Caterpillar B15: The Android smartphone for the building site
Bullitt Mobile’s rugged blower for tool-toting types
Review There’s no doubt that smartphones are getting more robust. Both the Sony Xperia Z and the forthcoming Samsung Galaxy S4 Active boast IP57-rated resistance to dust and water intrusion which is handy if you take your phone to the beach or the pool and come over all clumsy.
Drop either of them out of a third-floor window on a building site, or drive over them in a Range Rover, though, and it will all end in tears. The Caterpillar Cat B15, however, is designed to survive just such abuse, as you’d expect from a handset designed by the folks who make big yellow construction equipment. Or by a company licensing the big yellow brand, as Bullitt Mobile has here.
Bullitt Mobile’s B15: the Cat with nine lives?
The B15 is currently the only viable hard-as-nails smartphone on the market. JCB’s discontinued Pro-Smart can still be picked up here and there, but it boasts a hopelessly out-of-date spec: Android 2.3 and an 800MHz processor, anyone? Sonim’s handsets may be as tough as old boots but they are also as dumb as a bag of hammers.
The B15’s specification on the other hand isn’t too shabby. You get stock Android 4.1.2 running on a 1GHz dual-core MediaTek MT6577 Cortex A-9 SoC; a 4-inch, 480 x 800 screen; 5MP and 0.3MP cameras; and a 2000mAh battery. Granted, that spec isn’t going to tempt anyone away from an HTC One, but it’s a solid enough offering for a tough phone with a £285 SIM-free sticker price.
Besides being as ‘ard as a cockney gangster in a Guy Ritchie flick, the B15 has another unusual feature: two SIM slots, complete with a usefully comprehensive menu with which to manage them. Changing which SIM does what, or switching one off completely, is the work of seconds, which should help keep some clear blue bathroom sealant between your work and private life.
With the back open: note the double-decker SIM slots
While the B15 certainly looks like a device designed for life on a building site, Caterpillar hasn’t gone overboard with the phone’s styling. Sure it’s quite a square and chunky old lump but it’s still small. At 170g, it’s only a smidge heavier than a Nokia Lumia 820. And it’s smart enough to pass muster down the boozer after knocking-off time.
It’s obvious from the get-go that some serious thought has gone into the design. The Caterpillar-yellow volume keys are well separated to aid gloved-hand usage, while the camera button between them requires a three-second push to activate, the better to avoid accidental launches.
The power button at the top is similarly designed to be easy to activate deliberately but difficult to do so accidentally.
Another clever touch is the micro USB port cover. If the rubber plug ever breaks you can just unscrew the bit that’s still attached to your phone and replace the entire thing. You can’t do the same with the 3.5mm audio jack cover on the top of the phone but it’s so robust I can’t imagine how you’d ever rip it off.
On a ladder... but no signal, guv
Of more importance in everyday use are the 15mm-thick square sides, which make it a very easy device to hold firmly with cold and wet hands, or while wearing gloves. That said, the touchscreen isn’t one of the magic works-with-gloves types.
Officially, the B15 is certified to IP67 standard which means it’s dustproof and waterproof when dunked in up to one metre of water for 30 minutes. But that’s only part of the story.
Thanks to thick silicon rubber bumpers at the top and bottom, and aluminium side panels, the B15 can survive a 1.8m drop onto concrete. I know: I dropped one from a second-storey window at closer to 3m onto a stone patio, and no harm done.
Survivor: out from under a Range Rover Sport... intact and working
I also drove over it in a Range Rover Sport on a gravel drive, left it overnight at the bottom of a nearby stream - so much for the 30-minute dunking maximum - and then stuck it (after a wash) in a pint of Banks’s Mild until I got thirsty. It survived all those experiences none the worse for wear.
The Captain Scarlet of smartphones?
The B15 is not indestructible. I suspect that the display panel is no more robust than any other Gorilla Glass screen, but you’d really have to go some to break it. The same goes for getting it too hot or too cold. Caterpillar reckons the operating window is between -20°C and 55°C, which means short of sticking it in a hot oven with your frozen pizza you are covered.
Going the extra
mile pint: the B15 survives the Reg beer dunk benchmark
With a mediocre MediaTek chip and only 512MB of Ram, the B15 was never going to light up the performance charts, but the UI is perfectly fluid, the stock media player handles 720p video just fine and it can play games like Shadowgun: DeadZone and Temple Run 2 without getting its knickers in a twist. I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect any more from a phone that’s being pitched as a work rather than an entertainment tool.
There’s only 4GB of storage built in, which in the real world equates to 1GB for apps and 1.6GB for file storage. If you need more space there’s a Micro SD slot tucked away under the battery. Having the on-board storage divided up like that is a bit old hat but it does mean you can access that 1.6GB as USB mass-storage - which is handy if you need to connect your phone to the foreman’s laptop in a hurry.
The TFT LCD screen lets the side down a bit. It’s bright and crisp enough but there’s too much unidirectional chromatic shift about the long axis. Hold the device in landscape and then bring the left-hand edge forward until you are looking at it at 45° and the screen washes out close to black.
They've got micro USB covered
There’s also a fair bit of light bleed around the edges of the screen when the brightness is turned up to 11 which isn’t something I expect to see on a £300 handset in this day and age.
Happily, the implementation of Android on the B15 is very close to stock and the only bloat is a couple of links to Caterpillar’s website, which take up next to no space. The quick-settings menu above the notifications panel has had a small makeover, primarily by offering a broader selection of sound profiles, including a very loud outdoor setting so you can hear the gaffer call when standing next to a working cement mixer.
The one feature I was surprised not to find on the B15 was an LED flash. Not so much for low light photography for which, like all LED lights, it would be tits-on-a-bull useless, but for use as an impromptu torch. The day before my review handset arrived I’d been using the LED on my Motorola Razr i to peer into a gloomy and powerless cellar so it’s definitely a bit of a missed trick.
The volume and camera buttons are well placed for users wearing thick gloves
The main camera may only be a 5MP affair but it takes a decent enough snap in good light and is more than sufficient for photo-scanning Wickes invoices using an app like CamScanner. It can also record video at 720p and 30fps. The 0.3MP webcam is less impressive but at least there is one.
I expected better from the removable 2000mAh battery. It will get you through a full day easily enough but the two cellular radios do have an impact on battery life if you leave them switched on all the time.
No problems to report with wireless reception or call quality, and while the loudspeaker is hardly the most refined one I’ve come across, it’s certainly loud enough, especially in Outdoor mode. Like all Android smartphones, you get Bluetooth and aGPS - the toughened bodyshell has no negative impact on GPS signal reception - though there’s no NFC chip.
The Reg Verdict
If you want a smartphone that’s waterproof, drop-proof, beer-proof and Range Rover proof, and that has two Sim slots, the Cat B15 is self-recommending, despite the mediocre display. The absence of an LED light is a strange omission but I’ve got a small Maglite in my toolbox so it’s not the end of the world.
In short, the B15 is ideal for anyone who has to graft for a living or is worried about dropping and damaging a fragile and expensive thoroughbred like the iPhone 5 or Samsung Galaxy S4. ®