Independent QA firm digs into the causes of Note 7 battery fires

Remember the Samsung Note 7 battery issues? Instrumental, a company that produces tools for remote quality assurance, certainly does. On its blog, Instrumental used its proprietary processes to tear down one of the recalled Galaxy Note 7 phones and figure out some possible reasons Samsung decided to cancel the product rather than work out a fix.

Image: Instrumental

Samsung initially claimed there was a problem with the batteries' manufacturing and ordered a recall in order to replace them. As you gerbils are no doubt aware, the "fixed" phones started catching fire too. Samsung then recalled every unit and canceled the product entirely—an unprecedented move for the company and even the industry. Instrumental dug into a sample phone to offer its take on why sourcing different batteries didn't provide the expected fix.

In a surprising allegation, Instrumental asserts that Samsung consciously pushed safety limits in order to create the final Note 7. Though that's a pointed accusation, it seems plausible given the team's findings. The company found that its test unit lacked the generally-accepted amount of expansion space above the battery, a decision that could cause pressure on the pack with age and regular use. Instrumental's engineers go on to note that their sample Note 7's battery may have already been under pressure even without those factors. That pressure could cause the battery's positive and negative layers to make contact through the thin polymer separating layer, thereby causing a fire.

Instrumental believes that Samsung could have resolved the Note 7's problems simply by using a smaller battery. Unfortunately, doing so would have likely put the handset's battery life below that of the Note 5's—and more specifically, the iPhone 7's. The company writes that "it's clear to us that there was no competitive salvageable design."

It's important to keep in mind that this is just one company's take on the matter, and this report was produced with processes that Instrumental would doubtless like to publicize. Still, the well-reasoned conclusion that the company presents reads like a modern-day version of the classic tale of Icarus, and it's a neat insight into some possible reasons that the Note 7 failed the way it did.

Comments closed
    • bandannaman
    • 3 years ago

    [quote<]the well-reasoned conclusion that the company presents reads like a modern-day version of the classic tale of Icarus[/quote<] More like Upton Sinclair's [i<]The Jungle[/i<]

    • blastdoor
    • 3 years ago

    The “good” news is that Samsung is removing the 3.5 mm audio jack in the 8:

    [url<]http://www.sammobile.com/2016/12/06/exclusive-galaxy-s8-is-not-going-to-feature-a-3-5mm-headphone-jack/[/url<] Perhaps that will give them more room for the battery.

      • TheJack
      • 3 years ago

      I bet if Apple removed the phone capability, Samsung would follow.

        • blastdoor
        • 3 years ago

        Yup.

        I’m kind of surprised Apple doesn’t troll Samsung into wasting resources on absurd products. Apple could put out rumors of all sorts of ridiculous things and I’ll bet Samsung would bite on a fair number of them.

      • Pwnstar
      • 3 years ago

      COURAGE!

      • ptsant
      • 3 years ago

      They can’t let consumers think they lack courage.

    • ronch
    • 3 years ago

    Love my Acer phone. Sure it’s a bit thick but it comes with a huge 5,000mAh battery and all the features I need for just $160. The only thing I hate about it is how there was an official Android System Update I downloaded last week which borked DTS HD functionality and it’s been tough getting through to the right folks at Acer who would forward my concern to the relevant department. (I eventually managed to come across a proper tech support guy.) So here i am waiting for another update. In the meantime I’ve fiddled with equalizer controls to Make Audio Great Again but DTS isn’t something easy to forget once you’ve gotten used to it.

    • ronch
    • 3 years ago

    It kinda feels like the Note 7 issue is about as big as the Apollo 13 tragedy. Or the Space Shuttle tragedy. I don’t reckon any lives were lost due to exploding Note 7s but it’s nonetheless a tragedy of epic proportions at least in the small world of computers and smartphones.

      • K-L-Waster
      • 3 years ago

      Well, IIRC there *was* a plane that had to make an emergency landing after a Note 7 started smoking. So while no lives were lost, that may be at least partially down to the luck of timing (e.g. what would have happened if it shorted out at 38,000 feet instead of early in the ascent phase?)

    • HERETIC
    • 3 years ago

    Kind of DUUUUUUH-Things expand when they get hot.
    Wouldn’t be surprised if half the problems apple is currently having with macs and phones-
    is they are TOO F***king thin……………………………………

    • tootercomputer
    • 3 years ago

    Smartphones suddenly and unexpectedly catching fire is a serius concern. No doubt that others will try to understand what happened with these phones. The above may or may not be the correct explanation; the replicated findings ultimately will resolve the issue.

    • TheJack
    • 3 years ago

    Funny how the big players in smartphone arena don’t make a thin and a thick edition of their devices, as some here suggested! I am sure it would pay.

      • GrimDanfango
      • 3 years ago

      It only takes for one manufacturer to try it… just one of them to take the damned “risk” of just once offering that as an option. If it sold well, or even better than the thinner variant, it’d demonstrate clearly what people really want, and we could be looking at a whole new precident. Suddently every manufacturer would jump on the idea.

      Marketing… the enemy of common sense.

      …Either that, or it’d prove this is a case of consumers “knowing” they want one thing, but being the psychology-led idiots we all are, the real numbers showing that in reality we all do make stupid purchasing decisions based solely on how sleek a thing looks.

      A bit like that anecdote I heard once, where supposedly instant coffee manufacturers always label their coffee “Rich, bold, and dark”, because that’s what everyone is convinced they like, when the actual studies they conduct show that most people tend towards mild, fairly bland coffee when it comes to actual taste… especially when it has “Rich and bold” written on the label.

        • teryan2006
        • 3 years ago

        Motorola tried it back in 2012.

        The Razr HD: [url<]http://www.gsmarena.com/motorola_razr_hd_xt925-4970.php[/url<] And it's bigger battery twin Razr HD MAXX: [url<]http://www.gsmarena.com/motorola_droid_razr_maxx_hd-4972.php[/url<] And they tried it again in 2013. The Droid Ultra: [url<]http://www.gsmarena.com/motorola_droid_ultra-5605.php[/url<] And the same spec but bigger battery Droid MAXX: [url<]http://www.gsmarena.com/motorola_droid_maxx-5604.php[/url<] They didn't tried again afterward. Either the Google acquisition killed the idea or the thicker bigger battery model didn't sell well enough to justify the extra effort.

          • rechicero
          • 3 years ago

          There were more versions, a non HD version of the first you mentioned. I would say they worked well, because they kept selling the extra battery version for at least 3 generations, until change of management happened.

          • GrimDanfango
          • 3 years ago

          Hmm, maybe that’s it then. The idea didn’t instantly set the industry alight, so all executives throughout the world have now written off the idea forever.
          In the past that would have left it up to Apple to eventually buck the trend, before all the other manufacturers took it as a cue to follow. But even Apple seem to just be following Samsung’s lead these days.

      • ronch
      • 3 years ago

      Apparently they only listen to their usual buyers.

        • TheJack
        • 3 years ago

        If I were a manufacturer I would definitely do it. So your only hope is that I become one. I’ll make smartphones …… again

    • barich
    • 3 years ago

    I wish we could do away with the nonsense that every new phone must be thinner than the previous model. Which is really Jony Ive’s deal, but everyone has to copy Apple for whatever reason.

      • morphine
      • 3 years ago

      Well, the problem is that everyone’s buying. There’s a serious disconnect between what people say they want, and what they buy.

      Day 1: “Oh, of course I’d take a 2-mm-thicker phone in exchange for an extra day of battery!”
      Day 2: “OMG, this [iThing/Galaxy/Huawei] is so sleek and thin,” plops down credit card.

      There [i<]is[/i<] truth to both Henry Ford and Steve Jobs' assessment that asking people what they want doesn't really work.

        • Chrispy_
        • 3 years ago

        People are buying it because there’s no other choice.

        There’s not an S7 Edge THICK EDITION. There’s just the S7 Edge.

        I’d definitely pay up for a Google [i<]Mega[/i<]Pixel which is like a Pixel but thrice as fat for thrice the battery life. Of course I'd have to buy the Pixel and be satisfied with the mediocre battery. My Droid Turbo 2 is still above-averagely-endowed in the battery department, so I'll cherish it until my contract finishes in nine months.

          • CuttinHobo
          • 3 years ago

          Definitely. I was jealous of the Motorola Droid Maxx a few years ago. Verizon exclusive… Bah-humbug.

          • superjawes
          • 3 years ago

          Yeah, I think the sales are being driven by features, and whomever makes the design decisions are [i<]also[/i<] deciding that phones must be thinner in the process. People gravitate toward features, but because the features correlate with thickness, so do sales. There might be a hardware correlation where smaller components are driving smaller design, and there is a case to be made about surface area vs. volume when it comes to cooling. IOW, it's also possible that components are driving thickness, but I'm not familiar enough with smartphone design to really know.

          • benedict
          • 3 years ago

          There’s no other choice if all you’re choosing from is Apple/Samsung/Google. There’s a ton of chinese phones with 2-3 times bigger battery life and they’re even half the price of the big brands. I bought one last year and the battery easily lasts 4-5 days.

          • morphine
          • 3 years ago

          I don’t expect us to agree on this, and that’s fine.

          But a S7 Edge Thick Edition would not sell, or would sell only to 2/100 customers and would be canned. Sleek, feature-packed is where it’s at.

          Note that’s not to say I condone this “thinness at all costs” thing. But “we” around here don’t call the shots. The other 99.99% of the market does.

            • rechicero
            • 3 years ago

            I really, really doubt that the Motorola Razr vs Razr Maxx sells were in the 98-2 relation you say. I would bet whatever you want the Maxx version sold more than that.

            • Ninjitsu
            • 3 years ago

            >But a S7 Edge Thick Edition would not sell

            Citation needed?

            If all the latest and greatest phones are thin then it doesn’t mean people won’t buy the same thing but thicker. At the moment to just sounds like a self fulfilling prophecy (same with screen size).

            But the problem is more rooted in consumerism, if people start holding on to phones longer then you’d perhaps see more sensible design choices.

            • barich
            • 3 years ago

            Right. It’s not a matter of choosing between an S8 and and an S8 thick. Make one model, make it slightly thicker, and give it better battery life. Right now, if you want the latest and greatest, you get what’s there. The off-brand phones with huge batteries are great, but the average person wants a Samsung or an Apple and doesn’t care about much else.

            The most comfortable phone I’ve owned to hold was the Droid Turbo. It’s thickest in the middle and curved toward the edges. Fit in the hand great. It also had a rubbery coating which meant I didn’t feel like I had to put a case on it, unlike my Nexus 6P which is “premium” but I’m afraid of breaking.

        • blastdoor
        • 3 years ago

        It’s not clear to me that the same people who buy thin are the ones who say they want thick.

        I think what’s more likely is that the people who say they want thick really do want thick, but they are a small (but vocal) minority. The silent majority is getting what they want, and so have no reason to be noisy.

          • morphine
          • 3 years ago

          I was slightly misunderstood. I was talking about the silent majority, and the angle is, if you ask a Joe on the street “more battery?” he’ll say “yes please” but he really wants a thinner phone, battery be damned.

          So yes, basically we’re agreeing 🙂

          • rechicero
          • 3 years ago

          Somebody knows how the Razr/Droid sell when compared to the Razr/Droid Maxx? Because is the only example I can remember of people being able to choose between thing and battery life.

      • RdVi
      • 3 years ago

      Except that the Note 7 is actually slightly thicker than the Note 5, just like the S7 was thicker than the S6.

      It’s the width that they reduced, all while putting in a larger battery. They basically did what people were asking for; slightly thicker phone, bigger battery, but as narrow as possible because that’s the measurement that makes pocketing and reaching more parts of the screen easier.

    • southrncomfortjm
    • 3 years ago

    WTB a slightly thicker phone with removable battery please. Really wish One Plus would make a phone with a removable battery. I’m still rocking my OG One Plus and have no reason to change it except that the battery needs 2 charges a day now.

    Was actually looking at the Moto G4 for $149 with Amazon adds. Performance somewhat below the OPO, but $250 cheaper than the OP3, and almost $300 cheaper than the OP3T. The Moto G4 has a removable battery.

      • SixOneTwo
      • 3 years ago

      Moto Z? My Z Force gets through the workday just on its battery mod, when I get home I take it off and I still have a fully charged and thinner phone.

      • DaveJustDave
      • 3 years ago

      Nope. I have a moto g4, battery is not removable. The back panel comes off to give access to the nanosim and the microsd but that’s it.

    • Meadows
    • 3 years ago

    “There was no competitive salvageable design.”

    Had they made the phone just 2 mm longer and wider, there might have been. This extremist design nonsense is getting out of hand and this particular manufacturer went too far this one time.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 3 years ago

      Yeah this is silly. Of course, they’d have to completely redesign the exterior. Or just make it imperceptibly (by my standards, anyway) thicker. An extra 1mm of thickness would have made even a shorter battery more capable.

      • juzz86
      • 3 years ago

      This post, straight to the top.

      Exactly right mate, tell Marketing to piss off for a bit with their ever-shrinking dimensions and it wouldn’t have been an issue.

      Could’ve been a raging success, now their biggest fuck-up in years. By millimetres. More money than sense.

      • ImSpartacus
      • 3 years ago

      It’s easy to say that now, but the key word is “salvageable”.

      They have an existing design and they need to salvage something from it. Changing chassis dimensions affects a ton of things in a highly integrated device like a modern smartphone.

      • POLAR
      • 3 years ago

      How much do you bet on it, next Apple and Samsung products are going to be 23% thinner! It’s got…electrolytes!

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 3 years ago

      [quote=”Meadows”<]This extremist design nonsense is getting out of hand...[/quote<] [url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtIYkoL4P48<]We'll be lucky to live through it![/url<]

      • ronch
      • 3 years ago

      Hush!! Don’t say ‘extremists’. It’s all about (tight) tolerance(s).

    • derFunkenstein
    • 3 years ago

    Silly Zak. There’s no Galaxy Note 7. I did a search on samsung.com and got “no suggestions”.

      • Anovoca
      • 3 years ago

      Must have been one of those limit runs that were installed with Windows Phone 9.

    • mkk
    • 3 years ago

    I’m apparently a very wierd consumer, as the thickness is just abou the last thing I’d look after when deciding on a phone. Phone makers claim that’s still a sought-after factor, though I wonder if it’s not just more bullpuckey from their PR departments.

      • tipoo
      • 3 years ago

      -Make phone incredibly thin

      -Phone will shatter on impact, so get an incredibly thick case for it

      Phone maker logic. I like the DROID Turbo 2 philosophy, though it could do with improvements in some areas.

      • Ari Atari
      • 3 years ago

      Although I really want to say that it’s JUST PR, non-tech people want something that is light, which thin happens to give most of the time. For tech people, no one I know wants thin. Personally, if they doubled the thickness of phones by filling that extra space with battery, you could have a phone that lasts all week under use with no other changes.

      It’s like a removable battery. How did that become a feature? Who is this industry listening to?

      Edit- tipoo reminded me. Thickness and flexible strength are governed by a quaded variable I believe. Just a little thicker would make these phones soooo much stronger, and getting thinner probably isn’t possible without a lot more bending.

      • DPete27
      • 3 years ago

      These days I buy smartphones based on smallest possible height (not thickness). Screens have gotten too large to fit into normal front jean pockets anymore.

      I suppose it’s a clever design trick; make the phone so big that users are constantly taking the phone out of pocket to sit down (increases chances of drops, hence repairs/replacements), and/or force users to place phones in their back pockets (sitting on phone = repairs/replacements).

      • Firestarter
      • 3 years ago

      I bought my phone specifically because I could make it thicker, thicker with extra battery capacity that is

        • Wirko
        • 3 years ago

        I’d expect otherwise from a person that calls themself Firestarter.

          • Firestarter
          • 3 years ago

          well you know, bigger batteries => bigger explosions

      • Redocbew
      • 3 years ago

      If you’re weird, then I’m weird also.

      +1 for using “bullpuckey”.

      • soccergenius
      • 3 years ago

      It’s really more about lightness. Making the phone lighter results in a thinner phone.

      That said, I think most people would agree we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. On the other hand, truly wireless charging is just around the corner and could make battery complaints for a lot of people moot.

      IMO any thinner though, and durability then becomes the big worry, rather than battery life.

      • dyrdak
      • 3 years ago

      All this obsession with thickness, weight and “design” is such a BS. The very next thing most users do is to stuff the precious into a case that renders all those considerations meaningless (but not before some useful functionality is lost in the name of looks).

      • ronch
      • 3 years ago

      Then I’m with you. And I’m sure many others here are as well. So what if it’s a little thicker. I’d gladly trade a few millimeters for more durability, safety and battery capacity any day.

      • ptsant
      • 3 years ago

      Although I absolutely agree with you, it has been shown quite often in marketing studies that people often say they value certain things but in practice buy based on different criteria. A famous example is legroom vs price for airline tickets. Most say legroom is important but then go on to buy the absolute cheapest ticket from an ultra budget company.

      I know I won’t be buying the new ultra-slim macbook pro. They shaved 1mm and put an awful keyboard in place (yes, I actually tested it). They should have known better.

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