Understanding IP rating for smartphones - What do the numbers mean

There are several luxuries that we expect of phones today. We expect them to have multiple cameras and a full, bezel-less screen. We also usually expect our phones to be waterproof, indicated by an IP rating. The IP rating, which stands for Ingress Protection, is an international standard for how well-sealed a device's electrical parts are from the elements like dirt, dust and moisture. It even includes intrusion of our hands and fingers.

What do the numbers mean?

The ratings are given by the International Electrotechnical Commission and it reads like this:

Each figure that follows "IP", like IP68 that we see so often on phones today, represent something individually.

The first number represents the degree of protection from moving parts from hands touching it to dust breaking in. The second number represents its level of waterproofing.

Sometimes, either of these figures have an "X" sign, like the IPX2 rating of the Samsung Earbuds. This means that the Earbuds aren't rated for intrusion protection (indicated with "X") but is protected from condensation ("2"). Check out the break down of the specs at the bottom of this article.

IP ratings are not new

While tech manufacturers have made such a fuss about IP ratings in recent years, these figures are nothing new.

It wasn't always simply to give phone users peace of mind when streaming videos by the sink, it was a safety requirement for many machines out there. Many engineering safety unions around the world require products to hold an IP rating. These include computers, electric tools, light bulbs and lab equipment that would be hazardous if not checked on.

IP ratings became necessary as they were a way to ensure sellers sold working products. Items wouldn't quickly become faulty as they would have gone through extensive testing before hitting the shelves. It became a universal process of ensuring manufacturers didn't cut corners.

Don’t be fooled by IP rating marketing

Tools aside, the IP rating today has become a bit of a marketing tool. Our eyes lit up when the iPhone 7 finally came with an IP67 rating. We could finally bring it to the pool without worry!

While it sounds great, it is worth nothing that IP ratings are only one side of a phone's durability.

Surprisingly, phones do not need to pass every level of testing to achieve a higher rating. A device may have snagged an "6" on the dust intrusion scale, but it didn't necessarily have to go through testing for the previous scale, which means its circuitry could be highly sensitive to contact with bulky objects – like fingers.

Don't mistake it for abuse-ability either. Dropping your device may render its handsome IP rating useless, as cracks and shocks may allow water and dust into its circuit without you realizing. Testing in labs are very different from day-to-day scenarios.

Does it matter that my phone doesn’t have an IP rating?

OnePlus recently released a teaser for the upcoming OnePlus 7 Pro justifying its lack of an IP rating to save you money. The clip sarcastically does away with the rating and shows a OnePlus phone being tossed into a bucket of water.

The "flagship killers" also pointed out: "And just like other smartphone brands that do IP classify their devices, our warranty does not cover water damage." And it's a fair point. IP ratings are important in manufacturing, but for everyday consumers, perhaps they offer a peace of mind at best.

The one exception is if your phone manufacturer is generous enough to offer warranty protection based on its IP certification.

But if not, look out for the crazy tests on YouTube. You'll find reviewers subjecting their new phones to water dunks, dizzying drops and setting them on fire to reveal how durable a phone can be. There's the peace of mind you need.

Here are two charts to break down the specs:First Digit – Dust protection (IPXX)

1. No special protection

2. Protection from a large part of the body such as a hand (but no protection from deliberate access); from solid objects greater than 50mm in diameter

3. Protection against fingers or other object not greater than 80mm in length and 12mm in diameter

4. Protection from entry by tools, wires etc, with a diameter of 2.5 mm or more

5. Protection against solid bodies larger than 1mm (eg fine tools/small etc)

6. Complete protection from dust (Most phones today have this IP rating)

Second Digit – Moisture protection (IPXX)

1. No protection.

2. Protection against condensation

3. Protection against water droplets deflected up to 15° from vertical

4. Protected against spray up to 60° from vertical

5. Protected against water spray from all directions

6. Protection against low pressure water jets (all directions)

7. Protection against water immersion. Devices are submerged for 30 minutes in 1 meter of water (Phones like the iPhone 7 and Google Pixel 2 hold this rating)

8. Device can be submerged in water to a greater depth and longer period (Samsung Galaxy S10, and iPhone XS). The conditions of immersion are set by manufacturer and testing facility – to be marked clearly on the product

9. Protected against prolonged effects of immersion under pressure