Streaming shows through the latest Xbox or PlayStation uses 10 to 25 times more energy than a dedicated streaming device, according to a report published earlier this year by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The paper also suggested areas where the Xbox Series S/X and PlayStation 5 could improve in terms of saving energy, as well as settings players can adjust to conserve power while the console is in rest mode. There was also good news for the manufacturers — the energy efficiency of both companies’ machines in standby mode were an improvement compared to the last console generation.
The findings follow previous tests conducted by the environmental advocacy group on earlier consoles such as the Xbox One and PlayStation 3.
Burning watts through streaming
The NRDC ran tests and measurements to figure out how much energy each console drains while users play games, stream shows, and go on standby. The tests showed that the most energy-burning activity was streaming; the Xbox Series S used about 31 to 41 watts to stream Netflix or Amazon Prime, the Xbox Series X reportedly used 40 to 53 watts depending on the stream resolution, and the PlayStation 5 burned 68 to 70 watts for Netflix and Amazon Prime. This was over 10 times the amount of energy dedicated streaming devices (such as the Amazon Fire Stick, Roku, or Apple TV) used for streaming.
The reason for this big drain on energy is because the latest consoles — despite becoming do-it-all entertainment devices over the years — aren’t exactly the most energy-optimized for streaming.
“We have repeatedly urged Sony and Microsoft to include a dedicated low-power chip for video playback in their consoles,” wrote Noah Horowitz, director of the NRDC’s Center for Energy Efficient Standards, “and this request is even more important today given the potential for long hours of ‘binge watching’ via the console.”
Energy efficiency and gaming
When it comes to energy usage while playing video games, consoles are all over the place. The amount of energy burned can depend on what TV you’re using, the type of video game you’re playing, and how long each play session lasts. There’s a lot of variables that make it difficult to figure out the carbon footprint of the average console gamer, wrote Jackson Ryan in a CNET report on energy efficiency and game consoles. What analysts do know, however, is that the overall carbon footprint of gaming can become a massive issue.
“An hour of play in Spider-Man: Miles Morales is equivalent to charging your smartphone 18 times,” Ryan wrote. That already seems like an awful lot of energy, but the example doesn’t stop there. Miles Morales takes approximately 15 hours to complete. Now multiply that by the number of people who finish the game.
“The game takes about 15 hours to complete,” Ryan explained, “but not everyone is going to achieve that. Let’s say only 10% do. That’s 100,000 people playing Miles Morales for 15 hours. Some back-of-the-napkin math suggests the carbon emitted would total around 230 tons,” which is equivalent to nearly 50 cars driven for an entire year according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The NRDC found similar results. Newer games like Miles Morales were designed to use more computing power and push the console’s graphic cards to the limit. Because of this, they estimate that most modern games will end up using around 200 watts per hour.
The organization found a bit of good news here, though: Older games are less demanding and use less processing power — therefore, they use less energy to play. It looks like retro gamers win again.
Saving energy in sleep mode
If there’s one place where the new consoles did well, it’s in rest mode. The NRDC praised Sony’s PlayStation 5 for using less than one watt while in standby and for “waking up” within 10 to 15 seconds. The PS5 uses up a few more watts to keep the USB ports ready for charging during standby, but will power them down after three hours. The PlayStation 5 also powers down after one hour of inactivity in games and four hours of inactivity when playing other media.
On the other hand, although the Xbox Series S/X has very good energy-saving capabilities as well, almost all of Microsoft’s consoles were shipped with those settings disabled by default. The Xbox comes with an “instant-on” option that’s pre-selected during setup — it allows users to wake the console from standby mode in less than five seconds with a verbal command. This setting uses around 10 watts to keep the Xbox awake enough to respond to a user’s voice.
If a new Xbox user doesn’t remember to switch from “instant-on” to “energy-saving,” then they might end up burning more energy than they expected. To figure out an estimate, the NRDC ran models that assumed at least two-thirds of users would select “instant-on” during setup. If that selection is never changed, then players could possibly waste nearly four billion kilowatt hours of energy by the end of 2025. That’s approximately three million tons of carbon dioxide emissions that would cost users a total estimated $500 million more in utility bills. This is without using the console to play games or watch movies.
When it’s in energy-saving mode, the Xbox Series S/X does just as well as the PS5, keeping the power level below one watt while in standby. Microsoft’s console is also one step ahead of Sony’s with its automatic power down capabilities; it’ll power down after one hour of activity, but will hold off if the user is in the middle of a movie. Once the movie’s finished, the console will then power down if it senses no activity for an entire hour. That’s much better, and smarter, than the PS5’s four-hour wait.
There’s still a number of unknowns, and a lack of transparency, when it comes to energy use and video games. How many people actually use energy-saving modes? Will cloud-based gaming change things for the better or make energy use even worse? Without more information, it’s difficult to know what the future will bring. And that makes environmentally conscious gamers kind of nervous.
Despite Sony and Microsoft’s promise to be carbon negative or to have a “zero environmental footprint” within the next few decades, the companies’ actions seem to be pointing in the other direction. “You can see in the marketing for the pair’s latest consoles they are still focused on speed, power and visual improvements,” CNET’s Ryan noted, “all features at odds with driving down greenhouse gas emissions.”
So it’s no surprise that some people are very skeptical.
For folks who want to make sure their own carbon footprint doesn’t go out of control, the NRDC recommends keeping all power-saving settings switched on and to completely turn off consoles if you’re not going to play for a while. Meanwhile, the organization, and other game-loving conservationists, hope that both companies will be more open about the industry’s impact on the environment — a step that could help the entire community conserve more energy.
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