Will a magnet destroy your smartphone or hard drive? We ask the experts

magnetic car mount steelie
This Nite Ize Steelie car phone mount uses magnets to mount your phone, but is it safe?
I’ve always been extremely paranoid about magnets getting anywhere near my electronics. I have a vision of screens warping, precious files vanishing into the ether, and my smartphone shutting down forever.

When my son received some magnets as a gift recently, it only took an hour before he’d waved them close enough to my phone that I felt compelled to confiscate them. They’re now gathering dust on the forbidden shelf, along with the glow-in-the-dark gloop, and fake dog poo.

But, as I confined them to toy limbo, I wondered if my fear was irrational. Do magnets actually pose a terrifying risk to our gadgets, and where did we get the idea that they’re dangerous in the first place? Let’s find out.

“This more than likely stems from old electronic devices, such as CRT monitors and televisions, which were susceptible to magnetic fields,” explains Matt Newby from first4magnets, “When placing a strong magnet near one of these you could distort the picture. Thankfully, modern televisions and monitors aren’t susceptible in this way.”

Most modern electronics, like our smartphones, are not going to be adversely affected by small magnets; but is that all there is to it?

How do magnets affect smartphones?

“The vast majority of magnets that you come across day to day, even many of the super-strong ones on the market, will have no adverse effect on your smartphone,” says Matt, “In fact, within the device there will be a number of very small magnets which perform important functions. For example, the new Apple Watch uses a magnetic inductive wireless charging system.”

However, before you get carried away and start rubbing magnets all over your smartphone, there is something else to consider. Matt warned that magnetic fields can temporarily interfere with the digital compass and magnetometer inside your smartphone, and that’s more serious than you may think.

The engineers over at K&J Magnetics actually experimented with an iPhone to show how the sensors inside can be affected by a magnet.

“The problem we found is that a nearby magnet will affect the internal magnetic sensors inside the phone. The compass won’t read correctly,” explained Michael Paul, an engineer at K&J, “What’s worse, if you stick a strong magnet to the phone, you could slightly magnetize some steel components inside, making them act like weak magnets. This can make it difficult to properly calibrate the compass.”

You might think it’s unimportant because you never use the compass app, but that doesn’t mean other apps aren’t relying on the same sensor. Google Maps, for example, uses the sensor to detect which way the phone is facing, and a number of games also rely on it to work out your orientation.

Magnets aren’t likely to kill your smartphone, but there’s a possibility they’ll mess some pretty important aspects up.

This is something that Apple considers in case and accessory design. In Apple’s Case Design Guidelines, there are sections on Sensor Considerations and Magnetic Interference, including the line, “Apple recommends avoiding the use of magnets and metal components in cases.”

Manufacturers have to ensure that the built-in magnetic compass is not affected by their cases. There’s also specific mention of the iPhone 6 Plus, because of potential problems magnets can cause for the autofocus rear camera with optical image stabilization.

It seems as though magnets aren’t likely to kill your smartphone, but there’s definitely a possibility they’ll mess some pretty important aspects up, so why take the risk?

What about hard drives?

The idea that magnets can erase hard drives is pretty popular, especially in the world of entertainment. Walter White infamously used a massive electromagnet to try and wipe evidence off a hard drive in Breaking Bad, for example. Are our fears about magnets erasing hard drives also based on old tech?

“Magnetically recorded data could also be corrupted using magnets – including things like cassettes, floppy disks, VHS and credit cards,” says Matt, “If the data is recorded magnetically, it is possible to corrupt it with magnets.” Fine, but where does this leave Walter White and his hard drive?

“It is theoretically possible that an incredibly strong magnet can corrupt a hard drive if it is wiped directly over the surface of the drive,” Matt explains, “However, hard drives include neodymium magnets inside them to operate the read/write arm and to record data, so again, they aren’t going to be affected by regular sized magnets. If you were to stick magnets to the outside of your PC tower for example, it would not have any effect on the hard drive.”

There’s even better news if you have a flash or a solid state drive. “Flash drives and SSDs are not really affected by a strong, static magnetic field,” according to Michael.

The engineers at K&J actually tried to use neodymium magnets for hard drive destruction, but the results were disappointing. They placed large magnets either side of a running hard drive until mechanical rubbing sounds were audible, indicating the magnets were bending parts inside. Despite this, the files on the drive remained 100-percent intact.

Larger magnets were also used with the drive powered down, but when it was turned back on, the files were still completely unaffected. Apparently, most companies nowadays shred hard drives to physically destroy them, because magnets cannot be relied upon to wipe data.

Do we need to worry about magnets?

“At home you will be surrounded by magnets – they are in every computer, speaker, TV, motor, smartphone, to name just a few applications,” says Matt, “Modern life would simply not be possible without them.”

It seems that magnets have unfairly gotten a bad press, but it’s still important to exercise caution when wielding the strongest magnets.

“Strong neodymium magnets aren’t toys,” explains Michael, “You may have read in the news about how recently, some magnet toys were getting swallowed by very young kids. This is a very, very serious health risk, since multiple magnets can attract to one another through intestinal walls. We’re talking peritonitis, which means immediate surgery is required to remove them.”

Perhaps I’ll leave those magnets on the forbidden shelf after all.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: 1-handed drone control, a pot that stirs itself

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Cars

From Rolls-Royce to Lamborghini, these are the most expensive cars in the world

If you recently discovered an oil reserve in your backyard, you probably have some extra cash to spend. Look no further, because we’ve rounded up the most expensive cars in the world.
Smart Home

Put away that sponge and let us help you pick the best dishwasher for your buck

Tired of doing dishes by hand? Take a look at our picks of the four best dishwashers currently available and let a machine do the dirty work for you. They’ll do a much better job, anyway.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix, from 'The Haunting of Hill House’ to ‘The Good Place’

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Product Review

Mediocre battery and a big notch slight Google's otherwise perfect Pixel phone

Google’s Pixel 3 XL has two big flaws: The gigantic notch on the front, and mediocre battery life. That being said, this is the best Android experience you can find in a smartphone today.
Mobile

Upcoming Galaxy S10 may support 8K video and have Neural Processing Unit

While we still may be months away from an announcement, there's no doubt about it: Samsung is working hard on its successor to the Galaxy S9. Here's everything we know about the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S10.
Mobile

Netflix is testing a cheap mobile-only subscription tier in some markets

Netflix is trying to reach potential subscribers in emerging markets. To that end, the company has begun rolling out a cheaper, mobile-only subscription tier, which comes at around $4 per month -- half the price of the Basic subscription…
Music

Here's our head-to-head comparison of Pandora and Spotify

Which music streaming platform is best for you? We pit Spotify versus Pandora, two mighty streaming services with on-demand music and massive catalogs, comparing every facet of the two services to help you decide which is best.
Mobile

Samsung will reportedly announce its folding smartphone at MWC in February

Samsung has been showcasing bendable display tech for a few years and now a folding smartphone might finally arrive. The Galaxy X, or perhaps the Galaxy F, may be the company's first example. Here's everything we know about it.
Mobile

Check out 30 of the best iPhone games you need to be playing

The iPhone has some of our favorite games available for any mobile platform. Here are the best iPhone games for every big-name genre, whether you're into puzzles, strategy, or something else entirely.
Mobile

Text messages are disappearing on Pixel 3s, but a fix is on the way

The Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are arguably the best Android phones out there right now -- but they aren't perfect. Users have reported a number of issues and problems related to the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. Here's how to fix them.
Mobile

Get ready for more V-series phones: LG trademarks names up to the V90

It looks like we should get ready for more LG V-series phones. LG has trademarked names for the LG V50 all the way up to the LG V90. We may have to wait some time before we see these phones; the next LG flagship is expected to be the LG G8.
Home Theater

What is MHL, exactly, and how does it work with your TV?

There are more ways to mirror your smartphone or tablet to your TV than you might think. Check out our rundown of MHL for everything you need to know about the wired protocol and its myriad uses.
Deals

All the best Amazon Black Friday deals for 2018

Amazon may be an online-only retailer, but that doesn’t mean its Black Friday sales are anything to sniff at. In fact, due to its online status, Amazon has huge flexibility with the range of products and deals it can offer. Here's our…