Just because you're hearing about Samsung phones exploding, doesn't mean it's actually happening more often.
Did you hear?! A Samsung phone caught fire on an Indian airplane! The device in question, a Samsung Galaxy Note... 2 — from 2012 — reportedly went up in smoke in an overhead compartment, before being doused in a bucket of water by cabin crew.
It's one of a few prominent reports lately of Samsung phones other than the genuinely explosion-prone Note 7 going up in smoke. A couple of weeks back, The New York Post carried a story on a Samsung phone catching fire in the hands of a child (the paper incorrectly reported it as a Note 7 initially). Then shouty British rag The Sun published a story on a GS7 edge catching fire in the UK. Those are just two recent examples — many more have been reported in the media since the Note 7 fiasco erupted.
It seems like Samsung phones are constantly exploding! Maybe there's a problem with all of them!
Frequency illusion, amplified by the effect of the modern media.
Well, probably not. What we have here is a case of frequency illusion. (Sometimes called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.) This is a cognitive bias — a trick of the mind — where something which has recently come to the personal or collective attention seems to appear with much greater frequency shortly afterwards.
That's amplified considerably by the modern media, which is quick to jump on unrelated stories like the Note 2 catching fire over India, and present them in the narrative of the Note 7 battery fiasco. Had the Note 7 not had battery issues, a story about a single smartphone malfunctioning (albeit spectacularly) on an airplane, with no harm coming to anyone, wouldn't have been splashed around major news outlets as much as it has been.
What's more, the idea of there being a broader problem with Samsung batteries simply doesn't stand up to common sense. The Galaxy Note 2 has been around for four years, selling well over 5 million units in its year of release alone. If there'd been a battery problem as serious and widespread as that of the Note 7, it would've come to light literally years ago.
The idea of a wider problem with Samsung phones simply doesn't stand up to common sense.
The same argument applies to the Galaxy S7, which had racked up sales of 26 million units by early July. Given that out of a million or so "bad" Note 7s in the U.S., around 100 caught fire in the first month, we'd be looking at thousands of GS7-related cases if the problem was common to both phones.
It's also worth remembering the sheer number of phones Samsung sells. Samsung was the world's biggest smartphone seller in 2015, shifting some 320 million phones, according to Gartner. It's battled Apple for the number-one spot for the past several years. Many of those phones, especially cheaper models, have user-replaceable batteries.
Which brings us back to our airborne Galaxy Note 2 fire over India. The Note 2 is an old Samsung phone with a removable battery, which opens up the strong possibility that an off-brand battery may have been used.
"In India, it's easier to get a hold of third-party batteries than those made by Samsung," AC India editor Harish Jonnalagadda told me. "Non-certified batteries often retail for one-fourth the cost of the genuine product, making them a much more lucrative option for price-conscious buyers. Meanwhile, retailers are able to eke out better profits by selling third-party batteries, which is why they continue to push them onto customers."
There's a non-zero chance of any lithium-ion battery catching fire.
Lithium-ion batteries pack a lot of power into a small space. At any point in time, there's a non-zero chance of a something or other going wrong and releasing all that energy at once. Given that Samsung sells more phones than anyone else, the prominence of that brand in reports of battery fires (outside of the Note 7) isn't surprising. The same applies to the many reports in years past of iPhones catching fire when charging, given that Apple also sells a hell of a lot of iPhones.
Between the sheer number of Samsung phones out there, the number with replaceable batteries, the tendency for uncertified batteries to be used in some countries — and the important effect of frequency illusion and the modern media, it's not surprising that there are more reports of exploding Samsung phones in the news. (And also that it seems like it's happening more often.)
But that doesn't mean that there's any flaw with other Samsung batteries, or that exploding batteries are any more common now than before the Note 7 fiasco.