The iPhone 7 may be Apple’s first water-resistant phone, but don’t go dunking it in your pool’s deep end anytime soon — after all, the company cautions that it can only withstand up to a meter of water for a maximum of 30 minutes. That got us wondering, just what do manufacturers like Apple mean when they use terms like “water-proof” and “water-resistant”? What constitutes a “rugged” device? And at the end of the day, how many times can you drop your phone in the toilet before it stops functioning?
As it turns out, there are often standards behind terms such as “rugged” and “water-resistant,” and they’re quite strict. So before you buy your next “durable” phone, you may want to understand how to interpret the ratings behind them.
The ratings behind a “rugged” product
“Rugged” is just a word, a marketing term as meaningless as “summer-proof,” “whatever-proof,” “water resistant,” and “dust proof” — all make for nice bullet points on a gadget’s spec sheet, but aren’t all that descriptive. “Rugged” and “water-resistant” devices can short when they fall into water, shatter when they hit the concrete, and shut down if they lay in the hot sun for too long. But when a phone’s been certified, by contrast, that means a third-party organization has conducted tests to ensure it can survive conditions like hard falls, dusty environments, extreme heat and cold, certain forms of radiation, and deep pools of water.
Phone, tablet, and PC manufacturers designate the ruggedness of a device with two flavors of standards: the Ingress Protection (IP) Rating, published by a standards body called the International Electrotechnical Commission, and the Military Specification or Military Standard (MIL-STD), which are developed by various arms of the U.S. Military and Department of Defense. When Apple advertises that the iPhone 7 as “water resistant,” what it really means is that it’s achieved some level of certification.
Ingress Protection Rating
The Ingress Protection Rating of a device is determined by how well it performs in tests that expose it to dirt, dust, and water. Ratings range from 1 to 6 for dust and dirt, and 1 to 8 for water, where the first and second digit in the rating indicate how well it withstands exposure to foreign particles and liquid, respectively. The maximum rating for solid objects, IP 6, means a device is completely resistant to dust and dirt. A water resistance rating of 8, meanwhile, means it can be submerged in liquid for an indefinite amount of time up to a depth specified by the manufacturer.
In order for a smartphone to achieve a rating, it must pass every test leading up to the highest rating achieved. For a smartphone to gain IP68 certification, for example, it must pass dust protection tests through 6 and water protection tests through level 8. Below is a breakdown of the ratings for solid foreign objects.
Object size protected against
|0||Not protected||No protection against solid objects|
|1||>50 millimeter||Protection against large surfaces like the back of the hand|
|2||>12.5 millimeter||Protection against finger-sized objects|
|3||>2.5 millimeter||Protection against thick wires and like objects|
|4||>1 millimeter||Protection against wires, screws, etc.|
|5||Dust protected||Some protection against dust and complete protection against contact|
|6||Dust tight||Complete protection against dust and contact|
And here’s a chart for water resistance ratings.
Object size protected against
|1||Dripping water||Protection against 10 minutes of dripping water|
|2||Dripping water when tilted up to 15 degrees||Protection against 10 minutes of dripping water when tilted 15 degrees from normal position|
|3||Spraying water||Protection against 5 minutes of spraying water at any angle up to 60 degrees from the vertical|
|4||Splashing water||Protection against 5 minutes of splashing water|
|5||Water jets||Protected against at least 3 minutes of water spraying from a 6.3-millimeter nozzel from any direction|
|6||Powerful water jets||Protection against at least 3 minutes of water spraying from a powerful nozzle (12.5-millimeter) from any direction|
|7||Immersion up to 1 meter||Protection against 30 minutes of water up to 1 meter of submersion|
|8||Immersion beyond 1 meter||Protection against continuous immersion in water up to depth specified by the manufacturer|
For an idea of how an IP test is conducted, take a look at this video of a test being conducted on behalf of electronics company Siemens. The resulting rating looks something like this: IP67. That’s the certification the iPhone 7 has received, and it means that the phone’s both completely protected against solid objects and can withstand up to a meter of water for 30 minutes.
It isn’t always that simple, though. Some phones have two ratings, such as Sony’s IP55- and IP57-certified Xperia Z, which usually indicates that the device failed water or dust protection at a certain level. In the Xperia Z’s case, water protection level 6.
Military Specifications and Standards
Military Specifications and Standards number in the hundreds and certify a product’s ability to handle specific scenarios. For example, there are MIL-STD-810Gs that certify products to handle nuclear radiation exposure, drops onto concrete, rapid temperature changes, and a wide number of other environmental challenges.
Here’s a partial list:
|Test Method 500.5 Low Pressure (Altitude)||Test Method 501.5 High Temperature||Test Method 502.5 Low Temperature|
|Test Method 503.5 Temperature Shock||Test Method 504.1 Contamination by Fluids||Test Method 505.5 Solar Radiation (Sunshine)|
|Test Method 506.5 Rain||Test Method 507.5 Humidity||Test Method 508.6 Fungus|
|Test Method 509.5 Salt Fog||Test Method 510.5 Sand and Dust||Test Method 511.5 Explosive Atmosphere|
|Test Method 512.5 Immersion||Test Method 513.6 Acceleration||Test Method 514.6 Vibration|
|Test Method 515.6 Acoustic Noise||Test Method 516.6 Shock||Test Method 517.1 Pyroshock|
|Test Method 518.1 Acidic Atmosphere||Test Method 519.6 Gunfire Shock||Test Method 520.3 Temperature, Humidity, Vibration, and Altitude|
|Test Method 521.3 Icing/Freezing Rain||Test Method 522.1 Ballistic Shock||Test Method 523.3 Vibro-Acoustic/Temperature|
|Test Method 524 Freeze / Thaw||Test Method 525 Time Waveform Replication||Test Method 526 Rail Impact.|
|Test Method 526 Rail Impact||Test Method 527 Multi-Exciter||Test Method 528 Mechanical Vibrations of Shipboard Equipment (Type I – Environmental and Type II – Internally Excited)|
Perhaps the most common standard for rugged devices is MIL-STD-810G, which is an umbrella designation with a number of durability subcategories — namely protection against drops and falls.
Military Standards ratings comprise an exhaustive number of certifications. Sadly, though, they aren’t exactly standardized. Manufacturers can conduct an array of different tests and arrive at the same certification. Take the 810G’s “temperature shock” certification, for instance, or a device’s ability to withstand fluctuating temperatures. The temperature range isn’t defined, and neither is the amount of time, leaving plenty of wiggle room for a smartphone maker to claim that its handset is 810G-certified without having to explain what, exactly, that really means.
How a real “Active” product should be built
Panasonic, known for its durable line of ToughBook and ToughPad products, sees rugged products in an entirely different way than manufacturers like Casio and Apple. As opposed to focusing on an idea like “water resistance” or “dust proofing,” Panasonic’s Director of Product Management Kyp Walls says that shock protection is what makes its products more rugged than the rest.
“What we say about all of our devices is that they will handle a drop,” Walls told Digital Trends.
Many of the popular ToughBook and ToughPad products meet the MIL-STD-810G standard, which certifies the device against a lot of scenarios — including many that you’d likely find yourself in on a regular basis. “MIL-SPEC drop procedures say you will drop [the device] on every edge, corner, side, and face – equaling 26 drops on plywood, concrete and steel” said Walls.
But Panasonic isn’t just making rugged products for the sake of being rugged, Walls said. It’s releasing laptops aimed at specific audiences and scenarios. “We are trying to build devices for people who are in scenarios 95 percent of the time … Are there people who need a device who will take a 12 foot drop to concrete? Probably, but we’re building our devices for people who need a 4 to 6 foot drop. In order to design something to be submersible, you have to build it differently.”
Digital Trends also spoke with Xplore, a manufacturer that focuses exclusively on designing and building rugged devices. It recently launched the RangerX, a rugged Android tablet. Like Panasonic, Xplore also tests its tablets, ensuring that they can survive the 26-point drop test on plywood, steel, and concrete.
Xplore’s VP of Marketing Jim Plas gave us some details about why a rugged design matters, noting how “unlike the [Samsung’s] S4 Active, where they took an existing product and added features for water and dust resistance, we start from the core of the device with the mid-frame. Around that, you build the case and screen.” The mid-frame is important as it grounds all the components of the tablet or smartphone, and is what helps not only disperse shock from drops, but also helps resist water from the ground up. “The DNA of the device is rugged to begin with,” he added.
Plas told us that, in his experience, “making a waterproof device with a user-replaceable battery is possible, but it sure isn’t easy.” He added that not only the battery has to be water-sealed, but also there couldn’t be any ingresses or ports from which water can easily enter.
More than IP67
For devices like the iPhone 7, certification goes as far as dust, dirt, and 1 meter of water. If you drop an iPhone 7 onto concrete from four feet up, you may very well kiss your gadget goodbye. Meanwhile, if you drop the RangerX, you’ll be fine, but it won’t fare too well in 1 meter of water. Rugged means a lot of things in the world of electronics, which is why it boils down the standards and ratings.
Perhaps more importantly, just because a phone is has achieved a certain certification doesn’t mean it’ll hold up to abuse. Manufacturers conduct tests under lab conditions far different than the real-life scenarios you’re likely to find yourself in. In one particularly egregious example, Sony sent out marketing materials that showed the company’s IP68-certified Xperia phones being used underwater … accompanied by a warning not to use them in as depicted. “Remember not to use the device underwater,” the company said. “The IP rating of your device was achieved in laboratory conditions in standby mode, so you should not use the device underwater, such as taking pictures.”
It’s vital to find out exactly what ratings your device has before you buy it. Rare is the smartphone that truly does it all — if you see an ad claiming that a device is “rugged” and “water-proof,” you should find out the certifications behind those claims. No device is rugged in every way, so choose your protection based on the biggest dangers in your life.
Article originally published in June. Kyle Wiggers contributed to this report.