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Apple: We didn’t know there would be sun…

By Brian | July 3, 2009 | Share on Facebook

It seems the new iPhone 3GS is not a big fan of direct, prolonged sunlight:

Apple says in a support article that “if the interior temperature of the device exceeds normal operating temperatures, you may experience the following as it attempts to regulate its temperature: the device stops charging, display dims, and/or weak cellular signal”.

In its message, Apple says that the iPhone has a safety feature which warns users that the device is becoming too hot. As well as leaving the handset in a car, it says that the phone may overheat when left in direct sunlight for prolonged periods, when GPS tracking is used in a car on a hot day or when its iPod function is used in direct sunlight.

If the warning appears, Apple says that users of the iPhone should turn the device off and allow it to cool before using it.

Oops.

It’s one thing for a phone to have trouble in a car on a summer day, but if you’re going to tout your device as a GPS replacement, then it better be able to sit on the dashboard for hours at a time.

Users on forums are also claiming problems outside of cars – phones too hot to put to their ears, phones that get hot when they use the video capture feature, etc., etc.

This reminds me of the first round of iPods, who’s screen would scratch if you looked at it funny. Apple spent the first few months claiming it was a “user issue,” but was eventually pressured into replacing damaged iPods and, ultimately, fixed the problem in a future version of the product. Look for iPhones with cooling technology in the near future…

Topics: Tech Talk | 13 Comments »

13 Responses to “Apple: We didn’t know there would be sun…”

  1. Joe Woods says at July 3rd, 2009 at 12:44 pm :
    As you know, I am a big Apple fan and I actually enjoy their ads and the way they present their products to the public. I am unaware of Apple touting the iPhone 3GS as a GPS replacement. I know that the 3GS now supports other people’s software and support systems to provide turn-by-turn GPS, but this is not in the Apple product line.
    Apparently, Apple is simply covering their assets with the kind of disclaimer/warning notice that comes on every product these days.
    Frankly, I think it’s kind of neat that they actually build in sensors and logic to detect conditions of overheating and actually react accordingly.

  2. Brian says at July 3rd, 2009 at 1:50 pm :
  3. Jeff Porten says at July 4th, 2009 at 5:19 pm :
    Your post is the first I’m hearing of this — and I troll the kinds of places that bitch about anything that’s wrong with any Apple product, from the kind of people who abuse the hell out of them (such as myself).

    In any case, I think you’re being disingenuous here — the issue is leaving the phone on the dashboard in an unmoving car. By and large, technology likes the same range of temperatures humans do, and most humans don’t like to sit in cars with an ambient temperature of 160 °F. So they do things like turn on air conditioning and open windows. If the phone overheats in those conditions, sure, blame the phone — or try a better-engineered dashboard mount.

    I’ll reserve judgement on the self-overheating phones until I hear it’s a regular problem. Apple is strongly incented to solve this problem because “not overheating” = “prolonged battery life”; an overheating gadget is wasting power. My guess is, even five nines production quality will have errors after you sell a million phones.

  4. Jeff Porten says at July 4th, 2009 at 6:09 pm :
    Aaaaand… the heat mention in my feeds, which you’ll enjoy:

    http://www.geekculture.com/joyoftech/joyarchives/1265.html

  5. Brian says at July 4th, 2009 at 11:37 pm :
    Jeff – just reporting what I read in the linked article:

    In its message, Apple says that the iPhone has a safety feature which warns users that the device is becoming too hot. As well as leaving the handset in a car, it says that the phone may overheat when left in direct sunlight for prolonged periods, when GPS tracking is used in a car on a hot day or when its iPod function is used in direct sunlight.

    (emphasis mine)

    Check out the links before calling me disingenuous, OK?

  6. Jeff Porten says at July 5th, 2009 at 12:21 pm :
    Did check the link, of course. But feel free to amend my statement from “you are…” to “they are…, and you’re repeating them”. Just did some checking around, and it appears that the “story” here is that out of a production run of millions, there are anecdotal reports (dozens? hundreds? who knows?) of overheating.

    Getting the most play: this PC World blog post, which appears to be the only instance so far of a journalist actually using a hot device. Perhaps I’m being churlish, but I think it would have been nifty if she had written a followup explaining that she had taken the steps to isolate the problem, rather than throwing a kitchen sink of usage against the device, and then posting, “Ouchie!”

    Fact is, the real temperature difference between “too hot to hold in my hand” and “too hot to put to my face” could be upwards of 40-50 °F, and will vary greatly between faces. Without a measurement, it’s impossible to say whether the phone is “heating normally” or “overheating” — and since the most likely culprit here is the charge cycle, it’s equally impossible to say whether any overheating is caused by the phone or a particularly rich current.

    Likewise, it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to explain to people what happens when you put a black object on your dashboard in direct sunlight. (And hopefully, these people don’t have dogs or small children that they take on shopping trips.) It’s one thing to expect Apple to engineer properly for heat dissipation, quite another to ask the Jesusphone to break the laws of thermodynamics.

    I have experience with flawed Apple heat exchange — my Powerbook 5300 routinely ran at 190 °F, which is subjectively too hot to use literally as a laptop while wearing jeans. So the question is whether this is, like that, a known flaw of the model. My guess based on these reports is that maybe 0.1% of all iPhones are susceptible to this, and even then you’d have to have a particular usage pattern to trip it. Extrapolating from there to “Apple ignores sunlight” seems to me to be a bit purple. My guess: a rare manufacturing flaw involving thermal paste. The solution: warranty replacement. The newsworthiness of this story: beats the hell out of me.

  7. Brian says at July 5th, 2009 at 1:08 pm :
    Not sure I see your logic here. When the vendor says it’s OK to put it on the dashboard, then most people are going to assume it’s OK. Most GPS devices are black, after all, and I never even considered the possibility of one overheating on the dashboard, even if wasn’t made by JesusGPS, Inc.

    As for the percentage of phones with a problem, I think we both know that this is totally irrelevant. Heck, most Corvairs never had a problem either, but Ralph Nader still sold a lot of books.

    In today’s day and age, if it’s showing up on PC World, Engadget and Gizmodo (not to mention being lampooned in cartoons like the one you linked to), then Apple’s got to deal with it, no matter how infrequently it actually occurs. Right now, Apple’s tech support site is still touting the “safety feature” that prevents you from using the phone when it gets too hot. If they learned anything from the “scratched surface” debacle of a few years ago, look for them to put out press releases confirming that they’ll replace iPhones that have exhibited the problem free of charge, and that they’re working on the production line to ensure it won’t happen in the future.

  8. Joe Woods says at July 5th, 2009 at 11:28 pm :
    Do you use or have you used a Garmin or Tom-Tom GPS turn-by-turn navigation system? The reason I object to your position is that I use a Garmin unit heavily, and that functionality is a whole different ball game. You are right and your “http://www.apple.com/au/iphone/features/gps.html” link supports you. An iPhone is a GPS system. It doesn’t end there. Please tell me whether or not you agree that not all global positioning systems are turn-by-turn navigation systems like the ones Garmin and Tom-Tom provide.
    The GPS functionality that Apple provides and supports can be used for many things, as many happy iPhone owners will tell you, but installing your iPhone on your dash and getting it to verbally tell you to turn right in 1/4 mile, while the display flashes the same instructions, is not one of them.
    You can buy third party navigation software and hardware solutions for the iPhone, but then you are pushing the device beyond its design specs, as Apple has kindly pointed out.

  9. Brian says at July 6th, 2009 at 12:48 am :
    It’s a fair point, but it doesn’t change much. Manufacturing a device for which use cases can be invented after the fact is a master class in customer service, not an intro seminar.

    Right now, Apple’s telling folks that its GPS locator will update their map in real time and give them printed turn-by-turn directions, but if you buy an app at their store or a licensed hardware add-on and mount it to your dash, then you’re on your own. That ain’t gonna fly for long.

    It’s not like someone is using the GPS to track the movements of their pet elephant by strapping an iPhone to the bottom of each foot. I suspect that most people view using a GPS device in your car for directions as a reasonable use case. As I said above, they’re going to have to offer some mea culpas (in the form of rebates or replacements) and then work out the engineering to provide for that case.

    Alternatively, they can go the opposite direction and declare the iPhone unsafe as an in-car GPS device, remove the AppStore apps that provide that functionality, and get the third-party hardware vendors to stop making their devices. Then, they can tell new iPhone buyers up front that using it in this way could damage the device and they’re on their own if they do. I’m guessing the marketing department would take issue with this approach, though. Especially since, as Jeff points out, the problem only occurs rarely and under extreme circumstances.

  10. Joe Woods says at July 6th, 2009 at 8:29 am :
    I am one release short of being able to press my point intelligently. Since I am a blissfully happy user of the first generation iPhone, which has no GPS support, I cannot say whether or not an iPhone’s GPS functionality is acceptable off the dash and out of the sunlight (ex. clipped to a visor). Since I am a motorcyclist & kayaker and my navigation system use cases include a requirement for a waterproof device, the iPhone is disqualified for other reasons. Several Garmin and Tom-Tom models are waterproof. Should Apple worry about that,too? Oops.
    I suspect that, when I do eventually upgrade to a newer version – after my 1.0 device expires – I’ll probably get the most GPS return on investment with stuff like the photo geo-tagging functionality. If I learn that the device is equally capable of locking in satellites located off the dash and out of direct sunlight, I may consider one of the third party apps. Then again, just knowing that I can, “…track the movements of [my] pet elephant by strapping an iPhone to the bottom of each foot…” is a great comfort to me.

  11. Jeff Porten says at July 8th, 2009 at 2:05 pm :
    @Joe: Apple announced at the iPhone 3GS rollout that Tom Tom was releasing real turn-by-turn navigation for the new phone; haven’t closely followed whether it’s available yet. There have been a few analyses posted explaining why it required this hardware to do it right; without the software, you get the standard Gmaps, compass, etc., which doesn’t provide the driving features you mention.

    @Brian: Most GPS devices are black, after all, and I never even considered the possibility of one overheating on the dashboard, even if wasn’t made by JesusGPS, Inc.

    Right, but most GPS devices are single-use, designed for the purposes of dashboard mount. This is one of several thousand things you can do with an iPhone. I’m not forgiving Apple if this indeed is the source of the problem — as you mention, they license iPhone accessories and hence bear some blame if the iPhone/mount combo is at issue.

    That said, there’s a difference if an engineering or production problem causes 0.01% failure rates in a general purpose device. We’re reminded all the time not to leave important objects (phones, PDAs, puppies) on a dashboard in hot weather, so in this particular case I take accusations that Apple screwed the pooch with a shovelful of salt. In other cases where a phone simply overheats on its own, well, I’m awaiting confirmation.

    As for the percentage of phones with a problem, I think we both know that this is totally irrelevant. Heck, most Corvairs never had a problem either, but Ralph Nader still sold a lot of books.

    Nader’s point, of course, is that Detroit didn’t give a damn about safety features by design. Your point would be analogous if Apple’s products ignited puppies regularly — as I’ve said, the goal of reducing power consumption makes this obviously untrue.

    Apple’s got to deal with it, no matter how infrequently it actually occurs. Right now, Apple’s tech support site is still touting the “safety feature” that prevents you from using the phone when it gets too hot.

    Not sure why you put “safety feature” in quotes. Seems to me that this is an indication that temperature issues were considered, and built into the hardware. But the frequency of the problem certainly should be considered if we’re debating whether this is an Apple screwup, or an unexpected but relatively normal problem when you’re shipping millions of units.

    look for them to put out press releases confirming that they’ll replace iPhones that have exhibited the problem free of charge, and that they’re working on the production line to ensure it won’t happen in the future.

    That’s exactly what I expect them to do, just as I expect that they won’t do this until they have some reasonable proof of the causes of the problem.

  12. Brian says at July 9th, 2009 at 10:17 am :
    @Jeff: I put “safety feature” in quotes because the users seem to view it as a “safety bug.”

    As for when they decide to respond, the risk of waiting until they’ve identified root cause is that it turns into an emotional PR issue (like the scratched surface iPods did a few years back). That said, in the week we’ve been discussing this, I haven’t seen a word of it in the mainstream press (I don’t read the Apple forums regularly), so I’m guessing it’s shaping up to be not that big of a deal…

  13. Jeff Porten says at July 10th, 2009 at 4:53 am :
    It’s getting buzz in my neck of the woods. I’ll let you know when I find out what’s up.

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