Dell Recall Shows Laptops Becoming A Risky Business

laptop batteries

Dell on Monday embarked on the largest safety recall ever in the consumer electronics industry, announcing that it would offer to take back 4.1 million batteries manufactured by a unit of Sony Corp. The dramatic step followed half a dozen incidents since December in which Dell laptops had overheated or caught fire.

"This is absolutely a wake up call for the industry," Sam Bhavnani, analyst for Current Analysis, said.

Causing the safety problem are manufacturers building smaller, but more powerful, laptops, which consumers are increasingly using to watch video and perform other demanding chores. The heavier the use, the hotter the laptop's processor gets, increasing the risk of overheating. If at any point the casing of a battery cracks, and the contents leak, then a fire is possible.

In June, a Dell laptop burst into flames during a conference in Japan. Pictures of the charred computer were posted on the tech site The Inquirer. No one was hurt.

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While computer makers have tried hard to keep laptops cool, it hasn't been enough of a consideration in design. Instead, manufacturers have rushed to provide consumers with the small computers they want, despite the technological limitations in venting the shrinking hardware.

"What the industry needs to do right now is make thermal management a design priority," Carmi Levi, analyst for Info-Tech Research Group, said.

Bhavnani agreed, saying, "Thermal management is probably not as high on the priority list as it should be."

While Dell's troubles could be too easy a target for rivals to ignore in sales calls, the fact is overheating or fire risks related to batteries is a problem other manufacturers have faced, including Hewlett-Packard, Dell's No. 1 rival; and Apple Computer.

"All the other vendors will make a fuss about (the recall) and try to leverage it, but frankly, every one of the vendors have had a battery problem at one time or another," Leslie Fiering, analyst for Gartner, said.

Indeed, Levy does not expect Dell to be the last manufacturer to issue a battery recall, given its an industry-wide problem. " I would expect to see more recalls in the months to come," Levy said. "Dell won't be the last."

Experts believe government regulation is likely, and is expected to follow the same pattern as in the auto industry decades ago before seat-belt requirements. Following media attention to the dangers, the federal government adopted regulations that demanded industry and consumer attention. Eventually, safety became a selling point, since consumers were unlikely to buy a car unless it had lots of protective features.

In the case of laptops, a burning battery could have tragic consequences in a jetliner, or a crowded building.

"So far, we've been lucky that no one has been seriously hurt," Enderle said. "But it's only a matter of time before a burning laptop finds itself too close to a flammable source."

Having government standards would be good for the industry in that minimum safety requirements would be mandated for all computer makers.

"The recall is reflective of the fact that we probably need a strong set of industry standards in place that set quality levels that manufacturers have to maintain," Enderle said.