Just how tough is your phone case? We break down IP ratings, military standards

What are IP ratings
picjumbo.com/Pexels

Most flagship phones these days boast some level of water-resistance, and you’ll find so-called IP ratings on everything from the Apple iPhone XS to the Huawei Mate 20 Pro. But that got us wondering: Just what do manufacturers mean when they use terms like “waterproof” and “water-resistant?” What constitutes a “rugged” device? And just how many times can you drop your phone in the toilet before you can expect it to bite the dust?

As it turns out, some terms that describe a phone’s ruggedness are actually standardized, and there’s a whole lot more to them than meets the eye. IP ratings measure a smartphone’s resistance to water, dust, and other particles, for example, while military specs describe their structural integrity. Some certifications are a little less precise than others, but taken together, they give a rough idea of how a smartphone will hold up against the elements.

Here’s everything you need to know about IP ratings and MIL-STD certifications.

The ratings behind a ‘rugged’ product

Unihertz Atom Review
Unihertz Atom Mark Jansen/Digital Trends

“Rugged” is just a word, a marketing ploy as meaningless as “summer-proof,” “water-resistant,” and “dustproof,”. All make nice bullet points on a phone’s spec sheet, but they aren’t all that descriptive — “rugged” and “water-resistant” devices can short just as easily as “non-rugged” devices when they fall into water (as well as shatter when they hit the concrete).

A certification is something completely different. When a phone has a certified rating of some sort, a third party has conducted tests to ensure that it can survive conditions like hard falls, dusty shelves, extreme heat, certain kinds of radiation, and deep pools of water.

Phone, tablet, and PC manufacturers measure the ruggedness of devices using two systems of standards: The Ingress Protection (IP) Rating, published by the International Electrotechnical Commission; and the Military Specification or Military Standard (MIL-STD), which is developed by arms of the U.S. Military and Department of Defense.

Ingress Protection Rating

sony xperia xz3 front
Sony Xperia XZ3 Simon Hill/Digital Trends

A smartphone’s Ingress Protection Rating is determined by how well it holds up against dirt, dust, and water. Ratings range from 1 to 6 for dust and dirt and 1 to 9 for water, with the first and second digit in the rating indicating how well it withstands exposure to solid particles and liquids, respectively. The maximum rating for solid objects, IP 6, means it lets in very little dust and dirt, and a water-resistance rating of 8 indicates it can be submerged in water for minutes at a time. A phone with those specs would earn an IP68 rating.

To make matters more complicated, a high IP rating doesn’t necessarily mean dust, water, or debris won’t enter a phone’s enclosure. Rather, it indicates that when dust and water does make its way through a phone’s seams, it won’t enter in sufficient quantities to cause malfunction. So the IP67-rated iPhone XR will not be as resistant to water entry as the IP68-rated iPhone XS Max, even though both phones will come out of the pool just as wet.

However, IP ratings are not all-encompassing, and phones need not pass every lower test to snag a higher rating. For example, for a smartphone to nab the the coveted IP68 certification, it has to pass the tests for IPX7 and 8 — but is not required to test for water jets on the IPX5 and 6 levels.

That’s the reason you sometimes see a smartphone with multiple IP-ratings. The Sony Xperia XZ3 is rated both IP65 and IP68, which signifies that it’s resistant against total immersion and high-pressure water jets.

Here’s a breakdown of the ratings for solid foreign objects.

Level

Object size it protects against

Effective 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

There’s a separate chart for water ratings. Note that they’re described in terms of “water nozzles” and “jets” — a manufacturer like Sony, Apple, or HTC can choose to expose their phone to high-pressure blasts of water from an industrial hose, and see how it fares over time.

Level

Object size it protects against

Effective against

0 Not protected Nothing
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 nozzle 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
9 High-pressure,
close-range jets
Protection against continuous high-pressure, close-range jets of water from any direction — including high-temperature steam jets

Here’s a chart of some of the top phones in terms of water and dust resistance:

Phone

IP rating

Effective against

iPhone XS IP68 Complete protection against dust and contact; protection against continuous immersion in water up to depth specified by the manufacturer
Samsung Galaxy S9  IP68 Complete protection against dust and contact; protection against continuous immersion in water up to depth specified by the manufacturer
Sony Xperia XZ3 IP68/IP65 Complete protection against dust and contact; protection against continuous immersion in water up to depth specified by the manufacturer; protected against at least 3 minutes of water spraying from a 6.3-millimeter nozzle from any direction
Caterpillar CAT S61 IP68/IP69 Complete protection against dust and contact; protection against continuous immersion in water up to depth specified by the manufacturer; protection against continuous high-pressure, close-range jets of water from any direction — including high-temperature steam jets
LifeProof FRE (iPhone case) IP68 Complete protection against dust and contact; protection against continuous immersion in water up to depth specified by the manufacturer

For an idea of how an IP certification is determined, take a look at this video of a test being conducted on behalf of electronics company Siemens. It ended up getting a an IP67 rating — the same rating as the iPhone XR — which means it’s been shown to withstand exposure both to objects and up to about three feet (or one meter) of water for 30 minutes.

Emerging Tech

Capture app saves money by 3D scanning objects using iPhone’s TrueDepth camera

Capture is a new iPhone app created by the Y Combinator-backed startup Standard Cyborg. It allows anyone to perform 3D scans of objects and share them with buddies. Here's how it works.
Emerging Tech

The best 3D printers of 2018

On the hunt for a new 3D printer? We've got your back. Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned veteran, this list of the best 3D printers has what you're looking for.
Computing

Here's why 64-bit (not 32-bit) dominates modern computing

Today's computing world isn't the same as it once was. With 64-bit processors and operating systems replacing the older 32-bit designs, we look at what 32-bit vs. 64-bit really means for you.
Wearables

These are the best smartwatches for everything from fashion to fitness

Tempted to buy a smartwatch? If so, then the growing number of great models available means you've got plenty to choose from. But which one should you pick? Here is our list of the best smartwatches.
Mobile

Protect your new iPhone with one of our favorite iPhone XR cases

Apple's new iPhone range is the toast of 2018, with beautiful style and more power than you can shake a stick at. But beauty can often be fragile -- keep the damage to a minimum with the best iPhone XR cases.
Wearables

The best Wear OS watches

There are a ton of different Wear OS watches out there, but which one's right for you? No matter what you're looking for from a smartwatch, here are the best Wear OS watches out there.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Booze-filled ski poles and crypto piggy banks

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Home Theater

How to master your equalizer settings for the perfect sound

You may know what an EQ is, but do you know how to adjust equalizer settings for the best possible sound? We go through the basics of the modern EQ and lay out some guidelines for how to achieve tip-top sound from your system.
Mobile

How to switch from iPhone to Android: The ultimate guide

If you've decided to bridge the great tech divide and leave Apple's walled garden for the unknown shores of Android, then you'll find all the tips and advice you need to begin switching from an iPhone to an Android device.
Smart Home

This device detects when your pet is at the door and opens it for them

Tired of waiting for your dog to come inside, or running home in the middle of the day to let your four-legged friend out? Wayzn automatically opens sliding doors for your dog and gives you remote control.
Mobile

Apple pushing update to iPhone in China in response to legal troubles

Apple has been facing legal issues in China due to alleged infringements of patents from Qualcomm Inc. On Friday, Apple announced it will push a software update in China in hopes of resolving any potential legal issues around the iPhone.
Mobile

Need a quick battery boost? Try one of our favorite portable chargers

Battery life still tops the polls when it comes to smartphone concerns. If it’s bugging you, then maybe it’s time to snag yourself a portable charger. Here are our picks of the best portable chargers.
Mobile

iOS jailbreak app store Cydia shuts down purchasing

For years, iOS users have been jailbreaking their devices to install software not approved by Apple. But now the popular app store alternative Cydia will no longer be accepting purchases.
News

Lawsuit alleges Apple falsely advertised the screen size of the iPhone X

A lawsuit alleges that Apple was dishonest in the way that it marketed the iPhone X. The lawsuit alleges that despite Apple's marketing campaign, the new iPhone is not in fact all screen because of the notch.
1 of 2