Opinion: Safety Is The Only Battery Feature You Need

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The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is an exploding phone. Or, at least that is what consumers are starting to be led to believe. The reality is far different and Samsung has been pulling out all the stops recently to make sure that the wider consumer market understands this. There is nothing wrong with the Galaxy Note 7. What there is – is something wrong with the battery inside and only inside the initial batches of the Galaxy Note 7. As Samsung has now not only replaced the batteries in the newer batches, but also effectively replaced the actual supplier of the batteries of the Galaxy Note 7 (which in reality is probably a massive overreaction to the situation), it does go to show how openly and concretely Samsung wants to project that they are dealing with the issue. Either way, now that that battery is gone, there is no longer an issue. The new Samsung Galaxy Note 7s will be as safe as any other phone. While that is all well and good, what the 'Galaxy Note 7 exploding' chapter of Samsung's history does highlight is the importance of batteries in general.

In the smartphone enthusiast world, focusing on the advancements is all that matters. How much RAM does it have? What can it do? How big are the bezels? So on and so forth. This is the nature of technology at this level where micro changes are not just important, but are actually everything. No micro changing then no point releasing an updated device as it is in theory, not an updated device at all. Generally speaking, that is fine. micro changes are the name of the game and much of the industry gets excited by those changes. But, when it comes to batteries, it needs to be a different story. Batteries are not like other components in a smartphone, while the RAM and the storage theoretically matter, the battery realistically matters. The reason being, RAM and storage chips are not dangerous. And here is the issue. As the consumer and tech market becomes fixated on tech advancements, batteries have now fallen under that umbrella… what is the mAh capacity? How thin is the battery? Can I fast charge? Wirelessly charge? Fast wirelessly charge? It goes on. As a result, smartphone manufacturers are now including battery development in their spec arms race and that in itself, is a dangerous game.

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While the Galaxy Note 7 is being used as the poster child to highlight this issue, it is not an issue that only affects them. All manufacturers do seem currently guilty of trying hard to push the battery features of their devices. And that is understandable as there is a serious need for better battery development, optimization and otherwise. But it should never be at the cost of safety. Right now, the vaping world is a direct parallel to the Galaxy Note 7 – as this is another industry where explosions happen (and largely due to the batteries inside) and where the likes of the FAA and other agencies prohibit them in certain places, like in your checked baggage due to a fear of explosions. As a result, there are routine vaping news pieces that also come through about the latest mod that exploded, caught fire, or otherwise. Like the Note 7, while those reports are fractionally minute compared to the wider number of mods being used by vapors, the headlines are important as while they do sensationalize the issue, they at least draw attention to the need for safety when it comes to batteries. Something which is generally largely absent in the smartphone world.

Which in itself is quite strange. A vaping mod you put in your mouth and a smartphone you hold up to your ear. Whichever way you look at it, they both have the potential to do a similar level of damage. Of course, what likely differentiates the two is that smartphone batteries are considered safe. However, what the takeaway should be from the Galaxy Note 7 saga is that batteries are by their very nature unsafe. While a battery exploding is almost likely to never happen to you (even in the case of the Galaxy Note 7 it was 90+ incidents from over one million devices in the US), these are small capsules which contain raw power. Which places them in a very unique position – as their big selling point, power, is also their vulnerability. These types of batteries are all about being energy-dense. The more dense they are, the more power they can produce. While the more dense they are, the more chance they have of failing and combusting. Although, the density itself is only one way in which they can fail, as these are also aspects which are prone to the elements, including being too cold, being too hot and just about being too anything. These 'toos' affect the stability of the battery and once a battery becomes compromised in this way, there is always the possibility that something could happen.

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This is why smartphone manufacturers are not only always thinking of new ways to get more power out of smartphones, but are also always thinking of new ways to keep smartphones cooler. Beit special liquid cooling systems or fans, or even software tweaks and systems which look to 'manage' the battery more effectively. Charging is a perfect example of this. The Galaxy Note 7 does seem to be more problematic when on charge and that makes sense, as this is when the battery cells are essentially being refilled with power. Normally speaking, smartphones use software management systems to try and mitigate against any issues by telling the smartphone when it has had too much to drink – as continuously (and in an unregulated manner) charging a smartphone can also cause the battery to become overcharged and therefore, unstable. Hence why we often here of smartphones exploding after being charged and/or during charging. This is also likely why one of the temporary fixes Samsung introduced was the limiting of charging to about 60-percent. A move which undoubtedly meant the battery never runs close to a point where the flow of energy could cause the battery to become unstable…or at least more unstable than it already was.

Of course, the power itself (or the limiting of it) was not exactly the cause of the issue that plagued the Galaxy Note 7. Although it certainly would have been an accelerator for the problem – meaning it could trigger the already unstable battery to combust. In the case of the Galaxy Note 7, and according to Samsung, the issue revolved around contact being made between the anode and cathode. For a basic clarification on this, the two largely refer to the flow of current with an anode (generally speaking) attracting or absorbing negative ions while a cathode (generally speaking) attracts or absorbs negative ions. Therefore, in very simple terms, the two should never meet. According to Samsung, that is exactly what was happening with the battery inside the Galaxy Note 7. The two were meeting which meant that a reaction was possible and in some cases, occurring leading to a meltdown of sorts. Again, this is something that is almost never likely to happen (obviously it did) and Samsung attributed its happening to a 'manufacturing error'. So the chances of this happening again, and in this particular way, are minimal. In fact, they are now lower than ever before thanks to Samsung and the law of averages. So while it is very true that smartphone batteries are inherently safer than the batteries found in the likes of a vaping mod, events of such smartphone-related incidents have been slowly creeping higher in recent years. One here, one there, and then a massive rush of reports involving the Galaxy Note 7.

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Which does mean that now is a perfect time to address the issue and use the current reports as a reminder that smartphones are not just a gateway to Facebook, Twitter, eBay or Tinder. They are seriously powerful devices that do have the potential to fail and in extreme cases, to devastating degrees. But the bigger picture here is the rush for advancements on something that should not be rushed. While the Galaxy Note 7 was supposedly a 'technical manufacturing issue', some reports have very clearly alluded to this issue arising because Samsung was trying to push the Galaxy Note 7 to market too quickly and in particular, before the iPhone was released. While this is unconfirmed and will likely be denied by Samsung, the very fact that those reports exist highlights the issue we are talking about. Whether it is true or not in Samsung's case, manufacturers in general, do seem to be in a rush to produce smartphones which come loaded with the best battery, the fastest charging battery and even market products to highlight those specific features – 'Dash Charge' being a case in point, although it is far from the only one. This sort of marketing is a dangerous game as when energy in its raw form becomes a selling point (for any device) and one where companies actively compete on, it is literally asking for trouble. And this is now largely where we find the state of the smartphone market – everyone wanting a full charge in five minutes and manufacturers wanting to provide it.

So while there is a clearly a need (and demand) for better batteries on smartphones, due to the inherent nature of batteries, this is not something that either consumers nor manufacturers should really look to push forward as a 'feature'. Battery development is a slow process and it is one which needs to be done a certain way to ensure the safety of the battery and the user of the battery. While everyone wants a full charge in five minutes and have that charge last the best part of a week, the truth of that matter is that when it comes to batteries, safety should be the only feature you are interested in and certainly, the only feature you are being sold by a company.

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Editor-in-Chief

John has been writing about and reviewing tech products since 2014 after making the transition from writing about and reviewing airlines. With a background in Psychology, John has a particular interest in the science and future of the industry. Besides adopting the Managing Editor role at AH John also covers much of the news surrounding audio and visual tech, including cord-cutting, the state of Pay-TV, and Android TV. Contact him at [email protected]

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