Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Exploding iPhones: Panic, or chill?

Reports are coming in from France, the Netherlands, and the UK of iPhones and iPod Touches—just a few so far, mind you—blowing up in people's faces, and the European Commission has launched an investigation into the matter. So, is your iPhone a ticking time bomb? Before you freak out, read on.

So, what's going on?
There have been a handful of reported incidents of iPhones and iPod Touches exploding, causing minor injuries in some cases (mainly due to flying glass shards from the iPhone display).

You're kidding! How many iPhones have blown up so far?
Like I said, only a few cases have been reported, mostly in Europe. The latest "exploding iPhone" case comes from France, with the AFP reporting that a 26-year-old supermarket watchman from Villevieille suffered an eye injury after his iPhone screen exploded and shattered. Among the other recent reports: a French teenager was "slightly" injured by flying glass shards from an exploding iPhone, an iPod Touch in the UK "overheated and jumped into the air" after being dropped, and an iPhone in the Netherlands caught fire and melted the passenger seat of a car.

OK, so only iPhones and iPod Touches, eh? What about other iPods?
They've been known to explode as well, with a recently uncovered safety report detailing at least 15 cases of fires in the U.S. blamed on overheating or sparking iPods.

What's so dangerous about iPhones and iPods?
According to Ars Technica, the majority of cases are traced to the iPhone's built-in lithium-ion battery, a type of rechargeable battery that powers everything from iPhones to laptops. So, are lithium-ion batteries inherently dangerous? Not necessarily, explains HowStuffWorks, although they can overheat, spark, and burst into flame "under the right circumstances"; just ask anyone who lived though the great laptop battery recall of 2006.

Whoa. What do the authorities say?
As the New York Times reports, the European Commission is investigating the latest cases of exploding iPhones and iPod Touches, as is the French government. Meanwhile, federal safety officials in the U.S. say there's no need for an iPod recall based on the small number of reported incidents.

What does Apple have to say for itself?
Not much, so far, with a spokesperson telling Reuters (via the NYT): "We are aware of these reports and we are waiting to receive the iPhones from the customers. Until we have the full details, we don't have anything further to add."

OK, so ... panic, or chill?
Chill. Batteries in gadgets, including the iPhone and iPod touch, always have the (very small) potential to explode, but look at the numbers: for iPods, only 15 documented cases in the U.S. after hundreds of millions of iPods sold, while just a handful (as in five or so) of iPhones/iPod Touches have reportedly exploded out of an install base of about 40 million.

Of course, that's not to say that government safety officials and Apple shouldn't stop, take notice, and do everything they can to eliminate the danger altogether. However, based on the figures, you've got a much better chance of being struck by lightning—or dying in a plane crash, drowning, or even perishing in burning pajamas, for that matter—than having your iPhone or iPod catch fire.

That's a relief. Still, any safety tips?
Sure: If your iPhone or iPod gets way too hot (more than the usual heat from playing a game or downloading a video file), turn it off immediately and take it to an Apple service center.

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