It’s fair to say that if certain traits have repeatedly proven to be part of any company’s “DNA”, they never really go away. PR smoke and time might obscure them temporarily, but they routinely rear their ugly head again if appropriate action is never really taken. This certainly seems to be the case with Samsung and its irresponsible stance on quality control of its smartphone batteries, an issue that has taken the tech world by storm during the last few days.
The Koreans have been here before. The difference is that, this time, they probably won’t get away with it and it’s time someone let them know just how serious this looks from a consumer perspective, in 2022 terms.
Swollen batteries in… how many Samsung smartphones, again?!?
The latest issue related to Samsung’s smartphones became widely known a few days ago through a video posted by Arun Maini a.k.a. Mrwhosetheboss, one of the most prominent tech YouTubers right now. Maini’s video is definitely worth watching all the way through, as it puts the whole problem in context, but here’s the gist: several of Maini’s Samsung smartphones have been deforming all on their own because of the batteries inside them swelling to the point of forcing the devices’ backs open.
Models that exhibited that behavior initially included the Galaxy S6 from 2015, the Galaxy Note 8 from 2017 and the Galaxy S10 from 2019. A few days later, though, Maini found out that his Galaxy S8 from 2017, his Galaxy S10E from 2019, his Galaxy S10 5G from 2019… even his Galaxy Z Fold 2 and Galaxy S20 FE from 2020 exhibited the same behavior.
During the video, Maini explains that the Samsung phones in question were stored not in some drawer at the corner of an attic but in a specially-designed, temperature-controlled environment alongside hundreds of other models, from practically every other smartphone manufacturer. Maini mentioned the heatwave that hit England recently as a possible cause for this, but also noted that no other smartphone stored there had any problem whatsoever with its battery — even models that were considerably older than the Galaxy S6.
Maini became certain that this was not a weird situation unique to his Samsung smartphones when he came across photos that Matt Ansini, a co-worker of well-known tech YouTuber Austin Evans, posted of his own swollen Galaxy S7. Ansini confirmed that every single Samsung smartphone they had in storage pre-Galaxy S20 had opened up because its battery had expanded. Maini then contacted other famous tech YouTubers, such as MKBHD and JerryRigEverything: the former confirmed that he had come across the same issue before himself and that it had only ever happened to him with Samsung smartphones, while the latter (expert in smartphone hardware) confirmed that there is something obviously wrong in the way Samsung’s batteries handle their electrolyte material over time.
By then, of course, a number of other consumers had already commented on Twitter that they have had the same experience of swollen batteries in Samsung phones in the past, sometimes with several models each. Needless to say, this does not look good. At all.
Bitter memories of exploding batteries come back
If this sounds more than a little familiar, it’s because it’s reminiscent of the now infamous Samsung Galaxy Note 7 scandal back in 2016: not only did the batteries of those particular smartphones malfunction, but they actually caught fire or outright exploded under certain circumstances, while charging or even while in use.
After months of trying to, well, put out the PR fires, Samsung eventually owned up to the design and manufacturing problems leading to this fiasco and formally recalled the Galaxy Note 7 worldwide. The company then tried to convince everyone of its intentions to do better, explaining in length what it planned to do in order to improve its quality control processes. Whatever happened to those plans it’s obviously… rather hard to tell now.
Truth be told, it does not seem like this issue made public by Arun Miani and other YouTubers is as serious as the actual danger those Galaxy Note 7 models in 2016 represented: for starters, all reported cases so far are of swollen batteries deforming smartphones, not batteries catching fire or exploding (presumably because they carry no charge).
Then all reported cases are about models that were stored for some time, so (a) they posed no immediate threat to people, and (b) seem to not be really needed by their owners anyway. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the same issue has been reported in the past, on rare occasions, about other smartphones from other manufacturers as well: it is regarded as something that could happen to almost any lithium-ion battery under the wrong circumstances.
The very fact, though, that several people across the tech industry faced this issue with so many Samsung smartphone models — an issue corroborated by ordinary consumers having nothing to do with media too — establishes a pattern that can’t be ignored. It is as simple as that.
A potentially dangerous situation once again handled poorly
The biggest problem about all of this is obvious to anyone that’s not, well, Samsung: there is still something seriously wrong with the company’s smartphone quality control, something it either never traced in its processes after the Galaxy Note 7 scandal or did trace but never fixed. It just can’t be a coincidence that so many different people, living in different parts of the world, storing these devices in different environments, all faced the same issue with a number of different smartphones… all coming from the same manufacturer. It just can’t.
The other big problem is none other than Samsung’s great success as a smartphone manufacturer: the company sold more than 300 million phones in 2021 alone. So… let’s see: the earliest Samsung smartphone reported to be suffering from this swollen battery problem is a Galaxy S model dating back to 2015, while the latest is a Galaxy S 2020 model. That’s five years’ worth of Samsung smartphones containing defective batteries or… conservatively… around 1–1.2 billion devices, maybe? That’s a lot of potentially dangerous smartphones.
You see, the defective battery problem in these Samsung phones is a devious one: fully swollen batteries are obviously easy to spot (having split the device practically in half), but in many situations, as Arun Maini demonstrated in his video, a phone can look normal from the outside while the battery inside is already at the first stages of swelling. Should a consumer try to charge that phone without having any idea about this potential hazard, the device would become very hot, very quickly and then anything can happen, from the device catching fire to the battery actually exploding.
This is extremely serious, so it’s not up for discussion anymore: Samsung has to start behaving as responsibly as its great success in the smartphone market demands it to be. The company has to make changes in the way its quality control processes work, it has to audit all of its phone battery providers, it has to keep running tests on the behavior of said batteries long-term and be transparent about the results. It will also have to do a better job at communicating the seriousness of these kinds of issues to the general public and the media, as well as its intentions on how it will be handling them.
At the time this story was heading for publication Samsung had made no formal announcement or comment about the whole thing. On the contrary, judging by how it handled Maini’s original discovery, the company seems to be trying to sweep this issue under the rug rather than get to the bottom of it. This is unacceptable. It is also proof that the Koreans have learned nothing from the Galaxy Note 7 scandal a few years back: their first reaction will seemingly always be one of denial and silence until the problem becomes too big to not be handled in the eyes of the public. By that point, though, there may be actual people hurt, not just the company’s reputation.
Samsung cannot afford to be this naive or this arrogant anymore. If this proves to be a problem as widespread as it right now seems it can be — it’s affecting a number of different devices over different years of release, after all, unlike the Galaxy Note 7 — then it needs to act, and be seen to act, in a decisive manner. If not, then this time around the consequences could be much more serious than the ones Samsung got away with five years ago.