How do I tell what those IP ratings on my phone really mean? Just because a phone is rugged doesn't mean it will survive a dunk in the pool.

Several of the companies that make Android hardware build them a little bit tougher or more resistant to the hazards of daily life. It's a big selling feature. If you're an enthusiast and bought a recent phone from Samsung, Sony, Kyocera or Sonim, you probably know at least a little bit about them. What those numbers represent can be important or even a deciding factor when spending the cash on a new phone.

You'll usually see "ruggedness" described with an IP rating or a MIL-STD rating. Those are standards (loose ones in some cases) that determine how resistant something is the elements — things like shock (both electrical and physical), temperature, air pressure, and a host of other things that want to ruin your phone.

The ratings and certifications were developed long before the invention of cellphones — they cover things like valves and electrical boxes. But more recently, they do apply to phones, and not just the ones that are built like tanks. Let's break each rating down a little so you know what they really mean.

Ingress Protection

Don't do this

No, not the location-based game from those Pokemon guys, ingress protection refers to the ability for a product to prevent foreign objects — usually liquid and dust particles — from getting inside. And while the term IP usually stands in for ingress protection, it actually stands for International Protection, as in an International Protection Marking.

The IP Code is designated by the initials IP followed by two digits and the presence or absence of an K. The K is something we'll never encounter on small portable electronic devices; it refers to something that can withstand high-pressure, high-flow spray jets, like a car wash sprayer nozzle. In that situation your phone would be toast.

(Never run your phone through the car wash, unless it is one of these and you don't mind breaking the car wash. We're kidding. Don't run even the Nokia 3310 through a car wash, people.)

Never run your phone through a car wash to test its IP rating. Seriously.

The digits each represent a resistance rating. The first number stands for the level of solid particle protection (and is mandatory). The second number stands for liquid ingress protection (and is also mandatory). If a tested and certified device is not rated in either category, the number will be replaced by an X. Here's how the numbers stack up.

Solid particle protection

Solid IP number How effective is it?
IP number How effective is it?
0 Not protected at all against any size particle.
1 Particles larger than 50 mm
2 Particles larger than 12.5 mm
This is the minimum rating to protect against putting your finger into a thing.
3 Particles larger than 2.5 mm
4 Particles larger than 1 mm
5 Dust Protected
Dust must not enter in enough quantity to affect the normal operation.
6 Dust Tight
Dust can't enter, even in a vacuum.

Liquid ingress protection

Liquid IP number How effective is it?
IP number How effective is it?
0 Not protected at all.
1 Protected against dripping water.
2 Protected against dripping water when tilted up to a 15-degree angle from its normal position.
3 Protected against spraying water when tilted up to a 60-degree angle from its normal position.
4 Protected against splashing water at any angle.
5 Protected against water sprayed by a 6.3 mm nozzle at 12.5 Liters/minute and 30 kPa (pressure) from three meters away for three minutes.
6 Protected against water sprayed by a 12.5 mm nozzle at 100 Liters/minute and 100 kPa (pressure) from three meters away for three minutes.
6K Protected against water sprayed by a 6.3 mm nozzle at 75 Liters/minute and 1,000 kPa (pressure) from three meters away for three minutes.
7 Protected against immersion in water up to one meter at normal pressure for 30 minutes.
8 Protected against immersion in water one meter or deeper at specifications detailed by the manufacturer.
9X Protection against water sprayed from high-flow and high-pressure jets at high-temperature
Water volume of 14 to 16 Liters/minute
Water pressure of 80 to 100 bar
Water temperature of 80-degrees
Distance of 0.10 to 0.15 meters

In addition (because this wasn't confusing enough) the IP Code has letter designations for additional protection. Like any K rating, you'll never see these on a cell phone but I'm putting them here because we're going to be complete. Deal with it.

Additional protection designation

Letter code What it means
Letter code What it means
f Oil resistant
H High voltage protection
M Motion during any testing
S No motion during any testing
W Weather resistant

Yes, the "f" is not capitalized, and "Weather resistant" doesn't tell us anything at all. We didn't write the specification. Like everything else that happens now, I am going to blame Phil.

So when you buy a phone like the Galaxy S7 that has a rating of IP68 you can put it in a vacuum and dust can't get in, or let it sit in more than one meter of water forever, right? Nope.

Phones sent to a testing lab passed. Yours might not.

The dust protection rating leaves zero wiggle room. The S7 is dust proof under any conditions a human being can be in. The liquid ingress protection of 8 is "specified by the manufacturer", and Samsung says submersion up to 5.0 feet for up to 30 minutes.

Cool, let's go play with it in the bathtub and take videos of a rubber duckie versus GI Joe Wet Suit Frogman battle royale. This will be epic.

Not so fast. Samsung also says your device is not impervious to water damage in any situation, which is a total buzzkill.

The Galaxy S7 phones used for testing and certification were able to withstand dust intrusion under any circumstances up to and including a vacuum, and immersion in water 5-feet deep for a half hour. Your phone might not. The certification facility can't test every phone. The people who made it should be willing to talk about the warranty if you have an issue, though.

Lil Wayne can afford a dump truck filled with Galaxy S7 edges. Can you? Be smarter than Lil Wayne.


Galaxy S7 active

This is a U.S. Military standard that specifies how something will fare against the environment during its lifetime. Android phones, watches and other electronics often carry the MIL-STD 810G certification, which means it was tested in a lab under conditions that simulate a gigantic list of environmental variables and still worked. Some of the things that are tested include temperature extremes, altitude, thermal shock, fungal ingress and being frozen solid. It's an exhaustive list, and if your phone passed these tests you can expect it to survive anything, including a week with Bear Grylls, right?


In essence, this certification is basically meaningless. For starters, the testing procedures clearly state that you only have to test simulated environments, which doesn't mean it will withstand the real thing. If that's not enough of a red flag, the fact that whoever does the testing gets to decide how anything is simulated and that the thing being tested doesn't even need to pass should be. And feel free to see what happens to a phone with a battery when you freeze it and then thaw it out.

Ride with me in my way back machine, where we can see Dr. Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, Ph.D. explain it perfectly.

The MIL-STD-810G does not mandate standards or set minimum goals for the various tests; for the most part it simply describes how testing is to be conducted. This leaves considerable room for interpretation, and it is therefore important for manufacturers of rugged notebooks to provide detailed information on what tests were conducted, how exactly they were conducted, what the results were, and what those results actually mean. The claim that a product is "MIL-STD-810G tested" is not enough, and prospective customers should ask for more detail.

Saying something is MIL-STD 810G tested without providing a copy of the testing parameters and results means the same thing as "feels faster" or "excellent camera." Never use this as a factor in your decision to buy an electronic device.

Seeing IP numbers and Military toughness ratings on a phone you buy is generally a good thing. Not all individual devices will pass all real-life testing, but someone somewhere made it a little tougher than normal.

Having an IP-spec phone is great protection against accidents like spilling a beer, and a MIL-STD 810G phone will probably fare an icy snowbank or fungal garden better than one without. Just remember, taking your phone scuba diving or spelunking just might mean time on a different phone with whoever handles the warranty.