What does “waterproof” really mean?
It’s important to understand no phone is truly waterproof in the sense that it can stay in the water for any period, and at any depth. There are extraordinary stories of phones that survived for weeks in seawater, but we need to set your expectations as future happy buyers. “Waterproof” should always be understood as “water resistant.”
Modern phones are typically rated to be immersed for minutes (~30mn) in three to six feet of water. The standard used to measure dust and water resistance is called the IP Rating, which stands for Ingress Protection rating. “Ingress” means “a way to access” or “entrance,” in case you are wondering.
The IP rating contains to numbers and looks like this: IPXY. X is the dust protection level which goes from 0 to 6. Y is the level of water protection which goes from 0 to 9K. Refer to the page linked above for all the details, but basically, the level varies with depth, pressure and sometimes temperature.
Examples of IP ratings
IP68: Dust tight, no dust can penetrate. Up to 3-meter immersion waterproofing. In some cases, waterproofing means that “some” water can penetrate, but without harming the device
IP67: Dust tight, no dust can penetrate. Up to 1-meter immersion for a limited duration won’t harm the device. Tested for 30mn
IP55: Prevents moderate amount of dust from entering but is not Dust tight. Water jets (~6.3mm nozzle) won’t harm the device. 3mn test at 100L/mn at 30 kPa, 3 meters away. Note: this is NOT protected against immersion.
We have found phones that cover price ranges going from $180 to about $600. This array should help most people, but if you spot something waterproof below $180, please drop a comment.
#1/ Samsung Galaxy S7/S7 Edge (IP68, ~$580)
With an IP rating of IP68, the Samsung Galaxy S7 easily qualifies as the best high-end waterproof. Thanks to its sleek design, open ports, fast performance and amazing camera, the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge phones offer strong protection against water, without any particular downsides regarding design and user experience. In fact, the S7 is currently the best smartphone in general from our point of view.
The only thing with the S7 series is that it is made of glass on all sides. Yes, that makes for a very attractive design, but it is also prone to cracks when it hits concrete. You can of course simply get a case, or you could look at the Galaxy S7 Active, which has a more durable design.
We need to warn you that although we did not experience an issue with the S7 Active water-resistance, Consumer Report did have some issues with two different units. It’s not clear if it’s an issue concerning a small batch or a general design problem. We lean towards the former at the moment (given the lack of widespread outrage).
Contender: Sony XPERIA X Performance (IP68/ $610)Sony has been a long-time proponent of water-resistance phone, going back to the first XPERIA Z handset (IP55). It’s fair to mention Sony’s 2016 XPERIA X Performance handset which launched at Mobile World Congress this year. In many ways, the XPERIA X Performance is a worthy competitor of the Galaxy S7 Series, but in the end, the S7 has a slightly better design, a better display, a large battery and is more widely available. You can compare the XPERIA X Performance to the Galaxy S7 and see for yourself.
#2/ Galaxy S6 Active (IP 68, $400)
In the $400 range, there is surprisingly few candidates, and the Galaxy S6 Active is our preferred handset here. First of all, the Galaxy S6 was an excellent line of product, but the regular consumer model lacked the IP68 protection which the S7-series enjoys. Samsung did, however, have a special “S6 Active” version which had a more rugged chassis which happen to be IP68 rated.
Additionally, the chassis is more resistant to shocks than the regular S6 / S6 Edge+ which were made of glass on all sides too.
Contender: XPERIA Z5 Compact (IP68, $420)
Once again, we find Sony as a contender in this price range. The XPERIA Z5 Compact is a good handset, but for about the same price, the Galaxy S6 Active does offer a better experience, a better camera, a larger battery and a much better display. In short, the S6 Active wins at nearly everything, including the price. Compare the S6 Active to the Z5 Compact to see the technical differences.
Contender: Kyocera Brigadier (IP68, $367)
In the same ~$350-~$400 price range, the Kyocera Brigadier can be an alternate choice, but you will need to sacrifice something. The Brigadier is a very tough phone, but unfortunately, it’s not that good of a phone if toughness isn’t your primary concern. The phone’s design is bulky, but it has a sapphire display that won’t scratch (unless you attack it with very hard minerals). Also, the camera is a far cry from the S6 Active, which remains our default option for this price range.
#3/ Galaxy S5 (IP67, $280)
In the sub-$300 range, the Samsung Galaxy S5 reigns supreme and is pretty much the only, thus the best, choice for a good waterproof smartphone. If you remember, it has a removable back and despite that, Samsung managed to make it watertight. It was the Galaxy S that started it for the S Series when it comes to being water-resistant.
#4/ XPERIA M4 Aqua (IP68, $150)
In the $150 (or so) category, the Sony XPERIA M4 Aqua is a winner. The Moto G (2015) seems like a close competitor at first glance, but the M4 Aqua has a lighter weight, better IP rating, better processor, and better overall “bang for the buck” – which seems like a very important detail in this price range. The Moto G 2015 has an IP rating of IPx7 (not dust-rated?) and costs around $180.
Runner-up: Kyocera DuraForce E6560 (IP68, $175)
I would like to mention quickly the Kyocera DuraForce (E6560), which is not better Android phone than the Moto G 2015 or the XPERIA M4 – but it is built to be more rugged, at the expense of the design.
Additional tips about waterproof smartphones
Water-tight smartphones are a special breed, and aside from their IP ratings, there are small details you should be mindful about:
1/ Waterproof open ports are better
Many smartphones require the user to close specific ports with watertight plastic covers to protect USB ports, and even audio ports sometimes. It works, but that opens the possibility of a user error or fatigue of the waterproof seals over time.
Waterproof phones that do not require closing ports or any other special attention are better.
2/ Beware of the (real-world) environment
There are many examples of users who swim or bathe with their waterproof phones. In general, there are no problems, but if you swim in a river or the ocean, you might expose your handset to sand, mud and other particles that may get stuck in ports, etc. Also, OEMs are always cautious and in general they don’t recommend those activities openly, even if their phones has an IP rating that would allow it – in theory.
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