Spontaneous combustion is probably the last thing you’d expect from your shiny, expensive new smartphone, but it’s a fate that’s befallen a handful of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 units in recent days. news agency Yonhap News reported earlier this week that as many as five Note 7 owners have documented their units suddenly catching fire. As of Friday, that number had climbed to 35.
Unsurprisingly, news this many combusting Note 7 units spurred Samsung’s to action. The electronics giant halted all shipments of the handset to South Korean mobile carriers in order to “investigate” the issue, and on Friday took the unprecedented step of recalling the more than 2.5 million Galaxy Note 7 devices that have already shipped to consumers, brick-and-mortar stores, and online retailers since the handset’s launch on August 19.
The story continues to develop, but here’s what we know so far.
Initially, the impetus for Samsung’s decision to halt Galaxy Note 7 shipments wasn’t clear.
On Wednesday, 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.
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Early speculation pointed to a mechanical flaw involving the S-Pen, the proprietary stylus that ships included with the Note 7. YouTube videos and reports on the web appeared to show a problem 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 school teacher, 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 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 Thursday 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, under rare conditions 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.”
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The company indicated the problem likely wasn’t widespread — Note 7 units with faulty batteries accounted for “less than 0.1 percent of the entire volume sold,” a representative told Yonhap News, or roughly 24 phones for every million sold — but not necessarily easy to resolve. A Samsung representative told Yonhap news that faulty units “couldn’t be [fixed] by changing the battery.”
Out of an abundance of caution, then, Samsung announced a broad recall on Friday. “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.”
“We acknowledge the inconvenience this may cause in the market but this is to ensure that Samsung continues to deliver the highest quality products to our customers,” it said. “We are working closely with our partners to ensure the replacement experience is as convenient and efficient as possible.”
The short answer: you’ll likely have to send your shiny new Note 7 back where it came from.
Samsung’s Note 7 recall affects almost all of the 2.5 million units that have been shipped to sellers and buyers, and it covers the 10 countries where the phones have been sold. According to the The Wall Street Journal, Samsung’s instructed recipients abroad 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 withdrawing the Note 7 from sale.
Samsung expects that it’ll take “two weeks” to manufacture replacement phones, but said that customers who already bought the phones would get replacements before the new phones go on sale.
What’s a Note 7 owner to do in the meantime, though?
If you’re on a U.S. carrier, you have options:
Head into your local carrier stores to obtain refunds or loaner devices.
Note 7 owners in South Korea, meanwhile, are eligible for a full refund for their device or exchange 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.”
There’s one, crucial exception to the recall: China. Samsung said that Note 7 models sold there use a battery from a different supplier that isn’t susceptible to the issue other variants are experiencing.
Samsung hasn’t announced a hard-and-fast return window, but said that it would begin exchanging and refunding Galaxy Note 7 devices in South Korea starting September 19.
Verizon customers, meanwhile, have until September 30 to receive a waiver of fees on their Note 7 purchase.
The Note 7 may be one of the higher-profile consumer devices in recent to exhibit — ehem — explosive tendencies, but it’s far from the first. And the battery is typically 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.
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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.
In 2006, Dell and Dell 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.
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.
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.
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 this week’s news, 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 demand that generally outstripped supply.
Samsung’s 2016 revenue had 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.
Already, shares of Samsung stock have fallen since the beginning of this week.
You can read more about the recall and the company’s statement here.
Article originally published on 8/31/2016. Updated on 9/1/2016 by Kyle Wiggers: Added report of potential recall of Galaxy Note 7 units.