Reduce your computer's carbon footprint

Save power without sacrificing performance

By Mark Carpenter

My wife and I are trying to be more environmentally conscious. We started a couple of years ago, first with a new high-efficiency furnace. Then we replaced our old car with a hybrid. We even got dozens of new canvas shopping bags (although I’m still working on remembering to bring them into the store).

Lately we’ve begun changing other things—for example, our computer usage. We both have jobs that require us to use computers nearly all day, and at home it’s more of the same. We have four home computers, which we've started to use more efficiently. Hopefully our new habits will extend the lives of our computers, do the planet a favor, and even save some money.

Hardware considerations

We have two laptops, a desktop, and a home server in our house. Most of our time is spent with the laptops, which are generally more efficient. They usually have slower processors that are designed to change speeds depending on the demands made on them, which means they use less electricity. Also, laptop hard drives are usually smaller and can run more slowly, therefore using less power.

With the server at home offering plenty of storage, and the ability to hook up a printer, the desktop is getting less and less use. In fact, most of the time it’s turned off, so we could get rid of it. Our server uses low-power "green" hard drives and a relatively low-powered processor, so I’m not too concerned having it on all the time.

We also replaced our big, clunky CRT monitors with flat-panel monitors that are more energy-efficient (and take up less space too). With the power management features on our monitors, they power up more quickly than CRT monitors, which also saves some time and energy.

Peripherals attached to a computer require additional power too. We’re saving energy by turning off or unplugging unused peripherals (like scanners) and plugging them in only when we need to use them.

To turn off (or not)

Although starting your car engine over and over again can reduce the engine life, the opposite is true with computers. Turning a computer on and off doesn't use any extra electricity, and shutting it down can actually reduce the wear on your computer’s components. Of course, turning it off altogether cuts down on electricity usage. The downside, though, is that when you want to use it again, you have to wait for it to start up.

That works all right for the desktop, which I use mostly now for playing games and occasionally putting together a photo album. But we use our laptops a lot over the course of the day, constantly opening and closing them to look up addresses, check the web for a restaurant that we’re considering, or just to check our schedules for where we’re supposed to be.

Fortunately, there are other ways to get the benefits of turning a computer off without actually doing so. By putting our computers into sleep mode, we can effectively turn them off without shutting down Windows or exiting any other programs that we have running. The whole process takes only a few seconds, but because Windows remembers what we were doing, when we wake them up, we can pick up right where we left off.

Using power plans

Now that we’re primarily using our laptops, we’re trying to maximize the performance while still getting the most out of our batteries. That’s where power plans come in.

Power plans can be really useful for helping manage battery life on your laptop. But you can also use power plans to reduce your energy usage on desktops.

Windows provides a few built-in plans to help you manage your computer's power:

  • Balanced. This option offers full performance when you need it and saves power during periods of inactivity. My wife uses this option mostly because she doesn’t mind plugging her laptop in while she’s using it and she has a hard time looking at a dimmer screen.

  • Power saver. This option saves power by reducing system performance and screen brightness. I like this plan because it gives me the most battery life. I hate to be tied down by wires, and when I use this plan, I can go for most of the day without having to plug my computer in.

In addition to the plans that come with Windows, you can create your own power plan, using one of these plans as a starting point. For more information, see Change, create, or delete a power plan (scheme). Also, your computer manufacturer might provide additional power plans.

Other energy saving devices

Now that we’re using our computers more wisely, there are some other devices that we’re looking at to help us be more efficient. From using smart power strips that monitor energy use and cut power to devices that are turned off, to replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents, there’s plenty of work left for us to do.

About the author

Picture of columnist Mark Carpenter

Mark Carpenter is a writer on the Windows team at Microsoft. He spent his first six years at Microsoft working on documentation for the Macintosh product group. He's enjoyed the past two years seeing how the other half lives.

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