Samsung is adjusting the number of Galaxy Note 7 smartphones in production, following a number of battery fire incidents still persistent even after a major recall. The company confirmed to Reuters on Monday that, in an attempt to improve quality control, Note 7 shipment volumes would change. The announcement comes amid reports Samsung will temporarily halt production altogether, and reveals a smartphone giant struggling to control a widespread issue.
Batteries remain one of the major conundrums of modern smartphone design. The quest for thinner and lighter phones, packing more power-sucking pixels into larger screens, and longer-than-ever battery life has led to a fine balancing act with few solutions. Battery capacity is measured in milliampere-hour (mAh): the Note 7 contains a 3500 mAh battery, 500 mAh more than its S7 sibling, the extra capacity helping to power a larger phone with more on-screen pixels.
Failure can be attributed to a number of sources. The internal chips that monitor status may be faulty, or the phone’s design may cause overheating during operation. Without the luxury of fans or other cooling systems typically found in big computers, smartphones need to find other ways to move heat away from the battery. Fitting in bulky cooling systems could mean sacrificing thickness, so companies get creative. Samsung, for example, uses a liquid cooling system in the S7 that spreads heat around. These cooling systems are vital: at around 200 degrees, a battery will start to disintegrate and spark a chemical reaction.
“The snowball effect happens so fast that, within a second, the entire cell goes from being intact to being completely destroyed,” Donal Finegan, a chemical engineer at University College London, told Forbes. Batteries could be safer, Finegan explained, but that would most likely mean using less energy-dense materials.
Companies have tried to trick the balancing act in numerous ways. The iPhone, which debuted in 2007 with a non-removable battery, started a prevalent industry practice of removing the mechanisms that allow easy battery access in favor of greater capacity. Wireless charging pucks aim to make quick recharges simpler and reduce the need for greater capacity, while Android’s Doze feature aims to squeeze more juice out of hardware by making software work more efficiently.
The Note 7 has a battery problem, but it’s hard to see where Samsung can go from here beyond quality control. Changing the phone’s design could lose it one of its key selling points, and from a marketing perspective it may be too late to reverse the damage done to the brand name. Samsung could chalk this up to a learning experience and move on to designing the Note 8, but it was a costly, dangerous experience that put lives at risk. Tech pundits will likely complain about battery life and device size for years to come, but Samsung has shown that there is a very real danger when batteries aren’t properly tested for quality and safety.