Entertainment devices emerging as energy hogs in homes

By Umair Irfan | 05/04/2015 08:12 AM EDT

The silent boxes that bend television schedules to your will, play video games and bring the Web into your living room are exacting a growing energy cost for the convenience.

The silent boxes that bend television schedules to your will, play video games and bring the Web into your living room are exacting a growing energy cost for the convenience.

Set-top boxes like digital video recorders and cable receivers, as well as gaming consoles, continue to hog energy — even when they are not in use — as they listen for voice commands, wait for your shows to come on or monitor the Internet for software updates. Though these devices are gradually becoming more efficient, they are also becoming more abundant, perched in more than 90 million homes in the United States.

Even when "off," set-top boxes can consume up to 45 watts. According to an assessment from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, every watt of electricity consumption adds $1 per year to utility bills on average. In many homes, entertainment boxes can be the second-largest energy user, behind air conditioning.


In 2013, the Department of Energy withdrew a proposal for developing efficiency rules for set-top boxes after manufacturers reached an agreement to develop their own standards. DOE estimated that if all set-top boxes in the United States met Energy Star standards, they would avert the equivalent of 2 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions and the new agreement would save consumers $1 billion in energy bills by 2017.

Gaming consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation, however, aren’t bound by such constraints. These devices, with every revision, pack in better hardware to play graphically intensive games and add more features to cement them as the nexus of home entertainment. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that the Xbox One, the PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo Wii U could consume 11 billion kilowatt-hours annually in the United States.

Ars Technica reported that as of last week, Microsoft had sold more than 14 million Xbox One consoles, while rival Sony had sold more than 22 million units of its PlayStation 4 competitor and Nintendo had sold more than 9 million Wii U systems.

Earlier this year, NRDC set its sights specifically on the Xbox One’s instant-on feature: When you walk into a room, you simply tell the device to turn on, and it does so within moments. But this convenience means the console — essentially a dedicated computer — is always on, forever listening for your voice.

"The real reason we believe that thing is using so much power is that it’s always on," explained Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist at NRDC, adding that the instant-on feature is responsible for 40 percent of the device’s energy use and costs users $250 million.

Can gamers flip a switch?

When asked to comment, Microsoft referred to a blog post in which it highlighted a setting change that would let users disable the instant-on feature. "While we believe Instant-on provides the best experience for our fans, we also believe in providing consumer choice which is why we offered the ‘Energy-saving’ mode," the post stated, noting that the switch could save a user up to $15 per year in electricity costs. The energy-saving mode uses less than 1 watt, while the instant-on feature uses 12.5 watts.

However, the new proposed set-up interface frames the efficient mode negatively, noting that the energy saving mode has a "Slower start-up time" and "Get[s] interrupted for updates," Horowitz observed.

"Unfortunately, [Microsoft’s] proposed fix is merely a baby step and does not adequately address the excessive amount of standby power most of their consoles will continue to use," he wrote in an email.

The push for efficiency in consoles is part of broader, seemingly opposing trends in the electronics industry for increased connectivity and increased efficiency, especially in mobile devices like phones and laptops. Many devices depend on a constant connection to the Internet but have to economize with limited power from a battery.

However, plugged-in devices don’t face the same urgent efficiency concerns, since they have energy on tap. "Staying connected to a network is a reasonable thing to want to do," said Bruce Nordman, a researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "What we need are devices that can stay on the network and be asleep most of the time."

Part of the problem arises from the fact that consumers often have no idea how much electricity their electronics use, and consequently, how much they are paying for them. Another issue is that there are no standard definitions for what a device is supposed to do when it is off or asleep.

"If you are a professional in the field like I am and somebody says ‘standby,’ you have no idea what they mean," Nordman said. "Making a user interface more consistent shouldn’t cost any money."

With such a rapid product turnover in the consumer electronics industry, efficiency regulations are too slow to keep up, so consumer pressure and energy transparency are better bets for cutting energy use in these devices.

One proposal Nordman suggested is that the cable or satellite provider should pay for the electricity used in its proprietary receivers and video recorders, giving utilities an incentive to make set-top boxes more efficient. Currently, the television service selects the device but leaves the consumer on the hook for the energy costs.

In the short term, Horowitz suggested that people should try to select the most efficient devices when possible and set them up carefully so that they don’t waste energy when they aren’t in use. "The simplest thing [consumers] should do is look for the Energy Star label," he said. "The second thing is, the settings really matter."