Home Mobility Death by smartphone – iPhone 6s Plus next

Death by smartphone – iPhone 6s Plus next

"Alas poor Yorick - he had an iPhone/Note7 [insert model here]." The mantra may well become the catchcry of 2016 as thousands of reports have emerged about all manner of smartphones exploding or catching fire – not just the recalled Samsung Galaxy Note7.

Today the New Zealand Herald reported that an iPhone 6S Plus has exploded. Its owner Jackie Liang says the incident frightened him so much that he thinks all iPhone owners should be aware of the potential issues and urges them not to charge their phones at night or when unsupervised.

Liang said his iPhone 6S Plus was charging on a side table next to his bed when at 4am he was woken by a pungent, smoky, chemical smell. "I smelt a very strong burning smell. I jumped out of bed and was just checking what happened, and I saw the phone smoking. And then after about 20 seconds there's a fire and it explodes."

He has contacted Apple and the company responded that it would investigate the incident as a matter of urgency. Apple told him that while there had not been any reports of the iPhone 6S Plus exploding in New Zealand, there had been reports of this happening in other parts of the world.

This is not the first, nor will it be the last, report of iPhones exploding. Indeed, there are more than 2.34 million results from a Google search for “iPhone+exploding”. As the old saying goes “Where there is smoke there is fire.” Interestingly, there are only 736,000 results for “Samsung+Galaxy+exploding”.

On Saturday in New Jersey, a student Darwin Hlavaty had his iPhone 6 Plus explode in his back pocket. "Right as class was starting, my phone started smoking in my pocket. It was a fire," said Hlavaty.

"Out of nowhere, we heard a fizzing and a popping sound. Suddenly a great mass of smoke comes out from his pocket," said Rebecca Bookbinder, another student. A school spokesperson confirmed a teacher called public safety for a report of a burning phone around 9:45am. It was not a prank. #BendGate perhaps was the cause of #RoastRumpGate.

BGR reports that an iPhone 7 battery “inflated” (a contained explosion) forcing the phone to split apart. It states this symptom has been reported in earlier iPhones [back to the 5] as well. “The process starts with expanding, then catching fire, then exploding … things can escalate quickly from a mild damage to a more severe one,” said a technician who wishes to remain unnamed.

For the most part, the issue is caused by a design or manufacturing fault in the battery itself.

Samsung stated that the batteries on the offending Note 7s — about .0014% of its production — had insufficient insulation installed by the manufacturer. 

Other issues relate to the use of third party chargers and to a lesser extent cables. This seems more prevalent because low-cost chargers can lack sufficient insulation and in some cases excess current from the transformer “tap” flows down the cable to the phone. Low-cost knock-off chargers can be bought for as little as $2 in most markets.

Another postentially more serious issue is fast charging. The best way to describe this is that the charger dumps over current and voltage into the phone to quickly partially fill the battery. You will see statements like "50% in 30 minutes” or similar. Fast charging can over stress a battery especially if you use a third-party charger that is not specifically designed for the phone and monitoring circuitry.

For example, Samsung’s Adaptive Fast Charger outputs both 9V, 1.67A and 5V, 2A to a specially designed circuit in the Galaxy that handles this. The 9V does the fast charge bit, and the 5V is a standard charger. But using it with a non-Galaxy Phone could, in theory, see 9V dumped into the phone (it does not, as its circuitry auto senses non-Galaxy devices).

Qualcomm has Turbo Charge 2.0 and 3.0 for use with its later Snapdragon chips. It is similar to Samsung in that it uses a 9V line to fast charge and Galaxy devices can also use Qualcomm’s Turbo Charge.

OPPO has another take on fast charging – its VOOC ((Voltage Open Loop Multi-step Constant-Current Charging) makes much more sense and is much safer. In essence, it uses two smaller batteries in parallel and charges both simultaneously from its special “green” VOOC charger and cable. Like Samsung, it auto senses if the phone supports VOOC.

Then you have USB-C charging that ups the standard to 900mA but in reality, most devices charge at 1.5 to 3A over a 5V line.

These fast charge technologies are not an issue – the phone, battery, and original chargers are designed to handle the thermal (heat) overload.

Note that Apple iPhones do not support fast charging (over current or any other system). The iPhone 7 comes with a 5V/1A (5W) charger. But its Lightning to USB-A cable can be plugged into all manner of third-party USB chargers, and it is not wise to constantly pour 2.1A (most common in modern charger) into it all the time. It is understood that the iPhone 7 can support a maximum of 5V, 2.4A (12W iPad charger). The iPhone 6 can support a maximum of 5V, 2.0A (10W).

Comment

What we all need to be concerned with is all night long charging (or where a phone is constantly connected to a charger). The best advice is to use a lower amperage charger for this purpose.

For example, if you have a 3000mAh battery fast charge may take 45 minutes. But if you use a standard USB 500mAh charger it will take six hours and generate far less heat and stress. It is much safer this way.

Conversely plugging a 2.1A charger into an older USB device will generate more heat — excess amperage — and that can have long-term adverse effects on lithium batteries.

Clearly, the answer is wireless [inductive] charging where it uses intelligence to deliver just the current required to top up – nothing more. That has been a standard feature on the Samsung Galaxy and Note for some time, and one never suffers from broken USB ports.

Until this issue is resolved all smartphone users should not charge their devices in flight nor in environments where a fire could cause a catastrophe.

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!