Spontaneous combustion is probably the last thing you’d expect from your shiny, expensive new smartphone, but it’s a fate that’s befallen dozens of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 units. On September 15, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the federal agency charged with overseeing product reports and alerts, issued a formal recall of the more than 1 million Note 7 devices shipped to consumers in the U.S.
If that wasn’t bad enough, a replacement phone — which was given to a customer in exchange for a faulty device — recently caught fire aboard a Southwest airlines flight. And in another recent instance on October 7, a woman in Taiwan suffered a scare of her own while walking her dog in a local park when she heard a bang from her jeans pocket. She discovered that her own replacement Galaxy Note 7 was emitting smoke. She claims to have replaced her original Samsung device on September 27, but apparently, to no avail. All this is to say that even the new, supposedly safe devices may be at risk of catching fire or exploding.
Since the initial fears about the device and the risk of the device catching fire, a lot has happened. Here’s what we know so far.
The Galaxy Note 7 recall: what’s the latest?
It looks like even the replacement Galaxy Note 7 models may not be totally safe. While Samsung has spent millions of dollars in recalling the original Galaxy Note 7 and replacing it with a new, “safe” device, news outlets reported on October 5 that a safe Galaxy Note 7 caught fire on a Southwest airlines flight, causing the flight to evacuate. Thankfully, no one was injured, but the event did raise suspicions that even the supposedly safe phone was at risk. The CPSC even started to investigate what happened.
Then, Sprint issued a statement saying that it will allow customers to replace their Galaxy Note 7’s with other phones during the investigation, according to a report from Recode. The carrier also said that it was working with Samsung to better understand what was happening with the phone. Other U.S. carriers told Engadget they’d also replace Note 7 phones under certain conditions. AT&T and Verizon will also let you swap out the Note 7 for another phone. T-Mobile will give you 14 days to swap out your new Note 7.
A timeline of events
The saga first began soon after the Galaxy Note 7 went on sale, however initially it was unclear exactly what was happening.,
On August 31, Yonhap News reported that Samsung had temporarily suspended deliveries of Note 7 devices to major South Korean mobile carriers including SK Telecom, KT, and LG Uplus. Initially, the company was reluctant to acknowledge the delay. “We are checking whether the deliveries were halted or not,” a Samsung official told the publication.
Early speculation pointed to a mechanical flaw involving the S-Pen, the proprietary stylus that ships with the Note 7. YouTube videos and reports on the web appeared to show a problem with the S-Pen’s handset slot — the ejection button used to remove the pen had a tendency to become stuck on some units. Samsung acknowledged the issue on Wednesday, began offering free replacements to affected customers, and instructed owners that hadn’t experienced the issue “not to push too hard” in the S-Pen’s housing “after the click sound.”
But evidence of a far more serious — and dangerous — problem began to emerge early this week: the potential for Note 7 devices to explode while connected to a wall charger. One documented account on social media, a YouTube video posted by user Ariel Gonzalez, appeared to show a Note 7 warped almost beyond the point of recognition.
“Came home from work, put it to charge for a little bit before I had class,” he said. “Went to put it on my waist and it caught fire. Yup. Brand new phone, not even two weeks old. Be careful out there, everyone rocking the new Note 7, might catch fire.”
A South Korean schoolteacher, Park Soo-Jung, told the Associated Press that her Galaxy Note 7 “burst into flames” unexpectedly, filling her apartment with smoke. “If the exploded phone in flame was near my head, I would not have been able to write this post.”
And posts on Korean social media appeared to corroborate reports. Most showed Note 7 units with severely damaged screens and charging ports.
In response to the growing chorus of concern, Samsung confirmed to Yonhap News on August 31 that it had delayed Note 7 shipments in order to conduct “quality control” testing. “The most important thing is the safety of our customers, and we don’t want to disappoint our loyal customers,” a company official said.
The results of those tests, the company said, were consistent with reports: some Note 7 units could explode while being charged. “[We] conducted a thorough investigation and found a battery cell issue,” it said in a statement on Thursday. “Samsung is committed to producing the highest-quality products and we take every incident report from our valued customers very seriously.”
The company indicated the problem wasn’t widespread — a representative told Yonhap news that Note 7 units with faulty batteries accounted for “less than 0.1 percent of the entire volume sold” — but not necessarily easy to resolve. Samsung said the issue “couldn’t be [fixed] by changing the battery.”
Out of an abundance of caution, Samsung announced a broad recall on September 2. “The problem can be simply resolved by changing the battery, but we’ll come up with convincing measures for our customers,” a spokesperson for the company said. “For customers who already have Galaxy Note 7 devices, we will voluntarily replace their current device with a new one over the coming weeks.”
That recall, however, might not be the last we hear of the issue. On October 5 it was reported that a replacement device had caught fire aboard a Southwest airlines flight, forcing the flight to evacuate. U.S. investigators promptly announced that they were investigating the issue, and Sprint said that it would allow users to swap in their phone for another device while the investigation was ongoing.
How will the news affect Samsung?
The Galaxy Note 7 recall is one of the industry’s largest in history, and obviously a major setback for Samsung. But it’s unclear how drastically it will impact the company’s bottom line — or reputation, for that matter.
Samsung was expected to sell as many as 15 million Note 7 phones this year, or almost double the 9 million Note 5 units it shipped last year. And before news of a widespread recall, it appeared well on its way to hitting that mark: the company said it sold 400,000 units in the first week of the Note 7’s availability and that demand had generally outstripped supply.
Samsung’s 2016 revenue bested expectations, too. The company reported a rise in second quarter operating profit to $15 billion — up 15 percent from the same period a year earlier. And it gained market share at the expense of rivals like Apple, nabbing 22.4 percent of smartphone sales — a five percent jump — thanks to higher-than-anticipated “demand for higher-end phones,” according to market analysts at IDC.
In light of the newest developments, though, some analysts expect a reversal. Park Jung-hoon, an asset fund manager at HDC, told Reuters that that Samsung’s profits would fall short of initial projections. He anticipates a decline in mobile operating profit by up to 200 billion won — or roughly $179 million — in the fiscal period between July and September.
Samsung shareholders stopped worrying too much when news that Samsung’s profits are expected to rise hit in October, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Where has the Galaxy Note 7 been banned?
The list of airlines, public transit authorities, and businesses that have banned the use of Samsung’s Note 7 continues to grow.
Australian airlines, Qantas, Jetstar, and Virgin Australia have warned customers against charging of Galaxy Note 7 during flight. Quantas issued a statement in September: “Following Samsung Australia’s recall of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 personal electronic device, we are requesting that passengers who own them do not switch on or charge them in flight.”
They aren’t the first. Philippines-based airline carrier Cebu Pacific Air banned the use of the Note 7 on all flights, citing Samsung’s global recall. “In light of … safety issues, [we] advise passengers that the usage and charging of the device are prohibit on board all [flights] until further notice,” the company said in a statement.
Singapore Airlines followed suit. “The powering up and charging of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 mobile phones is prohibit on all our flights,” the airline said in a statement.
Airlines in the United Arab Emirates are a few of the latest to restrict the use of Galaxy Note 7 on airliners — both Etihad Airways and Flydubai have banned the in-flight use of handset. An Emirates spokesperson told the Khaleej Times that it had “advise[d] customers not to turn on or charge their Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones during flights or stow them in checked baggage due to concerns over the phone’s fire-prone batteries.”
In the U.S., New York City’s MTA has advised commuters not to charge the phone on subways or buses. And the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), following the lead of Japan’s airline authority, urged airline passengers not to use or stow Note 7 on domestic flights. “[The agency] strongly advises passengers not to turn on or charge these devices on board aircraft and not to stow them in any checked baggage,” a spokesperson said.
India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation, meanwhile, issued a warning against the use of Note 7 units on domestic and international flights. “The ministry has advised airlines and traveling public not to turn on or charge the said mobile during flights,” the agency said in a statement. “This has been done in light of several incidents globally, involving the battery of the Galaxy Note7 [sic]. Passengers have also been advised not to stow them in their check-in baggage.”
Even institutions of higher learning are exercising an abundance of caution. On September 12, New Jersey’s Stockton University became the first college to ban the use of Note 7. “We have 3,000 students that live on campus and anywhere from 10,000 individuals that come on our campus each day,” Pedro Santana, Stockton University’s dean of students, said in a statement. “[We] wanted to take a proactive measure and assure that the environment is safe, and free from a potential fire. The bottom line is, we want it on our campus.”
What are the chances your Note 7 will explode?
The Note 7 may be one of the higher-profile consumer devices in recent to exhibit — ahem — explosive tendencies, but it’s far from the first. Still, it seems to be getting the most attention.
The battery’s the problem.
The sort of Lithium-ion cells found in smartphones are packed extremely tightly. As a result, the flammable separator between the battery’s anode and cathode — the two elements between which current flows — is incredibly thin, and therefore prone to damage. Once the separator’s pierced, catastrophe results, typically in the form of a short circuit. An excessive amount of heat boils the battery’s electrolyte, ruptures its cell casing, and causes an explosion or fire.
More: The days of exploding lithium-ion batteries might soon be over
And worse, Lithium-ion battery fires are difficult to contain. Most electrolytes burn quickly when hit by a fresh supply of air, and when the fire reaches a certain thermal threshold, the materials in the cathode begin to supply oxygen, too.
On September 20, Samsung will push an over-the-air update to current Note 7 devices in South Korea that limits the battery recharge to 60 percent — in part to prevent them from overheating and thus reduce the risk of an explosion, according to the Associated Press. It’s more a band-aid than a solution — updated Note 7 units are still susceptible to explosion — but could reduce the likelihood of battery heat buildup. Samsung’s in talks with carriers to push the update to other Note 7 devices in the U.S. and around the world.
In 2006, Dell and HP were forced to recall millions of laptop batteries after reports emerged of overheating. More recently in 2014, car manufacturer Tesla redesigned its cars to better protect the batteries housed within them.
How to prevent a battery fire
Preventing a battery fire is relatively straightforward and, unless you have a phone prone to exploding like the Note 7, you can usually prevent it by taking these steps. And again, it’s also extremely rare.
Common sense tips to avoid an exploding phone:
- Stick to the original charging cable and wall adapter. In the case of the Note 7, use the official Samsung accessories that came bundled with your smartphone.
- Don’t leave your device in hot areas — especially when it’s charging.
- If you plan to use a demanding app that’s likely to generate a lot of internal heat, make sure you do so in a well-ventilated, cool place.
- Don’t smother your smartphone. Putting it under your pillow, or in a tight, restricting enclosure, or under a cushion will encourage a buildup of heat.
- The same goes for laptops and other devices that use lithium-ion batteries (almost everything that recharges these days).
As for the widely-held perception that fully charged smartphones present a clearer danger than, say, handsets left to drain by your bedside all night, that’s only half true. While battery fires are more intense if the battery is fully charged, the capacity of the battery itself in no way impacts its likelihood of explosion.
I bought a second hand Galaxy Note 7. How do I know if it’s safe?
Now that even safe devices seem to be exploding, it’s unclear how Samsung will distinguish the safe from the unsafe phones.
When the initial recall was issued, Samsung found a way to alert customers about whether or not they had a safe or unsafe device. New devices featured a green battery icon, while the older, unsafe phones had white ones.
Not only that, but when refurbished Note 7 units began to ship, they included a circular sticker with a blue S in the middle. Samsung said it looks something like this:
In addition, on September 13, Samsung launched a IMEI database tool that lets Note 7 owners run a search to check whether their device is safe to use. They can check your smartphone’s IMEI number in the settings menu, or check the device’s barcode label on the box.
You can read more about the recall and the company’s statement here.
Sending back your Note 7
You’ll have to send your shiny new Note 7 back where it came from.
On September 15, Samsung said in a statement that Note 7 replacement devices would become available at most retail locations no later than September 21, and reaffirmed that customers who already bought the phones would get replacements before the new models hit store shelves.
Under the terms of Samsung’s arrangement with the CPSC, almost 97 percent of the more than 1 million Galaxy Note 7 units sold in the U.S. are subject to recall.
Here’s the skinny on the recall process: Galaxy Note 7 owners in the U.S. (1) exchange the Note 7 for a new Note 7 or (2) exchange it for a Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge and a refund of the difference in price between the two devices. Samsung recommends owners complete that process at the store from which they bought the Note 7, or by calling 1-800-SAMSUNG. Regardless of their choice in exchange, though, every Note 7 owner will receive a $25 gift card to “participating retailers.”
If you’re eligible for a refund but would prefer not wait for a replacement device direct, your best bet is heading stopping by your carrier’s store for a refund, exchange, or loaner device.
There’s a slight problem, however, for Americans who purchased a Galaxy Note 7 from, and not through a carrier. Both FedEx and UPS are declining to transport smartphones with dangerous batteries back to Samsung (understandable, given that these batteries have a penchant for exploding). Meanwhile, Samsung is unwilling to process an exchange until it has received the old unit. As a result, customers who bought directly through the smartphone maker can’t exchange their devices quite yet.
“At this time due to FedEx and UPS refusing to transport the packages there’s no exchange program,” Samsung confirmed via Reddit. But don’t get too worried — a new program for these folks is slated to go live in a few days. In the meantime, however, the only thing you can do is take your phone back to a Samsung distributor, get a refund, and buy a new phone when they become available.
You won’t get a loaner device to tide you over, though, so be prepared to wait if you’re still interested in the Galaxy Note 7.
Here’s what every major U.S. carrier’s offering:
- Sprint offers customers “loaner devices” to use while they receive a replacement unit.
- T-Mobile, meanwhile, said it would offer a “complete refund” on Note 7 devices and accessories — specifically, the full amount paid at time of purchase plus any and all associated fees. And it said that it let those who received a free Netflix subscription as a bonus for pre-ordering the Note 7 retain that benefit, if they so choose.
- Verizon said it would offer refunds and exchanges for Note 7 buyers.
- AT&T is allowing customers to swap to another device, and it will refund the difference. The carrier will also refund any Note 7 accessories.
Internationally, things are a bit more piecemeal. Samsung’s voluntary Note 7 recall affects the estimated 1.5 million units that have been shipped to sellers and buyers in 10 countries, but it’s largely leaving exchange and returns at the discretion of individual carriers and retail partners. It has, however, instructed partners to return Note 7 deliveries as they receive them, and major cell phone carriers in the U.S., Australia, and South Korea have taken the extraordinary step of preemptively withdrawing the Note 7 from sale.
Note 7 owners in South Korea are eligible for a full refund for their device or can exchange it for a new one. And starting Saturday, Samsung said it’ll roll out a “battery-monitoring service” for users in the country to “ensure their devices are safe.”
In the U.K., Samsung has begun a separate exchange process. All U.K. providers and operators should have already contacted Galaxy Note 7 owners to set up an exchange, and the swapping process has now officially begun. “Our absolute priority is the safety of our customers – that’s why we are asking all Galaxy Note 7 customers to act now and exchange today,” said Mobile VP Conor Pierce on Monday. “We would like to apologize to our Note 7 customers for not meeting the standard of product excellence that they have come to expect from Samsung and we sincerely thank them for their understanding and patience. We are confident that by exchanging their existing device for a new Note 7, customers can expect to enjoy a smartphone experience of the very highest quality.”
Samsung’s dedicated customer support line for the Galaxy Note 7 remains active at 0330 7261000.
If you’re in Canada, Samsung Electronics Canada Executive Vice President Paul Brannen has made it clear that your safety is a major concern of the company. “Samsung holds safety and consumer satisfaction as a top priority,” he said. “While there have been no confirmed incidents in Canada, Samsung is taking a proactive approach to address customer needs around the Note 7 and immediately addressing any consumer concerns.” Canadian Galaxy Note 7 owners will be able to exchange their phone for either a new version of the same phone, or opt for a Galaxy S7 or Galaxy S7 Edge instead. You can register your Galaxy Note 7 here for the recall.