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A closer look at the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One’s power consumption

A new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council over in the United States has put the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One under the power efficiency microscope and came back with less than glowing things to say about the new devices.

According to the organisation, both consoles draw more power than they should despite heavy investment in power-saving technologies.

The long-term impact? “Over five years, the Xbox One’s 250 kilowatt hours per year usage represents roughly $150 [£90] in electricity costs, enough to buy two or three new games!”

True. But the tone of the original blog piece is a bit overdramatic – particularly given that these are figures we could generate for virtually any non-critical appliance that runs on a daily basis.

First, the NRDC does have a point: The Xbox One and PS4 use significantly more power than their predecessors. Data from various sources, including NRDC, suggests that power consumption is far higher than it ought to be, at 80W for Blu-ray playback for the Xbox One and 90W for the PS4. Samsung’s BD-P3600, a Blu-ray player from 2009, was tested by CNET and found to consume 22W against the PS3 Slim’s 81W.

The PS4 consumes more power than the Xbox One in every mode except Connected Standby, where the Xbox One chews threw 18W compared to Sony’s 8.8W. Since both consoles are expected to spend much of their time in this mode, the Xbox One ends up actually using more electricity than Sony’s system. In other words, the PS4’s higher performance and power consumption in gaming is more than offset.

Improving energy efficiency

Where I think the NRDC goes wrong, however, is to assume that this generation’s console power consumption will only improve by 25 per cent. The report also makes some rather questionable assertions about charging power on the PS4.

For starters, let’s talk about that 80-90W Blu-ray decode consumption on both consoles – that’s ridiculous. It made sense for the PS3 to draw that much power because Nvidia’s video decode block doesn’t appear to have been capable of full video offload, which meant the Cell processor was likely handling some of the task as well. AMD’s video decoder, in contrast, can handle the entire process with relatively little effort and for a fraction of the power.

Here’s what this suggests: All of the optimisation work that went into the Xbox One and PS4 was directed into making them run properly, with comparatively little tuning for low-power operation when playing video. If you think about it, this makes sense. Load balancing and figuring out which parts of the SoC can be deactivated without impacting the user experience takes a great deal of testing compared to flipping a switch and running full out. Future updates should be capable of improving this by more than the 25 per cent the NRDC estimates. I’d hope for something more along the lines of 40-50W.

The report goes a bit off base when it suggests that Sony must improve battery charge efficiency, noting that “Sony’s PS4 uses 8 watts of power in connected standby when USB charging is enabled… laptops perform this function for only 1 watt.” Presumably this is when a device is actually plugged in and charging. Unless there’s an enormous low-level software issue, this has more to do with charge speed than charge time. You cannot draw 1W from the wall and charge a device as quickly as you can drawing 8W from the wall, unless Sony deliberately used a charger with miserable efficiency. Even if it did, fixing it would take a hardware swap.

Finally, there’s the cost figure. The NRDC expects that running your Xbox for five years will cost $150 (£90). “Enough to buy two or three new games!” We are further told that consoles could use as much as 500MW of power, or the entire power consumption of Houston.

The total generating capacity of the United States? That’s approximately 1TW. What percentage of 1TW is 500MW? That’s just 0.05 per cent.

So, to put this in perspective, yes, consoles draw power, and yes, consumers should be aware of that. But while consumer use of resources is an important part of total power usage over in the States, it’s only a modest amount. In 2011, residential use accounted for 22 per cent of total power in the US, compared to 28 per cent for transportation, 31 per cent industrial, and 19 per cent commercial. Furthermore, since many console buyers will be previous owners of other consoles who will presumably retire those devices, the net impact on energy consumption due to console production will be negligible.

We still want to see Sony and Microsoft improve the power consumption of their products, but don’t buy into the fear-mongering. If you retire a PS3 or Xbox 360 and replace it with the modern version, the impact on your electricity bill is going to be minimal, and certainly not worth worrying about.

For more on the new consoles, check out our article on why the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One's homogeneity bodes ill for the future of the game console. We've also got an Xbox One versus PlayStation 4 speed showdown you might be interested in.

Image Credits: Natural Resources Defense Council