If President Obama wants to reduce 2005 level greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020, and 83 percent by 2050 then we have to make some significant changes – and one major area to do that is with computers. Concurrent with the President’s news announcement is one at Computerworld that reported “Harvard study: Computers don’t save hospitals money.” If you combine the idea that IT isn’t paying its way, along with the need to use less resources, with the fact that all over the world IT budgets are being cut, forcing IT folks to look for far better ROIs, it’s really time to rethink the value of the computer.
If the President wants us to reduce our energy use by 83 percent before 2050, that means computers running at 200 watts today need to run at 34 watts by mid-century. It also means for every 100 watts used in manufacturing a computer now, should only take 17 watts in 2050. Or for every 100 pounds of building materials that go into making computers today, Dell and others will need to build the same number of machines with 17 pounds of materials.
One way to maximize the efficiency of manufacturing is by designing a machine that will last longer. If a machine with a lifetime of 5 years, lasts for 10, then you’ve created a 50% reduction in resources required to build the machine without changing the design.
There is no reason why computers can’t be designed to reach the 2050 goal well before 2020. Green computers that have come out since 2005 already save 50% or more over earlier designs. What’s needed is a tight focus on the problem by everyone, so when a home or office buyer is comparing computers to purchase they should see something like the EPA Mileage sticker numbers we see when buying a car.
The President and EPA should mandate that all energy using products come with a label stating how much energy the products uses and what percentage that use is from the industry average back in 2005. For example, on a computer system it might say Idle: 65 watts, Load: 95 watts, Percent 2005 Average: 47%. The figures I list are roughly possible from my general reading, so I’m pretty sure we could get to the magic 17% number far sooner than 2050. (I hope my math is correct, 83% reduction should mean we’re still using 17%.) With newly designed computers, the target could be achieved sometime between 2012-2020.
However, the energy a computer uses isn’t its only burden on the environment. The physical resources and energy that go into manufacturing a computer is a huge factor too, as is the resources it takes to manage and maintain the machine over it’s lifetime. Then there is the impact IT systems make on a business, the cost in dollars to buy and maintain equipment. IT costs should improve the bottom line, not bloat the budget and staffing, or burden the workforce with extra time consuming duties that don’t improve their overall productivity.
In designing a computer for the future we should consider all of this and more. For instance, how much manpower, time and carbon is wasted on viruses and other malware? Maybe the whole concept of an upgradable computer OS should be examined? Like televisions of old, which often had lifetimes of 10-20 years, they were sold intending to work the same, day in, and day out. They didn’t slow down over time, or quit working because TV shows had dangerous video elements. Our future energy efficient computer could have the operating system burned into motherboard and be instant on with the tiniest vampire electrical drain on the power grid. If machines were instant on, people are more likely to turn them off. If the main portion of the operating system is set in silicon, it shouldn’t be corruptible by malware.
Most PCs last 3-5 years before they are replaced, although some people push their machines to 6-7 years. We need to quickly expand the life expectancy of a PC to 10 years, and then work towards making them last to 15-20 years. Once they become a solid-state brick of a brain, that shouldn’t be hard to do. And today’s quad processing CPUs have the power to be useful for a very long time. Will an typical American worker ever need more then an Intel i5?
The average physical dimension and weight of computers have been shrinking for years because of laptops, but the average mini-tower desktop has not. Even though more than half of personal computers used now are laptops, office workers and some home users prefer a desktop. Designing a CPU box 1/5th the size of a standard mini-tower means reducing the resources needed to make it by 4/5ths. Our goal should be to jettison the optical drive and expansion slots, and design a desktop that is basically a CPU/GPU/memory circuit board with a few ports. Think of it as a silicon brain.
Laptops are quickly moving to slimmer designs, but they still can be improved. Laptops need to be design to last longer and withstand more wear so they can thoroughly enjoyed for 10 plus years.
LCD/LED screens need to stay large though, because large screens often mean more productivity, but future displays can be designed to use less power, need less resources to build and last longer. Like the powerful CPU, we want to maximize the benefit of the computer while reducing its environmental impact.
We need to get rid of all moving parts, and any unneeded feature that requires physical resources, like ports, wires and cables. Of course we need to do studies to see which is more efficient: wires or wireless. The optical drive needs to go for sure, and so does the mechanical hard drive. And most users don’t need powerful discrete graphic cards. And how many people still use modems? The evolution towards single chip computers is moving ahead nicely. Today’s computers take far fewer chip sets then their ancestors. CPUs are getting smaller and smarter, requiring fewer watts to run, running cooler, and do more motherboard jobs.
There are lots of CPU designs out there that use less than 20 watts, but they aren’t powerful enough for the average user. The more we use computers the more we find for them to do, and this won’t change in the future. The minimum computer CPU should at least be 2 cores, but probably 4 if we want the device to last 10-20 years. If fact, I’d recommend getting 4 cores now because if you get a machine with just 2 cores today, you’ll probably want to replace it within the next 5 years. The key is to buy the most efficient 4 core chip, like the Intel i5. AMD needs to follow suit with an even more energy efficient chip to challenge Intel.
All operating systems have been evolving towards better energy use, but there are other factors to consider. As computers become smaller and more energy efficient they also become cheaper and much better deals for businesses, but operating systems like Windows and Max OS have not come down in price proportional to the price of machines. Should Windows 7 cost the same $125 for a machine that’s $1200, $600 or $400? What if we could build an energy efficient CPU brain for for $300? It hurts to shell out so much for the OS. That’s why many system builders switch to Linux, which is free.
What about the cost of support? Apple brags they provide a better deal in their I’m a Mac commercials, but buying from an OS vender who wants to maintain a monopoly on computer hardware is silly. Microsoft is more democratic, willing to sell to any hardware vender and has become the worldwide standard, but Microsoft still has a stranglehold over the industry that’s not efficient. If this current recession had been a long one, I bet many businesses would have eventually switched to Linux because free is hard to beat.
Linux has already proved that it can be widely distributed without packaging and install disks, although most users burn an .iso image to a CD to install it, but new techniques of copying install files to flash drives is eliminating that wasteful practice too. Think of all the packaging that goes into marketing Windows 7 and Snow Leopard, as well as the burden of shipping it around the world.
However, the best solution would be for operating systems to come on the motherboard where it can’t be altered by viruses and malware. The operating system needs to become invisible to the user, and not a religion. It doesn’t matter who’s a PC or Mac. Because like the Harvard study about computers in hospitals, if you can’t reduce IT costs and make everything cheaper, then computers are not a solution, but a problem. A truly Green PC should be a tool to eliminate waste in all areas of life.
As more computer applications move to the cloud it reduces the need for proprietary operating systems and hardware, which should reduce the overall cost of buying a machine. Cloud computing saves resources in other ways. Buyers no longer have to purchased boxed programs with DVDs and manuals, IT support staff don’t have to go around and install programs on client machines, and cloud computing apps are usually easier to use.
With cloud computing we should be able to hide the CPU brain inside the monitor and the user shouldn’t even have to worry about what OS runs it, or who makes it. The more IT hardware melts away from the desks of the users, the more energy efficient it will be, and the more cost effective IT will become.
What does all this mean? Well, computer sales should tank as computers become more energy efficient and we manage to make them IT efficient too. A 22” inch LED screen with high-powered but energy efficient quad processer hidden away inside running a rock solid stable OS at 20 watts of power using a near universal interface, and costs just $500 while lasting 12 years will have a tremendous impact on society, business and computer sales. The iMac is an elegant design showing the future of desktop computers, so when a competing product running a firmware version of Linux comes out built around cloud computing concepts then you might should pay attention. Ponder where Google Chrome OS going?
Take for instance my desire to buy a new computer. I’m looking at getting a 1-2 terabyte drive because of all the digital music and photos I have. I have 18,000 ripped songs from my CDs to maintain, but if I knew I could always play them from the cloud, through Rhapsody or Lala, I could think about getting a smaller drive. In fact, if I knew online storage was more reliable than hard disks I might even settle for a smallish solid-state disk drive. Since I hardly ever buy shrink wrap software anymore, I’m thinking of doing without a CD/DVD drive. Streaming Netflix and online video content also suggest a future without optical drives.
Once I get all my old photographs digitized I’m not sure if I’ll need my scanner anymore. And I print so seldom that I worry that the print-heads on my Canon inkjet are going to die. So if the CPU box and my all-in-one printer-copier-scanner disappear from my desk I’ll be overjoyed.
The Winning Design
The all-in-one desktop/monitor like the iMac, without an optical drive but with a SSD drive is the winning design for an energy efficient PC. It does away with the whole CPU box, a major savings in resources and energy, plus it gets rid of so many wires, which is another area of savings. And it has just one power supply. Finally, its a design without moving parts. This is a very elegant solution, and it’s a shame that Steve Jobs doesn’t allow other hardware makers to license the Mac OS – but the world economy can’t accept a system from a hardware monopoly. Besides, it’s really time to get serious about Linux on the desktop – since it has become a world OS.
Here’s a review of four all-in-one machines that use 66-75% less now. I don’t think it would take too much innovation to design machines with a 23″ 1920×1020 LED screen and have the power of today’s quad processors and reach 90% less power. The machines reviewed are on the wimpy side for power users, so my point is I think its possible to design muscle machines for power users that are 2050 green too.
By the Year 2050
With the regard to computers, I’m not sure if the President even needs to mandate that they use 83 percent less energy by 2050 because computers are already evolving in that direction anyway. Laptops are getting lighter, and to make them last longer on a batter charge, they have to be designed to use far less power. Desktop all-in-one monitor/CPU designs also use less power and take less resources to make, and they take up far less desk space. I’d be surprise if the average computer doesn’t use 83% less power by 2015.
At the beginning of the essay I said if the average machine today used 200 watts we’d have to design machines to run on 34 watts by the year 2050 to meet the President’s goal. Well, here’s a machine reviewed at Tom’s Hardware that runs at 35 watts. It uses a powerful E8600 Intel chip, and for 37 watts, you can get a motherboard with GeForce 9300 graphics. How hard will it be for engineers to get such a system down to 15 watts?
If only we could change everything else so fast. And maybe we can. It might be a far less scary job than we think. I got a new energy efficient HVAC last year and my utility bills are 30-50% less. If I remodeled my house with better insulation I’d save even more. The next time I have to buy a car I’ll probably cut my gas usage by 50%. I think we’ll see change far faster in all areas before 2050.
Sites that review CPU Power Consumption
- CPU Comparison Chart
- CPU Power Dissipation – Wikipedia
- Xbit Laboratories
- Silent PC Review
- Tom’s Hardware
JWH – 12/5/9