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Waterproof smartphones? Here's what lies ahead

09 Oct 2014  | Bob Jones

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Editor's Note: Smartphone manufacturers are starting to gear towards waterproof handsets, but there remain design challenges ahead. This article tackles the different areas engineers have to consider when designing waterproof phones.

Take a look down the 3.5mm headphone jack connection of the iPhone 4/4S and you should see a little spot. This is a hydrochromic paint that permanently changes colour to red once you get it wet. As you might expect, it has been added to the phone to prevent fraudulent warranty or insurance claims: "My phone just stopped working... I did nothing out of the ordinary, so I want a new one."

This all seems a little excessive until you see the statistics. A survey undertaken by suggests that over 30 per cent of people in the U.K. have damaged their phone by getting it wet. Nearly half (47 per cent) of these phones are drowned in the toilet. And a fifth (21 per cent) have a drink spilled on them.

Indeed, Japanese consumers now place waterproofing as a key feature with most handsets—even the high-end ones need this feature if they are to sell well.

It's therefore no wonder that manufacturers, including Sony and Samsung, are beginning to make waterproof handsets. Independent testing by Strategy Analytics gives Sony's first water-resistant phone, the Xperia Z1, an ingress protection rating of IP58 (the highest liquid protection rating), meaning it can be submerged in fresh water to 1.5m for up to 30min.

With the new generation of wearable devices hitting the market—such as smart watches—the need for waterproof technologies are going to be all the more essential.

To achieve the IP58 rating, Sony uses a combination of tight seals and an "adhesive bonding" layer on the back cover that sticks with the body closely, preventing water and dust from entering the componentry.

 Xperia Z2

Figure 1: Sony's flagship phone, the Xperia Z2, is water resistant for 30 minutes in shallow water. But how do we improve on this? (Source: Sony 2014).

Alternative methods have also been developed, but have not caught on, for example Ion-Mask, which was developed in 2007 by U.K. military scientists and uses a plasma to bond a watertight layer.

But, as anyone who has taken a waterproof watch in for a new battery will know, a seal or waterproof layer is only temporary. Therefore, to build a permanently watertight handset, we need to develop a casing with no holes; how can this be properly achieved without compromising the handset's functionality?

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