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 are one of 2014’s biggest trends, and there are more on the way. We’re not only talking about underpowered, basic phones covered in chunky rubber either; over the past 12 months we’ve seen flagship phones become less afraid of the wet stuff, too.
Maybe you work outdoors; you’re always at the pool; or you just want to Tweet while you shower in the morning. Whatever the reason, we’ve got your back. Here’s our list of the top picks for anyone seeking a waterproof phone right now, along with a quick overview of what those IP numbers really mean.
Related: What makes a smartphone rugged?
Updated on 8-6-2014 by Simon Hill: We’ve added new phones including the Kyocera Hydro Life, Galaxy S5 Mini, Galaxy S5 Active, and Galaxy S5 Sport.
Have you heard of the Ingress Protection scale?
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 shows its ability to withstand water and dust. The first digit refers to solid particle protection and the second digit refers to liquid. Here’s a complete breakdown of what the IP codes mean, but we’ve added the details you need to know with each phone, so you don’t have to go and work it out.
It’s worth pointing out that while some of these phones get close to being labeled waterproof, we probably should treat them as just resistant to water. In other words, we don’t advise you to deliberately submerge them. But it’s still nice not to have to worry.
Sony started the ball rolling for high-end water resistant smartphones when it announced the Xperia Z back in 2013. Since then it almost all its top-of-the-range Xperia Android phones have been able to survive a dunking. However, it’s the two newest flagships we’ll look at first.
The Xperia Z2 scores highly on the ingress protection scale, attaining a rating of IP55/IP58. According to Sony, the reason it gets two ratings is because it complies with both the waterproofing standards.
Here’s what it means: If the IP number starts with a five, then the device is protected from dust, and must ward off particles to the extent where any that do get in, won’t stop it from working. To meet the IPx5 standard, the device must resist water fired from a nozzle for 15 minutes, from all angles, and finally, to be IPx8, the device must continue to function normally after being left in water “continuously” at a depth lower than one meter. Water can enter the device, but only if it doesn’t affect the operation. Otherwise we’re looking at specially sealed hardware. It’s about as good as it gets for consumer electronics.
You do have to make sure that all the port covers are properly closed, and realize that its touchscreen isn’t going to function perfectly while underwater, but the Z2 is more waterproof than most of the competition. The phone also has a 5.2-inch 1080p screen, a Snapdragon 801 processor, and a 20.7-megapixel camera.
Xperia Z1S, and other Sony Xperia phones
Sony’s Xperia Z1S, which is exclusive to T-Mobile, carries the same ratings as the Xperia Z2, but has a slightly smaller 5-inch, 1080p screen, and a Snapdragon 800 processor. The Z1 and the Z1 Compact hit the same IP standards, so one of them might be a good choice if the Z1S or the Z2 prove a little too expensive for you. If you’re looking for something in the phablet category, then the Sony Xperia Z Ultra is the only big smartphone we know if with IP55 and IP58 ratings.
Having dipped a toe in the water last year with the Galaxy S4 Active, Samsung has decided the water’s fine and dived straight in. Its flagship phone this year, the Galaxy S5, scores a rating of IP67. That means it can be submerged up to 1 meter in depth for up to 30 minutes, and no dust particles are able to enter the phone at all. You will need to make sure that the plastic flap that covers the USB port is securely closed and, since you can open the back, double check that the cover is firmly in place. The Galaxy S5 Mini also boasts an IP67 rating and could be worth considering if you want a compact alternative.
As variants to the flagship S5 Samsung has two rugged offerings. There’s the S5 Active on AT&T and the S5 Sport on Sprint. The S5 Active is chunkier and a lot more butch-looking, with plastic bumpers on the corners to ensure it can survive drops. The S5 Sport is rubberized, but not quite as angular. They both have big physical buttons to make it easier to operate them outdoors. They also share the same IP67 rating as the standard S5, but this duo also boast a MIL-spec 810G rating, which means they meet military standards and can handle extremes of temperature, humidity, and altitude.
If splashing (sorry) out on the Galaxy S5 isn’t an option, then don’t forget to take a look at the Galaxy S4 Active. It has exactly the same IP67 rating as the new Galaxy S5 and it’s a good deal cheaper. The specification is good, too. The 5-inch screen has a 1080p resolution, there’s a Snapdragon 600 processor inside, and the camera has 8-megapixels.
Kyocera’s expanding range of water resistant phones
Kyocera has produced rugged phones for a while, but they’re not all that inspiring. It improved recently with the Hydro Elite, which can be purchased through Verizon. It scores IPX5 and IPX7, which means it’s capable of handling rain and jets of water, and it’s safe to dunk in just over 3 feet of water for up to 30 minutes. To clarify, if the letter X appears in any IP ratings, it means it’s not officially classified. However, if something is water resistant, a degree of dust protection will be built-in.
The Hydro Elite runs Android 4.3 out of the box and has a pretty decent spec – including a 4.3-inch screen, an 8-megapixel camera, and 4G LTE – for the $350 off-contract price tag.
Kyocera Hydro Xtrmh
Kyocera also sells the Hydro Xtrm, which gets an IP57 dust and water protection, plus it reaches military standards for shocks and drops. This means it looks a lot more rugged than the Hydro Elite, but it still has 4G LTE, a 4-inch screen, and a dual-core processor. It’s sold through T-Mobile, US Cellular, and MetroPCS.
The latest water resistant, rugged release from Kyocera is the budget-friendly Hydro Life, which will only cost you $125 from Walmart. It has an IP57 rating, so it’s good in up to 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes and dust is nothing to worry about. It also has a MIL 810G rating which means it can handle falls and it can deal with extreme weather conditions. The specs aren’t bad for the price either, we’re talking a 4.5-inch IPS QHD screen, 5-megapixel main camera, 2-megapixel front-facing camera, and a whopping 2,000mAh battery.
Motorola Moto G can handle dampness
Rewind a couple of years and Motorola was turning out water resistant phones like the Motorola Defy Plus, which was IP67 rated. There was also the Kevlar-coated Droid Razr Maxx with its water-repellent nanomaterial. No one paid much attention back then, so Motorola quietly dropped the water resistance as a selling point, but the Moto G does have a water resistant nano-coating. It makes no claims about being waterproof, but check out this YouTube video to see how it deals with a dunk. There’s no IP rating and we don’t think you should try this at home, but the Moto G will probably survive an accidental spill.
HTC One M8 has some subtle abilities
HTC doesn’t promote the One M8’s ability to withstand a little dampness, but according to a company spokesperson, it’s rated to IPX3 levels. This means the device is protected against spraying water, but only at certain angles, and a set pressure. It’ll do so for five minutes though. It’s not going to last if you drop it in the bath, but it’ll do fine in the rain.
The rugged brigade, and cheaper options
If water resistance is of paramount importance to you, and you don’t care what your smartphone looks like, then you might want to check out some rugged options.
Sprint offers the Kyocera Torque, a 4G phone rated to IP67 standards, and there’s also the ridiculously-named Casio G’zOne Commando at Verizon. Other, less well-specced waterproof phones from Kyocera include the Hydro Plus, the Torque, and the Hydro Edge.
There are even phones branded with heavy machinery manufacturers badges, like the Cat B15 from Caterpillar, and the Toughphone from JCB, but they’re not up to the technical abilities of hardware from Sony and Samsung.
Alternative solutions, if a new phone isn’t an option
If buying a waterproof phone isn’t practical, and you’d rather give your existing device some protection, there are options out there for anyone needing to make their own phone waterproof.
For those on a very strict budget, the simplest and cheapest way is to seal it inside a ziplock bag. It’s not going to look good, or function very well, and it’s certainly not going to be the safest approach, but it will work. Alternatively, there are a few plastic bags designed specifically for electronics, so opt for one of those if you don’t mind spending a little more. A good example is a bag from Dry Case, which comes with all the extras you’d want.
If you would prefer a case for your phone, there are various companies like Lifeproof offering fully waterproof cases, but they’re always pretty bulky. Finally, there is also a company called Liquipel that will apply a water resistant nano-coating to any smartphone or tablet. It should be enough to cope with an accidental splash or a very brief dunking, much like the Moto G.
That’s it for water resistant and waterproof phones, but we will update this list as more emerge, and we’re expecting it to become a standard feature on high-end smartphones soon.
Updated on 4-30-2014 by Andy Boxall: We’ve added new phones including the Xperia Z2 and Samsung Galaxy S5, and refined the list to highlight other devices like the Galaxy S4 Active.
Article originally published by Simon Hill on 3-10-2014.