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PC power conservation: It's not just for notebooks anymore

Any Windows system can be set to use only as much energy as required to get the job done.

The preset power schemes in Windows XP and Vista are too generic to match your unique computing style. Creating your own custom scheme can reduce your energy bill without cutting into your work time.

All those little light-emitting diodes glowing green, blue, yellow, and every other color of the rainbow after you've shut down for the day indicate a tiny amount of power flowing down the drain. Turn off the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) or surge suppressor you've got your equipment plugged into AFTER you shut the devices down normally. When you're ready to get started the next day, turn the power protectors back on, then restart your PC and peripherals. (The same goes for all those other always-on chargers in your home and office, whether for your cell phone, power drill, or electric razor: Unplug the devices once the gadgets are fully charged.)

To tweak the power settings in XP, click Start > Run, type powercfg.cpl, and press Enter to open the Power Options Control Panel applet. The options you'll find here vary from system to system: Notebooks will likely have more settings than desktops, for example, and your PC vendor may have installed custom power schemes.

Most Windows XP systems support the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) standard for power management. To see if yours does, click Start > Run, type devmgmt.msc, press Enter, click the plus sign to the left of System devices, and look for an entry named Microsoft ACPI-Compliant System. If it's not there, your PC may support the older Intel-Microsoft Advanced Power Management (APM) API, in which case you'll have an APM tab in your Power Options Properties dialog box.

The System devices listed in Windows XP's Device Manager
Verify that your XP system supports ACPI power management by looking for this entry under System devices in Device Manager. Microsoft

Back in December I described the power-scheme options you can choose from. To create your own power scheme, simply select one, make your desired changes, click Save As, and give it a name. For example, if you know you'll be spending the day working on such low-impact activities as word processing and Web browsing, you can set the monitor to go dark at the same interval, but keep your hard disk active. Or conversely, create a scheme that shuts off the hard drive or enters hibernate quickly if you'll be working on videos, high-resolution images, or other power-hungry applications.

To switch quickly between power schemes, click the Advanced tab in Power Options Properties, check "Always show icon on the taskbar," and click OK. This adds a plug icon to desktops, and a battery icon to notebooks (though the battery icon is probably active by default on notebooks). Click the icon to view your power schemes, and select one to switch to it. Double-click the icon to open the Power Options Properties dialog box.

The options on the system tray's Power Schemes icon menu
Add your custom power scheme to the taskbar, and switch between schemes by clicking the power icon in the system tray. Microsoft

Maximize Vista's power options
The three power plans built into Vista--Balanced, Power Saver, and High Performance--can be tweaked to suit your needs, or you can create your own plan. (Note that you may have more options, or the options may be labeled differently, depending on the type of computer and the vendor.) To access the Power Options applet, press the Windows key, type powercfg.cpl, and press Enter. To edit one of the existing plans, click "Change plan settings" underneath its entry. To create a new plan, click "Create a power plan" in the left pane to open the Create a power plan wizard. Give the plan a name and click Next.

Windows Vista's Power Options dialog box
Edit one of Vista's prebuilt power plans, or create your own by clicking that option in the left pane of the Power Options applet. Microsoft

You don't get many options to choose from with either approach at first. If you're editing an existing plan, click "Change advanced power settings" to expand your choices. If you're making a plan from scratch, choose an idle time for the monitor-off and system-sleep options to kick in, and click Create. Then click Change plan settings > Change advanced power settings.

In the Advanced settings dialog box you can put a finer point on all of your power plans by selecting them one by one in the top drop-down menu, and then adjusting the categories in the window below. For example, you may want to save processor cycles by selecting the plus signs to the left of Search and Indexing > Power Savings Mode, clicking the current setting to activate the drop-down menu, and selecting Power Saver. When you've finished adjusting the various plan categories, click OK > Save Changes, and exit the Power Options applet.

Windows Vista's Advanced Power Options dialog box
Customize your power plans via Vista's Advanced Power Options dialog box. Microsoft

Unfortunately, you can't add a power icon to Vista's system tray as you can in XP, although Vista notebooks have a battery icon in the system tray by default. Clicking the icon displays options for opening the Power Options applet, the Windows Mobility Center, or a help page on conserving power. On Vista desktops you have to open the Power Options applet manually to switch between plans.

Tomorrow: tweak your browser's security settings.