You are here

Going for the Gold (Computer)

March 3, 2009 - 4:00am


Last summer I decided to bite the bullet and buy a new computer. My old one was getting sluggish. I had purchased the original one about 10 years earlier and had upgraded various components every several years. But it was still showing its age.

I wanted another desktop. It was a no brainer that it had to be an ENERGY STAR® model, both computer and monitor. But selecting one was not that simple. You see, I know that the ENERGY STAR criteria are constantly changing, requiring manufacturers to make their units more and more efficient. The stricter ENERGY STAR Version 5.0 Specification for Computers, for example, will go into effect on July 1, 2009. Though the new criteria may not be in effect, some existing models may be out there already that meet the upcoming, stricter criteria. Moreover, there are "levels" of efficiency. Even among ENERGY STAR models, some computers and monitors are more frugal at sipping electricity than others. I pride myself on being an energy specialist, and a conscientious treehugger, so I had to have one of the more efficient models.

The first thing I did was to go to the ENERGY STAR computer site. You can fill in the Search box to help select your computer. I preferred to click on the Excel version of the "Qualified Desktops and Integrated Computers" (Excel 525 KB) found in the right-hand column. You may also select a PDF version (PDF 1.0 MB). Download Adobe Reader.

Data are provided for three categories. Standby mode measures the power consumption when the computer is turned "off." These vampire standby loads that suck up electricity even though the device is in the "off" position can really add up over time. As I peruse the current spreadsheet, I see one model that uses only 0.2 watts in standby mode, while others use more than 2 watts.

Then there is sleep mode, a reduced power level that the computer goes into after a specified period of inactivity. It requires the power management feature to be activated—everyone should have theirs turned on, with the appropriate interval of inactivity depending on your preference. The spreadsheet shows some models that draw only 1 watt of power in sleep mode, while others draw 3 watts.

Then there's the idle setting—the operating system and other software have completed loading, it is not asleep, and activity is limited to those basic applications that the system starts by default. In other words, it's on. To make things somewhat confusing, computers can have as many as three idle settings that you can change, so idle power levels are listed for one, two, and sometimes three different settings for a given computer model. And the power levels are all over the board. They range from less than 21 watts to more than 85 watts. Wow, more than four times as much!

Sometimes, though, there seems to be a correlation between the processor speed and the power consumption. I realize that processor speed doesn't always represent your computer's performance. It depends on a number of other variables, including the software applications you use, those installed when you boot up, and I'm sure many more. Since I'm not a computer specialist, I decided to use processor speed as one gauge of performance. I didn't need to have the fastest processor but I did want one that was a bit faster than my then current 1 GHz processor.

I regularly turn my computer off when not in use, so I wasn't so interested in the sleep mode power consumption. For those who keep their computers on day and night, it's more critical to get a model with low sleep mode power consumption. Since my computer is off a lot, I wanted a model with low standby power. I could just turn off the power strip to cut off all vampire standby loads, but I've got reasons that I won't go into here for not doing that. If you can do that, then by all means please do! I also wanted a computer with low idle power.

Okay, have you selected your computer? Well, you're only half done if you also want a new monitor. Go back to the ENERGY STAR computer site and click on Monitors in the left-hand column.

Was I ready to buy my computer yet? Well, not quite. Like I said earlier, I'm a conscientious treehugger. I'm more demanding. So then I set my browser for the Green Electronics Council Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). EPEAT is a system to help purchasers evaluate, compare, and select desktop computers, notebooks, and monitors based on their environmental attributes. Energy efficiency is among the environmental attributes. EPEAT products are identified as EPEAT-Bronze, EPEAT-Silver, or EPEAT-Gold depending on the number of environmental features incorporated in the product. Last year it wasn't easy finding models in the top categories. It's becoming easier though. I ended up with a custom ENERGY STAR computer with a high efficiency 80-plus power supply and an EPEAT-Silver monitor. I'll talk more about high efficiency computer components in future blogs. I'm sad to say my vendor has since shut down his Web site. The service was great. He provided one ton of carbon offset through the and threw in a free energy-saving Smart Strip with my purchase.

Please don't ask me for the make and model of any items I selected. I'm not supposed to show favorites. Besides, that would take all the fun out of letting you pick what best meets your needs!