Big and powerful is passe as computers go green

The HP Firebird is among the new, eco-friendly computers that have hit the market in recent months.

Blaine Kyllo

The economic downturn has led to a surge of pragmatism, and it's true of computers, too.

Gone are the days of wanting computers to be bigger, better, faster. Computer manufacturers have recognized that consumers are more environmentally aware than ever before, and are releasing ever-greener systems.

The leading manufacturers in the U.S. are now producing computers that meet the stringent Energy Star 4.0 requirements for power efficiency, although there are still many offshore and clone computers that don't meet that standard.

The good news is that many computer companies have turned their own corporate environmental responsibility into a competitive advantage.

Apple's new unibody MacBooks, for example, have set new standards for being environmentally friendly. For example, the unibody design – the notebook computers are made from one piece of aluminum – makes the computers highly recyclable. Internally, the computers are also free from PVCs and brominated flame retardants.

The 17-inch MacBook unveiled in January was the first to use Apple's new, "revolutionary" built-in battery. The Adaptive Charging technology used for the battery provides a reported eight hours of wireless productivity and can be recharged up to 1,000 times. Longer battery life and lifespan means fewer depleted batteries being tossed into landfills.

The Portégé R600, the elite model in Toshiba's line of laptop computers, is also constructed with the environment in mind. The manufacturer restricts hazardous substances such as cadmium, mercury and lead, and the R600 uses solid state drives for a storage solution, which require less power.

In February, the R600 was named the greenest notebook in Greenpeace's second annual report on green products, a survey of electronics for which companies volunteer to have their products tested. Toshiba noted that the factory in which Portege computers are constructed "recovers and recycles waste generated during the manufacturing process, including silver, copper and tin."

The activities of Greenpeace are in part responsible for the shifting trend in computer manufacturing. In 2006 it released the first 'Guide to Greener Electronics'. Published quarterly, the guide includes comparisons of 18 top manufacturers of electronics, including computers, mobile phones, televisions, and video game consoles.

In the 'Guide', Greenpeace assesses companies policies on toxic chemicals, recycling and energy efficiency. Greenpeace claims that the 'Guide' has "helped shape policies of many electronics companies."

Technological innovations have made it possible to create greener computers while still improving performance.

The display on Apple's 17-inch MacBook Pro, which is free of mercury and arsenic, is brighter and more colourful than desktop monitors but uses up to 30 percent less energy.

The new HP Firebird computer, designed in Calgary by Voodoo, was designed with efficiencies in mind. It is a high-performance machine, but smaller, quiet, and most importantly, energy efficient.

Rahul Sood is the founder of luxury computer designer VoodooPC and is now CTO of HP's gaming division. In talking about the Firebird he said, "We took the gas-guzzling SUV and converted it into an energy efficient super car."

Sood has been predicting the death of the "over-sized, over-powered, inefficient, high-performance PC" for a few months. In a recent post on his blog, Sood wrote that "the PC with four GPUs, a 2-kilowatt power supply, 16 gigabytes of memory, and a stack of hard drives is all but a distant memory."

Last year, Sood unveiled the Blackbird 002, a super-powered, high-end PC that was the first HP computer with "Voodoo DNA". While proud of the Blackbird, Sood believes that computers of the future are about low-power and high-efficiency.

The Firebird, in contrast, "leaves out expensive, energy-intensive components that the majority of the population never fully utilizes." While most high performance PCs pull more than 1.2 kilowatts of power, the Firebird peaks out at about 233 watts, and idles at 107 watts.

Better and faster, but not necessarily bigger. Definitely more efficient.

Blaine Kyllo is a freelance contributor to whose video game column can be seen weekly in Vancouver's Georgia Straight newspaper.

Source: BC Hydro News