Saturday, April 19, 2008

5 Habits for Greener Computing

With Earth Day approaching you're probably thinking about the different ways you do your bit for the environment. Okay, so maybe you drive a bit more than you should, but you put your blue box out on the curb every week, right? Well, if you're reading this it's a pretty safe bet you're using a computer, and computers generate waste in all kinds of ways. But by just changing a few habits, you can keep more stuff out of landfills, save energy, and even tuck a few extra dollars in your wallet. Here are five ideas to get you started.

1. Save paper and ink

I get a lot of press releases and other printed documents I never read more than once (if ever), so when I can get away with it I print on the reverse side of these, reserving my pristine sheets for letters and other important documents. The savings are tangible: I've bought exactly one 500-sheet pack of paper in the last two years.

You can save more paper by shrinking your text and printing two pages side by side on one sheet of paper, if your printer driver allows it. (You'd better have good eyesight, though.) On Windows XP, choose Print, then choose Preferences or Print Setup. Look for an option called 'Pages per Sheet,' and set it to 2.

If you print a lot from the Web, then you should absolutely download a copy of the ad-supported GreenPrint World so you can trim the stuff you don't need printed, which saves both paper and ink (or toner).

You can also save ink—easily the most expensive part of any inkjet printer—by printing in draft mode whenever possible, or using a utility like Inksaver.

2. Stop wasting CDs/DVDs

I can't count the amount of times someone has burned a disc for me just to give me, say, 100 MB of data, leaving the remaining 600 MB (or, worse, 4-plus GB) unused. Rewritable discs cost more and take a little longer to burn, but they're perfect for passing data back and forth without throwing out all that metal and plastic.

When you're done with your discs you can recycle them by sending them to GreenDisk for responsible destruction and reuse. There's a small fee--$6.95 for boxes 20 lbs. or lighter—but you can also cram in any other electronic waste you have lying around. While GreenDisk guarantees that the material on your discs won't fall into the wrong hands, the extra-cautious can protect their data beforehand using Aleratec's CD/DVD Shredder. Despite the name, the CD/DVD Shredder pounds thousands of tiny pits into the surface of a disc, rendering it unreadable. Aleratec doesn't sell them anymore, but they do turn up on Amazon and eBay.

3. Tweak your power settings

If you're like me, your computer is on all day, but you don't work on it continuously. Turning it on and off isn't an option, but a quick trip to the Windows control panel's Power Options can shave your usage down a bit. There, you can set your monitor and hard disks to power down when you haven't been using the computer for a while. It only takes a second for them to power up again, so you can take that time to get comfortable in your chair.

Most important, you can set the computer itself to go to sleep or hibernate after a certain period of inactivity. Sleep mode is a low-power mode, and like the hard disks and monitor, has everything up and running in just a few moments when you want to get going again. Hibernation actually switches the computer off, but saves your current work environment first. As you'd expect, waking the computer up from hibernation takes a bit longer.

Tip: Windows XP SP2 sometimes has a problem getting hibernation to work when you have more than 1 GB of RAM—paradoxically, it generates an error message saying that you don't have enough resources. A quick visit to Microsoft's Knowledge Base provides a patch that fixes it right up.

By the way, these tips also apply to your portable devices. MP3 players, cell phones, PDAs , and handheld games have settings for powering down or adjusting their screens, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi. Switching off what you don't need (or even just turning down screen brightness) extends battery life, which means less recharging.

4. Turn it off!

Printers, scanners, speakers, monitors—your computer comes with a multitude of peripherals that will happily keep on sucking power even when the computer is switched off. It doesn't seem like much, but even an idling printer is a drain on your utility bill. The simple rule of thumb is to turn anything off when you're not using it. That includes turning off your monitor rather than letting it sit in low-power mode when the computer's off, and only turning on your printer when you actually have something to print.

The trouble is that some devices have hard-to-reach power buttons, or worse, no power buttons at all. Power bars like the Smart Strip and some of APC's SurgeArrest products can help: the Smart Strip switches off devices plugged into specific outlets when the computer is switched off, and several Professional SurgeArrest models have a few “always-on” outlets that deliver power even when they're switched off.

Also, don't forget to unplug your phone, camera or any other rechargeable device as soon as it's finished juicing up—even though the batteries are smart enough to stop drawing power when they're full, electricity is still being drawn through the cable. Some Nokia phones will even nag you to unplug them when they're done.

5. Find a new home for your old tech

So you're getting ready to upgrade to a new computer, but you've discovered you've got no room in the closet for the old one because it's already filled with a decade's worth of obsolete technology. What to do? One solution is to recycle you old gadgets by bringing them somewhere they'll be disposed of properly. You can find a list of services in your area by checking out Earth 911's website, which tells you where to dispose of everything from batteries to toner cartridges to that 386 you've had knocking around since the first George Bush was in office.

Better still, you can Freecycle your old equipment. Freecycle is a network of local mailing lists (there are over 4,000 globally, from Andorra to the Virgin Islands) for people who want to give stuff away, or are looking for free stuff. Just post a message about what you want to give, and someone will probably offer to take it off your hands—and isn't finding your old computer a home that better than just having it dismantled?

Whichever method you choose, don't forget to wipe your hard drive clean first. Use a utility like File Shredder to delete any sensitive data from your hard disk before it goes through your door.

[A slightly different version of this appeared on PC World.]

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