Save power, save the planet – and save your computer, too

Myths and legends will have you believe that it is better to leave your PC running than to shut it down. In fact, modern personal computers are full of power-saving features you can enable.

On computers running Windows XP or Vista, there are many options to put your PC into several power-saving modes automatically. Each of these has its own benefits in saving power as well as wear-and-tear on your computer.

First on the list is of course, the lowly screensaver. Back when flat-panel LCD displays were but a gleam in the eye of the average consumer, a screensaver was absolutely necessary for monitors in daily use. It prevented long-term ‘burn-in’ of the phosphors on cathode-ray-tubes, or CRT, monitors. Nowadays, they are necessary only for those lucky enough to own large-panel plasma-based screens - modern flat-panel LCD-based screens have no noticeable burn-in problems.

Don’t worry: setting your monitor display to turn off automatically when not in use is very simple to do. Under the Control Panel in XP, or the Settings Tab in Vista, select Power Options. There will be a Power Schemes Tab, as well as three others including one that says ‘Hibernate’. Make sure this tab, when selected, says ‘Enable Hibernation’ - it means your PC’s motherboard supports this feature.

On the Power Schemes tab, you have two options: one for your monitor, the other for your hard drive. These settings define the idle time in minutes before the monitor or drive is turned off. As well, you can set the Standby timer and Hibernate timers (more on these in a moment) to respectively put your PC into low-power and total shutdown mode. Some newer computers will even support options to choose what mode occurs when the power button on the front of the PC is pressed - you can choose to put your computer into Hibernate mode and not simply shut down when you use the power button.

Turning off a monitor will not save as much power as shutting down the entire computer system, of course. Yet few of us want to sit through lengthy startup and shutdown procedures every time we want to use our computers. Lucky for you that Windows has two options to quickly save your current work environment and allow you to quickly restore it after powering down your computer.

The first of these options is Sleep Mode, sometimes called Standby Mode. In this mode, the central processor is turned off while the rest of the PC continues to run, fans and drives still spinning. This saves some power, as the CPU isn’t running, but the other components still are, though they too are drawing less power than under full load. Mac users have enjoyed having Sleep Mode on their computers for many years, available via the battery icon in the menu bar.

The second option, called Hibernation Mode, saves the most power as it shuts down the computer completely. All the programs and data that are running in the current memory of the computer are saved to your hard drive, and then the computer is powered down. Yet all of your open programs and files are saved just as you have left them, easily restored to that exact state at the push of the computer’s power button. The computer starts up again without needing to go through the entire OS loading procedure; instead, it restores the entire memory state that the user left it in, just as though you had only stepped away for a moment from the screen. While this may still take a minute or so, it is much faster that booting the computer from a cold start.

A word about Macs

For Mac users, a similar options exist in the form of ‘Sleep Mode’ that comes closer to matching the Windows Hibernate mode. Both are designed to save power, while leaving the computer in a near-ready-to-use state.

Which mode is best?

For those who do not like the idea of leaving their computers running unattended all day, Hibernation is the best solution. As well, users can pick up their work right where they left off. Note that while in Hibernate or Sleep mode, a computer cannot continue to download large files or run long-term programs - it is essentially turned off.

The news is good from computer manufacturers, as well: high-efficiency power supplies are appearing more and more in new computer systems. While making a power supply efficient is good for the planet, it adds about twenty dollars to the cost of a new PC at current costs. Hopefully, as more efficient power supplies become the standard, the costs will drop to the point where they will add only pennies to a new computer.

Intelligently managing your PC’s power will let you access all of its features quickly, while still enabling it to save power when not in use. In the current era of conservation, reducing power demands benefits us all in the long run - we all need to help to conserve resources that were once considered limitless. Knowledge is power, and in the cause of conservation a little is worth a lot.