Let's admit it.
You want to build or buy a Green Beast, but it's not always easy to figure out what the best component choices are. And then there are those sandbaggers whining that it's too expensive to save any energy. Don't give up! First off, there are specs and tweaks you can make to your rig without opening your wallet.
Even when spec'ing new gear, you don't always have to pay more to save energy. It is not hard to find a graphics card, for example, with higher performance and lower energy use than a more expensive competitor! That said, sure, sometimes a more efficient equivalent part will cost more. The market is ever-changing--but our original study will you a sense of the WIDE range of efficiencies that you'll find among commercially available components. Choosing wisely among all the options can green your beast without costing more up front or compromising performance ... and your operating costs will be way lower. Otherwise, run the numbers and decide if your money comes back fast enough. Don't forget that for every dollar worth of electricity you save in your rig, you'll be saving maybe 1/3rd more in air-conditioning costs in hot climates.
AND, a more energy-efficient rig is invariably quieter and runs cooler, letting you focus on what's important and ensuring a long life for your valuable components.
NEWS YOU CAN USE FROM LATEST RESEARCH PROJECT
We’ve wrapped up a multi-year research project on gaming energy use, sponsored by the California Energy Commission. More about that here. We established a whole lab for doing testing, and bought or built a total of 26 systems representing the full spectrum of rigs that people game on. We looked at desktop PCs, laptops, consoles, and media-streaming devices (like the Nvidia Shield). We tested systems with a variety of 2D displays, as well as VR and looked at emerging trends like cloud gaming.
We found that a ton of energy is used for gaming. In California it adds up to about 4 trillion watt hours per year of electricity, valued about about $700 million. For context, this is 5% of all residential energy use, and almost 20% of all miscellaneous uses (plug loads aside from major uses such as heating, cooling, water heating). It's more energy than that used for electric clothes drying, dishwashing, freezers, or room air conditioners.
Here are some of the main practical takeaways for gamers.
CHOOSE GEAR WISELY
- Across all platform types, energy use varies widely across different types of gaming systems: from 5 kWh/year to 1200 kWh/year depending on the system chosen.
- Depending you your system choice, the price paid for electricity, and the intensity of gaming, annual costs can range from $5 for a power-sipping Nintendo Switch and a user who doesn't game much to about $400 every year for a high-end desktop system run by an extreme gamer. Costs can be way higher for tricked-out systems.
- Desktops tend to use more than laptops, but there’s overlap.
- Consoles generally use less energy than desktops and laptops (but not always).
- We found no correlation between higher power use and higher frame rates.
- External GPU docks can increase energy use by 3-fold, depending on the base system.
- Energy-efficient gear can use about half as much energy as typical gear, without compromising performance, and there are extra benefits like quieter and cooler operating temperatures for your components.
- Specify motherboards with switch-level controls (for empty slots), low power-delivery losses, power-connector quality.
- Power supply choice makes a big difference. We found about 13% total energy savings by switching from typical to Platinum PSUs. We also found that PSUs shipped with the systems we tested were oversized by a factor of three on average compared to peak power requirements under the Firestrike stress-test benchmark.
- Go for fan-less PSUs or PSUs with a controlled fan curve (e.g., ones that have a "0db" fan mode). Enjoyer quieter operation as well.
- Look for variable speed control as function of multiple internal temperature sensor signals (M-Cubed T-Balancer Big NG). With the use of programs like Afterburner GPU users can specify desired fan speeds as a function of temperature.
- Across the 26 systems we've tested we found a large variation in the ratio of power use while in active mode to that while on but idle mode. High ratios indicate that power management is effective; less power should be needed when the system isn't working. A couple of the consoles show virtually no difference in power use between the two modes, while others use nearly 2-times as much power while in active mode. The ratio for desktops ranges from about 1.3 to 4x, while that for laptops ranges from 2.4 to 6x. The problem for buyers is that this information isn't readily available at the point of sale, but do ask for it or seek out measurements by third parties.
- Avoid bottlenecks: DIY machines often end up with over-spec'd GPUs that their CPU or display can't even take full advantage of. Right-size components to work together.
CHOICE OF DISPLAY FOR (TELEVISION FOR CONSOLES) MATTERS
- Energy use by different displays varies extremely widely - look at the Energy Star listing before purchasing. In some cases, the display can use more energy than the gaming system.
- The display ALSO alters the amount of energy used by the PC itself. In particular, we found that 4k displays can increase PC power by more than 50%, and in many cases you’re going to get significantly lower frame rates as a result.
CONSIDER YOUR SETTINGS
- In the course of our testing, we looked at changes in energy use as a function of thirteen different in-game settings (anti-aliasing, tesselation, shadow matching, color saturation, depth of field, etc.) during active gameplay, using the Fire Strike benchmark on our mid-range "M2" and high-end "H2" systems. Many settings 5% to 10% reduction in energy use, but some a good deal more.
- Vertical sync was the stand-out exception, saving 18% on one system and a whopping 46% on the another.
- Our tests of shaders on Minecraft resulted in a 36% increase in power use in gameplay.
- CPU Over- or under-clocking makes a big difference in energy use: increasing by almost 40% or decreasing by about 25% in our tests.
- Choose the most efficient anti-aliasing algorithm available (MFAA or similar).
- Keep your drivers up to date. Running many newer games can use less power after a few driver optimizations.
- If time is too precious to shut your system down when you're not using it, or even put it to sleep, at least put your display to sleep when you're away.
- Explore the power-management features in your OS.
- Some GPU settings (e.g., AMD Catalyst or NVIDIA Control Panel) allow you to set a "performance" or "adaptive" power setting. Most games can have FPS set to a level of your choosing (say 60 FPS max). This allows your GPU to work less hard, especially in older games - without the difference being visible! For example: Civ 5 can make your GPU render the menu screen at several thousand FPS if you let it.
- The U.S. EPA offers a set of no-cost power management recommendations for console users. Check those out here.
- PCs and consoles use a lot of power when idle, and most “leak” power even when off. Power down, if you can, when not in use.
- The majority of games - especially with first-person or role-playing style games - game play is structurally designed with “Save Points” to lock in progress and scoring. As result, gamers may simply load up a game menu, to pause gameplay. Unfortunately, while in this state, the gaming system is often drawing full power since the system is in Active Mode (this is more true for Consoles than Gaming PCs). Gamers may leave their system in this state for long periods for restroom breaks, food breaks, etc. In 2014, PS4 introduced a "Keep applications suspended“ functionality within standy mode. This is a good step in the right direction but doesn’t seem to be
- universally functional on all games, needs to user initiated, nor has it been implemented on other console platforms.
- If your VR system has externally powered sensors, turn them off or unplug them when not in play. We found that one popular system drew 14 watts when on. If left on for a whole year, this would add up to as much as 140 kWh/year (or $50 if your power is expensive).
ENERGY USE VARIES X GAME
- We found that energy use for a given system varied by 3.5-X depending on game chosen for PCs and 1.6-X for consoles.
- We found that energy use for a given game can vary by 20-X depending on which system it’s played on.
- In our tests, energy use wasn’t particularly lower for “simpler” games like SIMS, and didn’t vary by genre.
YOUR RIG USES ENERGY WHEN IN NON-GAMING MODES, TOO
- We found that on average only about ¼ of the typical gaming PC’s energy is used while actually gaming. The rest is while streaming, browsing, and idle. Idle mode is actually about as much energy as gaming mode for average gamers.
- That said, for the more intense gamers on the higher-powered systems, ¾ of all energy use can occur during gameplay.
- Some systems don’t use a whole lot less energy when in non-gaming mode, so rather than letting your system sit idle for long periods, turn it off until you’re ready to use it.
- Hunt down those powered slots on your motherboard with nothing plugged into them. Some motherboards allow the user to disable components not in use (e.g., HDMI, PCI-E slots, RAM Slots, or SATA ports).
- Some case fans can be powered down when not needed if you adjust the fan curves in the BIOS
SOME OF YOUR GAMING ENERGY USE HAPPENS IN THE INTERNET
- While cloud gaming might look like it uses less energy locally (e.g., on your NVIDIA Shield) it uses more than most high-powered PCs in the supporting Internet infrastructure and the data centers you’re connected to.
- We found that desktops used 40 to 60% more energy while cloud gaming, laptops 120 to 300$, and consoles 30 to 200%.
- Energy (but less energy) is also used while downloading/updating games, playing multiplayer games, and watching ESports.
- Energy use also happens in the internet while streaming content using the gaming system.