Summer of the exploding laptop!
Last Updated August 15, 2006
CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites. Links will open in new window.
To hear some talk about it, you'd think laptops around the world were exploding left and right.
In April, an 11-year-old's unattended Apple iBook in Solon, Iowa, melted the carpet it was sitting on and subsequently caught fire.
Then in June, a Dell laptop exploded into flames at a conference in Japan.
And Wednesday there was a front-page article in the Globe and Mail about the perils of exploding laptops, featuring these two incidents.
But, as mentioned in the Globe article, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has reported only 43 laptop fires in the United States since 2001, or about 10 every year.
That's the same number of fires caused every year by nightlights.
(Which reminds me of that classic "Summer of the Shark" bit Stephen Colbert did on the Daily Show.)
And given that there are an estimated 60 million laptops in the U.S., that's a pretty good ratio of non-exploding units to exploding units.
Still, to err on the side of caution, Dell has now decided to recall 4.1 million laptops and replace their Sony-made lithium batteries.
This was the third recall of Dell batteries in the past five years and the computer maker launched a Web site, http://www.dellbatteryprogram.com, which described the affected models and how to get an exchange.
In announcing the recall, Dell reported six incidents of battery overheating in its recent line of notebooks, resulting in property damage but no injuries.
Linda Nazar, the University of Waterloo chemistry professor interviewed for the article, later posted a comment on the Globe's site saying the risk had been overblown.
"When I was asked by the reporter to comment on the frequency of incidents involving overheated batteries bursting into flames, I specifically stated that such incidents were extremely rare, and almost always due to battery abuse," she wrote.
When I called Nazar to confirm that she was the one who wrote the comment, she was reluctant to speak to the media again about the chemistry of lithium-ion batteries, the type used in laptops and many cellphones as well.
She did talk a bit about the new, safer batteries she mentioned in her post. Such batteries are not yet widely available for laptops, but could be in a year, she said.
However, manufacturers may not consider it worthwhile to make the switch.
"Frankly, the laptop concern … has been sufficiently low that I'm not sure that these new materials will be used in laptop batteries, because they don't have quite the same capacity as current materials," she said.
The original report on the Japan laptop fire suggests, "It is only a matter of time until such an incident breaks out on a plane." This is a fear echoed by many bloggers reacting to the photos, although it raises the question of whether, of all the components on a passenger jet, the laptop is the most dangerous.
But laptops don't have to catch fire to make news. Just getting hot is enough, especially if fertility is invovled.
When Apple introduced its MacBook computers this year, there was a lot of concern online about how hot they were getting.
Some laptop owners found that a piece of plastic was blocking the vent at the rear of the computer. Another opened up his Mac and, he said, found that the thermal grease, intended to conduct excess heat away, hadn't been applied properly.
The user manual (PDF file) for the Apple laptop does warn that it may get too hot to put on carpet, a pillow or, of all things, your lap:
Do not leave the bottom of your MacBook Pro in contact with your lap or any surface of your body for extended periods. Prolonged contact with your body could cause discomfort and potentially a burn.
Do not place your MacBook Pro on a pillow or other soft material when it is on, as the material can block the airflow vents, in particular the rear vents, and cause the computer to overheat.
More features, more heat
The problem is hardly unique to Apple laptops, though. Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Apple have all recently recalled thousands of batteries for overheating and electrical shorts. And it's possible to find complaints of overheating laptops for just about every manufacturer.
Laptops are getting more compact, meaning there's less room for ventilation to disperse heat. They're getting more features, such as DVD players, that generate more heat. And they're getting more popular, meaning more people are using them as a primary computer.
In Canada, the ratio of laptop computers being sold is smaller, but growing. Market research firm IDC Canada says 35 per cent of computers sold in the last quarter of 2005 were laptops, but projected that would break 40 per cent this year.
- Green machines
- Disk drive: Companies struggle with surge in demand for storage
- Open season: Will court decision spur Linux adoption?
- Analogue TV
- Video games: Holiday season
- Video games: Going pro
- Guitar Hero
- Parents' guide to cheap software
- Working online
- Laptop computers for students
- Technology offers charities new ways to attract donations
- The invisible middleman of the game industry
- Data mining
- Two against one
- The days of the single-core desktop chip are numbered
- Home offices
- Cyber crime: Identity crisis in cyberspace
- Yellow Pages - paper or web?
- Robotics features
- iPhone FAQ
- Business follows youth to new online world
- A question of authority
- Our increasing reliance on Wikipedia changes the pursuit of knowledge
- Photo printers
- Rare earths
- Widgets and gadgets
- Surround Sound
- Microsoft's Shadowrun game
- Dell's move to embrace retail
- The Facebook generation: Changing the meaning of privacy
- Digital cameras
- Are cellphones and the internet rewiring our brains?
- Intel's new chips
- Apple faces security threat with iPhone
- Industrial revolution
- Web developers set to stake claim on computer desktop with new tools
- Digital photography
- Traditional film is still in the picture
- HD Video
- Affordable new cameras take high-definition mainstream
- GPS: Where are we?
- Quantum computing
- What it is, how it works and the promise it holds
- Playing the digital-video game
- Microsoft's forthcoming Xbox 360 Elite console points to entertainment push
- Online crime
- Botnets: The end of the web as we know it?
- Is Canada losing fight against online thieves?
- Malware evolution
- Money now the driving force behind internet threats: experts
- Adopting Ubuntu
- Linux switch can be painless, free
- Sci-fi projections
- Systems create images on glass, in thin air
- Power play
- Young people shaping cellphone landscape
- Digital cameras
- Cellphone number portability
- Barriers to change
- Desktop to internet
- Future of online software unclear: experts
- Complaining about complaints systems
- Canadian schools
- Multimedia meets multi-literacy age
- Console showdown
- Comparing Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 networks
- Social connections
- Online networking: What's your niche?
- Virtual family dinners
- Xbox 360 console game
- Vista and digital rights
- Child safety
- Perils and progress in fight against online child abuse
- Biometric ID
- Moving to a Mac
- Supply & demand
- Why Canada misses out on big gadget launches
- Windows Vista
- Computers designed for digital lifestyle
- Windows Vista
- What's in the new consumer versions
- Cutting the cord
- Powering up without wires
- GPS and privacy
- Digital deluge
- Consumer Electronics Show
- Working online
- Web Boom 2.0 (Part II)
- GPS surveillance
- Hits and misses: Best and worst consumer technologies of 2006
- Mars Rovers
- Voice over IP
- Web Boom 2.0
- Technology gift pitfalls to avoid
- Classroom Ethics
- Rise of the cybercheat
- Private Eyes
- Are videophones turning us into Big Brother?
- Windows Vista
- Cyber Security
- Video games: Canadian connections to the console war
- Satellite radio
- Portable media
- Video games
- Plasma and LCD
- Video screens get bigger, better, cheaper
- Video games:
- New hardware heats up console battle
- High-tech kitchens
- Microsoft-Novell deal
- Lumalive textiles
- Music to go
- Alternate reality
- Women and gadgets
- High-tech realtors
- The itv promise
- Student laptops
- Family ties
- End of Windows 98
- Browser wars
- Exploding laptop
- The pirate bay
- Stupid mac tricks
- Keeping the net neutral
- PS3 and WII at E3
- Sex on the net
- Calendars, online and on paper
- Google, ipod and more
- Viral video
- Unlocking the USB key
- Free your ipod
- In search of
- Sony and the rootkit
- Internet summit
- Electronic surveillance