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Cybernaut

Exploding batteries and other problems

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Once upon a time my parents bought me a remote- controlled R2D2 robot that crawled about an inch a minute across the kitchen linoleum, turning its head and making all those "bleep bloop bleep" sounds that won over legions of young Star Wars fans, circa 1978.

The main drawback was always batteries. It took four D batteries to get R2 to move, plus a couple of C batteries for the remote. Both would start to run down after about an hour, which got kind of expensive.

My parents fixed that by going to Radio Shack and buying what was probably the first home battery charger to hit the market. It solved the problem for a little while, although the charges seemed to get shorter and shorter with every recharge. One day, after losing interest for a few weeks, I tried to fire up R2 but got no response. I went to take the batteries out to put in the charger, only to discover that two of them had started to leak and had corroded the inside of my droid with whatever heavy metal-acid combination they used to keep churning out volts. R2 sat on my shelf for about 10 years after that, awesome but useless – he never bleeped again.

Since then I’ve had batteries blow in my Walkman, in flashlights, in chargers, and even in the package as I stored them for future use. You can only shrug when it happens – if you use battery-operated devices every day, it’s only natural that some of them will turn out to be duds.

Why anybody expects any different from laptop batteries and batteries for other portable devices is a mystery, but then people can get sensitive when $2,000 worth of hardware gets toasted by a malfunctioning $100 battery.

Apple (www.apple.com) is just the latest company to issue a mass recall of laptop batteries – 1.8 million this time around for overheating problems. That recall was just one week after Dell issued a mass recall for 4.1 million laptop batteries that could cause fires and explode if damaged or overheated.

These recalls – both batteries made by Sony – will cost Apple and Dell millions of dollars while ensuring they’ll be well behind delivering orders during the lucrative Back to School season.

In the past other recalls have been issued for cell phone batteries, a different kind of Apple laptop battery, batteries for various digital cameras and portable devices, and so on – every few months it’s something else.

The thing is that there’s not much you can do when a battery is flawed except heed the recall notice – chances are 98 per cent of the batteries out there are fine anyway but are being recalled as a precaution. But you can take steps to ensure the batteries in your own portable devices last longer.

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