The perils of cheap smartphone and laptop chargers

A charger that doesn't work is the least of your concerns. Fire and electrocution are also high possibilities.

The UK is still under lockdown, so what better way to spend my time indoors than to go onto eBay and buy some cheap chargers and see how bad -- or even dangerous -- they are.

They're pretty bad.

Over the past few months, I've bought five iPhone chargers and another five which were a random assortment of MacBook chargers and generic phone chargers. Prices ranged from a few dollars to about ten dollars. All of the iPhone chargers listed themselves as "genuine," but unsurprisingly, all turned out not to be genuine.

Of the ten I received (I'd ordered over 20, but the rest have yet to arrive and are beyond their target delivery window), three were dead on arrival. One iPhone charger and a laptop charger did nothing on being plugged in (although one held a scary surprise), and another iPhone charger died within minutes of being plugged in.

There was another laptop charger that wasn't all that happy with being plugged into a UK mains outlet because the pins on the plug were non-compliant.

Already I'm getting that feeling that these aren't the great deals I initially believed them to be.

OK, so what was scary about that iPhone charger that was dead on arrival? Well, I noticed during safety testing that the ground on the USB connector was referenced to mains voltage, which means that it could have given someone an electric shock if it was held incorrectly.

Nasty.

Of the ones that worked, I plugged them in and put them under a standard load to see how they operated. Rather worryingly, they all got hot, and went out of that comfortably toasty zone into the worryingly warm zone (which I take to be 48°C/118°F). If airflow is decent then the risk of fire is low, but the risk increases if they become covered by fabrics or other combustibles.

I examined the voltage and current outputs of all the remaining chargers, and all the iPhone chargers were not able to sustain the maximum stated outputs. The laptop chargers also exhibited very "noisy" outputs, in line with what I'd expect from poor transformers.

I also sent the working charger to a friend to carry out high-voltage tests on them (to test what will happen if there is a spike in the incoming power -- well-made chargers can easily and safely cope with 1,000-volt spikes), and here is where the fake iPhone chargers performed really badly, due to their small size and poor construction, and they all allowed mains voltage spikes to enter the low-voltage side of the charger, risking life and the device connected to it.

In all, the "best" of this bunch from an electrical standpoint were the generic phone chargers.

I also subjected the remaining chargers to mild abuse, and the covers on three either broke or unclipped, exposing dangerous live terminals.

Again, the generic chargers performed quite well, while the MacBook chargers all seemed quite fragile, and the iPhone chargers weren't too bad, if we overlooked everything else wrong with them.

The bottom line, the cheap generic chargers are the winners, but that's not saying much given how low the bar is. They're on par with chargers you get with cheap devices, and while I'm doubtful that they fully conform to UK safety regulations (I'm not qualified to judge that), I'd probably still use them.

Fake iPhone and MacBook chargers are just terrible, ranging from dead but dangerous to fragile and overheating to the point of concern.

I have passed on all my findings, along with the devices, to local trading standards so they can assess them and take action where necessary.

The bottom line is unchanged: Nothing beats a genuine charger made by the manufacturer. If you want to save money, go for a quality third-party device (such as Amazon, Zendure, Anker, RAVPower).