Can You Really Save Money By Building A Green PC?

Despite misconceptions about green computing, a do-it-yourself solution can offer both cheaper build and power costs than conventional alternatives. Some erroneously claim that the power saved won’t amount to the cost of the build, but the math shows rather large savings over the lifespan of a computer, especially for Europeans. In my experiment, I built a 15-watt desktop computer, which provides decent performance as a media center, web browser and light gaming machine.

Assuming the computer operates for eight hours a day with electricity costing $0.15 per kilowatt/hour (kWh), the cost of powering it comes out to $6.57 a year. My green machine cost only $250 to build. A beefier machine, such as a $500 Gateway DX4870-UR3D desktop, for example, consumes around 70 watts, costing $30.66 per year. Over a four-year upgrade cycle, you would save $96.36 in power costs by using a greener machine, in addition to $250 in components. For many European and Asian countries, this number increases dramatically.

On the downside, less watts means less raw processing power – but if you don’t require a heavy duty computer, and tablets don’t do it for you, a greener PC build might be exactly what you need.

This article covers some of the build decisions that I made. I also cover the power costs of an eco-friendly computer, compared to a standard 70-watt desktop.

Building an Eco-Friendly PC

Throwing together an efficient, eco-friendly PC requires both software and hardware optimizations. I elected to go entirely fanless, which saves a substantial amount of power during periods of operation. Fans typically require around 3-5 watts each. The ATX (desktop) specification calls for 3 fans, meaning a drain of 9-15 watts. I also elected to use a highly efficient power supply, which converts from wall current at over 96% efficiency, 70% being standard. Building a highly efficient computer isn’t very difficult, either.

I selected AMD’s Accelerated Processing Unit (APU) technology, which functions best with relatively large amounts of high-speed RAM (1866 MHz preferred, for cost reasons), offering efficient, although meek, graphics in price-performance ratios.

The two best mini-ITX motherboards are Intel’s Bay Trail or AMD’s Kabini lines. To my knowledge, as of 2013, only ECS manufactures motherboards for either technology.

motherboard exposed   Can You Really Save Money By Building A Green PC?

Costs

I use power prices throughout North America, Asia and Europe as a means of demonstrating how much money can be saved using power-sipping, eco-friendly builds. I also explain how little money it takes to build lighter desktop computer.

Build Costs

After some deliberation, I elected to orient the new build toward power efficiency and low-cost. Because I had already purchased a mini-ITX case, following a bungled experiment at building a powerful and efficient desktop, I already owned a case and power supply. My new build would aim toward functioning as a media center and light gaming rig, instead of a coding-rig.

Using a variety of money-saving methods involving IFTTT and Yahoo Pipes, I managed to complete construction for under $250. Without using any special means, you can build the same system for around $350.

Parts

  • Power supply + case: The best combination package is the Realan E3-Ki from EcoSmartPC. It includes a high efficiency power supply and a slick, high-quality case for about $85, although it is currently sold out. The Realan case combines a picoPSU with a mini-ITX case, which you can find in a combo deal on eBay.
  • RAM: You won’t require much RAM to run an eco-friendly PC. About 4-8 gigabytes is more than enough.
  • Motherboard + CPU: I used an <ECS KBN-I/2100 ($41 after rebate), but Intel’s Bay Trail based motherboards provide similar power savings, with a slightly different feature suite. The AMD APU-based builds (what is an APU?) provide superior media and gaming functionality, whereas the “Atom” Intel based motherboards possess greater general functionality. The advantage of the KBN-I/2100 is that it includes Linux support out-the-door. I’ve also found that APUs offer great performance per dollar.
  • SSD: You will definitely want to use an SSD for both its small size and lower wattage requirements. Just make sure you properly install and configure your SSD. Some software tools can help you with the SSD configuration and optimization process.
  • Total: Less than $250 (my costs) or around $350 if you pay full retail.

fanless motherboard   Can You Really Save Money By Building A Green PC?

Power Costs

Using Kill-a-Watt (and the power consumption measurement method outlined by Matt), the standard power consumption of my computer cost 15 watts. I’m assuming my power costs are around $0.15 per kilowatt/hour, although in some countries/regions, prices can reach astronomical sums, such as Germany ($0.35/kwh) or Denmark ($0.41/kwh).

  • Idle: 13 watts
  • Sleep: 1.9 watts
  • Maximum load: 20.2 watts
  • Prime95 stress test: 18.2 watts
  • Operational power consumption: 15 watts
  • Yearly power cost: $6.57

Overall, my power costs on a custom build, including the 19-inch monitor, came in below the power requirements of even a 35-watt laptop. This may appear counter-intuitive at first, but given that my desktop uses a low power solid state drive and dispenses with cooling fans, the power savings aren’t without explanation.

International Power Costs

According to compiled statistics, energy prices in Denmark come in at $0.41 per kWh, making it the most expensive country in the world to use electronics, or anything powered by electricity. Over a four-year upgrade cycle, a 15-watt computer would save $263.36 over a 70-watt computer. Even in countries with the lowest power costs — India and Russia — an individual would save $51.40 over a four-year period.

international power costs   Can You Really Save Money By Building A Green PC?

Performance

I tested my new computer out in a variety of ways – as a Litecoin miner, media center, light gaming machine and as a Linux box. In three of these four categories, it does quite well.

Cryptocoin Mining

As a cryptocoin miner, I found that my new system provided a relatively mediocre hashrate per watt – 13 khash/s on the Scrypt hash function (my experiments with alternative cryptocoins). However, its wattage consumption at maximum GPU load was only 20.2 watts. 20.2 watts costs a pittance, compared to what a beefier machine could consume.

Overall, it’s not particularly effective as a mining rig.

litecoin   Can You Really Save Money By Building A Green PC?

Light Gaming Machine

It also played a number of games without much difficulty, most notably the excellent Wolf Among Us by Telltale Games. It actually plays on the maximum settings in high definition, something of a shock to me, despite the game’s relatively anemic requirements.

For running Humble Indie Bundles (check out my list of indie game bundles), weaker computer can offer decent performance. Indie games in general don’t require beefier processors or GPUs, so the integrated GPU inside of my motherboard offered good enough performance.

Media Streaming

The green PC could also stream and process high definition video, which is something of a feat on a budget, low-wattage platform.

Linux

The ECS KBN-I/2100 motherboard that I used is supported by Linux, out-the-door.

Conclusion

If tablets aren’t your thing, you can build your own eco-friendly system that will save you money. It won’t perform computationally demanding activities, but it will provide better than tablet performance for running many mundane tasks, such as web-browsing, light gaming or media streaming.

In countries with high energy costs, it will save you hundreds a year over desktops and provides slightly better power efficiency than many laptops.

Anyone else save money with an eco-friendly computer? Let us know in the comments.

Image Credits: Stack of coins via MorgueFile

14 Comments - Write a Comment

2 votes
Reply

Ed

This timing is perfect for this article.
I just bought the same board off of newegg. Will be $49 once I get my rebate.
I bought 8GB crucial memory and a 64GB Sandisk SSD. Also bought the smallest iStar case you can get with an external 120 watt power supply to keep everything fanless.
Total cost with rebate, tax and shipping is around $240.

All my parts just arrived yesterday, so my weekend will be fun :)

Glad to hear Linux works out of the box.

I’m thinking of using Linux Mint 16 w/Cinnamon and connect it to my 1080p TV.

What linux distro did you use?
Can it handle 1080p?
How do you like the board’s performance?

Mine will primarily be for XBMC, Samba server, light browsing.

1 votes

likefunbutnot

This machine should handle all those things just fine, though I do feel the wisdom of purchasing ECS-branded electronics is questionable at best. As a techie that detail makes me die a little inside.

The low-power CPU with “real” ATI graphics are going to be a pretty solid combination, though I suspect that they wouldn’t in and of themselves represent a very compelling shift for someone who has been using a modest Core 2 Duo rig prior to getting this sort of machine (setting the side that this machine has an SSD and a four year old C2D probably wouldn’t).

But really, it’s kind of tough to make a case for a $20/year power savings in exchange for a slower computer. If this machine is being used to do real work and not just run XBMC, I’m pretty sure I can think of $20 worth of situations where my time is more valuable over the course of a year.

I’d be interested in seeing how Kannon’s PC stacks up to an Intel NUC.

0 votes

Kannon Y

Awesome! Thanks for sharing Ed!

I must confess to negligence in failing to fully detail my Linux testing. My apologies for not being forthright.

In the Linux 3.10 kernel, AMD added a great deal of support for AMD GPUs, including the Kabini APU inside the KBN-I/2100. Without installing the Catalyst Control Center drivers, the board worked nearly perfectly in the latest nightly build of Ubuntu. You won’t want to try earlier builds as they don’t have the latest AMD GPU driver support.

Unfortunately, and I haven’t bothered to even install the CCC drivers, and the HDMI doesn’t work out of the box, and for a media center, that’s probably what you were looking for. You can probably get HDMI working by installing CCC, but I haven’t done this yet, although I eventually plan on it.

RE: 1080p it shouldn’t have any problems with 1080p, although in Linux… Well, I haven’t tested 1080p. The driver support is always months behind Windows. But anyway, a Mint nightly should also work, hopefully with as few issues as I’ve experienced. But make sure it’s the most modern build.

Overall, the performance is great. Not as good as in Windows, but it’s definitely worth the $41 that I paid!

I think you can easily get away with a 60-watt supply. They cost a lot less, too. The reason I suggest a less-than 120 supply is that power supplies operate at peak efficiency somewhere around 50% capacity. So if you use 20-watts at load, you would want a 40-watt supply. But overprovisioning isn’t really all that big a deal, to be honest. 120 will do fine and if you ever upgrade your board, 120 will work just as well in the future.

By the way, good job on your build! The only thing I suggest is going into the BIOS and bumping up the amount of RAM used by the integrated GPU. Change it to 2GB. It improves GPU performance slightly.

1 votes
Reply

james

Knocked my $1 a day electricity hungry gaming / downloading rig down to .50¢ by building a $250 htpc with parts in the cupboard. 5400 apu and 6 drives it runs at about 50-70W 24/7 instead of my gaming pc and is the home server for streaming vids.

1 votes
Reply

Dominic

Canada at least you can increase the electricity costs. 10 cents per kwh is just the cost of the electricity. By the time you add delivery and taxes it’s double that. Plus prices are slated to go up 40% in the next 5 years.

So putting that all together, the savings become closer to 200$ over 4 years.

2 votes
Reply

Frank P

you can save more by using a max of 4GB ram, 8 is overkill. the only time you need so much resources is for compiling, photoshop or gaming. 4 is more than enough to watch movies and series on. just max the onboard graphics. If you run linux, a swap or 2 to 3 GB will help aswell.

0 votes

Kannon Y

Thanks Frank! You’re right. My particular board is also single channel, and doesn’t get any additional speed from using two sticks.

1 votes
Reply

Ed

Kannon:
Thanks for the heads up regarding HDMI in Linux. I was worried about this. Some guy commenting on Newegg said the board worked on Ubuntu/Mint, but did not comment on HDMI.
I’ll try the latest builds of either Linux Mint or Ubuntu.
Luckily, my TV has VGA that can output at 1366×768 until I get HDMI working.

Also, a few years ago I built a small rig with another AMD processor E-350, I think. I used PCLinux OS because I couldn’t get ATI driver support working on Ubuntu or Mint. As a side note PC Linux OS has always given me an out-of-box experience on all my hardware including Multifunction HP printers that Mint would not find the scanner on, and any wifi cards Ubuntu/Mint could not find. So maybe PC Linux OS is the way to go. If only I could get it to look just like Cinnamon on Mint – any suggestions on getting a similar look/theme on PC Linux OS?

This rig will be primarily XBMC 90%, and light browsing 10% – no serious work. Good thing I got 8GB RAM so I can bump up the GPU RAM. My hope is, it will still be enough RAM to minimize use of a swap file so there will be less wear on the SSD.

I’m hoping the ECS build quality isn’t as bad as some have stated it was in the past. Hey, if it lasts long enough until Asus comes out with a fanless Kabini or Baytrail, I’ll be happy with the $49 spent on this.

The 120 watt power supply came with the case, so it was a no brainer in case I get a slightly more watt-intensive processor in the future.

I’m building it tonight and will report on it in a couple of days.
Thanks again for everyone’s comments and advice.

Kannon: Is the motherboard serial number the bottom number on the UPC code sticker, starting with EV? I can’t tell what the serial number is on the board for rebate purposes. Thanks.

0 votes

Kannon Y

I had the same issue with the UPC sticker code. There’s three possible codes that could be the mobo serial number. According to the folks at Newegg, it’s the number at the very bottom of the sticker on the box. ECS wouldn’t respond to my messages or tech support requests.

ECS boards have improved dramatically since they first entered the market. They were initially a very bad manufacturer, but over time they have since gained a relatively good reputation. Their tech support is bad though.

I know that there are Linux builds compiled specifically for E-350 Fusion APUs. I think OpenELEC Linux has a build that’s designed specifically for the E-350, although it’s a media center OS. I’ll need to give PCLinuxOS a try. Sounds like the ideal software for my purposes. Thanks for the info!

1 votes
Reply

dragonmouth

Kannon, your calculations are focused too narrowly. If the only thing you are concerned about is saving electricity or if you live in an all-electric house, then your figures are OK. However, if you heat your house with gas or oil, there are other expenses to be considered.

You show that by switching from a 70 W system to a 15 W system, one can save $77 over 4 years in the US. I can save that much in one month (or at least over one winter) on the cost of oil by keeping my 70W system. It gives off enough heat to keep my computer room quite comfortable in the winter and to prevent the furnace from kicking in as often. Even if the furnace starts only one time less per day, I am saving money. My cost of electricity for a 2200sq ft house average around $110/month, the cost of oil averages about $400/month. It is way more important for me to reduce my oil cost than my electricity cost.

0 votes

Kannon Y

That’s an interesting point of analysis. I actually have a 150 watt system that I used to mine cryptocurrency and it does keep me pretty warm.

:-) I love how a 70 watt computer system produces more heat than a 70 watt lightbulb. I’ll never figure out why, though.

0 votes

dragonmouth

“I love how a 70 watt computer system produces more heat than a 70 watt lightbulb. I’ll never figure out why, though.”
IFM. :P

1 votes
Reply

Ed

Kannon:
Built the PC with the ECS motherboard, 8GB RAM, 64GB SSD and used the 12-22-2013 daily of Ubuntu 14.04 w/Unity.

Firstly, Linux Mint 16 live ISO off of USB would not load the X server. No time to troubleshoot, so Linux Mint 16 was a no-go.

PCLINUX OS 12-2013, my go-to distro for out-of-box experience had no HDMI sound and no Ethernet support despite the OS having installed the correct drivers and seeing the hardware correctly. So no-go.

Lastly, tried your suggestion of the Ubuntu 14.04 daily build. Video, analog audio, networking all work out-of-box. To get HDMI audio, here is what I did:
Under Ubuntu 14.04

System Settings > Software & Updates > Additional Drivers > Choose fglrx (proprietary) *not the updates > Reboot

After reboot > Sound Settings > Choose HDMI/Display Port

XBMC System Settings for Audio Output-
Audio Output setting at top: Choose Analog
Go down to Audio Output *DEVICE*: Choose HD Audio Generic HDMI
When playing videos thru Icefilms and similar add-ons, click on speaker icon and make sure it is set to “analog output” if you get no sound.

Sound will be scratchy and have static within the OS, but tolerable, but will be perfect in XBMC (thank the Gods above).
Hopefully the Ubuntu team get it right in time for April.
That was my whole weekend :) Hope this helps.

0 votes

Kannon Y

Thanks Ed! I totally owe you one!

I’m on the beta drivers right now, so hopefully this still works. I can’t wait to throw XBMC on this thing!

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