Notebook computer owners began calling Dell and surfing to a special company Web site Tuesday to get replacements for lithium-ion batteries that could cause their machines to overheat and even catch fire.
The world’s biggest computer maker said it began shipping replacements Tuesday for 4.1 million recalled batteries. Dallas-based Dell said it received more than 100,000 phone calls, 23 million Web site hits and took 77,000 orders by late in the day. Orders were being filled on a first-come, first-served basis, said spokesman Ira Williams. He couldn’t estimate how long customers might have to wait. It could vary by the model of their notebook, he said.
The replacements are coming from Sony and a handful of other battery manufacturers.
The record-setting recall — the largest electronics-related recall involving the federal Consumer Products Safety Commission — followed reports of Dell notebooks suddenly catching fire. It is the latest misstep by Dell, including two previous battery recalls, complaints about poor customer service, and slowing sales growth, all of which have weighed heavily on Dell’s once-lofty stock price.
‘‘It’s bad news on top of bad news for Dell,’’ said Ted Schadler, a technology analyst for Forrester Research. The batteries were supplied to Dell by Japan’s Sony Corp., and Dell officials hinted that Sony would bear the cost of the recall, which analysts estimated at $200 million to $400 million.
Sony acknowledged its role in the incident, but said the reports of a half dozen burning laptops were infinitesimal out of the millions of machines that Dell sells each year.
It was unclear whether Dell’s problem would spread to other PC makers. Sony supplies battery cells for its own notebooks and those of other computer manufacturers. The configuration of cells differs from one manufacturer to another, but the building blocks — the cells, which resembled small rolled up sheets of metal — are the same.
Experts said the problem appeared to stem from flaws in the production of the batteries. They said during manufacturing, crimping the rolls left tiny shards of metal loose in the cells, and some of those shards caused batteries to short-circuit and overheat. Sony spokesman Rick Clancy said shards are common in battery cells but usually just cause the battery to stop working. ‘‘We have taken steps to address the situation . . . to Dell’s satisfaction,’’ Clancy said.
Lithium has been replacing nickel-cadmium and other materials for batteries used in laptops and also digital cameras, music players, cell phones and other gadgets since the early 1990s. The smaller, lighter batteries produce more power to drive laptops with high-resolution screens and phones with advanced features.
There have been reports of problems with lithium-ion batteries. Last year, Apple Computer recalled batteries made by South Korea’s LG Chem Ltd. And in 2004, the Federal Aviation Administration banned shipments of lithium batteries from the cargo holds of passenger planes because of a potential fire hazard, when they’re shipped in bulk. Passengers are allowed to carry laptops or cell phones on planes.