is a real nuisance. Some form of rudimentary face unlock would have been extremely useful here, for those who can't afford to waste as much time fussing with their devices on the job.

Display: At Least It's Bright

The 5-inch, 1080p display on CAT's latest handset feels a bit antiquated, due to its 16:9 aspect ratio. But underneath, it's solid for an LCD panel, with accurate colors and strong brightness.

That brightness is an absolute must for easy outdoor usage. The S48c's peak full-screen luminance of 516 nits handily surpasses the 413-nit Moto G6, but falls well short of the old CAT S41, which hit 591 nits.

That said, this isn't the kind of display that's going to blow you away with its colors or sharpness. Watching a trailer for the upcoming Spider-Man flick, I was disappointed by the panel's dreary explosions and muted visual effects. It wasn't a terrible experience by any means; the S48c's representation of 126 percent of the sRGB color space is perfectly in line with rival LCD-powered handsets. But it just doesn't dazzle.

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Users will appreciate that Bullitt has included an optional Glove Mode, which slightly increases sensitivity to touches. However, even with the feature switched on, the display isn't responsive to every material — heavy winter mitts won't do here.

Camera: Clearly an Afterthought

Like a lot of other Android phones in its price range, the S48c can take serviceable shots when lighting is ideal, but promptly struggles in dimly lit places.

On the back of the phone, you'll find just one 13-megapixel lens. There's no secondary shooter for bokeh or wide-angle shots, which, honestly, isn't a massive loss on a device designed for durability first. But the S48c's camera has a tendency to produce blurry and oversaturated images, even in the best of shooting conditions.

I was pleasantly surprised by the S48c's attempt to capture some decor in front of one of our office windows. But when I opted to grab a portrait of my colleague Shaun under the same lighting, the S48c's flaws quickly became evident. You have to hold the phone perfectly still to get a clean result, and even then, the darker portions, like Shaun's beard and shirt, lack a certain fidelity.

Our darkened video studio definitely put the S48c's camera on trial. The $799 iPhone XR we used for comparison purposes employs clever software to dynamically brighten areas of the frame that ordinarily wouldn't be fully exposed. The S48c doesn't benefit from any such post-processing, and the product is a muddy photo that much more obviously looks like it came from a phone.

Don't expect anything better from the front lens, either. The S48c's anemic 5-MP shooter couldn't be further off the mark; it delivered a totally washed-out selfie that almost resembled something you'd expect to see from a surveillance camera.

Performance: All Work, Little Play

As long as you're not expecting flagship-caliber performance, the S48c and its Snapdragon 630 system-on-chip shouldn't leave you wanting for more power. Just don't expect to do any hardcore gaming.

I found little slowdown when thumbing around Android, exploring my surroundings with Google Maps or cycling through recently used apps. The S48c's 4GB of RAM — on par with Google's Pixel 3 — certainly helped in that regard.

Unfortunately, the meager Adreno 508 GPU quickly showed its limits when it ran more demanding apps. An older game like Crazy Taxi Classic proved to be a breeze for the device, allowing me to dart around town ferrying passengers with nary a dropped frame. But PUBG Mobile was a very different experience: It was peppered with its fair share of hiccups, even on the lowest possible settings.

MORE: 5 Ways to Improve Your Android Phone's Battery Life

The S48c's multicore Geekbench 4 score of 4,118 falls within the range of acceptability for a midrange product, though it's a bit underwhelming for a $599 handset. The $249 Moto G6, which registered a 3,934 result from its Snapdragon 450 silicon, is almost as powerful. And the $499 BlackBerry Key2 handily outclassed CAT's latest with its 5,832 score.

Battery Life: An Endurance Workhorse

The S48c's 4,000-mAh battery lasted 13 hours and 8 minutes in our testing, where we streamed web pages over Sprint's LTE network indefinitely until it ran out of juice.

The lack of reverse charging is surprising in this multitool of a smartphone.

That's an excellent result, though CAT's previous midrange effort, the S41, outlasts it with a 5,000-mAh power pack that ran for nearly 15 and a half hours when we put it through its paces. The S41 also incorporated reverse charging, which is something you sadly won't find on the S48c — a surprising omission in this multitool of a smartphone.

Software: No Frills, Some Bloat

Bullitt hasn't messed with Android 8.1 Oreo much at all on the S48c, though if you opt for the Sprint model, you can expect a handful of preinstalled apps.

Some of this software, like Sprint Direct Connect Plus, which enables push-to-talk functionality over LTE, should be a boon to CAT's customers. But most of it firmly falls in the bloatware category, from Lookout Security to 1Weather (the ad-supported version, mind you) and the Amazon Shopping app.

You'll want to carry the S48c along on all your journeys because of its ruggedness, but the dismal photography will discourage you from uploading your discoveries to Instagram.

The S48c's Programmable Key lives on the left side of the handset underneath the power button, and you can instruct it to carry out specific actions or launch apps, based on whether you perform a short or long press. It's also the button that initiates push-to-talk mode if you're inclined to use it.

Bottom Line

If you can't afford to worry about your smartphone quitting before you do, the CAT S48c is well worth a look. This combination of durability and battery life is almost nonexistent among consumer handsets. If one thing is certain, Bullitt spared no expense building the latest CAT phone into the tank it ought to be.

The S48c becomes far less compelling, however, in light of all the sacrifices it makes to deliver that kind of grit for $599. The device's middling performance and dreary display are one thing, but it's the phone's camera that's especially heartbreaking. You'll want to carry the S48c along on all your journeys because of its ruggedness, but the dismal photography will discourage you from uploading your discoveries to Instagram.

And so the S48c ends up beating a drum familiar to almost all supertough smartphones, save for Samsung's on-again, off-again Galaxy S Active series. For an extremely specific and demanding subset of buyers, it may check all the right boxes. But unless you regularly use a smartphone under demanding conditions, you're better off buying an iPhone and stuffing it in one of Otterbox's protective cases.

Credit: Tom's Guide