Come On Baby, Light My Fire

Lithium-ion batteries are ubiquitous. They’re easily the best mass-market battery type in terms of power, weight and size, and can be found in almost every laptop, tablet and smartphone in the world. But if you thought that the technology was mature and unproblematic, you would be mistaken.

Manufacture of lithium batteries has to stick to very strict tolerances and design principles. If there are problems with either, it can make the battery prone to overheating when charged. It may even catch fire. In 2006, Apple, HP, Toshiba, Lenovo, Dell and Sony had to re-call millions of devices which were at risk of catching fire. (I’m not sure if they all used the same supplier, or whether there was an industry-wide problem. Dell did say publicly that their supplier was Sony.)

Tesla Model-S fireMore alarming still, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner suffered several battery fires in service, and was grounded by aviation authorities around the world until modifications were made. At least you can jump out when your Tesla Model S starts to smoke.

A few weeks ago, I bought a budget Android tablet directly from a wholesaler in Shenzen. (You can see where this is going, can’t you?) It only took about 10 days to arrive and I was very pleased with it: a good spec and a nice, standard Android installation. It worked for exactly two weeks to the day. Then, I put it on the charger and within less than five minutes, I happened to notice a condensation mark on the screen. I picked it up and found that the tablet was so hot that the plastic back was melting.

Not surprisingly, the device was now non-functional. As well as the melting at the back, the whole thing including the glass screen was slightly twisted, and I imagine that the motherboard was totally fried.

When I bought it, I was well aware that I was taking a risk. I was at the mercy of guarantee terms which required me to send the tablet back at my own expense, for repair or replacement at the supplier’s discretion. None the less, I’m bloody-minded enough to have engaged in an exchange of e-mails, and eventually a PayPal “dispute”, after which I got a promise that postage would be reimbursed. (I’ve heard that PayPal are much tougher on sellers than buyers, and will slurp a refund out of the seller’s account, but I didn’t pursue the case far enough to test this.)

To put it in perspective, the tablet cost me a little over fifty pounds. Not exactly pocket change, but I won’t starve over it. The postage, airmail back to China, was under a tenner as well, but hey, it was a point of principle. I took it to the village Post Office today, carefully packed and addressed in both English and Chinese. It’s quite remarkable to me that the world is so small that I can dispatch a package in rural Ireland with the full expectation that it will arrive safely in Guangdong province in about a week.

I’m pretty sure that the tablet is not repairable, so I suppose that they’ll eventually send me a replacement, presumably the same model, even though I have expressed misgivings to them about that. A bad batch of batteries? A design fault? Who knows. Anyway, if I were you, I wouldn’t buy a Genius 7 tablet made by Allfine. Or a Boeing Dreamliner.

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