Why you should avoid cheap chargers -- Fire!

The dangers are real. Very real.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

I get a lot of stuff sent to me that never makes it onto the pages of Hardware 2.0. Lots of sketchy stuff. Lots of dangerous stuff. But sometimes that stuff makes it into use at the PC Doc HQ lab because, I'm well aware that it's sketchy and can take reasonable precautions to make sure that, well, in all honesty, that it doesn't kill someone.

I know that sounds overly dramatic, but fire and electricity are very capable of killing, and doing so quickly.

Sketchy electronics can kill.

One such bit of kit was a MacBook Pro charger with a MagSafe 2 connector. This thing has been handing around me for some time now, but the moment I laid eyes on it I knew that while it could do the job of charging a MacBook Pro, it was far from a good bit of kit. 

A clue to that came within minutes of starting to test it, as it spewed its guts out and I had to glue the casing back together!

Recently I've put an old MacBook Pro into service, and since the cable built into the original charger was trashed, I pulled the sketchy charger into service. It worked fine, but I was wary of it.

Then it started to go rogue.

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The first sign was a mild, acrid, burning smell. One of those smells that if you deal in tech you know as "Magic Smoke." It can be hard to trace what's released the magic smoke sometimes, but since I was already suspicious of this charger, it's the first thing I checked.

It was hot. Smoking hot!

As a test, I decided to see what would happen if I just let it run. Not a test I recommend, but I took precautions (like the heat-resistant chopping board). But I was curious, and made things as safe as possible (don't try this at home!).

What happened was that the charger got hot, then hotter, then very hot, before finally going "POP!" and emitting a big flash.

It got hot enough to melt and char the plastic, and the electrical spark -- which I failed to catch on video -- was quite impressive.

Had this charger been near to flammable items, there was a real chance that it would have ignited that, and who knows where things might have gone from there.

While investigating the cause for the failure, which I believe to be design flaws caused by a desire to keep the device as cheap as possible, I also discovered that the fuse fitted to the plug (UK plugs have to have a fuse on an appropriate amperage fitted), that it too was a counterfeit item. Fuses are supposed to be filled with silica sand in order to quench the arc created by the failure, but this one was empty.

So, basically another danger caused by the manufacturer cutting corners.

My recommendation is top either use the genuine charger -- yes, they are more expensive -- or to use a good quality third-party alternative from a reputable brand (Anker, Amazon, Zendure, and Aukey are names that spring to mind as hardware that I've tested and recommend). When looking through online retailers you might cheaper alternative, but you're putting your life -- and the life of your family, loved ones, friends, and co-workers -- on the line.

Also, be wary of items -- especially Apple items -- on Amazon and eBay and the like being labeled as "genuine." In my experience, this is a huge red flag. If possible, it's best to buy from the manufacturer. 

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