Ever accidentally drop your smartphone? When concrete meets glass and plastic, the floor wins every time. Nokia candybars prove the exception to this rule, but who wants a dumbphone? For smartphone users, careful attention to materials and design can prevent your phone from turning to dust when dropped, without breaking budgets. Caterpillar, the company that makes tractors, now offers the $350 CAT B15 as part of their line of ruggedized semi-smart and full-on Android smartphones for the low end. CAT’s competitors offer either locked phones or outrageous prices.
With high-end, ruggedized smartphones costing between $450 for something like a Samsung Galaxy S4 Active and $5000 for TAG Heuer’s RACER SUB NANO, a $350 durable smartphone fulfills a unique niche (the only other rugged phone for the same money is the excellent, but Sprint-only, Kyocera Torque). Most consumers, including those laboring in inhospitable environments, don’t require high-end specs. But does the CAT B15’s toughness and midrange chipset warrant a purchase?
First, let us explain how ruggedized tech is classified.
What is Ruggedized Tech?
Ruggedized smartphones, like other ruggedized tech, adhere to at least one international standard for ruggedization. The CAT B15 adheres to two different specifications: IP67 and MIL-STD-810G.
The IP standard (standing for ‘ingress protection’) actually includes two different standards – the first digit in IP67 stands for liquid immersion and the second covers dust particles. A rating of 67 (6 covering liquids) means protection from immersion in water of up to roughly three feet (1 meter), for one minute, and complete protection from dust particles (the 7).
Environmental Engineering Considerations and Laboratory Tests
Standing for ‘Environmental Engingeering Considerations and Laboratory Tests‘, the MIL-STD-810G specification hails from the US military. It emphasizes service life and a more realistic standard for ruggedization as it simulates environmental conditions rather than lab conditions. Phones certified for the 810G standard are shock, vibration and temperature resistant.
CAT claims that the B15 can survive a drop from 1.8 meters (around 6 feet) which is roughly the height that a phone would fall from the side of one’s head to the floor. Zagg also sells a shock-absorbing screen protector that will help against falls on uneven surfaces. Looking at the rubber reinforced nubs on the corners of the B15, it does indeed appear impervious to most kinds of everyday drops. However, a face-first drop onto an even surface would certainly smash the glass screen – Gorilla Glass is notoriously brittle.
Meeting the CAT B15 Ruggedized Smartphone
The presentation and industrial design of the B15 provide a feeling of quality. It feels solidly built, offering both lightness and the feel of a highly durable device. There are no mushy, wriggly buttons – only the sense of density and toughness. Shaking the CAT B15, nothing rattles around in the phone, unlike my Nexus 5 (read our review of the Nexus 5). It’s definitely a high quality device.
You get a fairly minimal amount of peripheral components, along with the CAT B15. It includes the following items:
- Instruction manual
- micro-USB cable
- 5 volt power adapter
The CAT B15 looks and feels like it can take a serious beating. It features a rugged, industrial exterior fashioned from hard rubber and aluminum. The detachable rear cover of the phone can lock into place. Removed, it exposes a mini SIM card and microSD tray. Removing the plastic rear plating requires some force, which is a good sign. And the rubber seal around the edges of the case provides proof that the phone is water-resistant. Further augmenting its IP-rating, is its protected ports. All of its ports come covered by a removable rubber plug, which protects against water and dirt. It’s clearly durable and impact resistant.
I don’t advise playing Throw the Phone. However, for the accident prone, the CAT B15’s exterior offers superior protection and minimal bulk. It doesn’t pack in a great deal of additional frills, like NFC, but overall it overs a complete spectrum of functions for a modern smartphone.
- Screen: The WXGA 480×800 4-inch screen won’t turn any heads, but it’s perfectly adequate for daily use. I found myself needing to squint a bit more, but overall my impression is that a 4-inch screen is perfectly adequate.
- Camera: At 5 megapixels, the camera doesn’t provide high-quality shots. The camera seems more intended for use as document scanner or for perhaps documentation purposes. It does not include an LED flash, so I assume not. This is unfortunate, as construction workers operating in the field would benefit from access to a backup flashlight.
- Design: While Gorilla Glass screens don’t offer immunity from impacts (they’re highly scratch resistant), the design of the B15 seems to protect against cracked glass. The B15 includes a slightly raised, hard-rubber bezel which protects the corners of the device as well as the periphery of the screen. While I did not drop the device, it’s obviously designed to reduce the likelihood of cracked glass in the wake of an accident.
- Speaker: The speaker and microphone provide adequate volume during calls. I’m not sure how these components were sealed against liquid and dust, but they do function even when wet.
The B15 offers low to mid-range specifications, a relatively low resolution screen and a standard sensor suite. It also possesses average wireless features. There’s no LTE, although there’s an AWS model offering higher speed data with T-Mobile.
- Operating system: Unmodified Android 4.1 Jelly Bean
- CPU: Dual-core MediaTek MTK6577 clocked at 1 GHz
- GPU: PowerVR SGX 531 (300 MHz)
- Screen: 4-inch WVGA (480×800) capacitive with water resistance and Gorilla Glass
- RAM: 512 megabytes
- ROM flash: 5 gigabytes
- Maximum microSD storage: 32 gigabytes
- Ports: mini SIM, micro-USB, 3.5-inch audio jack, microSD
- WiFi: Single band 802.11b/g/n with Bluetooth 3.0
- 2G: GSM 850/900/1800/1900
- 3G: HSDPA 900/2100
- HSDPA 850/1900
- Battery: 2,000 mAh
- Camera: 5 megapixel rear shooter and VGA front-facing
- GPS: aGPS
- Dimensions: 125x69x14.95 mm
- Weight: 170 grams
- Vibration: Yes (linear motor?)
CAT also manufactures an AWS version of the B15 (which has a single SIM card slot), meaning it can broadcast on the 1700 MHz spectrum, which T-Mobile uses for higher speed data connectivity. T-Mobile users will definitely want this variant.
Overall, the CAT B15 feels snappy, although it doesn’t run the latest games. I put it through several relatively imprecise benchmark applications, Carat for battery and AnTuTu for holistic system performance. In battery performance, it performs very well (although I remain skeptical of the score of 96 out of 100 generated in Carat). For system performance, it functions adequately.
Using my favorite battery testing app, Carat, the B15 scored a phenomenal 96 for battery life. Unfortunately, this number appears erroneous. While the B15 does offer excellent battery life, it’s not among the best out there. That’s said, it manages to offer a similar battery life as my Nexus 4 (read our review of the Nexus 4) while at the same time managing to perform adequately.
The B15 scores around 8,000 in AnTuTu, which is the standard score for the lightweight MTK8755 chipset, with dual cores. Although that number falls somewhere between mediocre and modest, the phone feels as snappy as many phones with quad cores. I found that apps load rapidly and perform satisfactorily.
AnTuTu scores aren’t really all that reliable due to rampant cheating and the impracticality of synthetic benchmarks. However, they do offer a good means to provide general classifications of chipset performance. The MTK6577 chipset, derived from the ARM Cortex A7 intellectual property, specializes in efficient, low-power operation. It’s a great technology to use in general purpose smartphones. For gaming, the CPU won’t play more demanding titles. For day-to-day tasks, like browsing and email, the MTK6755 provides solid and smooth performance.
The “Hybrid” governor (a software feature that manages the processor) offers a combination between performance and power efficiency. It only uses one core, suspending the other, until heavy tasks are queued up. After that point, it turns on the second core. The Hybrid governor, the MTK6755’s performance scrolling feels snappy and Nexus-like.
On the Downside
Overall, I consider the B15 to be an excellent niche product. However, it lacks TRIM implementation (and likely won’t ever receive it) and offers somewhat weak, but not bad, hardware specifications.
Lack of TRIM
TRIM allows solid state storage to optimize itself after long periods of use. Without TRIM, all systems using solid state storage (why TRIM matters) eventually slow to a crawl and necessitate a factory reset in order to restore performance. However, a reset will force users to reinstall all their applications. Overall, the hassle of being forced to occasionally factory reset a phone remains high. For someone working in the field, phone reliability ranks among the highest of concerns — without TRIM, each phone becomes a potential liability.
The small screen, CPU, RAM and internal memory won’t impress anyone outside of North Korea. Multitaskers will feel bogged down by the minimal 512 megabytes of RAM. Digital packrats will lose their minds trying to squeeze their MP3 library into 5 gigabytes of internal memory. Even worse, its lack of LTE may be a deal-breaker for the data-obsessed.
As I consider dual-core chipsets to be “good enough” for smartphones, my biggest complaint about the hardware is the lack of an LED flash. For a field-friendly and rugged smartphone, versatility makes a good phone great. An LED flash, which could act as a backup flashlight in an emergency, could offer its target audience better value.
On a technical level, the CAT B15‘s spec won’t impress, but its rugged characteristics, battery efficiency and great design make it a fantastic phone for the field. While it won’t be playing the latest games, it will survive a fair amount of abuse – and for anyone wanting great value and ruggedization, the CAT B15 is the best unlocked smartphone on the market.
How do I win the CAT B15 Rugged Smartphone?
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