Tempers flare after laptop explodes

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This explosion wasn’t sparked by terrorist – in all likelihood just a damaged battery. But it has at least one Canadian computer industry analyst riled.

Carmi Levy, senior analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Inc. has called on regulatory bodies and vendors to conduct more rigorous battery testing following reports that a laptop manufactured by Dell Inc. exploded in Osaka, Japan.

Levy says the incident serves as a warning about potential threats – including a possible airline tragedy. “Everyone worries about explosives being taken covertly on board planes, but what about the average laptop that could be just as dangerous?”

Recently, The Inquirer carried several pictures of a laptop that burst into flames during a business meeting in Osaka, Japan.

Witnesses said they heard several popping sounds from the machine before fire shot out. Luckily the computer was on a table and no one was attending to it at the time.

No injuries have so far been reported, but Levy said regulatory bodies and manufacturers need to make a concerted attempt to solve these issues rather than using recalls as a band-aid solution.

Dell spokespersons say the case of the exploding laptop is an isolated incident.

“We have not had any indication that there is a broader trend beyond what happened in Japan,” said Wendy Gottsegen, corporate communications manager for Dell Canada. “We are carrying out forensic tests on the laptop, and so far we do know the fault is with the battery cell.”

On several past occasions Dell and rival IBM have issued battery and adaptor recalls following reports of overheating or burning laptops.

However Gottsegen said there has been no similar announcement at this point and current Dell quality checks are adequate. “We remain committed to quality and product safety and our standards are among the highest in the industry.”

Recalls related to computer batteries overheating have been issued by at least three computer equipment manufacturers within the last year, according to Levy.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) announced a recall of some 15,700 HP and Compaq notebook computer batteries in April this year after 20 reports of batteries overheating. Dell announced a recall of about 22,000 of its notebook computer batteries in December, 2005. And Apple Computer recalled 128,000 batteries shipped in its PowerBook G4 and iBook G4 laptops in the spring of 2005.

In 2004 IBM recalled 225,000 alternating current (AC) adaptors for ThinkPad notebooks after reports that overheating caused some units burn circuit boards and melt metal housings. The adaptors were manufactured by Delta Electronics of Taiwan.

During the same period, Dell recalled some 553,000 AC adaptors of the same brand.

Levy said computer vendors need to put in place more rigorous testing of batteries before deploying them in computers and should be working closely with safety organizations to raise the bar on regulations for the industry.

He said as laptops become faster they generate greater heat but their thinner and smaller design does not allow adequate dissipation of temperature. “We would like laptop and battery manufacturers to build better thermal management into their design. Governments in turn need to tighten regulations and make sure these are complied with.”

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