Are Red-Hot Laptops a Burning Problem?

 
 
By Baselinemag  |  Posted 2006-06-29
 
 
 

After reports of portable PC batteries overheating—and in at least one case, bursting into flames—some analysts say computer makers should take more aggressive safety precautions.

At least three PC makers have recalled laptop batteries in the past year. In April, Hewlett-Packard announced a recall of 15,700 HP and Compaq notebook computer batteries after reports of overheating. Dell announced a recall of about 22,000 notebook computer batteries in December 2005, and in May 2005 Apple Computer recalled 128,000 batteries in its PowerBook G4 and iBook G4 laptops after it received reports of six batteries overheating.

And earlier this month, a Dell laptop apparently burst into flamesat a business meeting in Osaka, Japan. Dell says it's investigating the incident and notes that no one was hurt.

To be sure, the number of laptops affected by these battery recalls represents a small fraction of the total market. According to research firm IDC, more than 65 million laptops and notebooks were sold worldwide in 2005.

But Carmi Levy, an analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ontario, says PC manufacturer must address safety issues rather than use the "Band-Aid solution" of simply recalling defective components.

"We need to see that the current design direction is a risk," Levy says. "The propensity for these devices to explode has been known for some time, and regulatory bodies and manufacturers need to turn up the heat on solving these issues."

Making laptops safer, Levy adds, may require legislation similar to the laws requiring seatbelts and airbags in the auto industry. "It's not in the [PC] manufacturers' interest to proactively make these design changes that will cut into their margins," he says.

Rob Enderle, principal analyst at consulting firm Enderle Group, says the main concern in this area has been a proliferation of knock-off laptop batteries that haven't been tested to meet PC makers' specifications. If a lithium-ion battery charges or discharges too rapidly, he says, it can result in a fire that is difficult to extinguish.

"I'm not aware of any of them blowing up, but these offbrand batteries don't go through the testing that manufacturers require of their own products," he says. Enderle advises information-technology managers to buy only manufacturer-approved laptop batteries and power supplies.

Computer makers, for their part, say battery problems have been isolated incidents for what are otherwise completely safe products. Apple, Dell and HP all point out that the recalls were initiated voluntarily, in conjunction with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

HP, in a notice on its Web site that provides information on the April recall of batteries for certain models of its HP Pavilion and Compaq Presario laptops, says the company "fully stands behind the products it makes. HP has taken a proactive approach to this situation to ensure the safety of our customers and the integrity and quality of our products."

Levy, however, believes the industry should be doing better. "It's an isolated incident until it's your machine that explodes," he says.