Subject: Cat S41 smartphone review
Date: 1-Oct-2018
Review rating: 3 / 5 stars

Summary:

   Ingress protection: probably fine IF all covers are secure
   Overall feel: solid, nice grip, factory screen protector
   Physical UI: Okay; physical buttons are a little klunky
   Battery life: excellent so far; charge-rate not shown while on
   Call audio: good in both directions, loud speakerphone mode
   OS bloat factor: minimal, can't disable one or two items
   Lock security: problematic WRT the quick-settings
   Downside items: camera, messaging app, no VoLTE, WiFi behavior
   Manufacturer support: sketchy, but there's hope

Full review:

I'm new enough to the field of smartphones that I'm not really sure where
any product should fall on a scale, so I'll stay rating-neutral and just
describe some experiences.  This is to warn potential buyers about some
caveats, which may be tolerable enough to otherwise enjoy what seems to
be a solid product.  Some users will never hit some of these situations,
depending on their own usage preferences.

No, I haven't taken it swimming.  The waterproofness is still entirely
dependent on closing the three little access hatches right -- charging
port, SIM/SD slots, and headphone jack.  Why borrow trouble if we don't
have to?  I'm satisfied knowing that it'll be more resistant to conditions
I might run into when hiking or doing rough physical work or whatever.
It is a nicely solid unit, apparently fine on its own without any add-on
case around it, making for a nice compact handful even though it's a
ruggedized type.  The edges have rubber inlays and the whole back is a
similar rubbery-feeling material, giving a nice solid grip.  The screen
has a factory-installed protector glued on, which is very precisely fit
and after a month-plus hasn't shown any signs of peeling up.

Battery life is quite good, but much depends on individual usage and how
many background activities have been disabled.  In my configuration, a day
of sitting idle on the cell network with nothing running and no calls
drops the charge maybe 2-3% over the entire day.  Fast charging vs. slow
charging cannot be distinguished unless the phone is powered off.

Call audio in my ear is nicely clear, and I've been assured that my speech
sounds a lot better than it did on my old flip-phone.  The phone microphone
is tucked down underneath the row of navigation buttons.  [And yes, they're
physical buttons on this phone.  That's an entertaining variant but in the
typical flow of usage, it's actually slower to press a physical button than
tap a region for the back/home/recent functions.]  The speakerphone output
is almost annoyingly loud even on the softest possible volume setting.

The Android 7.0 Nougat it comes with seems reasonably bloat-free; the one
super-annoying app you can't disable is the "App Toolbox" which upon
startup immediately tries to call home to "appland.se" and send all
kinds of intimate device details to a website you never heard of.  My
proxy layer now knows how to silently intercept and block that, along
with the usual Google nonsense.  Most of the other junk can be disabled
readily enough.

When the phone is LOCKED, it is still possible to turn wi-fi, cell data,
bluetooth, hotspot, and airplane on or off from the "quick shade".  This is
arguably a security lapse, as such configurability should NOT be randomly
changeable by someone who happens to casually pick up the phone.  The
flashlight is similarly left enabled, but that may actually be useful even
if it lets someone run your battery down faster.  The workaround is to
remove the items in question from the shade configuration, and access the
relevant settings once the phone is unlocked.  Oddly, the location icon
*does* require unlocking to toggle, which is rather inconsistent.

The messaging app has an annoying race-condition bug where MMS is concerned.
A short description and a "Download" link is presented for a new MMS, and
if the phone is not connected to the cell data network at the time you tap
the button it changes state to "downloading..." and NEVER returns to tell
you it failed and allow retry later.  Some internal service that presumably
downloads the content sometimes shows a pop-up that download failed, but the
message app never gets this status returned and stays in "downloading..."
deep space until you REBOOT the entire phone.  Workaround: have cell-data
turned on and valid before trying.  MMS fetch does NOT work over wi-fi.

As noted in other reviews, the main camera could be a lot better -- not
necessarily because of the hardware, but because of the lousy processing
done in the camera app.  Typical soft edges and too much "oversharpening"
leading to unnatural-looking detail.  If you need to do photography, get
a real camera and don't rely on *any* phone's tiny fixed optics.  I'm not
even going to talk about the selfie-cam, as it got taped over within ten
minutes of unboxing.

The phone does NOT do VoLTE or wi-fi calling, at least in the variant that
T-mobile and other carriers expect with the IPSEC encapsulation.  There
seem to be capabilities for plain old SIP, but that's a different beast
from what people expect as having cell service over their home wi-fi
hookups.  Workaround, on T-Mo: order a "LTE cellspot" unit, free except
for a one-time $25 deposit.  Other carriers may have equivalent units
to create a strong micro-cell within your home and pipe to the carrier
over your regular internet hookup.

It appears to be impossible to *prevent* the phone from jumping onto
whatever SAVED wi-fi networks it sees in range, and sometimes it hops
randomly between different ones as it pleases which can really screw up
any notion of a "session" you have through a particular network.  For
different APs within a single infrastructure that's fine, as it allows
roaming to the strongest one, but for different networks??  Wrong.  Samsung
actually got this right, having the option to present a list of visible saved
networks but not join *any* of them until you say so.  Klunky workaround:
temporarily set incorrect passwords for private networks you don't want to
join right now, and hope that there isn't an "xfinitywifi" within range
because that will try to grab away your expected connectivity too.

The people behind "support@catphones.com" could use to be a little more
responsive when sent specific complaints.  On the other hand, they claim
[as of Sep-2018] is that there will be an Android 8 update available
relatively soon.  Maybe that will fix some of the minor bugs and introduce
proper wi-fi calling, leaving the users to then convince their carriers to
enable it for their accounts with non-branded phones.  They also now know
of several things that need to be fixed and/or added to in the online
PDF user manual.

Bottom line: pretty happy with it overall, still mastering workarounds
for minor annoyances.

_H*  181001