Back in 2016 I attended the launch of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 in London. I remember it because I was pulled out of the queue, frisked and had my bag searched. It’s something of an irony that while there were no explosives about my person, there were about 30 on the show floor just 50 yards away.
You probably haven’t thought of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 in a while. Samsung would certainly rather you didn’t after the handset was found to be significantly more likely to explode than is ideal for something that’s designed to be stored in the pocket, at a genital-adjacent level. The fireproof return box alone should have made things pretty clear that Samsung wasn’t playing around.
And yet as recently as July last year, people were still using the Note 7 as if it had never featured on a list of things you can’t take on aeroplanes, along with tear gas devices, fireworks and radioactive materials.
But now the Note 7 is 29 months old, and any contractual obligations have long been paid off. Could I buy a Note 7 today if I felt like it?
Yes. Apparently I can.
No, that isn’t the explosion-free Fan Edition. As the description says: “brand new but have noticed from Samsung about battery so can charge just till 60%” – a patch Samsung sent through to make the phone less dangerous. As you can also see, the seller is looking to get out of the flammable phablet market and considering a sidestep into quad bikes. Presumably without a helmet and with a cigarette lighter built in next to the fuel tank for added convenience.
Another person on Facebook marketplace had one for sale, describing it as an “unwanted Christmas present”, which raises all kinds of questions. Mainly, outside of a Warner Brothers cartoon, what kind of friend buys you a Christmas present that might explode?
Unfortunately, neither seller responded to my messages, which is hardly surprising. If you’re trying to sell something online, timewasters are simply the worst, and what could be more time wasting than someone chatting to you about the Note 7 in 2019?
If time wasting was my aim, I had to go to the source. Hello reddit.
The Note 7 return refuseniks
Yes, there are still people posting on the r/note7 and r/galaxynote7 subreddits. Not many, granted, but I got in touch with a handful I identified as still owning, or having recently sold the handset to ask them “what the hell, man, what the hell.” Albeit not in those exact words.
“Yes, I still use it everyday,” computerman10367 wrote back on his Note 7. “I was going to trade it in but I liked the phone so much I decided to keep it.
Why these users ended up keeping their Note 7s does a good job of underlining quite what a complex job Samsung had trying to round them all up again. Some were essentially reimbursed by their network before Samsung attempted to reclaim the handset, while others were bought from people selling for parts. Another user didn’t return hers because it was bought from the black market in the Philippines making returns a “logistical nightmare.”
While it’s not making much noise about it now, Samsung still seems to be accepting returns. In late 2018, a Reddit user who wanted to only be identified as John found his old Note 7 in a drawer and phoned the helpline on a whim. For the safe return of the handset, Samsung offered a Galaxy S7 Edge, a Galaxy S8 or $950 in cash. Unsurprisingly, John took the cash. “They said that most people opted for the cash because that's worth more than the s8,” he explained. It “was a pretty quick call, almost like they had done it thousands of time.”
A redditor called chasd8898 had a very similar experience on a preowned Note 7 he bought for $40. “I buy, sell and repair, and often go and buy phone parts from stores,” he explained. Originally intending it for a “shelf piece,” he found Samsung were being ridiculously generous last month, getting a cheque for $943.42.
I decide that I need to call the magical Note 7 hotline myself. Of course, I don’t actually have a Samsung Galaxy Note 7, so I just plan to claim that a friend of mine does. It’s not a complete lie, I tell myself – after all, I’ve just approached someone on Facebook Messenger about their Note 7, and who contacts people who aren’t friends on Messenger? Psychopaths, that’s who. “I’m not a psychopath,” I whisper to my cat as I dial the number.
The UK Samsung support centre is completely nonplussed, seemingly unaware of any Note 7 safety issues. After a little confusion, I’m told that “I don’t think there’s anything we’re doing now, I’ve not heard anything.”
I later contacted Samsung through more formal journalistic channels and got a very clear response: “The Galaxy Note7 Replacement Programme continues to operate within Samsung Electronics UK and we look to support any customer with an eligible device seeking a replacement. Please refer to Samsung.com website.”
How much can you expect in cash? That depends, Samsung says: “Samsung Electronics UK works closely with the customers to assess their specific needs and resolve the matter by way of a refund or replacement.”
In other words, if you have a Note 7 in your house, it’s not too late to cash in.
That’s good, but a bigger issue is why anyone would voluntarily live with a possibly explosive handset in the first place.
“After the first year of the recall I don’t really worry about charging it any more,” says computerman10367. “I usually leave it charging overnight,” he added saying that Samsung hadn’t tried to get it back since the original recall.
John agreed, saying he was “never nervous using it.” It was “such a low number that it happened to, I never thought about it to be honest with you.”
Another Note 7 owner, who I’ll call Gary, was equally relaxed, making his only rule not to travel with the phone. “I knew that airport security would confiscate the device,” he said. “I was never really worried about the phone blowing up, so I didn't take any other precautions.”
Others didn’t even worry about that: “I used it as my primary phone every day, didn’t think twice,” said John. “I flew internationally with it a few times without an issue.” The Filipino black market seller had a similar philosophy to air travel: “I just made sure it was powered down on the plane.”
That’s probably concerning to the FAA which was pretty clear on its advice back in 2016, stating that “passengers who attempt to evade the ban by packing their phone in checked luggage are increasing the risk of a catastrophic incident. Anyone violating the ban may be subject to criminal prosecution in addition to fines.”
To be entirely fair to those who did take the Note 7 on flights, this is at the more extreme end of expert guidance. The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) had a more gentle advisory: “the UK Civil Aviation Authority advises airline passengers intending to travel with this phone to ensure it remains switched off for the duration of the flight. The phone should be carried in hand baggage and should not be charged during the flight.”
I decide to contact both the FAA and CAA to find out if their rules are still in place. I figure they’ll welcome a press inquiry that isn’t about drones taking down planes, and view this as an enjoyable nostalgia trip to risks of Christmas past.
Neither returned my emails.
[Update: The CAA got back to us with the following statement:
Our guidance was indeed withdrawn as airlines no longer consider any of the measures necessary. As far as we are aware the international regulator ICAO does not have a current policy on this. A presentation made to ICAO by the manufacturer reported a high return success rate.
So you can take a Note 7 onto a flight in the UK no problem. The FAA still has yet to respond]
A reputation in tact
Samsung for its part has tried to make the phones as useless as possible, by pushing through firmware updates blocking the batteries from filling over 60% and then getting the IMEI numbers banned from the networks. This has been pretty effective – while the company doesn’t answer my question about how many are left, the people are described as “the remaining minority of customers”, and this was apparently as low as 4% two years ago.
Still, it hasn’t put off some of the users. “I downloaded an update blocker, so I could still use my phone to its full potential. They eventually won out, because the cellular carriers banned the IMEIs from connecting to the network, so I just had a super phone sitting at home that I would use for music or drawing, etc.” said Gary.
None of the redditors I spoke to seemed to think any the less of Samsung as a company despite the Note 7 scandal. “If anything, the way they handled it made me more comfortable acquiring products from them in the future,” said a user called Anjz. He reviews hardware, and is more concerned by various sample Chinese power banks he’s been sent. John was also happy to defend Samsung: “I currently have the Note 8. I’ve even convinced my wife to switch from an iPhone to a Samsung after this all happened.”
If anything, the main concern is that Samsung has become a bit too conservative for fear of another PR disaster. “I currently have the Note 8, and I don't regret buying it, but it's definitely not as exciting as it was to buy the Note 7,” said Gary. “I feel like the Note 7 was the last phone to ‘wow’ me.
“I feel like they've been walking on eggshells, so to speak, since the Note 7 failed. But sometimes mistakes are made when you're creating something new, I hope they learn from them, and deliver us something amazing in the near future.”
A user called Rezin_Khanz agrees, saying that it bothered him that he had to deal with Samsung’s “very conservative manufacturing and engineering.” Still, he’ll always have the Note 7. Literally. “I'll Give them MY phone when they pry it from my cold dead, maybe even severely charred, hands,” he jokes.