Apple Computer Inc. yesterday recalled 1.8 million Sony-built laptop batteries that could overheat and catch fire.

Apple is the second major computer manufacturer in 10 days to issue a recall on the batteries. On Aug. 14, Dell Inc.–currently the nation’s No. 1 seller of computers to schools–recalled 4.1 million laptop batteries, marking the largest electronics-related recall ever conducted under the auspices of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). It was the third such recall by Dell in five years, the company said.

Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple has received nine reports of batteries overheating, including two consumers who received minor burns after handling overheated computers. Apple also has received reports of minor property damage, but no serious injuries have been reported.

Apple’s recall covers 1.1 million lithium-ion batteries in the 12-inch iBook G4, 12-inch PowerBook G4, and 15-inch PowerBook G4 laptops sold in the United States from October 2003 through August 2006. It also covers an additional 700,000 laptops sold abroad, according to the CPSC.

Dell’s recall affected about 14 percent of its Latitude, Inspiron, XPS, and Precision notebooks sold between April 1, 2004, and July 18 of this year. Those batteries also reportedly run the risk of catching fire. Though instances are rare, Dell has said it knows of at least six incidents since December where the lithium-ion batteries either overheated or burst into flames.

Owners of the laptops in question were told to stop using the batteries and to remove them from their laptops. The machines can continue to be used as long as they’re plugged into an AC power source.

Apple asked customers to consult a web site, http://support.apple.com/batteryprogram, or call a toll-free hot line, (800) 275-2273, to determine whether they have a battery that is covered by the recall. A free replacement will be shipped to affected customers.

Dell also set up a special web site for its customers to expedite the massive recall. Despite these efforts, the company has said it could take several weeks for customers who apply for replacements to receive new batteries. Until then, executives recommend users operate solely on AC power.

Other computer manufacturers, including Gateway Inc. and Lenovo Group Ltd., also reportedly sell portable machines equipped with the same Sony-built batteries.

Both have said their machines employ safety measures to prevent such problems from occurring. As of press time, Apple and Dell were the only major manufacturers to recall the potentially defective parts.

Although Lenovo uses Sony batteries, Lenovo engineers configured their battery packs differently than Dell or Apple. They also rigorously tested the battery packs with Sony engineers, Lenovo said, and they’re “highly confident” the laptops aren’t going to overheat.

“Lenovo designs its battery packages a different way,” said Lenovo spokesman Bob Page. “How close the battery pack is it to a heat source, how evenly can you keep the heat in battery cells, the basic geometric arrangement of the cell–all those things affect whether there will be problems.”

Hewlett-Packard Co. recently issued two separate recalls–one in October and another in April–on battery cells used in several of its machines, though the company said the recall was not related to the problems experienced by other manufacturers. HP reportedly does not use the same Sony-manufactured batteries; neither does computer-maker Fujitsu, which reportedly manufactures its own line of batteries for use in laptop computers.

Sony, which uses similar lithium-ion technology to power its Vaio brand of notebooks, says it has not received any reports from customers of batteries overheating or catching fire.

The same types of lithium-ion batteries also reportedly are used in a variety of other handheld electronic devices, including select cell phones, digital cameras, and personal music players. CPSC officials have received at least 339 reports of cell phones powered by similar types of lithium-ion batteries catching fire. At the time of the Dell recall, officials were investigating whether these and other devices also were at risk.

Rick Clancy, a Sony spokesman, said the company has studied problems with its battery packs for more than a month, after getting reports of about a half-dozen fires or smoking laptops in the United States.

Clancy said tiny metallic particles sometimes short-circuit the battery cells, adding that the configuration in an electronic device can contribute to problems.

“But it begins with the [battery] cell, and we acknowledge that,” he said.

On Aug. 16, the news service Reuters reported the Dell recall could cost Sony between $83 million and $430 million. Dell has not said how much the recall would hurt its own bottom line. At press time, it was unclear what effect Apple’s announcement would have on those figures.

Links:

Apple Computer Inc.
http://www.apple.com

Apple recall page
http://support.apple.com/batteryprogram

Sony Corp.
http://www.sony.com

Dell Inc.
http://www.dell.com

Dell recall page
http://www.dellbatteryprogram.com