The Demand for thinner phones and the Note 7 Explosion.

Samsung’s decision to pull Note 7s off the shelves not only raises fresh doubts about the firm’s quality control but could result in huge financial and reputational costs.

Analysts say a permanent end to Note 7 sales could cost Samsung up to $US17 billion ($A23 billion) and tarnish its other phone products in the minds of consumers and carriers.

Investors wiped nearly $US20 billion off Samsung Electronics’ market value on Tuesday as its shares closed down eight per cent, their biggest daily percentage decline since 2008.

The premium device, launched in August, was supposed to compete with Apple Inc’s latest iPhone for supremacy in the smartphone market. Well received by critics, its first problem was a shortage as pre-orders overwhelmed supply.

But within days of the launch images of charred Note 7s began appearing on social media, in the first sign that something was seriously amiss with the gadget.

‘This has probably killed the Note 7 brand name – who knows if they’ll even be allowed to re-release it,’ Edward Snyder, managing director of Charter Equity Research, said before Samsung announced it was halting production of the smartphone.

The South Korean firm did not comment on whether it had identified the cause of the fires in the replacement devices, although officials in Seoul said it was looking at several possibilities including the batteries.

But why did these phones explode in the first place?

There’s nothing funny about Samsung Galaxy Note7 phones inexplicably exploding and torching cars and burning people. And it’s definitely not a joking matter when their replacements, which are supposed to come with safe batteries, are catching on fire (like on a plane) as well.

Whatever the real reason is — a design flaw, defective batteries from a specific supplier, a process mistake — the Note7 is unsafe to own. Samsung’s permanent halting of Note7 production is basically the final nail in the coffin.

Samsung is still trying to find the exact cause, or causes, of these battery fires. While that investigation continues, it’s worth asking to what extent overall trends in smartphone design contributed to the debacle. Every year the devices in our pockets get new features, bigger batteries and improved — often thinner — form factors.

As anyone who has played Asphalt 8 knows, phones get hot when pushed to their limits. Regardless of which company and phone you’re a fan of, it’s important to understand that anydevice — not just phones — with a lithium-ion battery could explode under certain circumstances.

Of course, that almost never happens, even with Samsung products. So was the Note7 fiasco a unique fluke of poor quality assurance? Or have the demands that we’ve put on today’s smartphones — thin, powerful, waterproof and more — been pushed so far that some kind of crisis was inevitable?

High demands

Designing smartphones is hard. As consumers, we’re not versed in the challenges of building a phone to the precision, performance and features that today’s premium phones pack.

It’s not our job to understand that stuff. That’s for the engineers and designers to figure; we put our safety in their hands.

If you just look at today’s phones, it’s not hard to see how they’ve evolved. Where phones used to be thick slabs made of plastic with small batteries, most cutting-edge phones are now metal, super thin, have huge, energy-dense batteries (many of which are capable of quick charging) and are water-resistant.

It’s incredible that engineers have figured out how to squeeze all of these features into ever-thinning bodies.

These tightly packed, svelte designs leave little room for proper heat dissipation from the increasingly demanding tasks (3D games, live streaming, multitasking, 4K video recording, etc.) we use them for.

Meanwhile, water resistance, though extremely convenient for consumers, also potentially complicates matters. Water-resistant phones are rated with different Ingress Protection ratings (IP), which determine how deep and for how long they can be submerged; they’re more sensitive to pressure than phones that aren’t water-resistant.

Mix the excessive heat generated by the higher-density batteries with the added pressure sensitivity and you’ve got a dangerous environment — at least, more dangerous than a few years ago — should the phone com-bust. That’s why it’s more important than ever to guard against that heat.

Lithium-ion batteries such as the ones in your phone com-bust because of something called thermal runaway. Basically, it’s a temperature chain reaction. Once the temperature of one part of the battery gets too hot, it releases the stored energy suddenly, causing another part to get hot, and another, and another, and before you know it the gadget bursts into flames.

Phones contain a slew of sensors and software that monitor and regulate temperature. When a phone begins overheating, it’ll usually throttle down the processor to allow it to cool down. A battery manager also stops phones from overcharging after they’ve reached 100 percent.

 

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