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Samsung Galaxy Note 7 recall: Here's what happens now

A more detailed look at why Note 7 phones caught fire not once, but twice -- and what happens next.

Josh Miller/CNET
Now Playing: Watch this: Explaining the Note 7's battery flaws (with cake)
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Four months after Samsung first recalled its acclaimed Galaxy Note 7 phone, the electronics giant finally announced what caused Note 7 phones from two separate batches to catch fire in the first place: a design failure in the first battery and a manufacturing defect in the second.

Making the results of Samsung's investigation public signals the end of one drama that Samsung would surely hasten to see in its rearview mirror, while at the same time beginning another phase -- life after the Note 7 saga and what will happen with its future phones.

The one thing we know for sure is that Samsung's phone batteries will undergo much stricter testing procedures going forward, testing for the kind of failures that its pre-Note 7 protocol didn't catch. We also know that Samsung will apply new or enhanced testing standards -- including X-raying each battery in addition to visually inspecting them -- to its 2017 flagships, like the curve-screen Galaxy S8, S8 Plus and Note 8.

"When the second... recall happened, that was the exact time that we were starting the design of the battery for the S8," said D.J. Koh, Samsung's mobile chief, in an interview with CNET. "All [new] manufacturing processes are reflected on all 2017 models."


While Samsung promises to rebuild trust with customers, we still aren't exactly sure what that entails. New phone deals? Or just more safety assurances? Read on for a look into exactly why the batteries blew, a recap of the drama, and what to do if you're one of the 4 percent of global holdouts who still hasn't given Samsung back its phone.

Why exactly did the batteries explode in the first place?

The short version is that the lithium-ion batteries used in mobile phones contain flammable chemicals that are usually separated within the battery structure. And if they touch for any reason? That's when massive overheating and internal fires happen. It turns out, this occurred in both the original and replacement batteries for two totally different reasons.

Battery A: The original Note 7 run

See those two electrodes? Bad things happen when they meet

Samsung

The original Note 7 batteries suffered a design that deformed the "negative" electrode within the battery so that it wound up touching the "positive" electrode within the battery pouch -- "pouch" is the name for the container that keeps all the parts together.

According to Samsung US marketing VP Justin Denison, the battery manufacturer "designed the pouch such that it did not have sufficient space around the upper righthand corner to allow for the normal expansion and contraction of the battery that occurs when you go through normal charge and discharge cycles."

So the battery elements were expanding within too-tight confines and the negative electrode wound up bent around the positive electrode. This weakened the separator -- material meant to keep the two tabs apart -- and the electrodes eventually touched.

The problem didn't have anything to do with the battery's size, thinness or placement within the phone, Samsung said, and everything to do with the design flaws that eventually put the negative and positive poles into contact.

Battery B: Replacement Note 7 phones

The problem with batteries in the replacement phones was different. This one came down to issues with welding, as well as a crucial part left out of some handsets.

Samsung's new battery safety checklist will include a penetration test.

Samsung

Essentially, the manufacturer didn't do a good enough job welding the "positive" tab and left a tiny nodule of material sticking out, large enough to perforate the insulating material separating the positive and negative poles and cause the battery to short circuit. The short circuit in turn created internal temperatures high enough to melt copper elements inside the phone -- and that's what first tipped off the independent investigators Samsung partnered with.

But Samsung and its partners found another problem, too. Not every phone had that insulation tape separating the two volatile elements. Some phones were missing the separator completely -- that's a quality control issue that compounded Samsung's woes.

The failure of the second battery was the real nail in the Note 7's coffin. Because Samsung couldn't replace mistrusted Note 7s with assuredly safe ones, Samsung had to admit total defeat, recalling the entire batch of replacement phones and killing the production of its best-selling phone so far.

Who made the defective batteries?

Samsung won't name names, but a source familiar with the issue told CNET that Samsung SDI, a subsidiary of Samsung Electronics, supplied the batteries that led to the original recall. Amperex Technology created the second set, according to the source.

8-step-battery-test-v2.jpg

Samsung has instituted an eight-point battery check to prevent the problems it had with the Galaxy Note 7.

Infographic by Alfred Ng/CNET

What will Samsung do next?

With Samsung's investigation into the Note 7 fires completed and nearly all the Note 7 phones collected, it's time for Samsung to get back to business. Specifically the business of launching its next phone, the Galaxy S8, as well as prepping for the Note 8, which we should see in August or September.

samsung-galaxy-s7-edge-galaxy-s7

The Galaxy S8 could help buyers forget Note 7 woes.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Samsung said it's already:

  • Implemented a new battery testing protocol that should make phones safer
  • Hired more staff to comply with its new standards
  • Will give future device designs more space inside for the battery -- even though that wasn't a contributing factor with the Note 7

It's is also looking outward to share its battery review process with other global organizations.

Now for Samsung's tattered reputation. Making its next phone an unquestionable, flame-free smash hit will go a long way to erasing the public's bad memories of the Note 7 mess. A phone that can wow people, like a Galaxy S8 that's all screen and no bezel (that's one rumor), is the exact distraction that Samsung needs to reset buyers' memories, or at least encourage them not to care anymore.

I have a few ideas for what Samsung will have to do for the Galaxy S8 to rise from the Note 7's ashes.

Everything important that's happened with the Note 7 since September

Let's recap the unfolding of events after the Note 7 launched in August to largely rave reviews.

Back the truck up: What was the Galaxy Note 7 recall about?

Samsung engaged in a global recall for the Galaxy Note 7, which the company first voluntarily recalled in early September when a major battery flaw caused a small number of the phones to spontaneously explode and sometimes burst into flames, damaging property, leaking dangerous chemicals and basically scaring the dickens out of people.

Samsung offered replacement Note 7 devices that had completely different batteries, but it didn't take long before reports surfaced that these were catching fire, too. That's when Samsung and various organizations throughout the world including the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) made it clear that every single Note 7 owner needed to stop using, shut down and return the phones.

As of early November, the company said that 85 percent of US customers opted to return their phones, with the "majority" of them exchanging their original Note 7 for a different Galaxy phone.

I'm a holdout. What are my options to return or exchange the Note 7?

With the Note 7 dead, you can exchange it for a different Galaxy phone. If you're taking a break from the Galaxy brand, you can get your money back and buy one of these nine Note 7 alternatives instead.

Exchange programs may differ by region, but the general rule is to take it back to where you bought it, and check your local Samsung website for more details.

Here are some examples so far:

  • US: Every major US cellular carrier will give you any other phone in exchange for the Galaxy Note 7, or a full refund. When the program began, you could also get a $25 gift card or store credit and possibly $100 more on top of that. If you bought your phone from Samsung.com, call 1-844-365-6197.
  • UK: You can exchange your Note 7 for a Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge, and you'll either be refunded the price difference between the two (aka, the Note costs more than either other Galaxy phone), or you can opt for the full refund. This Samsung UK page has more specific guidance, or you can call Samsung on 0330-7261000. If you bought your device from a network or other retailer, contact them directly -- all major networks have a return program in place.

Lithium-ion batteries like this are commonly embedded in phones, which makes them hard to replace.

Aloysius Low/CNET
  • Australia: Return your phone directly to the store, or call 1300-362-603 if you bought it from Samsung. You can either get a full refund, or exchange your Note 7 for a Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge plus a refund of the price difference. Watch this Samsung Australia page for more specific guidance.
  • Singapore: You can get a full refund or swap your Note 7 for another Samsung device. You can visit the Samsung Customer Service Centre at Westgate (#03-01) from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, or check out this Samsung Singapore page for more details.

Is it dangerous to keep using my phone? Is it possible that my Note 7 will spontaneously combust?

Yes. If you own a Note 7, you should power it down immediately and seek to exchange or replace the phone.

Really, though, it feels fine.

You really need to return the phone. Turn it off. Now. Have you seen the ridiculous kit Samsung is sending people who need to return this phone?

What should I do if my phone catches fire?

It won't, because you've returned it. But if any electronic device catches fire, try to douse the flames with a fire extinguisher or baking soda. Water will help, too (if the device isn't plugged in). If you don't have those items, try to (safely) move it to a non-flammable surface and let it burn out. Use gloves or other tools, but keep your skin covered.

The Note 7 debacle has already affected Samsung's bottom line.

Josh Miller/CNET

What will happen to my Note 7 if I don't return it?

In many regions, Samsung has issued a software update that caps the battery's recharge capacity; your carrier may also brick your Note 7 or route you to customer service. They really don't want you using it.

Is there anything I should do to ready my phone before turning it in?

First you'll want to backup the device. Here's exactly how to back up the Note 7 before returning or exchanging it. Depending where you bought the phone, you can take it to your carrier or retail store for more help saving and transferring the contents to a new device before wiping the Note 7 with a factory reset and retrieving the SIM card. If you bought the phone directly from Samsung.com, you'll need to call into your local Samsung customer service for more specific instructions on mailing and returning the phone.

How long will Samsung give full refunds for the Note 7?

It isn't clear if Samsung and carriers have changed their policy, but back in September, the window seemed infinite. Samsung really, really wants these phones back.

Large-screen phones are easy to find.

CNET

Was the refund and exchange process easy or hard?

In September, the original unit we bought ourselves was easy to return at a T-Mobile store in San Francisco for a full refund (not an exchange). Since Samsung directs you to make returns through your initial retailer, the experience may vary by your location.

Now that I'm getting rid of my Note 7, what should I get instead?

Samsung faces its toughest loyalty test yet. There's always the large-screen Galaxy S7 Edge, which is an excellent phone that's basically the Note 7 minus the stylus, and the S7, a smaller version of that but with a flat screen. Outside of Samsung, I love the Google Pixel and Pixel XL. Try the OnePlus 3T for a great, large-screen handset that costs a whole lot less.

Finally, the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus are both good choices, so long as you're comfortable switching between Android and iOS.

First published September 13, 3:33 p.m. PT.

Update, Jan. 22 at 8:02 p.m.: Adds latest information from Samsung.

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