Dell's Battery Recall: How Bad Is the Danger?

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Casey McArdle was watching TV this morning when he heard about Dell's recall of 4.1 million Sony-made laptop batteries sold between April 2004 and July 2006. The TV showed images of exploding laptops, but the message from Dell was more subdued: "Under rare conditions, it is possible for these batteries to overheat, which could cause a risk of fire." At that moment, McArdle's Dell laptop, which he bought last year, was resting on his lap. Nervously removing it, he popped out the battery to check if it was part of the recall.

Anyone who purchased a Dell laptop in the last two years can do the same at You will be prompted to enter the product number written on the inside of the battery. McArdle entered his and saw a green check mark indicating his battery had been one of those recalled. He entered his mailing address, phone number and e-mail address, and was issued a shipping order for his free replacement. He was miffed, however, to find out it would take 20 business days for the delivery. In the meantime, the college English professor from Fort Wayne, Ind., will have to do all of his computing sans battery and plugged into the wall, which Dell recommends for all customers awaiting a replacement. "Do I really think the thing is going to explode on me?" says McArdle. "No. But when I live and work with my computer, I have to take the necessary precautions."

Although millions of batteries are being recalled, only six incidents within the U.S. since April 2004 were part of the lead-up investigation, conducted by Dell and Sony. Dell confirmed that it worked with Sony over the last few months to improve the battery manufacturing process. Because Sony batteries are used by many different laptop manufacturers, the problem could be more widespread. At the moment, Sony is not issuing a recall of the batteries used in its Vaio laptops, but a Sony spokesman says the company will check with other laptop makers to see if there are any other open investigations. There's a high probability that other manufacturers will be affected by the problem, says technology analyst Rob Enderle. "We can't be sure until somebody else steps forward."

Richard Shim, a PC industry analyst at IDC, says that the recall itself could be Dell's voluntary response to a well-publicized laptop fire that occurred earlier this summer at a business meeting in Osaka, Japan. Shim says that Dell, hit by bad publicity that could harm consumer sales, took this opportunity to reach out to its customers. "It's part of a long-term strategy to build back the trust of consumers," he says.

"We take any incident like that extremely seriously," Dell spokesman Ira Williams says of the Osaka incident. Williams says that Dell's investigation had begun before the incident, and additional data contributed to the recall decision.

Both Enderle and Shim consider the recall to have been well handled. Shim points to Dell's buoyant stock price as an indicator of public support. Enderle indicates the easy-to-use website as an example of how Dell is "setting a standard for how things should work during a recall."

Battery recalls are nothing new — Hewlett-Packard is also in the middle of one right now (click here to check your system) — but Dell's is considered the largest in consumer-electronics history, affecting 15% of its laptops sold in the past two years. Shim and Enderle agree that it is prudent to visit Dell's website and check to see if your battery is on the list. Says Shim: "Only 6 computers out of 4 million have been hit — those are terrible Vegas odds — but I wouldn't want to be the guy that it happens to."