New Energy Star ratings for PCs on the way

The PC industry is about to get the first update to the Energy Star specifications in more than a decade as home gadgets continue to suck down the juice. Photos: PC stands for power consumption

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New Energy Star ratings for PCs on the wayStandards for energy-efficient PCs are about to take a step forward for the first time in more than a decade.

The Energy Star program is set to release the first revision to the specification for PCs since 1992, which was practically the Bronze Age of the PC industry. Energy Star stickers are familiar to those who have shopped for household appliances over the last few years; it designates appliances or electronics that meet certain specifications for energy efficiency.

Due to the lag in formulating a new certification, more than 90 percent of PCs currently on the market are eligible for an Energy Star sticker. But come July, a new voluntary specification will go into effect for energy-efficient PCs and game consoles that includes new recommendations for power supply efficiency and idle power consumption.

And later this year, a similar specification update is planned for flat-screen televisions, targeting the increasing popularity of energy-hogging TVs. The idea is to encourage companies to make more energy-efficient products without imposing requirements, said Jill Abelson, a representative for the Energy Star-labeled-products program.

But the program also sheds light on the growing power bill required to run a modern household of electronic gear, not to mention the power requirements for even an average-size business. "With energy costs escalating, everybody's really on the climate bandwagon and looking at it carefully," Abelson said. "Efficiency really matters."

The new specifications for PCs are designed to distinguish the top 25 percent of all PCs as measured by energy consumption, Abelson said.

The Energy Star program--a joint project of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy--is most important to government and corporate buyers, Abelson said. The government is required to purchase Energy Star-labeled products, and corporations can receive tax breaks for purchasing Energy Star products. Plus, the power saved by using efficient products really adds up when looking across a large network of PCs, allowing those organizations to cut on power bills or expand their hardware at the same cost.

The new specification targets two areas: the power supply and the amount of power used in "idle mode," said Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist at the nonprofit National Resources Defense Council, which helped the Energy Star program come up with the technical requirements for the new specification.

To be Energy Star-compliant, PCs must now use a power supply that converts 80 percent of incoming electricity for use by the PC, Horowitz said. A mainstream power supply these days is about 70 percent efficient, he said.

The specification also now includes requirements for idle mode, defined as a system that has booted and is fully awake, but isn't running any applications. For example, to qualify for the program, a basic desktop PC must consume less than 50 watts in idle mode. PCs with multicore processors and powerful graphics processors get more leeway. A basic notebook has to consume less than 14 watts of power, while a notebook with a graphics chip has to consume less than 22 watts of power.

So why did it take so long for the Energy Star program to update the requirements? PCs have grown far more efficient since the early 1990s with advances in chipmaking technology and a shift toward notebooks that use plenty of built-in power management technology.

Part of the problem is that there is no accepted metric for power consumption, Horowitz said. "What are you going to make the computer do during that test, and how do you make sure it's not gamed?" he asked, referring to the tendency of computer companies to tweak their systems for maximum performance--not real-world conditions--in tests against competitors.

Some manufacturers might see better results when a PC is cranking away on full power, or others might want to use a more realistic situation where a user is simply browsing the Web. As a result, there's still no metric for measuring the power a PC uses when it's "on" that everyone can agree on, Horowitz said.

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