As they say, you have to pay to play. And in the world of computing, this indeed remains true. While much of the cost of computing (be that a college student typing out a term paper on a laptop, or caching the entire Internet across Google’s massive data centers) can be attributed to the cost of the hardware itself, the “hidden” cost of computing often lies in the power requirements to run the hardware.
For example, say your computer uses 250 Watts of electricity under normal operating conditions (a bit high for most mid-range systems). Now let’s take the cost of electricity at 6 cents or $0.06 per kilowatt hour. Multiplying the two together, we get an average operating cost per hour: $0.015 (less than 2 pennies). Pretty cheap, right? Well, now let’s add that together over the course of a year. For example, let’s take this to be a server that runs 24×7. So, our hourly rate of ($0.015)(24)(7)(52) = $131.04 to operate a 250W computer 24×7 for one year.
While that cost might seem miniscule compared to average yearly fuel costs for transportation (mine is about an order of magnitude greater, at $1,200) it still isn’t insignificant. Multiply that cost per computer by a couple running PC’s in one’s home, and suddenly you’ve got a yearly cost of close to half a grand just to keep them running. That might be overstating it a bit, as most people do not have multiple systems running 24×7 in their homes. I have only one such 24×7 system, and it uses something closer to 150-170W under normal load. The rest of our computers are on only a fraction of the time.
But this discussion of power leads to one interesting conclusion: how to reduce power consumption? Well, aside from the obvious “turn it off when you’re not using it” there has been a recent “green” push in the computer industry to cut power requirements and optimize power savings when the full power of the computer is not needed.
New chipsets (like the AMD 780G that I recently bought and installed as our new media center PC) have excellent power savings compared to older chipsets, and combine some pretty powerful integrated graphics (the best so far) that can play 1080p video and even some serious games like Unreal Tournament 3. The inclusion of powerful integrated graphics removes the need for a dedicated graphics card, shaving (in some cases) half the overall system power draw.
Power supplies now advertise an “80+” rating that means their lowest operating efficiency is at least 80%. Newer processors (especially Intel’s Core 2 series) have much lower TDP levels (Thermal Design Power). And hard drives like Western Digital’s Green Power drives use dynamic RPM to spin up or spin down the access speed of the spinning platters to save power. These new improvements have certainly helped to pare down the operating cost of computing.
But is there an even better alternative? Yes, there is. Stop using computers altogether. 😛
Jokes aside, there is another solution that saves a great deal more power: laptops. Designed for mobility, the laptop has far exceeded the power savings of desktop computers. Because the desirability of laptops has hinged upon the length of life of the battery, being able to save a few watts of power here and there in laptop design has held great importance. Innovations in power savings in laptops do come at a cost, however: laptops are often less bang-for-your-buck in terms of processing power.
And more importantly to this discussion, the increase in cost for the hardware often exceeds the gains in power savings. So to “go green” doesn’t necessarily mean throw out (ok, “recycle”) your desktop PC and get a laptop. But one option that is starting to appeal to me more and more is the idea of consolidation. Rather than have a desktop and a laptop, just get a nice laptop to do everything on. True, laptops are notorious for being difficult to upgrade, but the average lifespan of such a device – coupled with the ever rapidly increasing rate of technological progress (thank you, Moore’s Law) – means that simply getting a new laptop every few years would resolve any upgrade issues that could potentially arise.
So what am I suggesting? In part, I’m making the assumption that technology will continue the trend of mobility and eventually render the home desktop obsolete (with the exception of hard-core gaming, which requires multiple GPU’s in a desktop). But I think the adoption of more and more laptops will continue to place emphasis on better and better power savings. With a desktop, you don’t really pay much attention to the power draw (heck, I don’t even really know what the total power draw of all my computers is, and I’m a supposed computer geek). But with a laptop, the limits of current battery technology (while not too shabby in their own right) stress the need for better power management.
With that said, I think my next computer is going to be a (Mac) laptop to replace my aging Powerbook. And I’m going to get rid of my desktop at the same time, putting into practice this idea of consolidation.