Computers - is there a Greener Way?

I must confess that I'm a Microsoft Windows user - through and through. I've spent time and energy getting competent with their inner workings, and, by all accounts, have achieved that Zen enlightenment that has made me master of my own computing experience.

Computers - give them a break!

I'm not, however, without a few complaints. Having been a PC support engineer in a previous life, I've seen a few computers, and a few upgrades. The most annoying aspect that plagues the PC kingdom is that not long after a hardware upgrade or full computer replacement, your PC can be almost as slow as it was before you shelled out your hard-earned dollars! I'm talking about well-optimised machines here, properly installed well-configured beasties - not those 25-items-running-in-the-background type deals you get when the average home-user opts to set up his own machine. I can say from my own observations, that post new-computer depression is possibly an under-recognised psychological malady afflicting many a PC user around the world!

For those that have experienced this depression, and want to know the cause - it's something called 'software', or, more to the point, 'bloated software'. More and more features, new 'bells and whistles', some you'll use, many you won't, millions and billions of colours, gradients, sounds, etc. - they all combine to take up much of the slack you thought you'd gained by springing for the latest motherboard and processor. Software doesn't need to be as bloated as it is, and there are a few reasons why it's so, but there's a chain reaction of consumer purchasing here that we would do well to understand - as the environmental costs of this cycle are huge.

Piles of circuit boards, not exactly bio-degradable
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says American consumers generated nearly 2 million tons of electronic waste in 2005. Gartner estimates that 133,000 PCs are discarded by U.S. homes and businesses each day. - MSNBC A study says making the average PC requires 10 times the weight of the product in chemicals and fossil fuels. Many of the chemicals are toxic, while the use of fossil fuels help contribute to global warming. And the short lifetime of today's IT equipment leads to mountains of waste, the UN University report says. ... As computers become smaller and more energy-efficient, their environmental burden might be expected to decrease - but the study suggests that the opposite is happening. It found that manufacturing a 24kg PC with monitor needs at least 240kg of fossil fuels to provide the energy, and 22kg of chemicals. Add to that, 1.5 tonnes of water, and your desktop system has used up the weight of a sports utility vehicle in materials before it even leaves the factory. Compare this with cars or refrigerators, which use only between one and two times their weight in fossil fuels, and it is clear that making more than 130 million computers worldwide has a significant impact. - BBC

Recognising that bloated software and the perceived need for the latest version number is the biggest cause of hardware upgrades, it'd be good to consider the following practical questions: "What will the new software enable me to do that I can't do now?" and "Is it really that important?". Also, if you haven't already invested heavily in a Microsoft Windows learning curve, or if you have the time and enthusiasm to get familiar with other operating systems, consider a greener option:

A computer dump in beautiful Asia
"A typical hardware refresh period for Microsoft Windows is 3-4 years. A major UK manufacturing organisation quotes its hardware refresh period for Linux systems as 6-8 years." A significant difference...a doubling even, of the lifetime of a computer. Thus, a world using Linux would be a world with half the computer waste... A widespread switch to Linux could prevent millions of tons of waste from going into landfills. Every computer not needed would prevent the use of 240 kg of fossil fuels. Spread that out over the 17.5 million computers that wouldn't be going obsolete every year and Linux could deliver the world a much more sustainable future. The good news is, the world looks like it's increasingly ready to upgrade from Windows. Most of Asia has switched, as least in part, to Open Source Software (OSS)... Cuba has reported a 500 percent increase in Linux installation in two years..... Big Blue is giving a specific tutorial to switch from Windows to Linux, and two out of three Dell customers are now demanding that The Bird be pre-installed. Many versions of Linux will run on a Pentium 1 with 128MB of RAM, while Slackware can run on a 486. It's also generally free, and available for download, so there's no packaging or shipping associated. Linux, it turns out, is far and away the most green way to run your home computer system. And, these days, it's as simple, as usable, and almost as pretty, as OSX or Vista anyhow. - Ecogeek

While the world is getting concerned about the environment, and considering the above facts, what is Microsoft doing about it anyway?

Bill Gates in 1984, back in the days when an OS would fit on two of those low-capacity disks
Vista Bloats Up Windows Vista is big for Microsoft's bottom line. It's also really big. ... Vista's magnitude is one reason for skepticism. It's Microsoft's largest, most complex operating system ever, and upgrading from the current version, Windows XP, is a big step. Corporate information technology departments have to figure out whether it's worth the return on investment to test, purchase, install and support the new version. And many will have to update their computer hardware just to meet Vista's recommended setup. ... Vista, which will go on sale to consumers on Jan. 30, 2007, needs 1 gigabyte of memory to tile through its three-dimensional effects--4000 times the memory required for Windows 1.0. Vista also requires 15 gigabytes of free hard drive space. - Forbes

Yet another case against monopolies. If you really must upgrade your computer - look carefully at what software you buy, if any, to go with it. Don't assume you need the latest operating system, or Office suite. By using the software you currently own, you will make a far greater gain in computing speed and will save money in addition. The resulting computer will consume less energy, as its processor won't have to work as hard and will accomplish tasks faster - and you'll find the more enjoyable computing experience will enable you to postpone subsequent upgrades for a lot longer. Heck, you might even find some time to get outside and enjoy a real 'vista'.

Windows Vista - the irony is perhaps lost on Microsoft

In fact, given the environmental consequences associated with the short life span of our machines, it'd be good to consider if we're exchanging a beautiful natural vista for this commercialised plastic version. While our computing experience is getting increasingly 3D and lifelike, our actual world is becoming more and more unnatural. I really don't want to have to see what Earth 2.0 looks like - it'd be nice to return to an earlier version instead. Oh, and don't worry about Mr. Gates - he won't starve.

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  • Posted on March 19, 2007. Listed in:

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