Fisherman charged $550 to repair ‘water-resistant’ phone that didn’t survive river photos

Leland Sawyer wanted a phone that he could use underwater.

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The company used “kind of evasive language”, but there is a difference between water resistant and water proof, said a consumer tech expert with BusinessDesk NZ. Source: Fair Go

He's a keen fisherman. In the summer, you can catch him at his local waterway — the Hangatahua Awa, or Stony River, in the Taranaki region.

On a good day from Leland's spot, you can see Mount Taranaki looming in the background and providing the most scenic views.

It's the kinds of views you want to make sure you capture.

Last year, he was on the hunt for a phone that did just that, but also withstood being used underwater.

After some research, he settled on buying the second-generation iPhone SE at $850, for the very reason that it could function underwater, with limitations.

This model of iPhone in particular is advertised on the Apple website as water-resistant to one metre for 30 minutes.

Leland thought there was no way he was going to use the phone beyond those parameters and thought it would be perfect for him.

"I got my phone out, ditched my backpack and my rod, waded in, took a quick little pano video, showing the rocks under the river," he said.

But, within ten minutes of using the phone under the water, it started to malfunction and then completely died.

The same day, Leland took the phone back to the retailer he bought it from, the 2degrees store in New Plymouth, where they confirmed that the phone could be used underwater at one metre depth for up to 30 minutes.

But they sent the phone away to their third-party repair company, who confirmed the phone had water damage, and said it would cost him $550 to repair.

Leland asked: "Why has it got water damage? It's supposed to be water resistant."

He reached out to Fair Go for answers, and wanted to know if others had the same issue with their phones.

Turns out Ash Darrall, now living in Australia, had a similar experience with his 2018 Samsung Galaxy A8.

He purchased the phone in 2018, in New Zealand, from JB Hi-Fi for the fact that it was advertised as being water-resistant in up to 1.5 metres of water for up to 30 minutes.

While on holiday on the Gold Coast, he used his phone to take underwater photos of his son while swimming at their hotel pool. He was able to use it three times underwater before it started to malfunction.

Fair Go asked BusinessDesk NZ's consumer tech expert Henry Burrell the question: Should these phones still be working as they're advertised?

"Yes, as far as it's advertised, it should have been working.

"They say they're water resistant, which doesn't necessarily mean waterproof," he said.

"I would go as far as to say there is no waterproof phone. They're only made to sort of repel water, not keep it out entirely."

Apple make it clear on their website that water damage isn't covered under their warranty. They also say their phones are tested in controlled laboratory conditions.

But customers wouldn't necessarily know this information, unless they went searching for it.

Similarly, on Samsung's website it says their water resistance rating is based on test conditions of submersion in fresh water.

"It's kind of evasive language," Burrell said. 

He also suggests that if you're looking for a phone that is water resistant, it's best to look into a product with a high IP rating.

An IP (ingress protection) rating is a two-digit grading system. The numbers show how well the phone is protected against things like dust and water.   

Leland's Apple iPhone SE has an IP rating of 67. The six means it has full protection against dust, and the seven means it's protected against full water immersion for up to 30 minutes at one metre maximum.

The Samsung Galaxy A8 has a 68 IP rating, which is as water resistant as you can get with phones.

"If you want an IP rating, IP 68 is the best one and if you wanna take your phone underwater, it may well survive," Burrell said.

"But, as we found out, there's no guarantee."

Under the Fair Trading act, it's illegal for a business to mislead or deceive you about the things they sell. But what you can ask for depends on what's gone wrong. Sometimes it will be a partial refund. In Leland's case, 2degrees agreed to give him a replacement iPhone. JB Hi-Fi is keen to talk with Ash about getting him a solution.

Apple didn't want to go on camera, and instead it pointed us to the support page on their website, which clearly lists all the iPhones that can go in water and for how long. But the website says to avoid swimming or bathing with your phone or intentionally submerging it under water.

When Fair Go asked for further clarification, they kept being referred back to the support page.

Samsung said: "If there is water damage to an ingress protection (IP) rated phone, Samsung New Zealand will either repair, or if there is extensive damage, replace the device.

"The exception to this, is where there’s physical damage to the screen, back ‘glass’ or camera, before the device has been exposed to water, as physical damage compromises the water tightness and invalidates the IP rating."

Samsung also explains that the water resistance capabilities of their devices is made clear on all their marketing material. This includes the maximum time and depth the device is certified for, and advises customers to rinse with fresh water after exposure to salt or chlorinated water.

It's currently in court in Australia facing accusations its misled consumers into thinking Galaxy phones were water resistant by featuring pictures of people using them in oceans and swimming pools.

The Commerce Commission told Fair Go that since January 2019 they've received a total of 14 complaints relating to Apple or Samsung phones and marketing claims about water resistance. Eleven were about Apple and three were about Samsung. They do not have a current investigation open.