Is Your Smartphone Battery All Right?

My Pixel 3 XL battery expanded until it split the phone wide open

The thump woke me. Even in the fog of sleep, I knew that my Google Pixel 3 XL has slipped off the Pixel Stand and onto the floor. Without opening my eyes, I reached down under my bed, found the phone and gently replaced it back on the wireless charging stand.

Smartphone splitting open
 Lifewire / Tim Liedtke

The phone, a backup device that I primarily used as an alarm clock and to check social feeds and email before bed, had been inexplicably slipping off the stand for weeks. Initially, I blamed the stand, assuming the rubberized lip holding the phone in place had worn down over the last 12 months. What other explanation could there be?

Growing frustrated with the phone's nocturnal quest to live under my bed, I decided to remove the cloth-covered case to see if a thinner profile might give the rubber lip a better hold. It did but then I discovered my real problem.

Google Pixel 3 XL
What happened to this phone?.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Pumped Up

A few nights ago, I picked the phone up off the Pixel stand and noticed it felt different. The 6.3-inch, 184-gram, 7.9 mm-thick Android phone isn’t super thin or light, but it is comfortable to hold. On this day, though, it felt weird, distorted. I flipped the phone over in my hand and noticed that the right side of the case had split open, with glue fibers straining near the corners to hold the rest of the device together. Peering into the gap, I saw a 3,430 mAh battery in a state of distress. While I could not see all of it, I could feel the battery bulging against the back of the case, peeling the plastic back away from the rest of the phone.

As I examined the device, I realized that the reason the Pixel 3 XL kept slipping off the stand was not because the stand was decaying, but because the phone’s battery was expanding, pushing the back of the phone against the cloth-covered case, which pushed against the Pixel Stand until the whole phone mounted that rubber lip and slipped onto the floor. I couldn’t see what was happening because the case hid the split.

Google Pixel 3 XL
Everything's fine.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Lithium-Ion Basics

I’d taken exquisite care of this Pixel 3 XL. I never dropped it on a hard surface (as noted, it fell a few feet onto my cushiony bedroom rug), I never exposed it to water or extreme temperatures. It barely had a scratch on it. Such a well-cared-for device should not have had such a spectacular battery failure.

The phone still works. It’s like someone suffering a catastrophic injury and yet somehow not realizing they’re injured. The Pixel 3 XL screen is all cheerful colors and Google Assistant smiles and I’m like, “Dude, your body is literally splitting apart.”

To be fair, Lithium-Ion batteries do have their challenges. They’re cleverly managed chemical reactions that happen repeatedly in very tight spaces. The coils of cells (all Li-ion batteries feature cells) leave little room for error. Damaged Lithium-Ion batteries have been known to overheat and even catch fire. Old rechargeable batteries that have seen years of use and thousands of charge cycles have been known to expand. I have an old Sony NEX-5 camera battery that ballooned so much that it no longer fits in the camera.

The Pixel 3 XL screen is all cheerful colors and Google Assistant smiles and I’m like, “Dude, your body is literally splitting apart.”

My Google’s Pixel 3 XL, however, is just a couple of years old and I don’t think I could’ve given it a better charging home than the Pixel Stand which was literally designed with this generation of Pixels in mind.

There’s no indication that this is a systemic Pixel 3 problem, but it’s also not unheard of. Online I had no trouble finding people describing virtually the exact same issue.

In Google’s Pixel Phone help forum, I found an August 2019 posting describing how their Pixel 3’s battery was “swelling up.” Further down, a user named Darin Phillips described removing the case from his one-year-old Pixel 3 XL and discovering a swollen back and split case that, based on the photo he posted, looked exactly like mine.

There’s a post on iFixit from a Pixel owner who complains, “My Pixel XL has developed a bit of a beer belly” and wonders if it’s a sign of a damaged battery.

On Twitter, a colleague told me via DM that he’d run into the same issue and ended up paying $80 to replace the battery.

Pixel 3 XL
Inside my Pixel 3 XL.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Google sold millions of Pixel 3 devices, so my handful of anecdotal discoveries by no means represents a larger trend.

I did, by the way, get in touch with both Google Pixel support and Google Corporate representatives. All make it clear that this should not happen. None can tell me why it happened and everyone wants to get their hands on the phone for further investigation.

No matter what they discover, my deformed Pixel 3 XL is a reminder of the inherent instability of Lithium-Ion batteries. Granted, these rechargeables are significantly safer and more reliable than early rechargeable batteries, mostly thanks to on-board electronics that manage power dispersal and recharging. That technology, though, appears to have failed in this case, causing the battery to shift to an unstable state.

I wonder what would’ve happened if the phone hadn’t kept slipping off the stand. Would the phone battery have expanded until the phone rocketed off the Pixel Stand and into my head? Would it have caught fire or exploded?

So What?

You phone, tablet, e-reader, and laptop all contain Lithium-ion batteries and I’m sure they’re all fine. Still, I wouldn’t assume anything. Take this moment to examine your smartphone case and look over your tablet and laptop chassis. Make sure all the seams are solid, that nothing’s bulging, and that when charging or running off battery power, none of them feel too hot.

Better safe than sorry, right?

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