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Smartphones will warm up from the moment you switch them on; this is unavoidable and mostly safe. But phone overheating can be a serious issue, damaging devices and affecting performance. In this article, we address three important questions: what causes a smartphone to heat up, what causes it to overheat, and how can it be avoided?
Why do smartphones heat up?
The answer lies in a basic property of physics: movement generates heat. Our smartphones have to physically move things around to work at all, so they have to generate heat. The amount of heat your smartphone produces is largely proportional to the amount of electricity moving through it.
If you’re playing a game that demands a lot from your central and graphics processing units, both housed in a central system-on-a-chip (SoC), they will become warm, as they require more power to carry out their tasks.
Your phone becoming warm is no reason to worry, they’re designed to work that way, but if it becomes unpleasantly hot, you probably have cause for concern.
If your device is experiencing frequent overheating, it could be for a number of solvable reasons, mostly related to overloading the hardware. Pushing your GPU for too long is one of the quickest ways to overheat your phone (as anyone who has tried a Gear VR knows all too well).
The same can happen with demanding apps, but the burden will here fall on the CPU. Multitasking, extra features and functions, like widgets, and, for whatever reason, your phone having to check its connectivity – be it Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, whatever – all require processing power – warming the SoC – and more electricity – warming the battery.
What damage can be done?
Inside modern smartphones, you will find a lithium-ion battery. These are clever tricks of technology. A non-rechargeable battery only allows for a chemical reaction, designed to generate electricity, to happen in one direction: electrons leave the battery to travel through a circuit (your phone). Rechargeable batteries allow this reaction to go both ways, so the battery can give and take charge, and do it hundreds of times.
Lithium-ion batteries are the best rechargeable batteries available at the moment, but they still have disadvantages. There are two main problems:
One is that they degrade, even when they’re not used. This happens relatively slowly, but you’re still lucky to drag two or three years of use out of one.
Secondly, they are very sensitive to heat. Anything over about 30 degrees centigrade is going to start negatively impacting a lithium-ion battery, and this is a temperature it probably climbs above every time you charge it.
The main impact heat has on the battery is that it speeds up its degradation and thus more rapidly reduces its capacity, leaving you with a dead battery sooner.
One of the most dramatic overheating symptoms is that it can cause a lithium-ion battery to explode. Although we’ve all read the horror stories in the press, the chances of a battery exploding are very slim. For it to happen, there needs to be a thermal runaway, a vicious feedback loop, where a rise in temperature increases the reaction rate, which in turn further increases the temperature, and so on.
When it comes to the SoC, the processor speed will be throttled to prevent overheating, which slows your device down, sometimes to the point of unusability. If there is too much heat for too long, it can damage the chip physically.
Again, as with the battery, this latter possibility is unlikely to happen, as there are safety measures in place. But even so, it can be concerning to feel excessive heat, and annoying to have to wait for your device to cool down.
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