Are Today's Video Game Consoles Playing Games with the Environment?

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The key players in the video game industry will come together at their big annual industry meeting E3 Expo in Los Angeles on June 7-9. We at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental advocacy group, previously performed an in-depth study of the energy use of video game consoles like the Sony PlayStation 3 (PS3), Microsoft Xbox 360 and the Nintendo Wii and found some staggering results.  Most notably a high-end video game console made in 2008 would consume as much electricity each year as two new refrigerators if the consumer forgets to turn off the device when it’s not being used.

Our report served as a call to action to the industry and we are pleased to report that some good progress has been made relative to the energy efficiency of these fascinating devices.  Below is a summary of where things stand today and at the end of the article I provide you with my wish list for things I hope will be announced at the show.

50% Power Reductions Achieved During Video Game Play – When first introduced to the market, the PS3 and Xbox 360 each consumed roughly 180 Watts of power during game play.  In comparison, the Wii was a relative energy sipper as it used less than 25 Watts during game play.  Both Sony and Microsoft have worked hard to improve the energy efficiency of their products and their latest releases each consume around 90 Watts, a reduction of around 50% (see chart below). Congratulations to both of them! 

Video Game Consoles Need to Rev Down When You are Not Playing Games – Imagine sitting in your car at the traffic light, with the engine stuck at 4,000 rpm, instead of revving down to 800 rpm.  Your car would be guzzling extra gas, costing you money and polluting the environment unnecessarily. Well, current video games consoles are not very good at revving down: they use approximately 80% as much power in Menu mode, when they hardly have any graphics to process, compared to that consumed during active game play.

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Making consoles use only as much power as required by the task at hand would significantly reduce the annual energy use and electricity costs of video game consoles without any impact on their performance. Let’s rev it down!

Video Game Consoles Need to Sleep When We Sleep – Believe it or not, today’s video game consoles do not automatically go into a low power mode when no one is using them.  If you don’t turn your device off it will continue to draw near full power levels 24/7.  While today’s Xbox 360 and PS3 now ship with software that causes the device to consume very low levels of power when not in use (approximately 1 Watt), Sony and Microsoft both ship their devices with this feature DISABLED. Users need to know about this option and physically go into the menu and turn this feature on.  You can probably count on one hand how many people have done this.  It’s mind boggling that this important feature is still designed as an “opt in”, rather than shipping devices with this option enabled and allowing consumers to instead “opt out” should they want to. 

Leaving video game consoles on can also be a terrible waste of money. Depending on the year you bought your box and where you live, you might be throwing away $50 to $100 or more a year to power your box when you are not using it, like when you’re asleep, at school or at work.

Some users may leave their boxes on all the time for one of two reasons:  a) while they turn off their TV, they forget to turn off the video game console, or b) they deliberately leave it on in fear of losing their place in the game.  Fortunately most of the new games automatically save your place in the game as you go. Future games will even automatically save your settings before the device automatically powers down after extended periods of inactivity.

Video Game Consoles Consume Too Much Energy To Display Movies – One of the key selling points of the PS3 is that you can play Blu Ray discs on it.  That’s like getting a Blu Ray player for free.  Today all three consoles also allow you to stream or download movies from the internet.  While this is really cool, these companies have not yet incorporated state of the art designs to make this happen efficiently.  For example, today’s PS3 consumes more than 7 times more power to playback a movie than an energy efficient Blu Ray player (70 Watts to play Spiderman 3 disc on PS3, while it only takes 10 Watts or so on a new energy efficient Blu Ray disc player). 

OK, now for my wish list for the E3 show:

1.  Manufacturers announce that their new devices will ship with a well designed auto power down feature ASAP.  This feature will be turned on for all new devices at the factory and the industry will work to encourage users to activate similar software on their existing consoles.  This applies to Nintendo as well, and perhaps we will be positively surprised when the new Wii 2 is introduced, which may be imminent according to rumors in the trade press.

2.  Manufacturers pledge that their next generation consoles will rev down to 20-40% of maximum power use when not performing graphics-intensive tasks and down to 1 Watt or less when turned off.

3.  Game publishers continue to work closely with the console makers to implement auto save capabilities that allow users to keep their place in the game when the device is turned off and to easily restore their place in the game when they return.

4.  It takes no more than 25 Watts to play a movie on a video game console, levels much closer to todays stand alone DVD players.

5.  I get to attend the show and play lots of games of Pong, arguably one of the best early video games made.