Climate change is reshaping the globe. From record-setting heat, to glacial retreat, to unprecedented sea level rise and ocean acidification, we’re already suffering the consequences of humanity’s carbon addiction.
And video game consoles contribute to that.
Sure, you know that. After all, everything electronic — from the laptop I type this on, to the device you read it with, to the air conditioning that cools my office contributes to our carbon footprint. Given that, is it really worth it to nitpick how much energy videogames consume?
It turns out, yes. While game consoles don’t have near the footprint of air conditioning or dryers, a console running at peak power drains surprising amounts of electricity. Current-era game consoles are high-performance machines, and require a power supply to match — power that likely originates at a carbon-belching power plant.
“Per our own measurements two years ago, the PS4 used roughly 180 [kilowatt hours per year] and the Xbox One 230 [kilowatt hours per year],” says Pierre Delforge, the Director of the High Tech Energy Efficiency, Energy & Transportation Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). While both Microsoft and Sony have made improvements since the NRDC’s 2014 report, they still fall somewhere in the 150-200 kilowatt range. “This places them at roughly double the annual consumption of an ENERGY STAR 50-inch flat screen TV, and half that of an ENERGY STAR refrigerator.”
That’s a lot of energy — so much that in 2014 the NRDC predicted that the Xbox One and PS4 would cost Americans $1 billion in energy bills each year. The annual power consumption of all current-gen consoles — which clocks in at 10-11 billion kilowatt-hours — could power Houston for a year. Think about that — in America, video game consoles use about as much energy as a city of 2.2 million.
Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. Sure, modern consoles are power vampires of the first order, but a lot of that power goes toward non-essential functions you can curtail with the proper settings. In fact, you can significantly cut a console’s power consumption without limiting its gameplay performance.
Here are a few things you can do to make your console greener, saving both money and something much more important.
For Xbox One users
Despite Microsoft’s pledge to go carbon neutral, an out-of-the-box Xbox One ranks as the most energy inefficient console on the market. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Tweak a few settings and Microsoft’s behemoth can cut its power needs by 50%.
Stop Your Xbox One From Being an Undead Power Vampire
The Xbox One sold itself on voice recognition — the Star Trek fantasy of powering up your system with your voice. It’s a great sales pitch, a comprehensible future-tech milestone demonstrating that the Xbox One is a futuristic, top-of-the-line product.
But that convenience comes at a cost. Getting the Xbox to spring to life like that means the device is never really turned off — it sits dead and quiet, ready to arise from its slumber at the incantation of “Xbox on.” This “Instant-on” feature turns the Xbox into an undead vampire haunting your living room, sucking up 12.5-kilowatt hours even when you’re in bed, at work, or away on a trip.
That adds up. In fact, just disabling the “Instant On” feature cuts your Xbox One’s power intake by up to 40%.
If you live in Europe, you’re ahead of the game — European consoles come with the feature deactivated by default, with the owner choosing to switch it on during setup. But live anywhere else and it requires menu diving.
Here’s how to do it:
- From the Home Menu, go to Settings.
- Select All Settings and scroll down to Power & startup.
- Select Power mode & startup, and when it opens, use the drop-down menu to change Power mode from Instant-on to Energy-saving.
- While you’re here, you can also make sure your Turn off after is set to its lowest amount of time offered (currently one hour).
Energy-saving mode also disables automatic update downloads but the results are worth it — and you’ll even save some money.
Under average usage, Delforge says these modifications can save consumers between $100-200 of electricity bills during the five-year life cycle of the console. In extreme cases, when the box is on almost 24/7, it could save from $300-800 depending on electricity rates. “In those worst case situations,” Delforge says, “energy efficiency actions by the user can more than pay for the console over its lifetime.”
But more than money, it keeps unnecessary pollutants out of our air. This isn’t small stuff — to offset the carbon spewed out by Instant-on, we’d need to plant 40 million trees each year. The in-menu option seems a lot easier.
Kill the Kinect
Look, can we be honest here? Other than video sign-ins — which I admit, is cool — very few of us actually use the Kinect. But as long as it’s plugged in, it’s staying alert and waiting for commands, staring at you like a dog hoping for table scraps. It uses up to 14 watts just sitting there, hoping you’ll love it. Consider unplugging it when it’s not in active use.
Don’t Run Cable Through Your Xbox
Do you run your cable box HDMI cable through your Xbox One? If so, you might want to remove it. While the idea of voice-commanding your TV might seem novel, Delforge warns that it’s a big investment with small return.
“It requires the Xbox One to be on just to watch TV, in which case you’re burning energy to use it as a conduit.” He points out that nothing’s wrong with using this feature if people want it, but users should realize they’re basically spending 60 watts of energy to do the same job a remote control does for less than one watt.
For Playstation 4 users
While the PS4 is overall more energy-efficient than the Xbox One, it doesn’t come out of the box optimized for saving electricity. Luckily, by adjusting how fast it shuts itself down or goes into sleep mode, you can trim the mount of fossil fuels it burns when you’re not playing it.
Customize Your PS4’s Power Saving Settings
Here’s the good news for PS4 owners: your console has easy-to-use, and customizable, energy management settings. With a few simple changes, you can adjust the time it takes for your controllers to turn off or for your whole rig to shut down. This is especially useful if you’re a parent since kids (and, let’s face it, distracted adults) will sometimes wander away leaving a console on pause.
Here’s how to do it:
- Go to the businesslike cartoon toolbox for Settings.
- Select Power Save Settings.
- Select Set Time Until PS4 Turns Off and choose a timeframe that suits you.
- Go back to the Power Save Settings menu, select Turn Off Controllers Automatically, and choose a timeframe that suits you.
- Go back, once again, to the Power Save Settings menu and select Set Functions Available in Rest Mode.
- Select Supply Power to USB Ports and set a time limit.
With these settings, both controllers and the entire console will switch off after sitting idle for the selected amount of time. It also ensures that the USB ports won’t keep charging peripherals long after you’ve walked away. What’s especially great about this option is that you can get really choosy with it — if 20 minutes aren’t enough, go for 30 — whereas the Xbox One makes you choose between “1 hour” and “never.” The shorter time limits you set, the more you’ll save.
For everyone with a console
And of course, there are things everyone can do.
Consoles Are Atrocious at Streaming Media — Don’t Do It
One paradox of this console generation is that these machines — the Xbox One in particular — were pitched to us as all-in-one media platforms. You were supposed to have all your entertainment options in one hub, ready at your beck and call.
But it turns out consoles are highly inefficient at streaming media — especially when compared to dedicated media players like the Apple TV, Chromecast, or smart TVs. It’s way overkill — like using a forklift to dip teabags.
“Game consoles draw as much as thirty times more power to play a movie than dedicated media players,” says Delforge. If you don’t have a dedicated media player or smart TV, it’s a lot more efficient to stream using laptops and tablets.
Game discs won’t go away anytime soon — but there’s a dark side to that. It’s likely that your game collection will outlive you, your children, and your childrens’-children.
Game discs are a high-grade amalgam of plastic, metal and minerals that takes a long time to break down in a landfill. How long exactly, we’re not sure, but some estimates suggest that high-grade CDs will never fully decompose. Now, you probably think that this will never, ever happen to your prized game collection, but once you’re in the ground, your kids might not be interested in owning a 60-year-old copy of Mass Effect 2.
Improperly disposed CDs are already a massive problem, with 5.5 million boxes of software going to landfills and incinerators each year. While there are methods for recycling CDs, consumers tend not to use these free services (use them!).
Add in the environmental impact of plastic cases, printed box art, shipping to stores, electricity for the store or warehouse, and vehicles coughing carbon to purchase or deliver them, and digital starts to look a whole lot more eco-friendly.
Delforge says the NRDC hasn’t analyzed the literature and can’t recommend specific action, he says he hopes consumers will choose the option that appears to create less waste.
Rather than swearing off physical copies, it’s probably better to be judicious about which games you buy physically. Is it really a keeper? Really?
Press Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo on Energy Efficiency
And of course, since we’re (already!) on the cusp of a new console generation, there’s no better time to let companies know that energy efficiency is a priority for consumers.
Thankfully, all three companies are already trying. Both Sony and Microsoft have made improvements to their consoles since launch. As of the last NRDC energy report in mid-2015, Microsoft had shaved its Instant-on power usage from 15.7 watts to 12.5 watts, and gave US users the chance to opt-out of Instant-on during setup (it’s still the default setting though, and text discourages you from switching). Around the same time Sony sent a software update that optimized the SoC, memory, and components integration on the motherboard, reducing power consumption by 5-10%. The Wii U was barely mentioned in this article because, frankly, it’s already an efficient little machine. Good show, Nintendo.
And innovations on the horizon, like Microsoft’s much-touted cloud gaming, may help bring down power waste. Though larger than consoles, cloud servers actually use less energy per-player. The increased processing power can handle more players while wasting less — a process Delforge compares to public transportation: “[A] train is much more efficient than single occupancy vehicles.” In addition, since cloud data centers have to pay their own energy costs, there are financial incentives to keep consumption down.
Both Microsoft and Sony even built their consoles with energy efficiency in mind, and there’s no reason to think they won’t try and do the same thing again.
At least, one hopes that’s true. Because with a new crop of consoles on the horizon and already-planned integration with new 4K televisions, the new class of consoles will be the most powerful — and energy-thirsty — ever made.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp