Samsung has just unveiled the latest addition to its flagship Galaxy smartphone line at the Mobile World Congress trade fair in Barcelona, Spain. The new Galaxy S5 is, among many other things, dust-proof and waterproof to an IP67 rating. But what does this rating mean? How does waterproofing a phone work? And does it even matter?
u Do I even need a waterproof smartphone?
There are so many things in life we don’t really need. Smartphones, age-defying moisturizing cream, jeggings, colonoscopies. But let us not be rhetorical.
Assuming that you find a smartphone a non-negotiable element of your daily life, water-resistance is a good quality for your phone to have. According to one recent survey of iPhone users in the US carried out by a used-phone trading site, water damage was the second most frequent reason people junked their phones. Dropping the phone was No.1.
Combine this with the fact that most people use their phones outdoors, in all kinds of weather conditions, and water-resistance seems like a no-brainer. Like long battery life or reliable call quality.
u So why don’t all phones have it?
There is waterproofing and there is waterproofing. It is not particularly hard to shield phones in indestructible shells. The problem is that most of these shielded phones look very, very ugly indeed (have you seen those Toughphones made by JCB? Ugh). You could also just carry your phone around in a plastic bag. Effective, but hardly elegant.
The challenge is to find a solution that protects your phone without making it ugly or useless. This is hard. Mobile phones, by nature, are full of lots of little electronics bits and bobs that fail in spectacular ways at the merest hint of moisture. What makes things worse is that most phones don’t sit inside sealed enclosures. They need openings for headphones, chargers and speakers. All potential entry points for water.
u So is there no hope at all?
Not at all. Scientists have been figuring out all kinds of ingenious ways of making phones water-resistant. This ranges from watertight enclosures that protect the circuitry, to chemicals that can be injected into the phone, filling in all vacant space and preventing water ingress.
The most popular technology right now seems to be special water-repellent nano-coatings. A thin layer of proprietary coating, made by companies such as P2i or HzO, sits over the circuitry, protecting it from dust and water. Like a thin layer of oil on a wrestler’s body. Kind of.
Manufacturers such as Sony and Samsung probably use a combination of these techniques. The problem of open sockets remains. But both brands provide watertight flaps over charger sockets.
u Very good. And now for that IP rating business...
Ingress Protection, or IP, ratings are classifications standardized and published by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). IP ratings are usually indicated in the “IPXY” format where X stands for the level of dust-resistance and Y stands for the level of water-resistance. The IEC categorizes dust-resistance from levels 0-6, where 6 indicates complete protection. And water-resistance from levels 0-9. So when Samsung says the S5 has a rating of IP67, it means it is completely resistant to dust and has a level 7 rating for water, i.e. the phone can be immersed for up to 30 minutes to a depth of 1m.
u Wait. So it is not really waterproof, is it?
No. You can drop it into a pretty deep puddle or pothole and fish it out intact. But don’t take a luxuriating 3-hour-long bath with your phone. At least not yet. Scientists are aware of your cravings and are working on it as we speak.