Reducing the power used by PCs is worthwhile effort

HOME COMPUTING

April 26, 1993|By Michael J. HIMOWITZ

Every so often I get in the middle of an argument over whether it's better to turn your PC off while you're not using it or let it run unattended.

I usually come down on the side of common sense, which says that if you're going to be using your PC on and off during the day, you should leave it running. But if you're going to be away for several hours or overnight, turn it off.

This usually brings a couple of letters from environmentalists who say my primary concern -- the health of the computer -- is misplaced. They chide me for not considering the effect of these PCs on the environment. Because these PCs, monitors and printers humming uselessly in the background are consuming electricity, they're forcing power companies to burn more fossil fuel, thus creating more pollution.

A good point, I concede. And these folks have picked up an important ally in the guy who's responsible for the biggest computer purchasing shop in the world -- Bill Clinton.

In an Earth Day speech outlining federal efforts to improve the environment, the president announced an executive order requiring all government agencies to buy energy-efficient PCs.

"We're going to expand the market for a technology where America pioneered and still leads the world, and we'll save energy, saving the taxpayers $40 million a year, and set an example for our country and for the world," he said.

That technology allows computers to shut themselves down part way when they're not being used and spring back to life when somebody taps a key.

Until now, this power miser circuitry has been used to conserve the batteries on laptop computers and give jetsetters enough power to work all the way from New York to Los Angeles (minus the time it takes to consume a martini or two).

Typically, these computers will turn off their displays and hard drives and leave the rest of the circuitry running at minimum speed if they're left unattended. The Intel Corp., which makes the microprocessors used in IBM-compatible machines, is now manufacturing an entire line of chips that support powerdown for manufacturers who want to incorporate the feature.

Until now, most computer makers haven't given much thought to putting this technology into desktop PCs because it's expensive, a bit awkward for users and untested with heavyweight equipment. But the federal government is the biggest computer purchaser in the world, and it has the buying clout to bring power saving technology into the mass marketplace.

Under the president's executive order, which takes effect in October, federal agencies will only buy computers and printers that meet so-called "Energy Star" standards for power consumption.

Most desktop personal computers draw at least 100 watts of power, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That's about the same as a standard light bulb. Monitors, which are essentially specialized TV sets, draw about 90 watts, while laser printers, which have heating elements to fuse toner to paper, draw at least 120 watts.

The new federal guidelines will require that all three devices draw 30 watts. Actually, this is an oversimplification. There will undoubtedly be entire volumes of the Federal Register devoted to the details. But there's no doubt that computers will have to curb their appetite for electricity.

How much this will benefit the environment is anybody's guess. The EPA estimates that personal computers account for 5 percent of the electricity used by businesses nationwide.

I have a little trouble buying that. If you really want to see electricity being gobbled, check out the room that houses the mainframe computers or air conditioning system at any decent-sized company, not to mention the lights that stay on all night for cleaning crews or security.

But even if the EPA is off by a factor of two or three, reducing PC power consumption is a worthwhile effort.

The question for users is how well power-saving technology adapts to the desktop, and how much it will cost. The big power guzzlers in any computer system are the hard disk drive, which runs all the time, and the monitor.

Hard drives already have improved by orders of magnitude. A few years ago, I bought an 80-megabyte drive that weighed eight pounds and took up two 5 1/4 -inch drive bays. The 211-megabyte drives I use now are about one-quarter that size and fit into 3 1/2 -inch bays. Less weight means less power consumption.

The drives in laptop computers are true marvels. Some can pack 120 megabytes into a form factor that's smaller than a cigarette pack. These state-of-the art drives are very expensive, and the jury is still out on their reliability. Also, it can be a pain in the neck to sit down at a sleeping PC and have to wait 10 or 20 seconds for a sleeping hard drive to get up to speed. But if the government is pushing us toward less power, we'll probably see more of them in desktop computers.

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