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Your Phone Isn't Actually Waterproof -- But These Other Devices Are

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06/23/2019 | 09:15am EDT

By David Pierce

Want to live on the edge? Go get a glass of water -- or, if you're feeling extra lucky, a beer or a Coke -- and pour it on your phone.

Wait! First of all, I, David Pierce, am not liable for any phones destroyed during this, um, experiment. The reason I dared you at all is that if you have a recent smartphone from Apple or Samsung, this is theoretically no problem. Many phones are now advertised as "spillproof" or "water-resistant," meant to survive a spilled drink, a tumble into the toilet or even a fall into the pool. Definitely a little glass of water.

But you might not feel like taking the chance anyway -- and you probably shouldn't.

My goal with this column was to recommend the best gadgets to use in and near the water, because it's summer and what better way to while away a beach vacation than by staring at your favorite screen? What I found instead was a mess of standards and manufacturer half-promises that make me reluctant to trust anything claiming to be water-resistant.

After spending hours in the water testing some of these devices until my fingers and toes pruned to unprecedented levels, I did find a few gadgets safe to take swimming. With phones, though, I found there is no guarantee they'll survive more than a quick splash or spill, and it probably isn't worth the risk.

Let me rephrase that: I basically killed an iPhone X.

Something in the Water

Companies denote product ruggedness using an IP rating. Created by the International Electrotechnical Commission, the ratings typically contain two numbers. The first, on a scale of 1 to 6, represents protection against "foreign solid objects," like dust and sand; the higher the number, the better the theoretical protection. The second, on a scale of 1 to 8, represents the device's ability to resist moisture.

You'd think devices like Apple's iPhone XS or Samsung's Galaxy S10 -- both rated IP68 -- would be as dust- and water-resistant as it gets. You'd be wrong.

Apple says the iPhone XS's rating means the phone can be submerged in water up to 2 meters deep for up to 30 minutes. Samsung says its protection extends only to 1.5 meters deep for the same half-hour. Both companies, however, strongly recommend against actually submerging your phone -- and both will void your warranty if the phone suffers liquid damage.

That's largely because tests don't reflect real conditions: Most water-resistance tests are done with clean, fresh water. You're probably safe to spill a bottle of Fiji water on your phone, but all bets are off if it's beer or coffee -- though they are the sorts of "accidental spills" Apple has said recent iPhones can likely survive. Water that you swim in might be worse.

"Designing something to be used in the ocean, or even worse, a pool, is a lot harder than just water," said Scott Walker, co-founder of swim-gadget manufacturer Underwater Audio. "The chemicals that are in your neighborhood pool are really, really caustic."

I can vouch for that. I spent an afternoon at a pool with an IP67-rated iPhone X. It was in the water frequently, but never longer or deeper than it is specified to handle -- and the touch screen stopped working properly. Now I can barely type, scroll or even swipe to open the camera. The Galaxy S10, which went through the same tests, survived. This time.

Devices that are water-resistant today might not be tomorrow. Most gadgets use watertight seals to keep moisture out, like the caulking in your bathtub. But these seals don't hold forever.

"The IP rating they give phones is valid the first day you buy a phone and invalid the day after that," said Kyle Wiens, chief executive at gadget-repair site iFixit. The adhesive degrades, and if you crack or bend or in any way compromise your phone, the protection quickly becomes useless. Some newer gadgets use what is known as a "nano coating" to keep bad stuff from reaching sensitive components, but even that can degrade over time.

Even though there's no guarantee of your phone's survival, my testing showed that if you have a recent high-end phone or other device rated IP67 or IP68, small spills and splashes shouldn't cause problems. Even a fall in the pool probably isn't the end of the world. Anytime your device gets wet, though, it's important that you rinse it with fresh water (a quick dunk under the tap should do it) and then dry it off thoroughly. Wait as long as you can before charging the device again.

Ready for the Deep End

My absolute favorite new "waterproof" gadget, the latest Kindle Paperwhite, can be your poolside pal or even bath-time buddy, but don't take it swimming. If you want to use gadgets underwater, there are some other, more limited, options.

Here are a few of the gadgets I've tested that will actually survive in the deep.

Recent Apple Watch models can withstand water up to 50 feet deep, as long as you are careful to rinse it off when you are done and use the Water Lock feature to get excess moisture out. Being underwater makes the touch screen useless and limits your Bluetooth range, but you can still track your workout.

For listening to music while you float the day away, I recommend Logitech's $100 Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 2. This squat Bluetooth speaker actually floats, so it can stay connected to your phone. It sounds quite good, too, and its battery keeps chugging long after you're a full prune.

If you'd rather have headphones, I like the $40 Underwater Audio Swimbuds. They use a long, Christmas tree-shaped tip to create a good seal in your ear, so water doesn't get in -- and the one-year warranty includes water damage. Same goes for the Delphin, the company's $220 Android-powered mini music player, which syncs Pandora, Spotify and other music-streaming services.

For underwater photography, the easiest thing to do is buy a case like the $100 Hitcase Pro. When properly sealed (which takes some work), it protects your phone down to 33 feet. The screen won't work, but you can snap photos and video by using the volume keys as the shutter.

If you'd rather not risk your $1,000 smartphone -- and I don't blame you -- get the $450 Olympus Tough TG-6, which can go as deep as 50 feet. That'll cover any pool or snorkeling activity. My favorite option, though, is the Sony RX100 in its humongous but useful $280 underwater housing. With camera, the whole package can run well over a grand, but it's scuba-ready -- down to a brain-bending 130 feet. And the camera, without housing, is the best point-and-shoot camera on the market.

One day, every gadget might be safe to use in the water. Our phones in particular are so important and expensive, they ought to be able to withstand the elements. For now, though, scroll Instagram from poolside, but leave it on your seat (and maybe hide it under a towel) when you take the plunge.

-- For more WSJ Technology analysis, reviews, advice and headlines, sign up for our weekly newsletter. And don't forget to subscribe to our Instant Message podcast.

Stocks mentioned in the article
ChangeLast1st jan.
AMAZON.COM -0.68% 1964.52 Delayed Quote.31.69%
APPLE -1.49% 202.59 Delayed Quote.28.43%
LOGITECH INTERNATIONAL 0.39% 38.39 Delayed Quote.23.67%
SAMSUNG ELECTRONICS CO LTD (ADR) 2.15% 996.5 Delayed Quote.14.94%
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