It’s a great time to be a tech lover. Looking back on the smartphone releases of 2016, the biggest problem we might have is that virtually every new device is great. In fact, many of 2016’s releases features a number of the same specs: a Snapdragon 820 processor, a 5.5-inch display (or thereabouts), metal and/or glass construction, fingerprint sensors. We might as well stop using the word “smartphone” and simply call them mobile phones since there’s hardly a single phone that isn’t smart these days.

Interestingly, the high standards exhibited across the entire smartphone market — and even throughout consumer electronics as a whole — has made nitpicking a necessity. If we’re to compare today’s smartphones, pitting them against one another to figure out which is the best, we have to disregard the specs and take out a magnifying glass. As such, many of the defining characteristics of a smartphone, or the features that make a smartphone stand out from the crowd, are frequently not spec-related. In 2016, one of those defining characteristics was IP ratings for water and dust resistance.

We’ve covered IP ratings before, particularly to explain what you can and cannot do, according to your device’s IP rating. However, this time we’re going to take a closer look at actual IP ratings, breaking them down so that you know what a rating means when you see one. By the end of this article, you’ll be able to decipher an IP rating, meaning that you’ll know exactly what kind of water and dust resistance your next device purchase offers.

What is an IP rating?

Many of us speak about IP ratings without even realizing that we have no clue what ‘IP’ even means, so before we jump into the rating system, let’s address the water-resistant elephant in the dusty room. When we talk about IP ratings, we’re not referring to internet protocols, intellectual property, inquisitive pigeons, or any other unrelated acronyms. Depending on who you ask, the ‘IP’ in IP rating either stands for International Protection or Ingress Protection, with the latter being the preferred interpretation.

To further clarify, the word ‘ingress’ means the act of going in or entering; therefore, an IP rating is a rating given to indicate a level of protection that an item’s casing has from being breached by liquid and solid debris.

How to read an IP rating

When you look at an IP rating, you’ll notice that it basically consists of a two-digit number. Those who are familiar with IP ratings can tell what level of dust and water resistance a device has by considering the values of each digit separate. The first digit, or the digit on the left, represents solid particle protection while the second digit is for “liquid ingress protection”. Wirefield

As you can see from the diagram above, the digit for dust resistance can be as low as zero or as high as six, with lower digits indicating little or no resistance and higher digits meaning strong or full resistance. There’s a slightly wider range of values for water resistance than for dust resistance since the second value of an IP rating can be as high as eight. Again, lower values mean poor or no water resistance while higher values indicate strong or near-full water resistance.

Let’s consider a couple examples.

IP ratings for water and dust resistance were one of the defining features of high-end smartphones in 2016.

The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus were notably released with an IP rating of 67, which indicates an impressive level of dust and water resistance. The ‘6’ in the IP-67 rating means that the iPhone 7’s casing can keep out all dust and small particulates; however, since liquid damage is a more pressing concern than dust, it’s that second digit that tends to be the most important. Fortunately, owners of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus needn’t fear water too much because a water-resistance rating of 7 means the devices can withstand being fully submerged in water for brief periods of time. In fact, the iPhone 7 can survive in up to a meter of water for at long as 30 minutes.

While the Apple crowd are enjoying their newfound water resistance, Google’s Pixel and Pixel XL were released with IP ratings of 53. As you’ll notice, an IP-53 rating means strong — but not total — protection from dust particulates and barely-there water resistance. In terms of the latter, the Pixels are reportedly safe from splashes of water hitting the phones at angles up to 60 degrees from vertical. Of course, it’s better than having no water resistance at all, but those of us who jumped on the Pixel bandwagon are no doubt still salty due to the Pixel being one of 2016’s only flagships that didn’t come with a respectable IP rating.

Water resistance has become an important differentiator in the flagship smartphone market.

Why is IP rating important?

In closing, let’s take a moment to reflect on IP ratings and why they matter. There will always be those of us who don’t really care about things like IP ratings and water resistance, which is understandable if you’re someone who’s naturally careful with your devices and doesn’t have any inclination to bring your expensive gadgets near water. But it really all boils down to one thing: Resilience.

Historically, electronic devices had many enemies, including water, dust, drops, theft, and so on. There were so many different scenarios that would leave you with nothing but the memory of your expensive investment. Fortunately, we have things like Corning’s Gorilla Glass and the ability to buy insurance plans to add longevity to our tech, but water has long been a smartphone’s kryptonite. So when a device earns a strong IP rating, we have less to worry about and can enjoy our smartphones a little more. We don’t have to wonder whether it’s dangerous to carry our smartphones in our hands while it’s raining or have a heart attack when we accidentally drop our smartphones in the toilet (the question of cleanliness is an entirely separate issue). Instead, we can spend less time worrying and more time actually enjoying them.

Now I’d like to hear from you. What are your thoughts when it comes to smartphone water-resistance? Is IP rating an important consideration when you’re shopping for a new device? Or are you someone that doesn’t feel IP rating is that important? As always, leave your thoughts and feedback in the comment section below.