Ruggedly unusual might be the best way to describe the Cat S61 when you consider that it’s not just a smartphone, but also a handyman’s tool.

On the surface, the Cat S61 is the opposite of what you’d expect from a phone these days. It has no real styling to speak of, nor the finesse of a svelte and slim form factor. That’s essentially the point behind it. For anyone wanting a tough handset that can withstand some punishment, this is exactly what, Bullitt, the manufacturer had in mind.

It comes equipped with various built-in tools and apps to help get a job done, including laser measurement, an air quality sensor, integrated thermal camera and plenty more.


Cat S61 specs

Display: 5.2-inch 1920 x 1080 IPS LCD display with 424 pixels per inch
OS: Android 9.0 Pie
Processor: 2.2GHz Snapdragon 630 64-bit octa-core processor
Memory: 4GB RAM, 64GB (microSD card slot expandable up to 256GB)
Camera: 16-megapixel rear camera, 8-megapixel front-facing, FLIR camera
Video: Up to 4K Ultra HD video recording
Battery: 4500mAh
Connections: LTE, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, A-GPS, NFC, USB-C
Dimensions: 6.38 x 3.03 x 0.51 inches
Weight: 259 grams
Comes in black


Design

The phone’s dimensions really say it all. With a thickness similar to a phone nestled in a rugged case, the Cat S61 has some extra girth and weight to it. The bulge at the top is a bit off-putting, but to me, it made the device look like something someone snapped off a tool belt. It’s not hard to see a smartphone on a typical job site or in any handyman’s work these days, and there are cases made for those scenarios.

I’m not sure there would even be a case for this thing, or that it’s even necessary. It’s the only phone I’m aware of that has an IP69 rating for water and dust resistance. At that number, the S61 can handle pressurized water, dusty construction sites and even a mound of snow.

The frame itself is made of hard steel, while the rest of the device is a mixture of polycarbonate and rubberized materials. These are often the same things used in rugged phone and tablet cases, so it’s not a surprising combination.

To maintain the physical element, Bullitt made the navigation keys actual buttons—perfect for anyone wearing gloves. The headphone jack and USB-C port have covers to protect them from the elements. The SIM and memory card slots are also hidden under a protective cover. In lieu of a SIM and memory card, you can actually slot in two SIMs instead.

There are four holes under the volume button that are an air quality sensor. On the back, the FLIR camera is the one that looks like a mirror, along with a standard lens, flash and further down, a laser sight. The phone’s 5.2-inch display matches the mid-range specs of the device’s internal components. It’s evident this handset isn’t meant to compete with the industry’s best.

Performance and software

The specs may not measure up, yet there are pieces in this phone that I’ve never seen in any other. A thermal imaging camera is hardly a staple feature, and the Cat S61 has it, capable of seeing heat sources up to 400 degrees centigrade. I had fun using it without needing to. Seeing how heat signatures light up is interesting when a phone does it natively.

The camera does offer some other viewing methods, though I wasn’t overly impressed with them. The night vision is a long way from a relatively clear view in darkness, and I would say the same of the others in that list.

I did expect a little more out of the laser as well. As a measurement tool, it offers an estimate, rather than an approximation. I also had to calibrate it regularly to try improving its accuracy. It’s decent, but I would always keep a tape measure handy, just in case.

The air quality sensor was often an interesting insight into my surroundings. It’s designed to recognize VOC levels (Volatile Organic Compounds), measuring them in user-friendly green, yellow and red designations. I was a little surprised when it detected poor air quality in an airport lounge. Other times, it surprised me in a good way, like how it showed great levels in my own home.

The rust-coloured button on the left edge has a few different capabilities. By default, it can work as a push-to-talk (PTT) button, though you will need a compatible app for that. A short or long press can launch an app as a shortcut. I used it to launch the FLIR camera and air quality sensor, respectively.

Camera

The regular camera is serviceable, though not anything exceptional. Still, to be honest, I expected something worse. Photos look good in optimal conditions, whereas low-light and night photos leave something to be desired. Given the ruggedness behind the Cat S61, I’m not sure the phone would be capturing memories more than simply shooting to remember something short-term.

I say that because the FLIR camera is so different from anything typically seen in a phone. The regular image sensor is naturally totally different, but accords itself pretty well. I’ve seen far worse on other devices.

As for the FLIR camera, it’s not often you get to shoot something with thermal imaging. Not only that, but the ability to read temperature (both hot and cold) is unique unto itself. There have been apps claiming to do the same on other devices, but it’s clearly not the same thing. This is hardware built to shoot that way.

Other factors

While testing out the Cat S61, I noticed a few other details I felt were worth noting. First, I was able to update the phone to Android 9 Pie and get the latest security update. That’s a good sign for a niche device like this. Bullitt says there will be two years worth of updates. One has already passed, so it’s not clear when, or if, this one will get Android 10 as well.

The phone’s girth and weight make it a little more challenging to carry around in a pocket, but then again, that’s partly the point. You would likely only consider it if you were in an industry that benefitted from it.

Also, a quick note about battery life. The screen resolution, coupled with the components inside, make the battery last longer on any given day. It also charges quickly, which is great for getting back up to full power in less time.

Final thoughts

I’ve already called the Cat S61 a niche phone, and I think that’s pretty obvious. The only real reason to consider its collection of features is that you will actually use them. If you’re an average user who isn’t involved in any sort of industrial or contractor job, I don’t see the fit in that regard.

If you are, however, it’s an interesting option with few competitors. Phones are rarely ever ruggedized out of the box, much less offering thermal imaging and built-in air quality sensors. The whole package is comparable in price to a flagship, so that should make your choice even easier.

The Bullitt Cat S61 smartphone is available now in black.

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Editor Cellular/Mobile Technology
I’m a fortunate man in being able to do the fun job of following and reporting on one of the most exciting industries in the world today. In my time covering consumer tech, I’ve written for a number of publications, including the Globe and Mail, Yahoo! Canada, CBC.ca, Canoe, Digital Trends, MobileSyrup, G4 Tech, PC World, Faze and AppStorm. I’ve also appeared on TV as a tech expert for Global, CTV and the Shopping Channel.

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