Most premium smartphones today are touted as water-resistant, or perhaps even waterproof. But what does this really mean? Can you throw your phone into a pool without worry?
Since one of the most common ways that phones get damaged is by water, it’s important to know what your phone can withstand. Let’s take a look at what you should know about waterproof and water-resistant smartphones and other electronics.
Waterproof vs. Water-Resistant
Simply put, waterproof means that it is impossible for water to ever get inside of a device under any circumstances. While some companies may use this as a marketing term, no device is truly waterproof. Even if your device can withstand a few minutes in the rain, you can’t take it deep-sea diving. At some point, all water-repelling measures will fail and water will enter the device.
This is why water-resistant is the more accurate term. It indicates that while the device has some protection against liquid intrusion, water can still get inside under certain conditions. It’s a subtle but important difference.
But once you know your device isn’t completely waterproof, how do you figure out how much it can withstand? Let’s dive deeper into water resistance and the main standards used to indicate how a device will protect against water.
ATM Resistance: Used Mostly for Wearables
ATM stands for atmosphere. One atmosphere is roughly equal to the pressure exerted on an object when it’s on the surface of the water at sea level. Every 10 meters (about 33 feet) deeper you go increases the pressure by one additional ATM.
Smartwatches and fitness bands usually mark their water resistance in ATM. For example, if your smartwatch has a water resistance of 5 ATM, it’s probably safe to use in recreational pools and will survive being left out in the rain.
There is no standardized test to determine the ATM of a wearable device, though some watches adopt the ISO:22810 standard used by traditional wristwatches. While the ATM of a wearable device marks its water resistance, there’s more to it than just the depth.
ATM tests are done under static pressure, meaning that they test the device sitting still at a certain level of pressure. This is quite different than many real-world condition. For example, while your fitness tracker could withstand being dropped in a sink full of water, it might break if you spray it with a strong hose or slam into the water while jet-skiing.
These situations may exert more pressure on your watch than it can handle.
IP Codes: Used Mostly for Phones
Unlike wearables, smartphones have standardized tests for water resistance. These are set by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and are called International Protection or Ingress Protection codes. The codes are commonly denoted as IP, followed by two digits.
For example, the iPhone 12 has a rating of IP68. In those two numbers, the first digit refers to dust protection. For this, 6 is the highest rating, which most smartphones achieve today. The second digit refers to water protection, in which 9 is the highest rating. However, most smartphones offer a 7 or 8 level of water resistance.
Here’s a quick list of what each water resistance number indicates:
- X: The device has not been tested for water resistance.
- 0: No protection against water.
- 1: Dripping water has no effect.
- 2: Dripping water has no effect even when falling vertically when the device is at a 15-degree angle.
- 3: Spraying water has no effect, even when coming at an angle of 60 degrees from vertical.
- 4: Splashing water from any direction has no effect.
- 5: Water jets from a 0.25-inch nozzle have no effect.
- 6: More powerful water jets from a 0.5-inch nozzle have no effect.
- 7: Submerging in up to one meter (3.25 feet) of water for 30 minutes has no effect.
- 8: Submerging in more than one meter (3.25 feet) of water for more than 30 minutes has no effect.
- 9: High-temperature, high-pressure water sprays have no effect.
Of these, you’re likely never going to encounter the last one for consumer electronics. Most smartphones today offer 7 or 8 water protection, while some older devices might have 4, 5, or 6.
Technically, just because a device has achieved one level of resistance doesn’t mean it’s been tested for the other numbers below it. Some devices will thus boast two IP ratings, but this is rare. Generally, any device that is rated as a 7 or 8 for water protection will be safe against the other forms of water intrusion as well.
A water resistance rating of 8 can have a different meaning depending on the device. For example, the iPhone 12 and iPhone 11 are both rated at IP68. However, according to Apple’s iPhone water resistance page, the iPhone 12 is rated for protection at six meters (19.7 feet) deep for up to 30 minutes, while the iPhone 11 is only rated for depths of two meters (6.6 feet) at 30 minutes.
In short, IPx7 and IPx8 ratings indicate that a phone can survive submersion in water. As mentioned with ATM ratings, keep in mind that these rating tests are still done in still water under perfect conditions. Just because your phone can sit in a few feet of water doesn’t mean that you can spray it with a pressure washer.
The Limitations of Water Resistance
As we’ve seen, any device that the manufacturer claims is “waterproof” is actually water-resistant. There are precise conditions where it gives you that protection, but those come with some limitations.
First is that water resistance is not a permanent trait. Over time—either through normal wear and tear or by putting your phone in poor conditions—your phone’s water resistance can drop. Seals can wear over time, and physical damage can give water an entry point it wouldn’t have otherwise.
Because of this, water damage is not covered under most warranties. If you drop your phone in water a few months after buying it and it stops working, the company isn’t going to replace it.
Depending on your device, you may not be able to press its buttons while submerged either. In some cases, these can break seals and allow water to enter. If you use a water-resistant case for your phone, make sure you have all flaps and other covers secured too.
Keep in mind that water protection tests are performed in fresh water only. You shouldn’t take your device into salt water under any conditions. The salt can damage it beyond repair.
Finally, IP resistance doesn’t necessarily protect against other liquids like coffee or muddy water. For the iPhone XS line and later, Apple states that the devices are resistant to spills from drinks like soda and juice. You simply need to rinse the spill with tap water, then wipe your iPhone off and let it dry.
For other devices, you should check with the manufacturer on the recommended procedure.
Water Resistance Is for Protection, Not Fun
It’s important to remember that water resistance features are designed as a bonus level of protection from water damage, not as a cool feature that you should put to the test. If you have a water-resistant phone and accidentally drop it in the toilet, you probably don’t have to worry too much. But you shouldn’t take your device into the pool every chance you get.
If you want to know how water-resistant your device truly is, read the manufacturer’s fine print about it. Don’t trust marketing statements like “swim-proof”—you should never intentionally expose a device to water unless you’re certain about what it’s meant to handle.
Water resistance is not perfect and is dependent on a number of conditions. If your phone gets wet and you’re concerned it could be damaged, you should know how to save a wet device.
You dropped your tablet or phone in water? Here’s how to get the water out and ensure your device survives.
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