5 tips for buying green desktop gear

Computer vendors like to make green claims, but here's what to look for when you're comparison shopping

You may very well prefer to postpone the task of refreshing your fleet of desktop systems and monitors, an exercise that can be both expensive and time-consuming. But inevitably, machines break down or your needs change, so you have to bite the bullet.

The silver lining, though, is that refreshing your systems gives you an opportunity to invest in greener machines -- those that not only cost less to power but also yield other benefits that can help the planet as well as your company's bottom line.

Following are some points to consider the next time a system refresh looms at your organization. Notably, many of these tips apply not only to desktops, laptops, and monitors -- but any piece of IT gear.

1. Know your needs

Hopefully, you wouldn't buy a high horse-power pickup truck or SUV if you didn't need its extra fuel-guzzling power when a gas-efficient sedan would suffice. You should most certainly apply that mindset to your PC purchase: Higher-end systems with more powerful components tend to draw more energy. Before you shop, consider what your computing needs are for the present, as well as the near future.

For example, you might be a Windows XP shop today but envision moving to Vista in a year. If so, remember that Vista's bare minimum system requirements are an 800MHz processor, 512MB of RAM, a 20GB hard drive with at least 15GB of available space, and support for Super VGA graphics. Then again, you might be contemplating a move to an alternative OS such as Ubuntu, which has minimum requirements of a 300MHz processor, 64MB of RAM, 4GB of disk space (for full installation and swap space), and a VGA graphics card capable of 640x480 resolution.

In a similar vein, be honest with yourself as to what size monitors your users need. Larger screens with higher resolution have higher energy requirements -- but some tasks, like video-editing and spreadsheet work, really do scream for a large viewing space.

Finally, give thought to replacing desktop systems and monitors with laptops -- again, if laptops can really suit you and your users needs. From a green perspective, a laptop requires fewer parts to build; it's small and lighter and thus requires fewer resources to package and ship it. In terms of your annual electric bills, a laptop costs less to power than a similarly equipped PC plus a monitor.

2. Embrace energy efficiency

Once you know your needs, try to find a PC or laptop that meets those requirements as well as Energy Star 4.0. That way, you'll know it's got an 80 per cent efficient power supply and knows how to make the most of low-power modes. (There's also an Energy Star specification for monitors, which is more dated but still useful.)

Energy efficiency can shave a chunk of money from your annual utility bills, plus reduce your carbon footprint. Energy Star-compliant systems are easy to find, be it through the Energy Star Web site or your preferred computer vendor.

3. Don't disregard other "green" criteria

Green criteria covers a lot of territory beyond energy efficiency, from the materials used to the ease with which it can be disassembled. These criteria not only have environmental implications but also cost-cutting potential.

There are several such factors to consider here and ask vendors about as you shop. The EPEAT (Electronic Products Environmental Assessment Tool) registry breaks the criteria down into several convenient over-arching categories. (You can search the EPEAT registry for products that meet these type of criteria, by the way, down to a granular level.)

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a. Reduction/elimination of environmentally sensitive materials. Is it important to you that a machine meets the criteria set out in the EU's RoHS directive, which limits the usage of certain hazardous substances in electronics? Or perhaps you want a machine that exceeds those requirements, using even less lead, mercury, chromium -- as well as little to no PVC and hazardous flame retardants. The benefit here is to reduce the adverse effects e-waste has on the planet and people when it ends up in landfills.

b. Material selection. If you're an advocate of recycling and reuse, it might matter to you if the machine's plastic parts are made from recycled plastic, as well as renewable and bio-based plastic materials. These are certainly an Earth-friendly consideration.

c. Design for end of life. Beyond just the amount of recycled ma-terials that go into building the system, you might be concerned with how well the machine was designed for treatment once it's retired. The easier it is to open the enclosures and remove parts -- and the more reusable parts it contains -- the better for the environment. But it's also good for your company if you see the wisdom in purchasing refurbished machines. (See tip No. 5)

d. Product longevity/life cycle extension. Piece of mind comes with a multi-year warranty: It means the machine was built to last a while. Beyond that, consider asking how well the product was designed for upgrading. For example, was it built in a way that it's easy to swap in parts such as new memory or drives with common tools -- or even major com-ponents such as the processor? (See tip No. 4.) On top of the environmental benefits, those kinds of traits often result in cost savings, making it easier for you to invest in parts instead of entire systems when a machine becomes too dated for your needs.

e. Energy conservation. Beyond Energy Star compliance, you might find out whether there are chargers available for the system that draw on clean energy.

f. End of life management. When it comes time to retire your equipment, it's ideal if the vendor offers convenient -- and preferably free -- recycling services, be it directly or through a third party. Some vendors will even offer incentives on new equipment if you return their older gear to them for recycling.

g. Corporate performance. If you've made a commitment to protecting the environment, you may want to hold those you do business with to a similar standard. Some companies demonstrate this with a corporate environmental policy that meets certain international standards, as well as by producing annual reports on their environmental efforts.

h. Packaging. When you purchase a machine, you also have to deal with all the packaging. You might want to know whether that packaging is easy to recycle, or if the company will take back the packaging for reuse (or at least recycling).

4. Consider doing it yourself

After you've made a list of your needs, take a second look at what you've got. Do your systems really need to be replaced -- or would adding additional memory or a new graphics card do the trick? Depending on how many machines you have at your company (or home office), how well the machines are built for upgrades, and your comfort with do-it-yourself electronics projects, that approach might be not practical. But if you can pull it off, you'll save yourself some money and extend the life of your investment.

5. Go the refurbished route

Major hardware vendors as well as third parties sell pre-owned machines at the fraction of the cost of a new machine; thus you can save a tidy sum while doing the Earth-friendly thing. As with buying a new machine, you'll want to determine your computing needs and green criteria in advance so you make smarter choices.