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10 tips for making greener PC purchases and upgrades

Whether you're buying a new machine or upgrading an existing one, these tips will help you make the most eco-friendly choices.

When it comes to conserving energy, every little bit helps. Using your power management features helps you cut down on wasted kilowatts. Using a power strip for all your components, unplugging things from the wall when you're not using them, and monitoring your usage with hardware and software utilities will help you reduce energy consumption. In addition to these energy-management best practices, you can resolve to go green for any PC purchases and upgrades you make in the future.

For new purchases...

1: Do some pre-shopping research

Depending on what you do with computers, you may be attracted to a particular system for a variety of reasons. Maybe you want a superfast machine. Perhaps you want something with high-end graphics for gaming and video. Or maybe a PC with the latest and greatest capabilities or the smallest carbon footprint tops your shopping list.

Whatever system catches your eye — and for whatever reason — a little research will help you find out (1) whether the computer is Energy Star rated; (2) how much energy the computer uses; and (3) what kind of options the computer offers for power management. You should be able to find this information on the manufacturer's site. But if not, search for user ratings and reviews and check some of the site recommendations listed later in this article.

2: Detox your computer purchase

The amount of energy your computer consumes is only one aspect of greening your computer purchases. The question of what types of materials and chemicals are used to produce the equipment is also important. Again, you should be able to find some statement — perhaps called a hazardous material use policy — on the company's Web site. Generally speaking, avoid devices that include lead. (Most vendors are already addressing this problem metal.)

There are many other chemicals and compounds to watch out for, including mercury, brominated flame retardants (BFR), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), and pentabromodiphenyl ether (PBDE). The European Union is several paces ahead of the United States in terms of its Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive. If you're in the U.S., you need to do the research largely on your own.

3: Cut though the greenwashing

One thing we know about anything that captures our attention: Sooner or later, some savvy marketer is going to make a campaign out of it. The green movement is no exception. Over the last few years, companies large and small, selling everything from dish soap to custom built homes, have added some kind of "green" component to their packaging. Suddenly we can get green everything... for a slightly higher cost than the regular bad-for-the-environment purchase. Unfortunately, these marketing-driven campaigns are often just another way to entice customers and have few real benefits for our environment.

When you're considering new computer purchases — from a tablet to a mouse to a new laptop — how do you know you're not being greenwashed? First, look at the company overall. Does it have a green statement published on its Web site explaining its commitment to conserving energy? Is the company offering more than one "green" product? Does it tell you specifically how much energy the product consumes, how you can control the usage, and what materials are used to create the product and the packing materials? Look also for user reviews online to see what kinds of experiences others have had with the product you're considering.

4: Get reliable recommendations

Some companies out there, usually nonprofit organizations, make it their mission to evaluate and rate electronic products so consumers like us know the real scoop about how much power we're using and how much power we're saving. When you have a particular computer in mind, do a little more research with an organization like EPEAT, ClimateCounts, or Energy Star to find out what you're really getting, energy-wise, with that particular manufacturer and model.

The EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) registry helps you see what you're getting with products that claim to be green. The tool evaluates the product on a wide set of criteria and assigns a Bronze, Silver, or Gold rating, which can help you in your purchasing decisions. ClimateCounts.org is a nonprofit that scores companies' efforts in the green domain. Businesses can get a rating of Stuck (meaning they haven't gotten far), Starting (they're at least making a green effort), Striding (showing that they're actually doing some good green work), and Soaring (they've demonstrated "exceptional leadership in climate change").

And Energy Star is nothing new. You've seen this standard on your refrigerator and water heater, and the same energy efficiency standard rating is available for your computer. Not all computers meet Energy Star standards, but you should be able to find any good green computer on the Energy Star list.

5: Look for green buying guides

With just a little online searching, you will run across sites that are more than ready to help you make good, green tech purchasing decisions. A couple of my favorites are the Daily Green and Treehugger. You can also find user ratings and reviews, as well as purchasing advice, on consumer-driven sites like Yahoo Answers, Epinions.com, and even Amazon.com.

For upgrades...

6: Give your system(s) the once-over

The first place to start as you're considering what to upgrade is with a general check of the health of your system. How old is it? Has your monitor been around for a while? Is there a printer sitting on your desk that could be replaced or recycled altogether? Is your system working hard to pump out the information — something a RAM upgrade could fix? The three biggest energy drains in your PC are the microprocessor, the graphics card, and the monitor. Do a quick evaluation and think through which item could be replaced easily with a more energy-efficient counterpart. (Hint: Choose something other than the CPU.)

7: Look for a low-voltage shine

If you're still using an old CRT monitor (does anyone still use those anymore?), one simple upgrade that will save you large amounts of energy is replacing the big clunky monitor with a nice sleek LCD model. Visit the Web sites of your favorite monitor manufacturers and read reviews. Then, check out the EPEAT Registry, scroll down the page, and click the Displays link.

Not only will you save power by trading that CRT monitor, but you also get rid of some pretty toxic substances — lead, mercury, barium, cadmium, and more. Be sure to recycle the monitor in an earth-friendly way rather than just dumping that monster in the trash.

8: Give your system more to remember you by

This is a simple fix, and pretty cheap, too. Upgrading the RAM in your system helps your computer process faster, which reduces the time the system is chewing on your data and lessens the overall power consumption. You can purchase RAM online in any number of places (do your homework to find a good vendor) and then install the chips yourself.

9: Get a greener battery

Laptop batteries can be a pain. Depending on your favorite model, you may get a few sweet hours of free, non-plugged time and then... that annoying bubble pops up, telling you your power resources are draining fast. Older laptop batteries may have hazardous chemicals, like lead, so they aren't considered green. They also begin to fade over time. They begin to fail as they get older and charge less and drain more.

You can get a bit greener — and maybe perk up the power you're using — by investing in a new, green laptop battery. One example is the Boston Power Enviro battery, which works with a whole slew of HP laptop models. You can charge the Enviro 1,000 times, and it is made from earth-friendly materials. Not all laptop manufacturers are making green batteries, but check out your favorite sites to see whether one is available for your system.

10: Power to scale

When you think about it, turning things completely on or completely off is pretty inefficient when what you need is a little power. In the same vein, most power supplies pump out one steady rate of power for whatever you're doing. Companies are now offering power supplies that enable you to scale the power you need so that you're pulling only the wattage required for that particular activity. There's a site that can help you scope this out called 80 Plus. There, you'll find information about different power supplies from a variety of manufacturers.

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About

Katherine Murray is a technology writer and the author of more than 60 books on a variety of topics, ranging from small business technology to green computing to blogging to Microsoft Office 2010. Her most recent books include Microsoft Office 2010 P...

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