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iPhone 12 water test: Apple may be downplaying just how water-resistant it really is

Apple's iPhone 12 put up a good fight after being submerged in the chilly waters of Lake Tahoe.

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We know the iPhone 12 can handle spills and splashes, but Apple may be downplaying just how water-resistant this phone really is. The iPhone 12's IP68 rating means it can survive up to 19.6 feet (6 meters) of water for 30 minutes. This applies to all four iPhone 12 models: the iPhone 12, iPhone 12 MiniiPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max. But we discovered that like its predecessor, Apple's newest iPhone can handle a great deal more than that. Both of the iPhone 11 models far exceeded the official rating, surviving a 39-foot dive in salt water in Monterey Bay, California. This year we took a brand-new iPhone 12 for a swim in the frigid fresh water of Lake Tahoe, on the other side of the Golden State, to test it out.

Teaming up with Mission Robotics, we mounted our iPhone 12 on the company's underwater drone, Theseus. The drone can go as deep as 984 feet (300 meters) underwater; the pilot can see the view from Theseus' camera, as well as monitoring depth and water temperature metrics from a computer on shore. 

Watch the video on this page for the full test and to see some amazing underwater footage from the drone.

Read moreiPhone 12 drop test results show ceramic shield is as tough as it sounds

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John Kim/CNET

Dive 1: Testing the claim (19.6 feet for 30 minutes)

According to Apple's support page, you shouldn't intentionally submerge or swim with your iPhone, or take it to extreme temperatures. But for the purposes of our test, we wanted to push it to the limits.

For our first dive, we wanted to test the IP68 claim: 19.6 feet (6 meters) of water for 30 minutes. From the shore of Lake Tahoe, we positioned the iPhone on a mount facing the drone's camera with the screen set to stay on, so we could see if anything happened to the iPhone while it was underwater. 

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The iPhone 12 on Theseus.

John Kim/CNET

The water temperature in Lake Tahoe at this depth was 52 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees Celsius).

Once the 30 minutes were up, we pulled the phone out of the water and dried it off with a cloth. Then we tested it out to see if the phone was working. The touchscreen was fine and the volume rocker worked as expected. All three cameras (front, ultrawide and wide) looked clear with no evidence of fogging and the photos looked normal. We recorded a voice memo before dunking the phone and could hear that after the first dive the speaker sounded a little muffled in comparison, but it's hard to tell whether that would've improved after letting it dry out longer. Apple's support page suggests placing the iPhone's base and Lightning connector in front of a fan to help the drying process. We had other ideas, however.

Dive 2: The extreme test (65 feet)

With the iPhone 12 working as normal, we got the drone ready for its second dive in Lake Tahoe. This time, we wanted to take the phone to more extreme depths. We submerged the phone to 65 feet (20 meters) underwater, more than three times the maximum depth rating. The water temperature at this depth was 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius).

With the timer running on the iPhone 12's screen, we could see how much time had elapsed since we submerged the phone. Once it hit 30 minutes, we decided to leave it submerged a little longer, just to see what would happen. We finally pulled the drone out of the water at the 40-minute mark and ran through the same tests once more. 

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John Kim/CNET

Surprisingly, everything worked as normal. The screen was responsive, the volume and power buttons worked, and the two cameras were in working order as well. The speaker still sounded muffled when playing back the voice memo, but it was still audible.

After wiping down the iPhone 12, we powered it down and let it sit for a few days to let it dry out completely. 

The final test

After letting it dry out for 72 hours, we wanted to do one final test to see if there had been any long-term damage as a result of the extreme underwater test. The phone itself was completely dry, but its three lenses -- the ultrawide and wide-angle on the back, as well as the front camera -- had developed some fogging.

At this point the battery had also completely drained, so we let the phone juice up for a while via the Lightning port before powering it back on. But once we did, the iPhone 12's screen showed a Diagnostics prompt. After trying to get through the Diagnostics prompt a few times, we plugged the iPhone 12 into a MacBook to see if we could reset the device. It worked, but we still couldn't get past the Diagnostics screens.

While we have no way of knowing exactly what caused this error to happen, it may have been lingering water damage, the shift in temperature between the cold water of Lake Tahoe to an indoor environment, or a combination of both.

How water-resistant is the iPhone 12?

Our highly unscientific test would suggest that the iPhone 12 can withstand very deep water and clearly meets the IP68 claim. But, like all electronics, it does have a limit to how much water it can take and you should never intentionally submerge the phone in water (lake or otherwise). 

As with our earlier water experiment with the iPhone 11, your results may vary. Also remember that water damage is not covered under warranty. We contacted Apple and the company pointed us toward these instructions on its support page. Following these guidelines may improve your iPhone's chances in the event that it does come into contact with water or any other kind of liquid.