Caterpillar has been making rugged handsets for a while now, and the new Cat B15 brings its line up to date.
Once upon a time, if you wanted a truly rugged handset, you had to compromise on features. They tended to run older versions of whatever operating system they were based on. They also had poorer and generally lower specs than similarly priced 'mainstream' competitors.
But there's no way a rugged handset specialist should be able to get away with that these days because many of the mainstream manufacturers are in on the rugged game. Motorola's Defy range, Samsung's Xcover, and, most recently of all, Sony's high-end Xperia Z all spring to mind as good quality water- and dust-resistant phones. Of course, there's room for truly military-grade rugged too, from the likes of Getac.
The Caterpillar Cat B15 shares the IP67 rating of those other handsets I've mentioned. IP67 is a military standard, and phones that meet it can survive dust ingress and immersion in water up to 1 metre for thirty minutes. The Cat B15 can also withstand drops from up to 1.8 metres onto concrete. It is comfortable in temperatures from -20 degrees Centigrade to +55 degrees Centigrade. And the touchscreen can be used if your fingers are wet.
The Cat B15 looks a lot more solid than the Xperia Z, Xcover or Defy handsets. This is because of a deep chassis that gives it a thickness of 14.95mm. When other phones fight to get below 10mm this really feels noticeable in the hand. Caterpillar has tried to mitigate the bricklike of this phone appearance by angling its four corners. While this does give a unique look, it still feels like a brick in the hand, and the 170g of weight does not help in that respect.
The body is a mix of tough rubber and aluminium, with the latter forming most of the long edges. The rubber sits round the four corners and on the top and bottom edges of the phone. This helps the handset bounce when it is dropped rather than simply hit the ground with a hard smack. There's a serious amount of indentation in the backplate, which helps make for good grip if you are wearing gloves. The backplate fits tightly into an indented slot, and it's held in place by a sliding lock.
As you'd expect from a water- and dust-resistant phone, the slots are covered. There are only two of these – the headset slot on the top edge and the microUSB slot on the left. I found my standard USB connector wouldn't fit into the slot because the rubber surround to the connector itself was too fat. You'll need to either switch to the Caterpillar cable for all your USB charging or carry it specifically for this device.
The 4in screen looks a little lost in its bulky surrounding, but that's only to be expected. Its 800 x 480 pixel resolution is a disappointment. This is stunningly low in comparison to the mainstream these days and, to add insult to injury, the LCD is not especially bright, even when auto brightness is turned off and it's racked up to full tilt. Viewing angles are poor, too.
The buttons are a minimal set. The small on-off switch is on the top edge, while volume rockers and a camera shortcut are on the right. They're all yellow, and they stand out well visually – though not always physically. You'll never find the recessed on-off switch by touch, but the others are OK in that respect.
It does support wet finger tracking though, and this worked well for me on test. Water dripping onto the screen did not deliver such a positive experience. The handset registered drips as touches and did all sorts of things I didn't want it to. To be honest, though, I don't know when you'd encounter this type of faked up condition in the real world. Using a phone under a waterfall perhaps?
The Cat B15 supports two SIMs. That's unusual for a rugged handset – well, it is unusual for any phone. Both SIMs and a microSD card stack on top of each other in slots that you can't get to unless you remove the battery. It's a fiddle getting them in and out, and I doubt anyone working in really rugged conditions, with dust flying about or maybe having to wear gloves, would want to fiddle with them. Both SIM slots support 3G, but only one can be 3G enabled at any one time.
You can configure the SIMs so that your preferred one is used for voice calls, video calls, messaging and data, and can even associate contacts with a specific SIM.
I mentioned that rugged handsets can't get away with specs that don't match the price these days. With that in mind, it is good to see that the Cat B15 runs on Android 4.1. The dual-core 1GHz processor is reasonably nippy, but I'd have liked to see 1GB of RAM rather than the 512MB that is on offer here. The 4GB of internal storage is also a bit mean, and checking my review handset fresh from a reboot, there was just 1.6GB free. You are going to need a microSD card.
To get to the microSD card slot, you are going to need to remove the two SIMs first, and you can't get to any of these without removing the battery to start with. The microSD card and SIM(s) have good protection where they are located, but it is far from ideal if you like hotswapping.
There's a 5-megapixel camera on the back of the handset and a VGA camera on the front. You've got 720p video recording support.
Caterpillar hasn't added much by way of applications to the Android standard stuff. It does look like there are some extras, but these turn out to be links to web sites for things like the Caterpillar used items and rental web services. It's not very inspiring stuff.
Importantly, if you fail to lock the backplate in position with its slider you could be in trouble. Putting the Cat B15 into a sink with about eight inches of water in it without the slider in the right position let water inside the back of the phone. This seeped into the SIM caddies and rendered the handset unusable till everything dried out. A second test, with the backplate firmly in place, resulted in no water ingress. Thankfully.
Caterpillar clearly thinks there's a point in continuing to update its line of rugged hands, but I'm not so sure that plan makes sense. These days, mainstream handset makers do rugged quite well, and Caterpillar needs to offer more than they do in order to compete successfully. It is true that the Cat B15 feels more solid in the hand than many, and might withstand a few more knocks and drops, but its poor screen is a letdown, it is bulky, and the fact that I was able to let water into my review sample by forgetting to secure the backplate properly is a worry.
1.0GHz dual-core MediaTek MT6577
4.0in, 800 x 480 pixels
125 x 69.5 x 14.95 mm