Take a look at this picture of the gold iPhone 8 ($849.00 at Apple) camera lens. Do you see the water droplets crowding together like an iridescent prism? It's beautiful, but has no place in a camera, especially one rated to repel water as deep as 3 feet for up to 30 minutes.
And yet, it happened to our phone.
Here's the scene. CNET tests the claim of every phone rated IP67 and above with a baseline dunk test. We fill a 5-gallon bucket with tap water, gently place the phone at the bottom, and set the timer for 28 minutes. That's long enough to test the claim without trying to break the phone. Then we pull the phone out, let it dry overnight and inspect it for damage. Does it take a photo? Is there still water in the ports? Will it charge when you plug in the cable?
That's the first pass. The next day, we run through the process again.
It's a simple, effective and repeatable test that our reviewers can conduct in any of our global offices. If a unit drowns, we'll know.
That's exactly what happened with this iPhone 8 phone that CNET purchased for our San Francisco office. I placed it at the bottom of a bucket alongside the iPhone X ($999.00 at Apple) and iPhone 8 Plus ($980.00 at Amazon.com). 28 minutes later, all three phones came out.
The 8 Plus and iPhone X lived to dunk another day, but the iPhone 8 collected condensation behind the lens. Three days after the test, it still charged through the cable, but I was no longer able to access the home screen or any controls, even after a hard reboot. The phone then got caught in an endless reboot cycle, and at that point, I gave up trying to revive it.
(And no, we had not dropped the gold iPhone 8, which could compromise the waterproofing protection.)
After that, we bought a second iPhone 8, this time in black, and I ran the bucket test twice more over two days. Result: It's completely fine. Meanwhile, the broken iPhone 8 is just as water-speckled as it ever was.
On its support page, Apple shows you how to look for liquid damage. If you trip the sensor, a red line appears inside the phone. You check by popping out the SIM tray, shining in a flashlight, and looking for that slim red line. Our phone didn't show it, which indicates that there could be another problem, possible within warranty.
Our current speculation is that the rubber around the sleep/wake button may have gotten wedged under the button, letting condensation into the camera housing without frying the device and without triggering any of the liquid damage strips.
But plenty of other activities could cause that liquid damage sensor to trigger, and it's best to know how to proceed.
Apple's water-resistance promise has a Catch-22
Again, we're not suggesting that the iPhone has a waterproofing problem. It's possible our waterlogged iPhone 8 is suffering from a different ailment, unlike a small batch of Samsung Galaxy S7 Active ($524.99 at Amazon Marketplace) phones from 2016 that Samsung then fixed.
If water damage happens to you, the short answer is that it might not be covered under warranty -- traditional liquid damage is most definitely not -- but there may be other roads you can take if your phone does incur a problem with water.
The funny thing about water-resistance is that, even though there's an implicit suggestion that phonemakers will stand by the IP rating, there's also a lot of deferred responsibility. Just read the not-so-fine print.
For example, when I asked for comment about our busted iPhone 8, Apple pointed me to a support page that gives you tips for determining if your phone suffered liquid damage, and says that users shouldn't purposely submerge any iPhone in water.
"Splash, water, and dust resistance are not permanent conditions, and resistance might decrease as a result of normal wear. Liquid damage is not covered under warranty."
Apple also strongly advises against bringing a water-resistant iPhone into contact with chlorinated water (a pool), salt water (the ocean), high-velocity water (the shower or jet skis) and taking it into a steam room.
But let's be real: isn't that peace of mind what a water-resistant phone is for? Accidents happen, and buyers will always want to bring their phone along to watery locales to take photos, check email and upload photos to Instagram and Facebook. We've been doing all this long before phones were waterproof, with much greater risk.
What to do if your iPhone 7, 7 Plus, 8, 8 Plus or iPhone X gets wet
If your water-resistant iPhone takes a dunk, Apple's support page suggestions include the following:
- Wiping it with a "soft, lint-free cloth."
- Waiting for it to dry before opening the SIM card tray.
- Holding off on charging it until it's completely dry -- go ahead and point a fan in the ports, but not a heater.
- Wait for the water to drain and dry from the speaker port (audio may sound muffled).
- Again, you can check if your phone is liquid-damaged here.
If your phone becomes seriously damaged to the point that you'll need to pay to fix it, there are still two things you can try.
1. Buy Apple Care Plus
You can buy Apple Care Plus -- within 60 days of your original purchase -- and get coverage for two incidents of damage that occur any time within two years of the date you bought the phone. You still pay $29 for screen repair and $99 for anything else.
Apple Care Plus costs:
- $129, £129 and AU$189 for the iPhone 8
- $149, £149 and AU$229 for the iPhone 8 Plus
- $199, £199 and AU$299 for the iPhone X
In my case, repairing (or swapping) the soggy iPhone 8 would cost $230 before tax, which is still a fraction of the iPhone 8's $700 starting cost.
2. Buy a carrier warranty
Your second avenue of recourse would be to check in with your carrier about its extended warranty. In that case, the carrier would be responsible for helping you fix the problem, not Apple. What you would and wouldn't get is a lot less straightforward, since carrier policies vary, so there's more leg work on your end.
Waterproof isn't really waterproof
Finally, an important word on "waterproofing." The phone world is guilty of using that term interchangeably with "water-resistance," which is what it really is. I do it, too. But just know that phones aren't really waterproof, because electronics and water don't naturally mix. Phonemakers use various techniques, like a nanocoating, to seal device innards from liquid damage.
Even a few drops on exposed electronics can threaten to kill a phone dead, hence all those online suggestions on how to dry a wet phone with rice and silica packs.
CNET will continue to submit phones to waterproofing claims as part of our testing process, but as an owner of a new, expensive phone, your best bet is still to handle your investment carefully. Don't worry your stomach into knots if the phone gets wet, but understand that water resistance is really about preventing accidents, not using your phone as an underwater camera.
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