EarthTalk is a weekly installment from E/The Environmental Magazine.
Dear EarthTalk: As an online gamer, I spend a lot of time in front of my computer. What’s the environmental impact? And are “greener” PCs available? — Bob Grant, Burlington, VT
Online gamers and other heavy computer users are definitely leaving an environmental mark. Depending on when it was made and how it was designed, a standard desktop PC can use anywhere from 60-300 watts when in use, while an inefficient gaming PC with powerful graphics card, multiple hard drives and optical drives, flash memory reader and a 30-inch LCD might consume as much as 750 watts, or about as much as a typical refrigerator. Until July of 2007, government Energy Star requirements only measured a computer’s energy use while in standby mode, which allowed the majority of brands to carry the label.
New stricter efficiency requirements have brought greener models. You’ll find the largest selection from companies like Dell and Hewlett Packard. Many businesses use the Electronic Products Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) to assist in the purchase of greener computing systems, and the evaluations can be useful to consumers, too. EPEAT evaluates and rates computing equipment on 28 efficiency and sustainability criteria, awarding them bronze, silver or gold for overall performance.
Technology company VIA is well regarded as an industry leader in low-wattage processors (central processing units or CPUs), with some barely sipping only a dozen or so watts from the power supply. Some typical VIA designs can outperform competitors using only 23 watts, or less than half the power called for by Energy Star specifications. Of course graphics cards used by PC gamers are serious energy hogs. Your top-end ATI or nVidia card will render great graphics, but use 300 watts or more. Newer cards are better, but much depends on their use. The best advice is to buy only the graphics power you need.
One of the easiest ways to save on computer power is to use technology that automatically rests when you do, and to shut your computer down when you’re not using it. Windows XP allows users to configure power management settings, and Vista Ultimate lets you configure power-saving options in even more ways. Vista can actually throttle its power consumption for some tasks and power down at other times. If you’re just typing a Microsoft Word document, performance will back down, whereas if you are editing video in a powerful program like Adobe Premier Pro, Vista will use all the processing power available.
Bear in mind that screen savers are not energy savers. In fact, power-down features may not work if you have a screen saver activated. Happily, LCD color monitors do not need screen savers. In terms of shutting down, while PCs use a small amount of energy when they start up, it’s considerably less than the energy used when they are on for long periods of time. Consider turning off the monitor if you aren’t going to use your PC for more than 20 minutes, and both the CPU and monitor if you’re not going to use your PC for more than two hours.
If you’re concerned about the “wear and tear” of turning PCs on and off, don’t be. Most PCs reach the end of their “useful” life due to advances in technology long before the effects of being switched on and off multiple times can have a negative impact on their service life.
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