A CAT that's as tough as old boots.

Dec 23, 2013

Time was when, as a matter of routine, comms companies would give technology journalists all sorts of gizmos and gadgets to test, to review, to keep for ourselves or give away to family and friends. Indeed, I once had 43 different handsets in a drawer in my office. If any of the company staff needed a mobile they were free to rummage around and take what they wanted for, a bit like the Number 29 bus From Finsbury Park to Trafalgar Square, another six phones would be sure to turn up in a while.

But that was then and now, during our current straitened economic times, we get fewer bits of kit to play with and that's why it's quite unusual for me to be road-testing (not to mention waxing lyrical about) a piece of kit's that's not at all electronic, indeed it's not even clockwork, but is undeniably solid-state. In fact that's what it is - solid. And that's all to the good.

I'm talking about the CAT (Caterpillar Inc of the US) "Active Urban" ruggedised mobile handset case that has been wrapped protectively around my iPhone 5S for several weeks past.

Yes, I've got an iPhone. It's not by my choice (it comes bundled with the company's comms deal) and I don't like it much because of the number of failed connections and dropped calls that I have suffered since I started to use the thing - but I do like my CAT case.

It's made from a trade-marked, black, plastic-like "active" material called SAIF (I have had a quick trawl round the web but couldn't find out what the letters stand for or what the manufacturing process is) that is moderately flexible in ordinary use but which almost instantly becomes rigid when it is dropped. The further and faster it falls, the more it resists deformation, which makes the material ideal for protecting expensive but notoriously delicate and breakage-prone handsets like the iPhone.

Top of the range smartphones cost lot to buy or lease and they can and do break remarkably easily - that's why there's such a strong demand for, and market in, ancillary kit designed to protect the things. After all, people can't afford to keep replacing their phone or tablet or to pay ever-increasing premiums for ever more hedged-about and restricted insurance for smartphone loss, theft and damage.

As is always the case (if you'll forgive the pun) you get what you pay for and when you buy a phone case, and if you buy cheap ,you often have to buy twice and many of the cases I have seen (that are on sale in phone shops the world around the world for US$20 and more) would be about as much use as a chocolate fireguard when it comes to reliability in the shock and impact absorption department.

The CAT kit comes in at around the $35 mark but I reckon it is worth the extra cost because it just plain works - and the manufacturers claim that an Active Urban case containing a smartphone can be dropped from 1.8 metres without the device being damaged.

I have not (yet) dropped my iPhone from anything like that height but it does get knocked about a fair old bit and so far it has hit the deck on a London tube train (from the height of about a metre) and fell out of a pocket onto the road whilst I was exiting a taxi. In the first instance the handset landed on its back and was absolutely fine. On the second occasion it hit the tarmac on one of its corners (certainly the most vulnerable part of an iPhone) and still worked perfectly well - for an iPhone.

So far so good then, but the cover is going to get a much long and harder active urban and active rural workout because I have a hefty upcoming filming schedule and it is going with me to various parts of the world, ending up at the madness that is Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in late February. Then we'll see!

The Active Urban range is available for the iPhone 5S, the iPhone 4, the iPad Air and the Samsung Galaxy S4. The case clips on to the body of the handset very solidly but is also easy to remove for cleaning. The cutouts for the camera, on/off switches, charger etc. are neat and precise, while the corners are particularly strong and on the long sides of the case are situated strong silver anodised screw-on metal pieces that double up as design features and extra strengthening. What's more the case isn't at all bulky given how durable and strong it is.

All-in-all, I am impressed by the CAT Active Urban because it is as tough as old boots without actually looking like a pair of battered size 13 clodhoppers.

For its next test, I'm going to hand the case with my iPhone in it, to a three-year old toddler who will be visiting us the day after Christmas. If he can't can't find its weak spots I doubt that anyone else will. I'll let you know.

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