No shock over battery recall

Apple Computer issued a voluntary recall last month of batteries in its 12-inch iBook G4, 12-inch PowerBook G4 and 15-inch PowerBook G4 laptop computers sold between October 2003 and August 2006.

According to Apple’s Web site, “certain lithium-ion batteries containing cells manufactured by Sony Corporation of Japan pose a safety risk that may result in overheating under rare circumstances.”

Apple is offering consumers the option to turn in the affected batteries for free replacements. The company was unable to return calls for comment at press time, but said in an e-mail that “we do not anticipate this recall to have a material financial impact on Apple.”

According to a press release on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Web site, the recall affects about 1.1 million batteries in the U.S., and 700,000 outside the country.

Apple has received nine reports of batteries overheating and there have been two reported incidents of minor burns. There have been several reports of minor property damage but no one has been seriously injured as a result of overheating.

Apple isn’t the only computer manufacturer to discover that the batteries it uses may be faulty. Dell issued a recall for 4.1 million batteries.

Battery OEMs are being squeezed by market pressures, making the manufacturing process more complicated, argued Larry O’Connor, president of Woodstock, Ill.-based Newer Technology Inc. His company makes replacement batteries for Apple laptops and iPods.

“There’s a lot of challenges doing mass production of this kind of battery,” he said. “Power consumption goes up as these processors get faster. Obviously a lot of pressure is put on these manufacturers to provide a quality battery of high capacity at a competitive cost.”

He said he uses cells from Panasonic, Sanyo, and E-One Moli Energy, a manufacturer based in B.C.

While recalls are relatively common for large manufacturers, said Kelvin Lee, manager of Toronto-based North Star Computer, they should not be considered a major cause for concern.

“Apple has had a few battery recalls in the past,” he said. But “the actual incidence of the batteries overheating or causing damage is extremely low.

“I would feel confident saying that you can continue using (the laptop) as long as you’re not leaving it unattended for long periods of time.”

Mark Cohen, vice-president of Vancouver-based Apple service provider DivineMac, agreed that most resellers have bigger fish to fry. “It really doesn’t manifest as commonly as other issues out on the front lines out here,” he said.

So far he hasn’t heard one customer complaint about the affected Mac models.

“I don’t see this particular issue manifesting. It’s really off the radar. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but it’s small compared to other issues,” he said.

Where Apple is more likely to have a problem is with customer perception, said Stephan Pinheiro, president of Montreal-based Mac reseller Mac911.

“They might feel a little bit awkward, a bit insecure. Most customers don’t understand the notion of OEM – that manufacturers are dependent on sub-manufacturers for certain components,” he said, referring to the fact that the battery cells are made by Sony, not Apple.

Apple’s preference is to handle the recall directly, but Pinheiro said he will deal with his customers’ laptop concerns personally if they bring in one of the affected models.

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