Is your laptop safe?

Janet Babin Aug 15, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: The next time you’re dealing with a computer virus, stop for a second and remember it coulda been worse. Your laptop might have caught fire on you. Dell says it’s recalling more that 4 million batteries that are in its notebook computers. The batteries themselves are made by Sony. And Sony says it will “financially support” Dell in the recall. But a word to the wise consumer might be appropriate here. It’s not just computers that can burn you.

From North Carolina Public Radio, Janet Babin reports.

JANET BABIN: The Dell notebooks seen ablaze in numerous photos on the Internet were likely powered by lithium-ion batteries. They can store more energy than traditional batteries. And today’s gadgets need that extra juice:

TOD MARKS: Think about it. With our cell phones today, we don’t just wanna talk, we wanna play games, we wanna shoot video, we wanna shoot stills, we want color screens. . . .

That’s Consumer Reports editor Tod Marks. He says tens of millions of lithium ion batteries — like the kind in the flaming Dell notebook — are in all types of laptops and cell phones. And he says they’re all succeptible to overheating.

But relatively few actually do. Consumer Reports found there were just over 330 battery failures between 2003 and 2005 — not many when you think of all the cell phones and MP3 players running on lithium ion.

But when they do overheat, the outcome can be catastrophic. That’s why the Info-Tech Research Group wants the government to impose safety requirements on computer makers. They say that would jump-start industry efforts to create a safer battery.

Info-Tech analyst Carmi Levy says consumers can also take precautions:

CARMI LEVY: Even though they’re called laptop computers, don’t use them on your lap. Because what ends up happening is there are vent holes underneath that are designed to draw heat away from the computer and, if you use it on your lap, it does not allow the heat to dissipate.

Consumer Reports also recommends keeping computers out of direct sunlight, especially in a car.If your laptop, cell phone or MP3 player feels too hot to the touch, it probably is. Turn it off and let it cool down.

In Durham, North Carolina, I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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