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posted: 7/27/2013 7:19 AM

NeverWet? More like Oftenkindawet

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PALO ALTO, Calif. -- In 2011, LancasterOnline, a news website covering Lancaster, Pa., published a story about a seemingly magical invention by a local company. The product was called NeverWet, and it did exactly what its name suggested: When you sprayed the coating on any item, the object would be rendered practically immune to water and other liquids.

In a video accompanying the story, Andy Jones, the president of Ross Nanotechnology, which makes NeverWet, pours chocolate syrup over a white canvas shoe that has been coated with the spray. The syrup slides off the surface, leaving the shoe unstained. He shows how a toilet plunger treated with NeverWet remains dry when you pour water over it, meaning that it stays free of bacteria when you use it. Jones claimed that the spray worked on practically anything, including electronics. "I sprayed my iPhone with NeverWet, submerged it in a foot of water for 30 minutes, took it out and it was good to go," he told the paper.

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There was only one downside to NeverWet -- you couldn't buy it. The company said it was hoping to launch a retail version of NeverWet sometime in early 2012, but that didn't happen. Anticipation kept growing, with LancasterOnline's video racking up nearly 5 million views.

Then, a few weeks ago, Ross Nanotechnology announced that NeverWet would soon be available nationally at Home Depot for $20. In another, even more amazing video, the company showed off the retail version's powers. Among other feats, the spray seemed to make a T-shirt invulnerable to every stain imaginable, including mustard, gravy and Pepsi.

I ran out to buy NeverWet. I got my hands on it earlier this month, and I've tested it on a variety of materials, including shoes, clothes, paper, wood, plastic, cardboard, a keyboard and a smartphone. And I'm really sorry to have to break it to anyone who's spent the past couple years waiting for this miracle stuff: NeverWet is mostly a dud.

In my tests, it did successfully render some items immune to liquids, but not everything, and not nearly to the degree that you see in the company's demonstrations. The coating didn't seem to last long, either. I could rub it off glossy surfaces such as glass with my fingers, and on items that get a lot of use -- such as shoes -- it wore away after a day or two. This might not sound so bad. A product that makes things almost NeverWet or even sometimes NeverWet might still find some practical uses. But that gets to the bigger problem with NeverWet: It damages everything it touches. The coating leaves a frost-colored haze on every surface, and it turns textures rough and faintly gummy. That explains why the shirts and shoes shown in the company's demos are white; on any other color, NeverWet would look terrible.

NeverWet's white, gummy haze is a fatal flaw. The whole point of protecting something from water damage is to keep it looking and feeling as good as new. Other than toilet plungers and other cleaning tools, I can't think of many products whose looks and texture I'd be willing to sacrifice for water resistance. Certainly not my clothes, phone, linens, books, furniture or photographs. All of these things could one day be ruined by liquids -- but if you spray them with NeverWet, you're just ruining them now instead of (potentially) later.

I hate having to tell you all this, by the way. I'm very sad. If it worked as well as the videos suggest, NeverWet would be a wonder. The world needs something like it. For now, though, NeverMind.

• Manjoo is Slate's technology reporter and the author of "True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society." Twitter: @fmanjoo

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