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Dell recalls batteries due to fire threat

Action affects 4.1m laptops, a record for electronics industry

Dell Inc., the largest maker of personal computers, is recalling 4.1 million notebook PC batteries that may burst into flames in the largest-ever recall in the consumer-electronics industry.

The batteries were manufactured by Sony Corp. and used in Latitude, Inspiron, and Dell Precision portable PCs sold between April 2004 and July 18, 2006, Jess Blackburn, a spokesman for Round Rock, Texas-based Dell, said yesterday in an interview.

The action follows Dell's slowest sales growth in four years after US consumers complained that the company's discounts are confusing and telephone hold times too long for service.

Dell in May said it will spend $100 million to improve service and product quality to regain market share lost to Hewlett-Packard Co.

``Dell is trying to bolster its image and this is certainly not going to help," said Brent Bracelin, an analyst at Pacific Crest Securities in Portland, Ore., who rates the shares ``sector perform" and doesn't own them. ``Another recall is yet another setback for the company that is struggling to regain share in the market."

Rick Clancy, a New York-based spokesman for Sony, didn't return calls seeking comment.

Notebook PCs outsell desktop systems at Dell and generate 26 percent of revenue. Notebooks with the faulty batteries accounted for 19 percent of the 22 million portable PCs Dell sold during the period, Blackburn said.

Dell told the US Consumer Product Safety Commission that it learned of six cases in the United States since December of notebooks overheating or bursting into flames because of a problem in the fuel cells of the widely used lithium-ion batteries.

The recall is the commission's largest ever for consumer electronics, said spokesman Scott Wolfson in Bethesda, Md.

No injuries were reported, Blackburn said. The recall affects 2.7 million PCs sold domestically and 1.4 million sold overseas .

There have been numerous recent news reports about Dell laptops bursting into flames, and pictures of some charred machines have circulated on the Internet.

Dell, the world's largest maker of personal computers, confirmed that two weeks ago, one of its laptops caught fire in Illinois, and the owner dunked it in water to douse the flames. Other reports have surfaced from as far away as Japan and Singapore.

Consumers with affected laptops should only run the machines on a power cord, said Wolfson.

The product safety commission knows of 339 incidents in which lithium batteries used in laptops and cellphones -- not just Dell products -- overheated between 2003 and 2005, Wolfson said.

The list of incidents ranges from smoke and minor skin burns to more serious injuries and property damage, Wolfson said.

Dell's move follows a series of smaller recalls of lithium-ion batteries, and comes at a time of intense scrutiny of the battery technology -- particularly on airplane flights.

Now that lithium-ion-powered laptops and MP3 players have become favorite carry-ons for many air travelers, transportation officials are evaluating the safety risks posed on airliners and whether tighter restrictions are required.

The dangers of battery-related fires in laptops aboard airlines were the subject of a story in The Wall Street Journal yesterday.

Yesterday's move was at least the third recall of Dell notebook batteries in the past five years.

Dell recalled 22,000 notebook computer batteries in December after symptoms that were similar to those that prompted yesterday's recall. The company also recalled 284,000 batteries in 2001.

None of Hewlett-Packard's notebooks are affected by the recall notice, according to Ryan Donovan, a spokesman for the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company.

The computers sold for $500 to $2,850; the batteries sell individually for $60 to $180, Dell said.

Material from other Globe wire services was used in this report.

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