Notebook Safety Doesn't End With Recalls

Aug 28, 2006

David Needle

The recent recall of millions of notebook computer batteries by Dell and Apple is a necessary and welcome first step.

But the notebook safety issue hasn't necessarily been resolved, according to Info-Tech Research Group, a Canada-based IT research firm.

"While it's good to see companies like Apple (Quote, Chart) and Dell (Quote, Chart) taking direct action, computer companies need to do root-cause analysis to ensure they are actually solving the problems at the source," said Info-Tech senior analyst Carmi Levy.

"Computer designs that limit heat dissipation, as well as the apparent faulty performance of Sony's lithium ion batteries, need to be thoroughly investigated."

Sony said it has introduced several additional safeguards into its battery-manufacturing process and believes it's addressed the overheating issue.

Info-tech said that concern about battery, and by extension, notebook overheating, goes beyond damage to the computer itself.

There is the potential for human injury, particularly where laptops are used in confined spaces such as airplanes.

According to a report in The Sydney Morning Herald this week, Qantas airlines recently implemented restrictions on Dell laptop computer usage on board its flights as a safety precaution.

The report said passengers would be allowed to carry their Dells either as checked or cabin baggage, but could only use them through the aircraft power supply available in some first- and business-class cabins after first removing the batteries.

Sony said the overheating problem is caused on the rare occasions when microscopic metal particles in the recalled battery cells come into contact with other parts of the battery cell, leading to a short circuit within the cell.

But after talking with Sony and several notebook manufacturers, analyst Roger Kay said there is no definitive proof of the cause of the problem.

"There is a lot of theory as to what may be causing the overheating," Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates, told

But he said the problem has occurred so infrequently (Dell reported six occurrences and Apple nine), that it's been impossible to reproduce in the lab the same conditions that led to overheating.

"We're talking about a tens of thousandth of a percent frequency," said Kay. "You've got a lot better chance of getting hit by a semi riding your bicycle than of having one of these notebooks overheat."

On the issue of business travel, Info-Tech issued a separate advisory that the terrorist threat may limit notebook use in planes.

"We can expect that carry-on baggage rules are going to fluctuate in sync with security alert levels, so it's time for enterprises and business travelers to address the issue head-on," said Levy.

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