Latest Game Consoles: Environmental Winners or Losers?
1/28/2021: This blog has been updated to correct a prior typo and reflect that NRDC modeling shows Xbox’s “instant on” feature could cost U.S. gamers an extra $500 million in electricity bills through 2025.
The latest Xbox and PlayStation gaming consoles are out, and NRDC’s initial testing indicates their annual energy will likely increase in most cases, depending on how the user sets them up and operates them. However, the electricity consumption would be even higher if there had not been a lot of work by the engineering teams at Microsoft and Sony to improve the efficiency of the new models.
NRDC measured the power consumed by these consoles while playing a game, streaming video, and when not being actively used and found:
- When playing the latest games, the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 consoles draw between 160 and 200-plus watts of electricity, which is higher than earlier generation consoles. That’s more power than the huge 60-inch TV it might be connected to uses! The good news is that these consoles draw significantly lower power levels when playing games designed for older consoles and are backward compatible. The entry-level Xbox Series S drew lower power levels during game play than the other three new consoles.
- While Microsoft’s new Xbox is capable of drawing less than 1 watt with its “energy saving” setting selected, they ship their units with “instant on” highlighted instead. (Note this only saves the user 5 to 10 seconds when they restart their console.) NRDC modeling shows this one seemingly inconsequential decision by Microsoft could result in the equivalent of one large (500 MW) coal-burning power plant’s worth of annual electricity generation and cost new U.S. Xbox owners more than $500 million on their electricity bills over the next five years.
- All of these new consoles make it extremely easy and convenient to stream video from preloaded apps like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu, which can significantly increase the console’s hours of use and energy use. While streaming videos, these consoles can draw 10 to 25 times more electricity than using streaming devices to watch the same show.
Streaming on Your Console Uses Lots of Energy
These new consoles make it extremely easy to switch from playing games to streaming a show via a preloaded app without the need to use a TV remote control to change the TV’s “input” or “source.” With a couple of very intuitive clicks on the gaming controller, a user can choose an app, select and begin watching a show like the “Great British Baking Show,” and then easily return to their game.
This may save a few seconds, but the console will draw between 30 and 70 watts—about 10 to 25 times more power than a streaming device like Apple TV, Roku box, or Amazon Fire Stick to watch the same show. We have repeatedly urged Sony and Microsoft to include a dedicated low-power chip for video playback in their consoles, and this request is even more important today given the potential for long hours of “binge watching” via the console.
Our testing showed:
- Xbox Series S – This console consumed around 31 watts to stream a show on Netflix and around 41 watts on Amazon Prime. We were unable to account for the roughly 10-watt difference. (Note: We couldn’t obtain and test the more powerful Xbox Series X, which we understand might draw 40 to 53 watts while streaming, depending on the show’s resolution.)
- PS5 – The PS5 (both the digital and disc models) drew between 68 and 70 watts for shows streamed from Amazon Prime and Netflix.
In addition, if the user does not take the extra step of turning off the console after switching off the TV, the consoles continue to draw power at these high levels for an hour or more. More on that later.
Settings Really Matter
To their credit, both the Xbox Series S/X and PS5 consoles were designed to consume very low levels of power when not in use (referred to as standby or rest mode) and are shipped with “auto power down” enabled (this hasn’t always been the case). In addition, both console families have standby power levels of 1 watt or lower, with the ability to quickly restart and return to one’s place in a game or movie. This functionality has been made possible thanks to solid-state drives, which allow quick access to saved games and fast resume times. While in standby mode, these devices periodically wake to check for game or software updates, download them, and then return to their low-power standby mode.
Unfortunately, Microsoft retained its legacy settings of “instant on” and “energy savings” and ships consoles to the United States and everywhere except Europe with instant on shown as the initial choice. (The consoles continue to be shipped to Europe with “energy savings” selected in order to comply with local efficiency requirements.) Here are the results of our testing of the Xbox Series S console.
“Instant On” Setting
“Energy Savings” Setting
10 to 15 seconds
9 to 10 watts
< 1 watt
Ability to Check for and Wake for Updates?
We expect the Xbox Series X will use a few more watts of standby power than the Series S console when instant on is selected.
This screen shot shows the choices the user sees when first setting up their Xbox console. Notice that the instant on option is pre-selected. As a result, most users will likely accept that choice, rather than change it. Given that there is very minimal user benefit from instant on, it’s surprising that Microsoft—which publicly announced that “by 2030 Microsoft will be carbon negative… and launch an initiative around the world to help their suppliers and customers reduce their carbon footprints”—does not ship its consoles with the energy savings option enabled by default (and perhaps remove the “instant on” choice during the initial set-up). Such a change could happen almost overnight with just a few lines of new code.
We ran the numbers and the environmental harm relative to user benefit is off the charts. Based on modelling we performed with the assumption that two-thirds of users select the default instant on setting, the Xbox Series S/X consoles are poised to waste almost 4 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in the U.S. alone through the end of 2025 when in standby mode and NOT being used. This extra energy use translates roughly to:
- The equivalent amount of electricity generated in one year by a large (500 MW) coal-burning power plant
- Around $500 million in extra utility bills for new Xbox console owners
- Approximately 3 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions
Given those numbers, our hope is that most users would be willing to wait an extra 5 to 10 seconds for their console to restart if they knew the impact.
Microsoft did, however, do an excellent job designing how its consoles automatically go into the low-power standby mode. The Xbox we tested was set by default to auto power down after 1 hour of inactivity but was somehow smart enough not to stop in the middle of a two-hour movie and power down to standby. Instead the movie played to completion and the console's clock to power down after an hour of user inactivity was automatically reset, resulting in a good user experience.
With one exception, Sony did a good job in designing its standby setting called “rest mode.” The PS5s we measured used 1 watt or less in standby and woke up within around 10 to 15 seconds after the user returned. The PS5 controller comes with rechargeable batteries and a USB cable that connects to the console for recharging. It uses a few extra watts of standby power to keep the USB ports ready for charging the controller’s batteries for 3 hours and then goes down to 1 watt or less. This appears to be an environmentally preferable approach overall than the Xbox, which ships with disposable batteries that will require periodic replacement.
Sony ships its consoles to power down after one hour of gaming inactivity and four hours of inactivity during video playback. These numbers seem right for the PS5 as it is not currently capable of knowing when a movie or show is over and would automatically power down during many movies if it too were set to 1 hour, like the Xbox. As a result, however, the PS5 continues to draw around 70 watts or so for the remaining portion of four hours since the show ended unless the user remembers to power down their game console when they turn off their TV. We encourage Sony to investigate engineering solutions that can shorten the time period until an inactive console enters its low power standby mode during media playback, as Microsoft already has, while maintaining a good user experience.
Nonetheless, we urge users of either console to avoid deselecting the auto power down feature and not to choose, for example, the Don’t Put in Rest Mode option as shown below for the PS5, and similar choice for Xboxes. If you are not in the habit of turning off your console when you are done and have disabled auto power down, your console will continue to perpetually chug away at somewhere between 30 and as high as 200 watts (if you had been playing a game designed for the PS5 or Xbox X) depending on the console and what you were last doing, which can really add up.
Game Play Power Use – All Over the Map
While it’s certainly fun, testing energy consumption during game play is quite complicated and a function of several factors, including the generation of the game (e.g., is it designed for the newest consoles or earlier versions), TV resolution, the game itself, and how it is played (what level was reached, was there a lot of shooting or fast driving, etc.). As such, we only conducted basic and preliminary testing and found:
- Game play power for PS5 varied greatly. Playing the disc version of NHL 2021, which was designed for the PS4, drew between the low 80s and 104 watts, depending on your ability and the TV’s resolution (Thanks to my friend SH for lending me his son and TV for this testing). The PS5 came with Astro’s Playhouse preinstalled. It used power levels between the low 180s and just over 200 watts during game play for both the PS5 digital and PS5 disc consoles.
- Games for Xbox Series S (downloaded from Microsoft Game Pass) used around 53 to 57 watts (games played included Moto GP20, Descenders, and Call of the Sea). Although we didn’t have access to Xbox Series X consoles, others including CNET reported power levels around 200 watts when playing the latest games.
Per conversations with the manufacturers, it seems that older games played on the new consoles will draw significantly less power than new games that are designed to utilize the additional computing power and advanced graphic cards in the new consoles. The lower power use from older games is the result of power-scaling chips used by both manufacturers.
The approximately 200-watt power levels we expect for new games represents a significant increase from prior generation consoles.
Final Suggestions for Manufacturers
We respectfully recommend Microsoft and Sony: a) make further improvements in implementation of auto power down and standby modes to reduce overall annual console energy use; and b) incorporate a discrete, low-power chip for video playback. We also encourage them to conduct field studies to measure current user behavior (how many hours per day do they play games and stream movies; what percentage disable auto power down, etc.) and use this information to generate a public-facing report on national game console energy use, which hopefully will drive future energy reductions and carbon savings. Such a study should also take into account the energy and related carbon emissions caused by the increasingly popular cloud-based gaming, where much of the computing is happening off-site in energy intensive data centers.