Dell has announced the largest recall of any consumer electronic item in history (4.1 million Lithium Ion batteries manufactured by Sony and used in over 30 of its models). This was precipitated by a small number of overheated batteries in notebooks actually getting hot enough to cause a fire or potentially explode. While the risk of such mishaps is small, it nevertheless presents a major liability for the company and therefore the recall is a good move on Dell’s part, though obviously not inexpensive (we estimate this will cost Dell at least $50 for each battery, or over $200M, although some substantial amount will obviously be funded by Sony). This is not the first time batteries have had overheating problems or been recalled by computer vendors (Dell has done this before, as has HP, Apple and others). Is this something unusual, or will this become an industry trend as more battery-powered devices make their way to market?
Most manufacturers of modern day battery operated devices face a dilemma. Users expect their devices to run for hours, even as those devices become increasingly more powerful and power hungry (e.g., most users want their notebooks to run a minimum of 4-5 hours, up substantially from the 2-3 hour average of just a couple of years ago). But battery technology has not kept pace with the “silicon curve”. Indeed, battery power only gains about 5%-10% per year; a far cry from the high multiples that processor performance increases every 18 - 24 months. Users want ever smaller and lighter devices, but the battery represents a major portion of the overall size and weight of nearly all portable devices, especially notebooks. Further, increasingly impatient users want fast charge times that allow them to get up and running quickly, requiring chargers that pump high levels of power into the battery, thereby increasing heating and limiting its lifetime, which at best is generally only 250-300 charge cycles before a typical battery needs to be replaced. Some new battery technologies may change all this (e.g., fuel cells) but we do not expect such technologies to be made economically and technologically viable for the mass market for at least 3-5 years?
Designers of portable systems (not just notebooks, but PDAs, mobile phones, music players, etc.) must make tradeoffs between device size and weight, battery life, charge times, power supply size/weight, overall power density/heat dissipation and of course, cost. And its not just batteries that are at risk of overheating. Power supplies (the little “brick” chargers) have been known to be fire risks as well. Because many notebooks are OEMed from third party manufacturers in the
We believe that companies should be cautious about the portable devices they purchase, even from the major enterprise marketers (e.g., Dell, HP, Lenovo). Few companies evaluating purchases of portable devices (not only notebooks, but also smart phone devices) do an adequate power/temperature/life cycle test. We believe, based on the increasing density and the higher charge rates inherent is so many of the new devices, companies must start evaluating the overheating risk of these devices. Companies should require suppliers to provide them with heat testing data to assure that no risks exist, and that the supplier has actually tested the devices adequately. Further, we believe that companies should check with their insurers to confirm that they are covered for any potential liabilities should devices overheat and cause burns to the end users or start fires. Finally, enterprises (and vendors) should undertake an education program to make users aware of the inherent risks associated with the “hot” (literally) new devices making it to market.
Bottom Line: We believe the risks of overheating in modern portable devices is increasing as more densely packed devices and higher charge rates are becoming the norm. Companies and users must be aware of this risk, and do whatever available to protect both themselves and their property from potential heat-caused accidents.
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