Lenovo recalls ThinkPad batteries

IBM Corp. and Lenovo Group Ltd. recalled 526,000 Sony Corp. batteries for ThinkPad notebooks on Thursday, becoming the latest notebook vendors to act on fire-prone power sources.

The companies advised owners of the batteries, which were sold worldwide with ThinkPads and as replacement units between February 2005 and September 2006, to return them to Lenovo for a free replacement. Lenovo took over IBM’s PC division in May 2005.

The voluntary recall was announced in conjunction with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) after reports this month of a ThinkPad smoking and catching fire as a user was boarding an airliner at Los Angeles International Airport, the companies said in a statement. Apple Computer Inc., Dell Inc. and Toshiba Corp. have also recalled Sony notebook batteries this year.

The batteries recalled Thursday were sold worldwide with T Series (T43, T43p and T60), R Series (R51e, R52, R60 and R60e) and X Series (X60 and X60s) ThinkPads or as replacement batteries for those units.

More information is available at this Web site. Owners in the U.S. can call a Lenovo recall hotline at +1-800-426-7378; numbers for customers in other countries can be found at this Web site.

The recall offer is open-ended, according to Lenovo.

The company is confident that no other batteries will have the overheating problem, said Lenovo spokesman Ray Gorman. Ever since the Apple and Dell problems came to light, Lenovo has been talking with the CPSC and studying its batteries, Gorman said.

The notebook involved in the airport incident, a ThinkPad T43, is in Lenovo’s main notebook lab in Yamato, Japan, undergoing tests.

The last of the affected batteries were actually shipped in July, but Lenovo extended the time frame for its customer alert to September because the manufacturer can’t be sure how long each notebook was in the sales channel before being sold, Gorman said.

A majority of ThinkPad batteries come from Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd., according to Gorman, but the company also uses Panasonic and Sony units.

The notebooks involved in the recall are only a small fraction of those in owners’ hands, said IDC analyst Richard Shim. During that period, the companies sold about 8.1 million ThinkPads worldwide, he said.

Anyone shopping for a ThinkPad today probably doesn’t have to worry about getting one that’s affected by this recall, Shim pointed out. However, they don’t really have any choice but to get the same basic battery technology, he said. Lithium-ion is what all the major vendors are using.

“Battery technology evolves very slowly,” Shim said. One reason is that margins on batteries are thin. What manufacturers can do to increase safety is use better components with the same underlying system, he said.

The recalls come at a critical time for notebook makers, he said.

“We’re heading into the big holiday season, and consumer notebooks are driving the PC industry from a growth perspective,” Shim said.

Also Thursday, Sony announced plans for its own battery replacement program to address the kinds of cells involved in the Dell and Apple recalls. It will cooperate with other vendors that used the cells.

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