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You don’t need a laptop to get an energy-efficient computer. In 2017, building a power-efficient PC requires knowing just three tips.

Three kinds of component and configuration options lead to a power-efficient build. In order of importance:

  • A high-efficiency power supply.
  • Components with low power consumption.
  • Configuring your BIOS/UEFI to use less power.

Power Supply

Power supplies don’t convert from wall AC current to DC without a great deal of loss in power. The average power supply converts at 70% efficiency, meaning 30% wasted energy. However, two kinds of power supplies convert at over 90% efficiency: PicoPSUs and 80+ Platinum (and the slightly better Titanium) rated power supplies. When choosing a build, either option presents a good choice. However, PicoPSUs cap out at around 200-watts. On the other hand, Platinum and Titanium rated PSUs cost a fortune – the cheapest Titanium PSU goes for about $140.

It’s also important to note that power supply efficiencies vary depending on load. Most supplies provide their greatest efficiency at around 50% maximum load. Therefore, you should use a load calculator before choosing a power supply’s wattage.

picopsu

Low-Power Components

Aside from the power supply, five other components can make a difference in the amount power consumed by your system: the CPU, RAM, storage drive, motherboard, and case. You can find lower power options for every one of those categories.

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CPU: The most power-efficient motherboards come with CPUs that have been soldered to the board. Unfortunately, that means if either the board or the CPU goes bad, the entire unit must be discarded. Personally, I prefer using lower-power CPUs combined with small form factor mini-ITX motherboards.

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RAM: RAM comes with a voltage rating that varies between 1.5 and 1.25 (or possibly even lower). Unfortunately, according to Tom’s Hardware, that translates to around 1-watt at idle and 4-watts at maximum load. If you’re looking to save power, you’re better off throwing your money into a better power supply.

Storage drive: Solid State Drives (what’s an SSD? Should You Get A Solid State Drive (SSD)? [Opinion] Should You Get A Solid State Drive (SSD)? [Opinion] If you've kept up with some of the latest news about new computer parts, you may have heard about SSDs, or solid state drives. They are designed to replace your clunky, slow hard drive and... Read More ) use substantially less power than regular hard disk drives. SSDs add amazing performance while consuming a tiny fraction of the wattage of a regular platter hard disk drive. The wattage savings depend on how much you write or read data. According to Quora, however, the power saved adds up.

ssd

Motherboard: The only motherboard (that I know of) designed specifically for low-power operation is MSI’s ECO line. ECO motherboards can selectively disable unused components. With all the overhead trimmed out, an ECO board consumes around 40% the power of an ATX motherboard.

Build Your Own Low-Wattage PC with Three Simple Design Rules msi eco motherboard
Image credit: MSI

Case/Chassis/Heatsink: Overall, a case isn’t going to save you much energy or provide efficiency gains. However, the fewer fans in your chassis, the less power consumed. Under full load, a standard 90mm fan can consume around 5-watts of power. Most PCs use around three fans. However, a few fanless cases exist, such as the HD-Plex H1.s and Akasa’s Euler. Altogether, a completely fanless system might reduce power consumption by around 15-watts at load.

Graphics Processing Unit (optional): In case you’re also thinking of getting a graphics card, look no further than NVidia. Dollar-per-dollar, the most efficient card is the Nvidia GeForce 1050Ti (or 1050).

BIOS/UEFI Settings

There are a number of settings located in the BIOS (and its next-generation replacement, UEFI) that aren’t enabled by default that can have a noticeable impact on power consumption. Simply enabling the various power states on Intel boards (C1E and EIST) can reduce power consumption. You will want to enable them if they’re available on your motherboard. Some BIOS/UEFIs use colloquial language to enable lower power states, such as “eco-mode” or “low power mode”. Enable these, if available.

Desktop manufacturers tend to leave these settings off for performance purposes. Higher frequencies tend to generate snappier performance. However, most users won’t notice the difference and you should definitely consider turning on your power-saving features.

Another BIOS/UEFI setting that can be turned on is EuP2013, which is the European standard for idle state power consumption. If enabled, the computer will use no more than half a watt of power while powered off. However, more modern implementations use almost no power when shut off.

Tom’s Hardware published an excellent review of the various power-saving BIOS settings.

Undervolting and Underclocking

Don’t confuse the two. Undervolting How Undervolting Decreases Heat & Increases Battery Life How Undervolting Decreases Heat & Increases Battery Life Would you believe that many computers and smartphones can run cooler and consume less power? A trick exists, called undervolting, which can increase your CPU's efficiency with few drawbacks. If performed right, devices generally produce... Read More and underclocking save power in completely different ways. Undervolting reduces the amount of voltage delivered to the processor. If done properly, undervolting has no downside. Done incorrectly, it causes instability. Unfortunately, only expensive, high-end motherboards offer this feature.

Underclocking, on the other hand, doesn’t improve your processor’s efficiency. It only decreases its maximum frequency. In general, you are better off not underclocking, unless there is a good reason.

Build 1: $700-1000 Deluxe

In 2017, both AMD and Intel manufacture highly efficient, high-performance processors. In the 65-watt range, Intel offers the Core i7-6700 for $303, whereas AMD’s Ryzen 7 1700 runs for $320. It’s not clear which processor possesses the advantage in power consumption, though. However, Legit Reviews did a detailed analysis of Ryzen 7’s power draw vs the Core i7-6700K and it appears that Ryzen comes out ahead. Also note that Intel’s latest series of processor, Kaby Lake, produces almost the exact same performance as its older generation Skylake processors (Core i7-7700).

Because of the motherboard options available, though, the build presented here uses Intel (despite some serious thermal design flaws Two Ways to Cool Down Your Defective Overheating Intel CPU Two Ways to Cool Down Your Defective Overheating Intel CPU Looking to purchase a Haswell or Ivy Bridge Intel CPU? A secret may change your mind. According to bloggers, Intel recently got caught using thermal paste on its CPUs and lying about it – the... Read More ). Also note that Intel’s T and S series CPUs use between 35 and 65 watts. On a higher end build, I would prefer getting a Core i7-6700T or a BGA board, but these are hard to find and aren’t as performant as a slightly more power-hungry chip.

This particular build won’t knock any socks off. In fact, it remains relatively mid-range in terms of gaming and CPU performance. Even so, it provides a highly efficient computing experience, with only a marginal markup. While you can make this build totally fanless, it’s good to at least have some airflow, which in this is provided by the power supply’s very slow moving fan. The case includes a couple of fans, which you don’t really need.

The Nvidia 1050Ti is among the more efficient GPUs around, although efficiency is pretty much a continuum. Picking the most efficient gaming GPU 3 Affordable AMD APU-Powered DIY Computers That You Can Build 3 Affordable AMD APU-Powered DIY Computers That You Can Build The Accelerated Processing Unit, or "APU", design integrates a graphics processing unit onto the same die as the CPU, resulting in a faster, more efficient hybrid design. For those of you seeking to build a... Read More depends on your needs.

  • CPU: Intel Core i7-6700 — $293 via Amazon;
  • Hard Drive: OCZ Trion 150 240GB SSD — $70 via Amazon;
  • Motherboard: MSI ECO H110M LGA 1151 MicroATX — $59 via Amazon;
  • GPU: EVGA GeForce GTX 1060 6GB — $235 via Amazon
  • Power Supply: Rosewill 550W — $90 via Amazon;
  • RAM: Viper Elite Series 2 x 8GB — $98 via Amazon;
  • Heat Sink: NoFan CR-80EH — $47.80 via Amazon
  • Case: Xion microATX — $23 via Amazon;
  • Total: $915.80

Price accurate at time of writing.

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Build 2: $400-699 Midrange

For lower-cost builds, Intel’s 65-watt Core i5-6400 CPU offers solid, low-wattage performance. It doesn’t offer Hyperthreading What Is Hyper-Threading? [Technology Explained] What Is Hyper-Threading? [Technology Explained] Read More , but it does maximize energy efficiency. On the downside, I stuck in an 80+ Gold supply, rather than a Platinum-rated unit.

  • CPU: Intel Core i5-6400 (65-watt) — $176.90 via SuperBiiz;
  • Hard Drive: OCZ Trion 150 240GB SSD — $70 via Amazon;
  • GPU: EVGA GeForce GTX 1050Ti Mini 4GB GDDR5 — $132 via SuperBiiz;
  • Power supply: Seasonic SSP-450RT 450-watt — $60 via SuperBiiz;
  • Motherboard: MSI ECO H110M LGA 1151 MicroATX — $59 via Amazon;
  • RAM: G.SKILL Aegis 8GB (1 x 8GB) — $53 via Amazon;
  • Case: Xion MicroATX — $23 via Amazon;
  • Total: $573.90

Price accurate at time of writing.

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Build 3: Below ~$400 Low End

On lower end machines, I normally recommend building around AMD’s APU technology. However, Intel’s latest Celeron and Pentium processors outperform them in most ways — for not much more.

For smaller examples, I put together three sample APU builds 3 Affordable AMD APU-Powered DIY Computers That You Can Build 3 Affordable AMD APU-Powered DIY Computers That You Can Build The Accelerated Processing Unit, or "APU", design integrates a graphics processing unit onto the same die as the CPU, resulting in a faster, more efficient hybrid design. For those of you seeking to build a... Read More , in case you want other configuration options.

  • APU: Intel Celeron G3900 (51-watt) — $43.60 via OutletPC;
  • Hard Drive: OCZ Trion 150 240GB SSD — $70 via Amazon;
  • Motherboard: MSI ECO H110M LGA 1151 MicroATX — $59 via Amazon;
  • RAM: G.SKILL Aegis 8GB (1 x 8GB) — $53 via Amazon;
  • Case: Xion MicroATX — $23 via Amazon;
  • Power SupplySeasonic SSP-450RT 450-watt — $60 via SuperBiiz;
  • Total: $308.60

Price accurate at time of writing.

Build Your Own Low-Wattage PC with Three Simple Design Rules outletpc celeron g3900

Conclusion

Building your own highly efficient desktop computer doesn’t take a lot of work or money — it just requires specialized parts, proper BIOS configuration, and a high-efficiency power supply. For a selection of fanless, high-efficiency PCs, check out FanlessTech’s entry-level, mid-range and high-level rundown of builds. Or if you’re looking for silent, fanless machines, drop by our run-down of prebuilt eco-friendly PCs Eco-Friendly Computing 101: Buy or Build Silent and Green PCs Eco-Friendly Computing 101: Buy or Build Silent and Green PCs Computer fans clog with dust, make horrible noises and waste energy. Why put up with that when consumers can go silent and green? A huge number of options popped up for setting up highly efficient... Read More .

Does anyone build eco-friendly PCs? Let us know in the comments.

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