Monday, September 08, 2008

A Real "Green" Computer

I hate the phrase "green computing". Why? Because the more stuff we have, the less environmentally friendly we actually are. In other words, if you can afford a computer, you ain't green. That would mean you sitting in front of the computer screen reading this. Yes, go ahead and squirm.

However, that doesn't mean I shouldn't be aware of the world around me and therefore try to be responsible with my resources. And with those resources, I realize that if I can cut costs drastically, that would be a huge help to my fellow man.

So, I have one question for you: How many Watts does your computer draw from the wall?

Don't know? Neither do I. And I leave my computer on all day and night. There are important things my computer has to do every single day (besides filtering through thousands of spam messages) that requires it to be powered up and running. Of course, this usage comes at another cost - the room the computer sits in has to be within a tolerable temperature range. That means AC in the summer and heat in the winter (despite the computer generating plenty of its own heat).

Most people don't do much beyond the four basic tasks: Read e-mail, surf the web, IM, and word process. (And maybe listen to music on itunes). Basically, any ol' computer will suffice just fine. My needs are even simpler - just about anything that connects to a standard Ethernet cable will work.

So, I've been on an extensive quest for "green". Or, let me put it in terms anyone can comprehend: Something that will significantly lower my monthly bills. I'd wager about 1/3 to 1/2 of my electric bill is solely because I leave my computer on all day.

Now, if you examine the average electric bill, you find that the electric company measures things in something called Watts. Or, more specifically, Kilowatt-Hours.

So, the obvious solution to lowering one's electric bill in this particular scenario I've set up is to look for a computer that has almost no power utilization at peak usage. There are some pretty amazing things being done with computer systems these days, almost none of which are power-friendly.

Over the past year I've looked on-and-off for a solution to my problem. My preference is a headless system (i.e. no monitor) as I've got no problem with remote connecting into the system. That pretty much takes laptops out of the equation (but not entirely). We (the computer industry) keep coming up with faster and faster components, but what we need to do is step back and go slower with the goal of less power. We can build fast components that use a lot of power, but can we build a slightly slower component that uses no power? There's the challenge for the next decade. Google would be a huge customer of components that used negligent amounts of power. Low power typically = low heat. Low heat = additional cost savings.

Recently Dell, in particular (but other companies are following), has pushed the whole "green computing" thing, but the question is: Do the Dell systems that are being put together actually save you money? That is, how many Watts do they draw from the wall?

Below is a small list of a half-dozen boxes that I've kept track of for various measuring purposes to determine where we are in terms of power draw overall.

First up are the gaming consoles. I'll get to the 'why' in a bit. That is, "Why are you telling us about the power draw of gaming consoles? I thought this was about PCs?" It is and isn't. I'm after the most efficient hardware for my needs. If it happens to be a PC, great, but if you truly want to be power efficient, you have to be open to all the alternatives.

The XBox 360 is a fairly popular gaming console. Unfortunately, it weighs in at a 160 Watt power draw. Over twice the power draw of the original XBox (74 Watts). (And the XBox 360 Elite weighs in at 194 Watts).

The PlayStation 3 is another popular gaming console. I've found conflicting numbers as to how many Watts it draws. One site says 171 Watts, another says 380 Watts of power (peak). I'm guess that 171 Watts is an average draw.

Next up is my reason for even looking at gaming consoles. The Wii. Get ready and brace yourself...

...A paltry 14 to 17 Watts, depending on who you ask. I assume the 17 Watts is peak and the average is 14 Watts. Supposedly it also consumes 11 Watts if the Internet connection thing is left active while the unit is in power save mode and a mere 2 Watts if that feature is turned off while powered off. 14 Watts is definitely not bad. And, when you consider that WiiLi is being worked on (Linux for the Wii), that is not a bad platform.

The weird thing is that people love the Wii and think XBox and PS3 are so-so. In other words, less is more and more is less. If you can play fun games on 14 Watts of power, then that is sufficient to run a lightweight application over an Internet connection. Nintendo is onto something here that could be adapted to the computer industry.

So, those are the baselines. There is a huge rift between the two types of gaming consoles. Price is also a factor - the Wii is cheaper, especially when you consider the cost of plugging it into the wall and keeping the area's temperature regulated with AC if used in the summer.

Now, let's stack up regular computer systems. This is actually a LOT harder. No one publishes metrics on power draw. And that is not done probably because we don't want to be embarrassed by how much power we actually use (abuse?).

First up is Dell's own brand new "Hybrid". This computer is claimed to be "environmentally friendly" - a "green computer". I talked with a Dell sales rep. about this and it took them about 15 minutes to come back with the answer: 350 Watts. I'm going to assume that the number is "peak wattage" and not "average wattage". Let's assume that the number quoted to me is similar to the PS3 peak and we can guesstimate that the average is more like 160 Watts.

Since no one else is very forthcoming on average and peak wattages, I'm forced to skip the other companies like HP and move on to the next best thing, Apple. In this case, I've had my eye on the Mac Mini for several years. This little gem weighs in at an average of 20 Watts and a peak of 50 Watts. Not bad considering you get OSX with it (i.e. a decent OS instead of having to hack something together as I would with the Wii - a fair tradeoff).

For the Mac Mini, someone kindly measured this with a very nifty little tool called "Kill-A-Watt" that measures power draw. Given how easy and affordable these are (from the computer manufacturer's perspective), they should be required to run all computer system configurations through it. I've been thinking about getting one but it won't likely change my habits very much. It might also move me more quickly to buying a new computer. Then I think, "Just what I more computer!"

Finally, I came across perhaps the ultimate goal in terms of achieving nil energy usage: OLPC. Also known as One Laptop Per Child or the 'XO' (er, 'hug and kiss'?). It comes in puce gr...I mean...ugly green. Whatever you know it by these days, it consumes a mere 2 to 3 Watts of power. XO-2 (i.e. version 2.0) supposedly will only use 1 Watt of power. It blows the Wii out of the water in terms of power usage but is apparently quite sluggish. But I don't need a powerful computer.

It is also interesting to note that the OS you use also causes a power draw. A couple years ago I experimented heavily with VMWare Player. Ironically, the free VMWare Player actually has a feature that the full version product does not: A CPU measuring device. I've suspected for several years certain applications ([cough] Visual Studio [cough]) and OSes draw more CPU than is reported by the OS. VMWare Player reveals their usage completely. I was on my Linux rampage at the time and tried numerous OSes, I also tried the beta of Vista and a few Windows OSes I had lying around. Windows 98 was actually more CPU-friendly than any other Windows OS (i.e. Microsoft lied during the XP install, but no one should be surprised, the company always lies). The public Vista beta kept the CPU indicator incredibly busy even though absolutely nothing was going on in the system that I could tell (not even moving the mouse and no applications running). In the Linux realm, all but one of the OSes behaved identically - even the much touted "Xubuntu" as being "performance friendly" actually behaved the same as all other distros. The only OS that used absolutely zero CPU while sitting idle was: Damn Small Linux (DSL). I had to make a serious effort to get the CPU indicator to budge. If you want an OS that is power-draw friendly that also has some semblance of usability (i.e. a GUI and boots blindingly fast), DSL is it. There is no other OS worth attempting to use that has zero power draw on the CPU (assuming your goal is zero CPU power draw on idle).

In conclusion: Let's suppose you want some power, need some user-friendliness, but don't want a power-hungry computer. The Mac Mini is, to date, the best choice from a "balanced" perspective. You get a well-recognized, easy-to-use OS (OSX) that boots up fairly quickly, is easy to update/patch/install new software, and has enough 'oomph' for most people while being power-draw friendly. Not quite at the Wii or OLPC level but definitely a good start in the right direction.

This angst has been brought to you by someone who got fed up with Dell advertising their PCs as being environmentally friendly. Lies.