Will Microsoft Do Enough to Make Sure Xbox Ones Don't Waste $250 Million Of Electricity Annually?

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Although Microsoft just announced it will issue a software update to the Xbox One that will allow U.S. gamers to choose the energy-saving option when they first set up their console, it's too early to know whether this will really end the $250 million worth of annual electricity waste due to be caused by the Instant-on feature.

The Xbox One uses 12.5 watts of power when it is in the Instant-on "sleep" (or "standby") mode, primarily because it's always listening to hear you say "Xbox On!" even if you may be asleep or away from home. The only way to change this is to go deep into the Settings menu and to select the Energy-saving mode, which few users will do as they are probably unaware of this option. We posted a blog highlighting this issue earlier this month and the media noticed, which apparently got Microsoft's attention.

In fact, Microsoft just published its own blog saying it intends to issue an update in the near future that will give users the option of selecting the Energy-saving mode the first time they set up their console. This is great news and Microsoft has already scored lots of credit from the gaming press for this, but -- depending on the company's final actions -- it may be premature to conclude that this will result in the desired energy savings and also avoid the associated pollution. Here's why:

Take a look at this screen shot from the Microsoft blog of their proposed user interface.

With this design, most users are likely to select the Instant-on mode because of the negative language such as "Slower start-up time" and "Get interrupted for updates" used to describe the Energy-saving mode. It's also unclear whether Microsoft will ship its new consoles with the Instant-on feature already highlighted as shown above, which would require an extra step to choose energy savings instead.

What's not being said

You'll note that there's no mention of the respective standby power levels for the options: less than 1 watt for Energy-saving mode and 12.5 watts for Instant-on, which translates to an extra $33 to $75 (depending where you live) of electricity use over the typical five year life of a console, which is enough to buy an extra game or two.

Armed with that information and the knowledge that updates are not that frequent and that you can choose to download game updates at a later time, would likely result in a lot more people selecting the Energy-saving option. And that would mean a lot less climate change pollution being emitted from generating the extra electricity wasted to power these devices when they're NOT being used.

Microsoft's blog posting also neglects to mention the main reason why the Xbox One uses so much power when it's not being used: the always-on voice recognition feature. This one feature is responsible for roughly 40% of the consoles total annual electricity usage.

What do we want Microsoft to Do?

Our respectful requests to Microsoft to reduce the Xbox One energy use include:

Near Term:

  1. Offer gamers the option to select the Energy-saving setting during initial set up as just announced by the company
  2. Provide neutral text to describe the Energy-saving and Instant-on options, and
  3. If users don't make a selection, default to the Energy-saving setting.

Longer Term:

Bring down the standby power use to 1 watt with quick resume, putting it on a par with laptops, the Nintendo Wii U game console, cell phones and tablets that have implemented such solutions and have fast resume times. (Today, the Xbox One takes up to 10 seconds to resume with Instant-on and around 45 seconds more when the Energy-Saving option is selected.) We recognize this will require software and hardware changes and take longer than the simple settings and user interface changes recommended above.

What does it take to achieve the desired low power, quick wake functionality and have others achieved that yet? There are numerous examples of existing consumer electronics products that provide a quick start or instant-on type of capability for 1 watt or less of power. Let's look at the key challenges one at a time and how they've been addressed.

  • Instant on/quick wake with low power use (<1 watt) - Most laptops, including those running Microsoft's signature operating system Windows, use 1 watt or less when in deep sleep and are able to wake in less than 10 seconds to full functionality, the same amount of time it takes the Xbox One. Tablets and cell phones use even less.
  • Recognizing voice commands -The Xbox's voice recognition feature should only be drawing power when necessary, e.g. when the console is being used. The Amazon Fire TV media player also features 24/7 voice command, but it only uses a total of around 2.5 watts, thanks to a different approach: it only listens when you press a button on the remote control. When you do, it is instantly in voice command mode with no noticeable delay. Why can't Microsoft do the same? Another approach could be to add a motion sensor and to use it to auto-power down from listening mode to low-power sleep mode when no one is in the room. The Xbox design team could probably come up with other options if it was asked to.
  • Performing background software updates - With today's technology, there is no reason for a device to be drawing 12.5 watts 24/7 just so it can be ready to receive and install an update. If your cell phone or tablet operated this way, the battery would run out of power almost immediately. These devices receive notifications that updates are available for downloading, often in the background while the device is in use. Microsoft's competitor Nintendo provides an elegant and effective solution whereby its Wii U game console automatically wakes for a few seconds hourly to check for updates. If an update exists, it downloads and installs it and then goes back to sleep at less than 1 watt. This results in a trivial amount of energy spent for background updates compared to Microsoft's current energy-guzzling approach. Another reference point is Sony's PlayStation 4 which currently uses less than 3 watts when in sleep mode, restarts within 20 seconds, and automatically downloads and installs updates while asleep. We have focused so much on the Xbox's Instant-on feature as it causes it to use more energy per year overall than the PS 4, even though the PS 4 uses more power during game play. Through other forums NRDC continues to seek reductions in the PS 4's on mode power use via die shrink and other opportunities.

We are thrilled that Microsoft's talented engineers are now hard at work trying to develop user- friendly, energy-saving solutions to these issues and are optimistic the results will be consistent with the company's historic leadership position on environmental sustainability. We'll report back on the results.