New options to waterproof your smartphone?

Two companies offer process similar to electroplating to coat components in plastic

Even the most nanotech-addled, smartphone-addicted mobile-tech geek will admit smartphones come with at least one major drawback (in addition to all the others): they're allergic to water.

Cell phones can "drown in as little as an inch of water" according to one insurer pushing insurance for digital devices.

Even steam from the shower can make some smartphones rebel, or just feel hurt and shut themselves down for a while.

Smartphones are so susceptible to water damage there's a water-exposure indicator built right in so the carrier's support crew can quickly ID units too hydrologized to qualify for a free replacement.

According to one U.K. survey, at least a third of smartphones are damaged by exposure to water (half of those by being dropped in the toilet).

What to do?

Two companies trying to make a splash at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) claim the solution is to coat the surface of every component in the phone with a plastic-like coating that repels water and reduces the chance of frying your darling iPhone the first time the humidity rises.

Both claim they're able to apply an invisible "nanocoating" that covers smartphones or other devices inside and out to protect them from water damage.

The plastic-ish coating is one-one-thousandth the thickness of a human hair that paints itself across the inside and outside surfaces of the phone, sealing cracks and coating circuits to keep accidental splashes or dunkings from inevitably killing the phone.

The material is clear, almost undetectable once it's applied, according to Liquipel, allows electricity to flow through it unimpeded to it doesn't damage any of your physical interfaces and lasts "a long time."

The other company, HzO, offers a very similar product and process called WaterBlock, though it appears to be focusing more on OEM deals than on selling to consumers. Liquipel is trying to do both.

The Liquipel and HzO coatings are not designed to allow the device to be dunked into water without damage, but there are any number of videos on the sight showing exactly that.

"Water will just run through the machine," Liquipel president Danny McPhail told a reporter from the French news agency AFP at the show, as he dropped an iPhone into a tub of water. "It actually beads right on top of the circuit board and rolls off."

Liquipel's site touts the "worry free fun" of moisture-resisting electronics, but warns on almost every page describing the process that it's not foolproof, especially against complete or repeated dunkings.

Liquipel is a unique coating that is meant to protect your electronic device from damage resulting from accidental and incidental exposure to water. WE NEVER SUGGEST OR RECOMMEND THAT YOUR DEVICE MAY COME IN CONTACT WITH WATER OR ANY OTHER TYPE OF LIQUID. We do not warrant that the coating of your device will work perfectly or that it will work under all conditions. — Liquipel Terms of Use, Jan, 2012

Drawback: No DIY option

Unfortunately for consumers, the Liquipel "nanocoating" can't be applied at home.

It has to be applied at Liquipel using a process similar to electroplating or powdercoating.

Giving one of 11 approved types of devices the treatment starts with putting it in an airtight box. Liquipel then pumps out most of the air, then fills the box with gas saturated with nanocoating aerosolized into drops small enough to flow into the device itself to coat all the internal components, rather than remaining on the surface.

Once it's saturated and coated, Liquipel applies a secret process "found in the natural world only on the surface of the sun" (heat and/or electrical charges) to get the droplets of nanocoating to bond to the surfaces on which they settled.

Turn off the surface-of-the-sun treatment generator, pump out the nanocoat gas, pump the air up to normal pressure and the treatment is finished.

Understandably, considering how eager most people are to be without their phones for days while a company they don't know pumps in an undisclosed substance and exposes it to something cosmic and solar, Liquipel would prefer to make deals with phone manufacturers or carriers to treat phones before they ship to customers.

That was the focus of its efforts at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), but there is no word on whether it got any takers.

The biggest drawback is you have to send them your device, which Liquipel promises to ship back within one to three days of receiving it.

Is it waterproof? No. Is the result a lot more waterproof than your hydrophobic smartphone was before?

How could it not be?

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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