Who says electronics and water don’t mix? Smartphones that can handle the rain, a dunk in the bath, or a tumble into a puddle aren’t the rarity they once were, and we’re not only talking about underpowered, basic phones covered in chunky rubber either. Today, some of the very best smartphones you can buy aren’t afraid of the wet stuff.
Maybe you work outdoors; are tired of being afraid of having something spilt on your precious phone; or you just want to Tweet while you shower in the morning. Whatever the reason, a water-resistant smartphone is at the top of your shopping list. The question is, which one is the best for you?
Here are our top four phone picks, plus some cases if you don’t want to change your existing device, to make your search much easier.
Why should you buy this: It’s the same brilliant phone in three different styles, so there’s something for everyone.
Who’s it for: Anyone who wants a high-powered flagship phone that’s waterproof
How much will it cost: $650-$750
You want a gorgeous smartphone with the latest tech inside, plus a super curvy screen? Then pick up the Galaxy S7 Edge. You’d prefer a tougher body that’s not only water resistant, but also capable of surviving knocks and drops? Then the Galaxy S7 Active is for you. Don’t care about any of these things and just want a brilliant phone that will survive a dunking? The regular Galaxy S7 fits the bill.
That’s why Samsung’s Galaxy S7 lineup tops our list. The same phone is available in three different styles, all with essentially the same technology inside. The S7, S7 Edge, and the S7 Active all use a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, have 4GB of RAM, and the same excellent 12-megapixel camera on the rear and 5-megapixel camera on the front. On the software side, all three have Android 6.0 Marshmallow installed from the factory, with Samsung’s own TouchWiz user interface over the top. making it look a little different to Android on other phones.
The differences in specification come with the screen and the battery. The S7 and S7 Active have a 5.1-inch display with a 2,560 x 1,440 pixel resolution, while the S7 Edge increases the size to 5.5-inches. The battery changes between all three. A 3,000mAh cell is inside the Galaxy S7, while the S7 Edge gets a 3,600mAh cell, and finally the S7 Active has a larger 4,000mAh battery for more usage time.
The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge aren’t very rugged, but share the same IP68 water resistance rating, making them capable of surviving in up to 1.5 meters of water for around 30 minutes. Because the bodies are made from glass, they won’t handle a fall onto a hard surface, though. That’s where the S7 Active comes in, It has a rugged body that meets MIL-STD-810G standards, and the IP68 certification.
Samsung’s decision to spin-off the S7 into three distinct models is a good one, it gives a versatility that’s impossible to find elsewhere, and the fact the same technology is found in all three makes it hard to recommend any other water resistant smartphone in the same way. Whichever you pick, you’ll be happy.
The best waterproof iPhone
Why should you buy this: Both iPhone 7 models resist water, but only the Plus has the fantastic dual-lens camera.
Who’s it for: Anyone who wants a water-resistant iPhone
How much will it cost: $770+
Why we picked the iPhone 7 Plus:
Really, the question here is why we picked the iPhone 7 Plus over the slightly more compact iPhone 7. The answer is simple, and it’s not because of the higher resolution, larger display. It’s because of the camera. The iPhone 7 Plus has two lenses, one of which has a clever telephoto system for a 2x optical zoom, a feature that’s rare on a smartphone. It works really well, bringing faraway subjects closer without losing quality.
It also boasts Apple’s Portrait mode, where picture backgrounds are blurred out to give the much sought after bokeh effect. It’s easy to use, and the end result usually looks fantastic, emphasizing the subject of your photo with an effect that’s more often found only on expensive DSLR cameras.
Apple’s A10 Fusion chip, new for the iPhone 7 range, is fast and capable, keeping iOS 10 running extremely smoothly. The body, especially in either of the new black colors, is sleek and stylish, with a very minimalistic design. Apple’s TouchID fingerprint sensor, with uncanny haptic feedback to make it feel like a button, is still the best available, and the stereo speakers make the iPhone 7 Plus sound better than ever.
There is one, standout downside to the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, and that’s the lack of a 3.5mm headphone socket. Yes, it can be a real pain, but an adaptor is included in the box so you can use your existing headphones through the Lightning connector, or do as Apple wants and get yourself a wireless Bluetooth set and not worry about cables at all.
Water resistance has been a long awaited feature on an iPhone, so what should you expect? Apple calls the iPhone 7 Plus splash, water, and dust resistant and the phone has received an IP67 rating, which makes it slightly less watertight than the Galaxy S7 family. It should survive in water up to a meter in depth for 30 minutes, but only “static” water, rather than the sea or a river.
The best waterproof Sony phone
Why should you buy this: It’s the water-resistant Sony phone with the best specifications.
Who’s it for: Sony devotees wanting the best performance and specs from their new water-resistant phone
How much will it cost: $480-$600
Why we picked the Sony Xperia X Performance:
Water resistance has long been a mainstay feature on Sony’s smartphones, and for a while, it was one of the few manufacturers offering a flagship phone that could survive a dunking. While Sony has made things awkward for buyers in the U.S. — most of its phones are only available unlocked and without a contract — the company still has its fans, and if that’s you, the Sony phone we currently recommend is the Xperia X Performance.
Occupying the top step in its X range of smartphones that effectively replaced the Z series, the X Performance squeezes a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, 3GB of RAM, and a 23-megapixel camera into a compact metal body with a 5-inch screen. It’s around the same size as the Samsung Galaxy S7, but slightly thicker, and around 10 grams heavier.
It has the same IP68 rating as the Galaxy S7, so it will keep water out to a depth of 1.5 meters for 30 minutes, and make sure dust isn’t a problem either. The decision to change from the Z series trademark glass body to a metal one makes the device slightly more resilient in the event of a fall too. We like the shape and feel of the Xperia X Performance, the design of which continues to be influenced by Sony’s OmniBalance language, where symmetry and simplicity rule.
There are a few issues worth noting though. In the U.S., the fingerprint sensor is disabled (but not in Europe), and the phone is also expensive, especially as the screen resolution is 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, the same as many mid-range Android phones today. It still looks great, thanks to Sony’s software tweaks, but some may prefer the higher pixel density on a phone like the Galaxy S7.
Sony is also working hard on software updates, and it’s preparing to release an Android 7.0 Nougat update for the X Performance, something that makes it stand out among other Android manufacturers.
The best rugged waterproof phone
Why should you buy this: It’s the most rugged phone you can buy with solid drop protection and water resistance.
Who’s it for: Climbers, hikers, construction workers, and clumsy people who want to know how hot things get.
How much will it cost: $600
Why we picked the Caterpillar Cat S60:
If all you care about is a phone that will still work after it gets dropped, bashed about a bit, or spends time in quite a lot of water, then the Cat S60 is definitely the phone for you. It looks a fright, but the IP68 rating is good for 60 minutes in water down to a depth of 5 meters, plus the MIL-STD-810G rating keeps it safe from dust, radiation, and shocks. The tough body will treat a fall from 1.8 meters onto concrete like it was nothing.
By chance, if during all this abuse, the need for thermal imaging arises, the S60 will step up to this task as well. In a partnership with sensor company Flir, the S60 has an unusual thermal camera alongside its standard 13-megapixel camera. It works with a special app to show heat palettes, temperature, and hot spots.
The rest of the phone isn’t quite so high spec as the others on our list. A Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor and 3GB of RAM provides the power, while the 4.7-inch screen has a 1,280 x 720 pixel resolution. However, no-one will be buying the S60 for top specs or outstanding style. It’s all about survival, but the S60 is definitely more Ray Mears than Bear Grylls.
The best waterproof case for your phone
Why should you buy this: Cheaper than getting a new phone, it’s a fast and convenient way to add protection.
Who is it for: Anyone who doesn’t want to change their phone, but wants to protect it from the elements
How much will it cost: $8 to $60
Instead of hunting around for a cheap phone that provides water resistance, why not just buy the phone you want, and put it in a waterproof case? There are various options out there, but we like the following three choices.
The Lifeproof Fre promises to protect against water, dirt, snow, and from sharp impacts. It covers the whole of your phone, including the screen and all the ports, so be prepared for an increase in overall size and weight. It’s a small price to pay for such a high level of protection. The LifeProof Fre cases are available for the Galaxy S5, S6, and S7, along with all iPhone models from the iPhone 5, plus for the new Google Pixel phones and other models.
Catalyst are a great alternative to LifeProof’s cases, and come in versions suitable for all iPhone models since the iPhone 4, and even includes cases for the Apple Watch and the iPad range. Tested to IP68 levels and a depth of 10 meters, the cases protect against water, snow, dust, and dirt. Catalyst has paid attention to the little things, like ensuring Touch ID still works as you want it to, and the camera lens cover is of high enough quality to not ruin any pictures.
If a custom waterproof case isn’t available for your phone, or you want a really cheap, reliable system, then get a universal “dry bag” type case, which seals your phone inside a pouch and keeps all the elements out. There are plenty of choices out there, in various colors, such as this one from Mpow, and this one from Joto. Both have an IPX8 rating and will take phones with screens smaller than 6-inches inside.
IP What? What those IP ratings actually mean
When we talk about waterproof hardware, we often refer to an IP rating. This stands for Ingress Protection, and is usually followed by a number, which refers to its ability to withstand water and dust. The first digit relates to solid particle protection and the second digit to liquid.
All the phones on our list meet IP67 or IP68 standards. IP numbers that start with a six mean the device features complete protection from dust, and will ward off particles to the extent where none can find their way in. It’s the highest rating currently available, and is considered “dust tight.”
To meet the IPx8 standard, the device must continue to function normally after being left in water “continuously,” although the exact details are usually down to the manufacturer. For example, Samsung says the Galaxy S7, “Can be immersed in 1.5 meters of water for up to 30 minutes.” Drop that down to an IP67 rating, and the depth changes to a meter, and protection is only for a short time.
Here’s a complete breakdown of what all the IP codes mean, if you want to check out other ratings. It’s worth pointing out that while we call these phones waterproof, they remain so at best for a limited amount of time, and are technically water resistant. In other words, we don’t advise you to deliberately submerge any of them, especially not for very long, but it’s still nice not to have to worry if an accident happens.
How we test
Keys, wallet, smartphone. That’s how the mantra goes when most of us leave the house, ensuring nothing essential has been left behind. Because our phones are now such an important part of our everyday life, choosing the right one requires the same degree of research as a new car, or a new computer. We know this, which is why each phone we review becomes part of our everyday life. We want to tell you what it’s like to live with, before you put down your money.
We check our emails, play games, take photos (lots of photos), browse social media, watch video, and much more besides to see how the phone performs in the situations you will most often encounter. On the technical side, we’ll check the benchmark results and dive more deeply into the software, but it’s regular use that tells us what we want to know.
From this, and similar experience with other devices on the market, we can advise you on which model to buy. If it’s not worth it, we’ll say, and let you know the reason. You’ll know if we love it too, because we’ll sing its praises repeatedly. We use our phones all the time, and form quite an attachment to them, so the decision on which one to buy isn’t to be taken lightly. It makes sense for us not to treat reviewing them lightly either.