The terms water-resistant and waterproof get bandied around quite a bit in the gadget market, but that doesn’t mean you chuck your gadgets into the nearest pool with impudence. Water-resistance is most definitely not waterproof by any measure.
What’s the Difference?
Every year thousands upon thousands of consumers fry their supposedly “waterproof” gadgets because of a poor understanding (on the part of the consumer). Understanding the basics of water-resistance is key to keeping your gadgets safe as well as purchasing the right gadgets for your outdoor and sports needs.
The most important thing you need to understand the entire concept of “waterproof” is that it isn’t a real thing outside of very misleading marketing material. There is no waterproof gadget on the market. Every single phone, watch, sports band, GPS device, portable speaker, or the like that bills itself as “waterproof” should really bill itself as “Water-resistant within the parameters specified by the manufacturer.”
Think of it like “earthquake proof.” It is impossible to build a structure that is completely impervious to earthquakes. No matter how well-built and over-engineered a structure may be there is always a combination of earthquake intensity and duration that will bring it to the ground. Water-resistance is exactly the same. Every “waterproof” gadget has a point where it has been submerged too long, too deep, or in water too hot or too cold, and the seals on the device fail allowing water inside.
How Water Resistant Is My Gadget?
Now that the whole mess of “waterproof” is behind us we can focus on understanding what water-resistant actually means. Anybody can claim their device is water-resistant, but you shouldn’t trust their claim without seeing how they define the water-resistance of their product.
There are two principal terms and ratings used to convey water-resistance. The first is Atmospheres (ATM) rating and the second is IP (Ingress Protection) rating. The two are rarely if ever, used together and you’re more likely to see an ATM rating on fitness-type gadgets like wrist-worn trackers as the ATM rating can be traced back to the early days of water-resistant watches. The IP rating is more commonly used for larger gadgets like phones, Bluetooth speakers, and the like.
Water Resistance as Measured by ATM Rating
While the confusing world of “waterproof” gadgets is a relatively new one, ATM ratings have been misunderstood for ages because of confusion over what exactly the rating indicates. On the back of watches and fitness devices, you will often see a notation like “5 ATM” or “Water-Resistant to 50 Meters”. Yet many a person has had their “waterproof” watch give up the ghost when they weren’t scuba diving but just jumping off the high dive at the local pool.
The confusion arises because of what the “5 ATM” or “50 meters” indicates. It does not indicate that the device is water-resistant under all conditions to 50 meters below the surface of the water. It indicates that under static (nonmoving) conditions at 50 meters below the surface of the water the pressure of the water will not breach the seals on the device. If you were to take a spill while water skiing the moment you hit the water the pressure of the water hitting the device would be much higher than the static pressure at 50 meters of depth, and it’s quite possible water could force its way into the device.
In short, the higher the better (with no exception). If you need water protection and there are two devices that meet your needs but one has a 10 ATM rating and one has a 5 ATM rating, don’t think “Why would I need a 10 ATM rating? I’m just swimming laps!” Think “The higher the better; that’ll keep the water out for sure!” as diving in a pool and recreational water sports can put a beating on your device that is as tough or tougher than deep water exposure.
Water Resistance as Measured by IP Rating
We’d love to say that the IP rating was less confusing than the ATM rating but it certainly isn’t. The Ingress Protection code is an international standard that details how protected from physical and liquid ingress an object is. The rating is written in the format IPXY where X is resistance to physical ingress and Y is the resistance to liquid ingress. The higher the number the better in terms of protecting your gear.
Although IP ratings like IP12 exist, you won’t generally see anything listed on a consumer electronic device lower than something like IP56 (which would indicate the device is almost entirely protected from dust and from jets of water). Typically if a manufacturer has taken the time to build and market a “waterproof” device they’ll aim for IP68 which translates to “dust tight” and “immersion beyond 1 meter of depth under conditions specified by the manufacturer”. The iPhone 7 is IP67, which means dust tight and immersion up to 1 meter.
The “conditions specified by the manufacturer” is the part that ends up the most confusing to consumers because what those specified conditions are can vary widely.
In short: if water resistance is important to you always go with the highest rating available and always read the manufacturer’s description of what that water resistance entails.
Image Credits: Kristin Nador, Misfit, Jawbone, Sony.