Over the past year, Nvidia’s Shield Tablet has become one of the top tablets for Android users. Today, the company recalled the devices, saying they’re prone to, uh, no easy way to say this, exploding into flames.
There’s a very easy way to check if your Shield is involved in the recall, and Nvidia will send you a replacement with a better battery. The problem affects tablets sold between July 2014 and July 2015—which implies all of them, since the tablet was released in July 2014—but it’s unclear whether the recall includes all or some of the devices (we’ve reached out for clarification).
Nvidia is understandably mum on what’s causing the problem, saying simply that the batteries are overheating and causing fire hazards. The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that 83,000 tablets in the US, and 5,000 in Canada, are affected—and that four reports of overheating have occurred, “including two reports of damage to flooring.” The company notes that anyone who bought one of these tablets within the last year should stop using it now, so the malfunction sounds fairly serious.
It’s a sad recall, because the Shield has been a fairly popular and well-received option for people who want to play games on their tablets. Gizmodo’s own Eric Limer said “it should probably be your next Android tablet no matter how much button-mashing you do.” Still, the review noted that the tablet’s battery drained surprisingly quickly—and a cursory Twitter search shows that consumers had plenty of problems with battery drain and heat:
So we know that heat was an ongoing issue, though it’s unclear if any fires actually occurred.
Why Can’t Lithium Ion Batteries Stop Exploding?
The Shield has a lithium ion battery, which means that its battery was susceptible to a hazard known as thermal runway.
Inside a normal lithium ion there are several cells—each containing an anode and cathode, with a liquid electrolyte between them. Ions move from the cathode to the anode, and in reverse when it discharges. When this process happens to quickly, the cells get hot—and sometimes, melt the very important insulators that contain the parts. Then temperatures begin to rise—and the cells next door get hot, too. Soon they’re short circuiting too. And so on—hence thermal runaway.
As we noted in our review, the Shield’s battery life was pretty pitiable. And remember, this was a tablet that was supposed to support battery-intensive gameplay and video use. Which means that users were likely discharging and recharging their devices very quickly and very often in frustration. It’s no surprise the batteries couldn’t take it. This is a problem that affects a huge portion of lithium batteries, from the compact batteries in tiny smartphones to the massive units that power the electrical systems in the Boeing Dreamliner.
So in the end, this is a great example of a manufacturer mismatching the battery inside a new device to the way users are supposed to use it.
Update: We’ve updated our post and reached out to Nvidia to clarify if all tablets are involved or just a specific subset, and we’ll update when we hear back.
Contact the author at kelsey@Gizmodo.com.