How the Galaxy Note 8 will keep you from getting burned

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The new Samsung Galaxy Note 8.


Josh Miller/CNET

You heard how the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 caught fire. Maybe you even experienced it yourself.


And now, a year and two massive recalls later, you’re wondering: Is the new Note 8 any safer? Well, I’ve got good news and bad news.

The reality: Despite Samsung’s massive investment in safety and quality control, outlined below, there’s always a small chance that lithium-ion batteries from any manufacturer could go up in smoke. 

Lithium-ion batteries are everywhere, from laptops and phones to power tools and even some greeting cards, and it takes only one small flaw or defect for their inherent chemical reaction to spark out of control.

The good news: On average, you’ve got a far greater chance of being struck by lightning than of seeing a battery catastrophically fail. And Samsung’s new batteries are likely to be even safer.

What Samsung has done

As we explained last January in a delightful video featuring a creme-filled chocolate cake roll, the reason Samsung’s batteries failed was a series of preventable manufacturing errors.

Explaining the Note 7’s battery flaws (with cake)

Bridget Carey finds a sweet way to illustrate Samsung’s findings on why the Galaxy Note 7 overheated, and what the company is doing to prevent future battery failures.

by Bridget Carey

Some of the original batteries weren’t quite constructed properly and got a little bit squished, while some of the replacements were missing insulation tape and/or had sharp metal bits that punched through. Either way, the positive and negative sides of the battery were allowed to touch and — zap! — they short-circuited, igniting the flammable liquid that lives inside every lithium-ion battery cell.

To figure that out in the first place, and make sure it never happened again, Samsung spared no expense. It built four new testing facilities, staffed them with a team of 700 engineers and hired three independent testing firms that spent four months testing more than 200,000 phones and an additional 30,000 batteries before releasing their conclusions that bad batteries, not phones, were the problem.

Then the company created a new eight-point inspection process for its batteries that, Samsung claims, goes “well above and beyond the industry standard.” Batteries are now drained dry, pushed to their limits and checked for leaks, not to mention bombarded with X-rays, disassembled and monitored for voltage changes by both Samsung and the battery supplier.  

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Samsung instituted an eight-point battery check to prevent problems it had with the Note 7.


Samsung

According to a Samsung-commissioned white paper, every single batch of batteries is tested, and an entire batch is thrown out if a single battery fails. The company winds up destroying as much as 3 percent of its own monthly battery shipments during the eight-point procedure.

Mind you, that new safety check was already in place when Samsung started selling the Galaxy S8 in April. But for the new Note 8, the company went a step further. The famous safety standard company Underwriters Laboratories (UL) is now independently testing and certifying the Note 8’s battery pack as well.

A UL rep tells CNET that batteries “have to endure a barrage of drop tests, crush tests and electrical stress tests before they can pass” and suggests that Samsung’s factories will be regularly inspected to make sure their batteries are up to spec.

Battery standards like UL’s are voluntary; nobody forces a manufacturer to get its batteries certified. Samsung decided its reputation was worth the extra cash and time.

That’s not all. Samsung is also using a smaller, 3,300mAh battery in the Note 8 this year, compared with the 3,500mAh packs you’ll find in the Note 7 and even this year’s Galaxy S8 Plus. Samsung told CNET it’s carving out more space around the battery too, and adding “guardrails” for extra protection.

Note that not every single battery is tested. Statistically speaking, the one in your Note 8 probably didn’t go under the microscope, and definitely didn’t get crushed or punctured with a nail. But others from the same batch did.

Don’t fear your phone

Samsung hasn’t magically invented fireproof lithium-ion batteries, because there’s no such thing. And the company isn’t suddenly using a safer chemistry instead. If something goes wrong, they’re still flammable.

But it’s highly unlikely that your Note 8 will explode. On average, only one in 10 million lithium-ion battery cells are likely to go bad, according to battery expert Brian Barnett, as quoted by Chemical Engineering News.

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The Note 7’s battery was unusually likely to catch fire, even compared with other big battery fails.


Crushader/Reddit

To put that into perspective: You’re 10 times as likely to be struck by lightning in any given year (1 in 1,042,000) and 1,000 times more likely to die in a car crash (1 in 10,000). Do you plan to give up cars anytime soon?

Besides, Samsung’s Note 7 was an anomaly the likes of which the battery industry has maybe never seen, with over 100 reported incidents of fire and as many as 1 in 10,000 batteries with defects, if you believe an unnamed Samsung official who spoke to Yonhap News

Even the giant Nokia battery recall of 2007, reportedly the largest in history, was based on a failure rate of less than one in 350,000, Wired reported at the time.

In general, we don’t expect our lithium-ion batteries to explode, even if we leave them charging all night long or while we’re on vacation. (Don’t do that, I’m just making a point.) And with Samsung’s additional tests, they should theoretically be safer than ever before.

Here’s my personal opinion: Regardless of what Samsung does or doesn’t say publicly, it can’t afford for the Note 8 to catch fire. It’ll do everything in its power to keep that from happening, and in the unlikely event one does, it will help the owner in a heartbeat.

The Note 8 will probably be the safest phone on the market, because it has to be. Or else.

Galaxy Note 8 hands-on: Note 7 Redemption is here, with two cameras.

With Galaxy Note 8, Samsung hopes to smother battery debacle: The Note name lives on.


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